The best books on the evolution of insect and human societies

Susanne Foitzik Author Of Empire of Ants: The Hidden Worlds and Extraordinary Lives of Earth's Tiny Conquerors
By Susanne Foitzik

Who am I?

I am a scientist studying the evolution of insect communities for years. I am fascinated by their high degree of cooperation and how these animals make collective decisions. But I also observe social parasitic ants that raid other colonies and make their workers work for them. This tension between altruistic cooperation on the one hand and violence and war, on the other hand, is common to human and insect societies, even if they evolved in completely different ways. I hope that when you read the books I recommend here, you will be as fascinated as I am by these parallel universes and perhaps next time you will see an ant with different eyes. 

I wrote...

Empire of Ants: The Hidden Worlds and Extraordinary Lives of Earth's Tiny Conquerors

By Susanne Foitzik, Olaf Fritsche,

Book cover of Empire of Ants: The Hidden Worlds and Extraordinary Lives of Earth's Tiny Conquerors

What is my book about?

Ants number in the ten quadrillions, and they have been here since the Jurassic era. Inside an anthill, you’ll find high drama worthy of a royal court; and between colonies, high-stakes geopolitical intrigue is afoot. Just like us, ants grow crops, raise livestock, tend their young and infirm, and make vaccines. And, just like us, ants have a dark side: They wage war, despoil environments, and enslave rivals—but also rebel against their oppressors.

Acclaimed biologist Susanne Foitzik has traveled the globe to study these master architects of Earth. Joined by journalist Olaf Fritsche, Foitzik invites readers deep into her world—in the field and in the lab.

The books I picked & why

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Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

By Jared Diamond,

Book cover of Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

Why this book?

This book will be a quarter-century old next year, and it is a book that has kept me busy for a long time. The question of why some human societies have progressed more than others is one that poses itself to anyone who has studied human history. When I read this book, I had decided to study the evolution of insect societies. Ants also engage in many interactions with other organisms, they cultivate fungi, keep livestock (aphids), and yes and sometimes wage war, just like human societies.

Jared Diamond describes in this book how the presence of domesticable animals and plants can drive the evolution of human societies. How pathogens and the exchange of them between populations, often determine the fate of human societies rather than military achievements. Especially in our time, it is again an exciting book, which should be read by a new generation.

Honeybee Democracy

By Thomas D. Seeley,

Book cover of Honeybee Democracy

Why this book?

Social insects live in close communities, often of several thousand individuals. We often imagine the animals as small robots that perform their tasks as if automated. But this is far from the case. Honeybees are models for the study of learning and can also make complex decisions based on previous experience. However, it becomes particularly difficult when all the animals of a hive have to agree. And bees of a swarm have this difficult task ahead of them when they are looking for real estate. They inspect the nesting opportunities in the surroundings and advertise them in the swarm.

But how do these social insects make their collective decisions? About this question goes the book, written by an expert in the field, in an exciting and easy-to-understand manner. It turns out that the animals actually listen to many opinions and vote. Who wants to know more about honeybee democracy, read the book!

Ants: Workers of the World

By Eleanor Spicer Rice, Eduard Florin Niga (photographer),

Book cover of Ants: Workers of the World

Why this book?

I'm an ant researcher, so perhaps it's not surprising that I'm recommending an ant book. But this book is less about the short essays, which do a great job of describing the biology of these social animals, and more about the photos. Most people overlook ants because they are so tiny, but when you enlarge them, as in this book, they show their real beauty. When I received my copy, I was amazed and I have seen many ants up close. But the sheer variety of morphological structures, faces, and yes, even colors. Not all ants are black or red, there are even ants that shimmer in all the colors of the rainbow.

We notice mostly ant workers, but in this book also the males are represented, and they often look out-worldly, so not at all like we imagine ants. A book that shows the aesthetics of these social animals and invites you to wonder. 

The Social Instinct: How Cooperation Shaped the World

By Nichola Raihani,

Book cover of The Social Instinct: How Cooperation Shaped the World

Why this book?

All socially living creatures must cooperate; indeed, cooperation is a basic principle of evolution and occurs even between cells. In this book, Nichola Raihani describes the evolution of cooperative behavior over the entire tree of life, from cells to social insects to group-living birds and mammals to humans. With many examples, this tour de force is nevertheless so exciting that one does not want to put the book down. One learns a lot about when cooperation arises, what conditions must be present for cooperative behavior to remain stable, and when cooperation can also break down. At a time when worldwide cooperation is needed to combat global problems, whether climate change or pandemics, this book provides important insights.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

By Steven Pinker,

Book cover of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

Why this book?

We often complain that the world is getting worse, but in fact, there are also positive trends in our societies that we overlook over the many daily disasters in the news. Steven Pinker describes one of these in his book. In fact, the likelihood of any one of us falling victim to a violent crime has been decreasing throughout history. Steven Pinker not only describes this unexpected phenomenon but also discusses why it has occurred. Political stability, allowing the monopoly on violence to be transferred to the state, and also the fatherly side of men have led to a decline in violence, at least up to the time the book was published nearly 10 years ago.

We see, caused in part, by the pandemic and the opposing political camps reducing societal stability, perhaps contrary trends now, but this does not make this book less important. The lessons to be learned are general and may help us to restore the conditions that lead to less violence.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in social evolution, honey bees, and violence?

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