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Our ideas are, of course, colored by our experiences and environment. It seems likely that those of us who spend time studying ants and other social hymenoptera might lean towards thinking about superorganism concepts and multilevel selection. We are also likely to be or become interested in altruism. If that is the case, you might want to take a look at David Sloan Wilson's new book Does Altruism Exist?: Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others (Foundational Questions in Science).

 

Right up front, Dr. Wilson only briefly mentions social insects and spends a much greater amount of time laying out the thoughts that economists, philosophers, psychologists, and others have about altruism and human behavior, topics which might not be as familiar to people trained in biology. Dr. Wilson is an evolutionary biologist, however, so he examines human behavior through a recognizable lens.

Wilson defines altruism as an intentional act that improves the welfare of others at a cost to, or at least no benefit to, the actor. After introducing the ideas of superorganisms and group-level selection, Wilson quickly determines that altruism does indeed exist, but that it is a group-level rather than individual-level phenomenon. He also takes studying altruism to a new place by separating the act of altruism from any apparent motivations for acting (a necessarily murky area). He then looks for examples of how this works in religion, in economics, and in communities. He reveals that altruism can at times be pathological, for example in cases of co-dependency. In the final chapter on "Planetary Altruism," Wilson moves into the realm of group-level functions at the level of the world as a whole.

As the author points out in the introduction, this slim volume is the first in a series of "short books on big questions" being published by Templeton Press and Yale University Press. In this case size does matter, which may be frustrating to those who want more than a concise (read narrow?) overview of the topic. Years of thought and research, or whole books are necessarily condensed into single paragraphs, in fact sometimes even into single sentences. It all feels very much like the tip of a very big (and possibly unstable) iceberg.

Because of its complexity and potential for controversy, Does Altruism Exist? really needs to be read deeply and preferably discussed/debated with others. It would be excellent as the basis of a semester-long graduate-level discussion seminar.

Have you read it? What did you think?

Series: Foundational Questions in Science
Hardcover: 192 pages
Publisher: Yale University Press (January 13, 2015)
ISBN-10: 0300189494
ISBN-13: 978-0300189490

Disclosures:  This book review was based on a copy of the book I purchased. I am an affiliate with Amazon so I can provide you with cover images and links to more information about books and products. As you probably are aware, if you click through the highlighted title link and purchase a product, I will receive a very small commission, at no extra cost to you. Any proceeds help defray the costs of hosting and maintaining this website.

When scientists study ants, they often find themselves thinking about emergent properties as they discover the sum of the colony adds up to so much more than the individual workers. Dr. Curt Stager has reversed the lens to look at how we humans are made up of atoms, where those atoms come from, where they go, and how they are connected to other processes. He has woven his findings into a new popular-science book:  Your Atomic Self: The Invisible Elements That Connect You to Everything Else in the Universe.

 

 

All matter is made up of atoms, but Dr. Stager has chosen to use the human body as his point of reference. This is a simple, yet effective, way to provide both relatability and scale to general readers. This is not a medical treatise, however, even though it features humans. Instead it is more like a nature hike using our basic knowledge of ourselves as a trail marker for exploring the world of elements.

The "hike" is a far ranging one, covering topics from why the sky is blue to how the nitrogen atoms from salmon end up in spruce trees in the Pacific Northwest. The text is roughly organized by the elements you would expect:  carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, etc. To its credit, it covers recent scientific literature, especially in the field of ecology.

Be sure to read to the end of the book. Dr. Stager has included an epilogue about Albert Einstein that contains gems about the life of the man that are sure to fascinate science historians. As some of you may know, Einstein not only was prominent in the field of physics, but also made huge contributions to chemistry, such as by explaining Brownian motion is due to the movement of atoms and molecules and thus providing evidence of their existence. In this section Stager also gives voice to his ideas about what life is and how emergent properties come into play.

Your Atomic Self would be appropriate for anyone interested in popular science, and particularly to students of chemistry and ecology. Although not about ants per se, if you are looking for in depth information about how common elements are used and recycled, or want to think more about emergence, then this is the book for you.

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Dr. Curt Stager also hosts Natural Selections at North Country Public Radio, for example like this episode about wood ant mounds.

See an excerpt from the book at Huffington Post

Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books (October 14, 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1250018846
ISBN-13: 978-1250018847

Disclosures: The book was provided by the publisher for review purposes. I am an affiliate for Amazon, and if you click through the linked titles or ads and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission at no extra charge to you. Proceeds will be used to maintain this self-hosted blog.

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Just in time for Halloween is a scary article about parasites that control their hosts' behavior in the November 2014 issue of National Geographic, "Mindsuckers:  Meet Nature's Nightmare" by Carl Zimmer.

NGM_nov_2014_cvr

Let's meet some ant relatives, the parasitic wasps, and learn how they turn their hapless arthropod hosts into "zombies."

Excerpt:

"It is as astonishing as it is sad to watch a ladybug turn into a zombie. Normally ladybugs are sophisticated and voracious predators. A single individual may devour several thousand aphids in a lifetime. To find a victim, it first waves its antennae to detect chemicals that plants release when they’re under attack by herbivorous insects. Once it has homed in on these signals, the ladybug switches its sensory scan to search for molecules released only by aphids. Then it creeps up and strikes, ripping the aphid apart with barbed mandibles.

Ladybugs are also well protected against most of their enemies. Their red-and-black dome, so adorable to the human eye, is actually a warning to would-be predators: You will regret this. When a bird or some other animal tries to attack, the ladybug bleeds poison from its leg joints. The attacker tastes the bitter blood and spits the ladybug out. Predators learn to read the red-and-black wing covers as a message to stay away.

A predator protected from other predators, the ladybug would seem to have the perfect insect life—were it not for wasps that lay their eggs inside its living body."

The article goes on to talk about how a parasitic wasp feeds on the lady beetle, controlling it in a gruesome way.

As you would expect from National Geographic, the photographs in the November 2014 article are fantastic and chilling, all in one.

Mindsuckers

(Photograph © by Anand Varma/National Geographic; Jacques Brodeur Lab, University of Montreal, copyrighted image used with permission).

"Parasitic Wasp Dinocampus coccinellae
Spotted Lady Beetle Coleomegilla maculata
Ladybugs are said to bring good luck—but one infected by the wasp species Dinocampus coccinellae is decidedly unfortunate. When a female wasp stings a ladybug, it leaves behind a single egg. After the egg hatches, the larva begins to eat its host from the inside out. When ready, the parasite emerges and spins a cocoon between the ladybug’s legs. Though its body is now free of the tormentor, the bug remains enslaved, standing over the cocoon and protecting it from potential predators. Some lucky ladybugs actually survive this eerie ordeal."

What is that glowing golden object on the spider's back? It turns out that even spiders are not immune.

Mindsuckers

(Photograph © by Anand Varma/National Geographic. Copyrighted image used with permission.)

"The spider Leucauge argyra suffers a series of humiliations at the hands of the parasitic wasp Hymenoepimecis argyraphaga before it is put out of its misery. Paralyzed by the wasp’s sting, the spider stands helpless as its tormentor deposits an egg on its abdomen. Once the egg hatches, the larva holds tight to the spider like some malignant piggybacker, feeding on its internal fluids for a week. When ready to pupate, the larva coerces the spider into setting out on one last, misguided building project. Ripping down its own carefully constructed web, the spider spins a novel one consisting of just a few thick crossing strands. The larva rewards the spider for its efforts by sucking it dry. Then it spins its cocoon at the intersection of the two strands, where it can dangle safely out of reach of predators."

(Images and text are from the November 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine.)

The article goes on to discuss several other examples and the evolutionary significance of these bizarre lifestyles. If you are a biologist, especially an entomologist, you are probably familiar with some of these examples, but perhaps not all of them.

Reading the article does give me some ideas for awesome Halloween costumes.

What do you think of the Mindsuckers article? Do you think the tie-ins to popular culture help foster science communication or do you think it confuses the lay audience?

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Thank you to Lauren for bringing this article/opportunity to my attention.

 

 

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Have you seen the new book The Bee: A Natural History by Dr. Noah Wilson-Rich with contributions from Kelly Allin, Norman Carreck, and Dr. Andrea Quigley?

 

Dr. Wilson-Rich is an urban beekeeper and although (as the cover suggests) honey bees are the main focus of the book, it includes information about all kinds of bees. After discussing the evolution and development of bees, as well as their biology and behavior, the authors review the history of bees and humans and also beekeeping. The authors follow up with "A Directory of Bees," which is a pictorial field guide to solitary bees, bumble bees, stingless bees and honey bees. The directory is illustrated with large color photographs of preserved specimens from around the world.

The final chapter goes into the challenges currently faced by bees, including weather, climate, pests and diseases. Finally, the authors discuss some of the research initiatives aimed at helping bees and what individuals can do to help protect our bees, such as plant flowers and participate in citizen science projects. (My personal suggestion is to let your dandelions grow because they provide honey bees a meal late into fall and even early winter.)

The book is exceptionally appealing visually. Almost every page has a mix of color photographs and old-fashioned line drawings or wood cuts, with sidebars and other interesting features. Obviously, a lot of care was put into the design.

If you already know something about bees, you might be interested to find out that the book doesn't just hash over old material. For example, as Dr. Wilson-Rich also mentions in his TED Talk (see below), beekeepers are finding honey bees in urban environments, such on the rooftops of city buildings, are doing better than those in rural and suburban areas. It might seem counter-intuitive, but two out of three overwintering hives survived in the city compared to two out of five in the country. The urban honey bees also produced more honey. They have some suggestions why this may be the case, such as the cities are warmer overall and probably the honey bees are exposed to less pesticides, but the bees are also likely having less interactions with other bees that might pass diseases or compete for resources.

Bees have been in the news and people are interested in learning more about them. The Bee is a quick and easy-to-read overview of a topic that would be equally useful for the layperson who knows little about bees and the beekeeper who wants to learn about bees from a more general perspective. Be prepared for a visual treat.

Related:

You can get a taste for how passionate Dr. Wilson-Rich is in his TED talk:

 

Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: Princeton University Press (August 24, 2014)
ISBN-10: 0691161356
ISBN-13: 978-0691161358

 

Disclosures:  The book was provided by the publisher for review purposes. I am an affiliate for Amazon, and if you click through the linked titles or ads and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission at no extra charge to you. Proceeds will be used to maintain this self-hosted blog.