The Lives Of Ants, By Laurent Keller and Elisabeth Gordon

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The Independent Culture

Most of the world's inhabitants are unaffected by the recession. They work with purpose, pleasure and reward in Gehry-style co-operative homes whose ingenious design uses leaf-like formations and does not balk at below-ground "affordable" quarters.

Not only do ants far outnumber humans but their total weight matches ours. It feels as much their planet as anybody's; after all, they have traversed it for a hundred million years. Their social organisation has, more recently, fascinated those who extol despotic or socialist frameworks. All this is delineated adroitly by scientists Laurent Keller and Elisabeth Gordon. Their work has been translated by James Grieve, whose previous translations include the opening volumes of Proust's teeming novel. Its characters could feel consoled in knowing that their fraught amatory life never has the male's abdomen bitten off during mating, with the genitals left until yanked out by the female, whose sac of sperm then fuels successive pregnancies.

This study brings an emphasis on the creature's DNA, with particular relevance to human ageing and the environment's effect upon one's nature. They have discovered a fascinating French Guyana fire ant, whose queens and males sire workers but, by a remarkable process, the males have devised a way to clone themselves.

That ants bring out their dead and arrange them in far from random heaps shows that these cemeteries are a particular instance of collaborative "swarm intelligence". Ant behaviour has also inspired the computer modelling of efficient transport routing, optimum dataflow on the net, and the use of robots able to decide when to work in teams ("swarmbots"). It is hardly the ants' fault, but Gordon Brown's regret, that their part in visualising predictive clusters of loan risks awaits the necessary software. Meanwhile, thrifty humans might revive the Mexican habit of biting off the honeypot ant's abdomen for sweet nourishment.

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