“The Superorganism”: wrong on ant evolution

Sorry to keep harping on Hoelldobler & Wilson’s The Superorganism.  But Wilson’s section on ant evolution is so bad, so out of touch with the state of the field that I can’t help but to rant.

Both Chapter 7 (The Rise of the Ants) and Chapter 8 (Ponerine Ants: The Great Radiation) are predicated on the argument that certain groups of poneromorph ants form a clade. In defense of this assumption, Wilson writes (page 322):

…Barry Bolton has recently split Ponerinae into seven subfamilies (Ponerinae, Amblyponinae, Ectatomminae, Heteroponerinae, Paraponerinae, Proceratiinae, and the fossil Brownimyrmicinae).  Still, there is no reason as yet to doubt that the assemblage as a whole represents a diversification from a single Mesozoic ancestor.

No reason, that is, except that it runs contrary to the findings of every single relevant phylogenetic study* in the past decade.  In particular, there is simply no way to make (Ectatomminae + Heteroponerinae) monophyletic with the remaining poneromorphs given the existing data, and even the monophyly of the remaining groups is far from certain.  Wilson stakes his claim even further in the mud on the next page:

This, then,  is the ponerine paradox: a group that is globally successful yet socially primitive.  The puzzle might be partially resolved if the more advanced subfamilies can be shown to be derived from a ponerine stock…but even if such proves to be the case (contrary to the opinion of systematists who consider the ponerines basically monophyletic), there likely remain diverse modern subgroups…

Who are the systematists who consider these poneromorphs to be monophyletic?  None that I’m aware of.  Wilson is the last one left, ossified in the same perspective he had in the 1960s.  What’s even odder is that he reproduces the Moreau et al phylogeny on page 316, and it contradicts nearly all of his phylogenetic statements in the text. Did he read the figures in his own book?

As a consequence, the whole section of The Superorganism devoted to the evolutionary history of ants is muddy, incoherent, and entirely at odds with the increasingly clear picture emerging from modern studies of ant relationships.

*Astruc et al 2004, Moreau et al 2006, Brady et al 2006, Ouellete et al 2006, Rabeling et al 2008.

5 thoughts on ““The Superorganism”: wrong on ant evolution”

  1. Wilson has been off-game for a while now… He’s one of the most recognizable pop-sci figures around and has done a lot for the public’s understanding of the natural world, but everything he says needs to be carefully evaluated – he tends to modify science to fit his own notions.

  2. James C. Trager


    Thanks for posting links to the five modern syntheses of ant evolutionary diversification.

    I think it worth mentioning that the concept of polyphyly of the “ponerimorph” ants has been banging around in the ant literature almost back to the time of publication of “The Ants”. It goes back at least 10 years before the earliest of those you link, to John Lattke’s 1994 contribution “Phylogenetic relationships and classification of ectatommine ants”: http://osuc.biosci.ohio-state.edu/hymDB/nomenclator.hlviewer?id=4491

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