Ants have a long history as the foci for research in a variety of disciplines. Because of their diversity and ecological dominance in many ecosystems, they are model organisms for ecological studies, and their advanced sociality makes them ideal for studies of behavior and cooperation. There are many scientific books about ants, ranging from treatises on individual species or closely related groups to Pulitzer Prize–winning reviews of their biology. Charlotte Sleigh has taken a novel approach in Six Legs Better: A Cultural History of Myrmecology by taking a historical perspective on the study of ants. Her previous book, Ant, focused on popular culture, whereas Six Legs Better examines the history of ants as study organisms from the perspective of a scientific historian. She concentrates on a period (the late 19th century to the mid-20th century) when biology was undergoing a renaissance with the growth of evolutionary thinking, the modern synthesis, and the birth of quantitative population biology.
The book has three sections, each of which highlights a prominent scientist who used ants as model organisms: Auguste Forel (1848–1931), William Morton Wheeler (1865–1937), and Edward O. Wilson (1929–). These researchers came to the study of myrmecology with different perspectives—Forel as a psychiatrist, Wheeler as a natural historian, and Wilson as a socio-biologist with an interest in communication. Six Legs Better explores how these scientists have looked to ant biology and communities for parallels with social behavior in human societies. These views changed over the time period covered in the book from rather utopian to anarchistic without central control to self-organized and mathematical. The differences in scientific approach and in each scientist's perspective on social organization stemmed from both their backgrounds and the social and scientific context in which they worked.
Sleigh provides great insight into the social and cultural contexts that motivated the approaches each scientist took and the type of research questions each one asked. She does so in part through her examination of correspondences and interactions among the focal scientists and their colleagues and other scientists. This unique perspective on the mindset of each researcher is a highlight of the book, with specific attention given to how cultural and scientific attitudes have changed over time. A recurring theme is that many interactions among these scientists and their respective colleagues were fueled by conflict rather than cooperation—surprising, perhaps, given the taxa of interest.
Although the book was rich with information about these three scientists, I did at times find Sleigh's prose unnecessarily esoteric, and the lay reader with an interest in ants might find the book inaccessible. I also found that an appreciation of how much these pioneers loved their study organisms was lacking from the chapters. One thing that all three myrmecologists held in common was a genuine passion for ants, studying ants for ants' sake. This is evidenced in part by the taxonomic work each did. Their scientific descriptions of species and keys are still used today.
Six Legs Better serves as a novel companion to previous publications on ants by taking a look at the ant researchers themselves (much more than their study organisms) and examining the motivation for their scientific inquiry. The book's strong point is placing each of these people in the context of the science and culture of their day. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the history of science or who wants to learn more about some of the founding fathers of modern myrmecology.