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Kingdom of Ants: José Celestino Mutis and the Dawn of Natural History in the New World Hardcover – 28 Sep 2010
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"Edward O. Wilson, one of those rare scientists who can make biology and science history not only readable but entertaining, has written a book that holds the reader's attention from beginning to end."(Lynne M. Hinkey Internet Review of Books)
"By coupling excerpts from Mutis's forgotten diaries with recent findings on ant eating habits, reproductive behaviors, and emigration patterns, the authors give new relevance to one of the New World's oldest natural history studies. This interesting writing technique helps readers understand the continual nature of the process of scientific inquiry."(Choice)
"A unique glance into the early world of science exploration, Kingdom of Ants is a delight to read and filled with intriguing information."(Southeastern Naturalist)
About the Author
Edward O. Wilson is a two-time Pulitzer Prize–winning author, scientist, and University Research Professor Emeritus at Harvard University. Dr. Wilson has written more than 20 books and hundreds of journal articles. José M. Gómez Durán is one of the founding members of the Iberian Myrmecological Association and a researcher with the Spanish Institute for Agriculture and Food Research and Technology (INIA).
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These agarian ants also happen to be one of the first ants in the new world to be extensively investigated by a scientist, as revealed by Kingdom of Ants. This slim (95 pages) book presents some of the original translated writings of one of the lost disciples of Linnaeus, the Spanish naturalist Jose Celestino Mutis. In 1760 Mutis traveled to present day Colombia (then called the New Kingdom of Granada) and began one of the first studies of New World flora and fauna that was to last 48 years. Unfortunately, his works were largely forgotten and/or lost, but in work E.O. Wilson and Jose M. Gomez Durian reconstruct some of Mutis' writings about ants and place his findings in a more modern entomological context.
The book is charming, largely due to Mutis' childlike fascination with nature and his desire to elucidate the ways of the ants. Mutis is also a very fun scientist to read: "Who could believe that, on such a propitious occasion, I could forget a matter that gives me so much pleasure as the [army ants], as if I had never thought of my earlier observation? But such are my duties in the [mining] company these days, where I am conducting some important experiments on the melting of metals." It is also clear from these writings that Mutis possesed a formidable scientific mind, and he deserves to be counted among the great early naturalists. While this book doesn't delve too deeply into the study of ants, but it does provide a very interesting look at the dawn of systematic scientific exploration of the New World and is a great joy to read.
Not being a great ant expert, though I have read a fair amount on the subject, and I am pretty knowledgeable about arthropod evolution. I learned some interesting details about the ants of Colombia, but mostly this work is a miniature glimpse into the world of a naturalist in Spanish Colonial America. This is where it shines, you get a real idea of how a gentleman scholar, Mutis was an Enlightenment Intellectual, a disciple of Linnaeus, and a Priest, in late 1700s South America could operate. The vignettes of Mutis's research and manner are nothing if not charming, and I, like Wilson, was very impressed with his thorough approach, though his technique was lacking the refinements one starts to expect by the late 1700s. It remains however a slight book, that covers very little, and honestly could have included more illustrations.
Strangely enough if I were to recommend this book to anyone, it would be to either a young budding naturalist of a more literary bent or a writer who was looking for ideas, there are several moments that are almost begging for fictional treatment, for example a Sra. Mariana Davila, a lady of Bogota whose house was overrun by Army Ants, yet was fascinated by them, or Sr. Lanneret an eager and acute observer of ant wars at the mines in Darien.
(Note: A previous version of this review erroneously identified the coauthor, José M. Gómez Durán, as a Colombian when he is a Spaniard)
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