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Built by Animals: The Natural History of…

Built by Animals: The Natural History of Animal Architecture (2007)

by Mike Hansell

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In terms of relative size, the mound structures built by the Australian termite species Amitermes laurensis far surpass anything we humans have ever built, and they incorporate ventilation and thermoregulatory systems that leave even our most arrogant designers humbled. They are truly awesome examples of architecture, and must surely be the result of some wonderfully mysterious form of insect intelligence, right? Well, no actually, not necessarily. In fact, it is highly doubtful that they have any overall understanding at all of what they are doing; the same applies to comb-sculpting honeybees, earth-shifting ants, web-weaving spiders, nest-building birds (at least to some extent), and quite possibly even to the scientists' beloved stick-weilding primates. Such behaviour can be explained without this assumption of animal insight.

So says Mike Hansell in this refreshingly sober examination of animal building behaviour and tool use. He explains such behaviour as nothing more than an emergent property of simple behavioural rules and the evolution of 'clever materials' (although the 'nothing more' here should not be misunderstood as derisory), and warns that we should be wary of attributing intelligence to animals in such circumstances, however seemingly complex their behaviour.

The argument is strong and very well presented (giving this reader the final push needed in finally accepting similar thoughts about animal intelligence), and the author's prose style makes the book a pleasure to read. It would be an exaggeration to equate Hansell with the genius of someone like Dawkins, but parts of the work are certainly Dawkins-esque in character, particularly when Hansell is trying to explain his more complex ideas. Despite what you may assume from my précis of the author's thesis, the book is in no way pessimistic or contemptuous – in fact, on the contrary, his admiration for evolution and the 'simple behavioural rules' thereby produced is evident throughout; he is merely realistic about the conclusions he draws. As with most works of this kind there are some sections that one may find a little strained or lacking in vibrancy, but as a whole this is an enjoyable and strangely inspiring book that I would not hesitate to recommend.
  PickledOnion42 | Dec 5, 2012 |
Hansell's book offers a refreshingly skeptical view of the incidence and importance of construction, toolmaking, and tool use by non-human animals.

This author's central thesis is that however beautiful and seemingly complicated animal architecture may be, it can best be explained by appealing to genetically transmitted stereotypical behaviors whose efficacy relies more on the sophistication of the materials involved than on the skill of the constructor. Pooh-poohing anthropomorphism, Hansell avoids the trap of granting our non-human fellow-travelers the know-how needed to create either sophisticated machinery or works of art as we understand them.

Though his thesis may come as a shock to those who hope to ascribe to animals (particularly our close cousins the great apes) the intelligence needed to construct useful tools, not all romance is lost: Hansell does a great job of describing some of the beautiful means by which even the simplest of architecturally-oriented animals (the social insects, for instance) have achieved the ability to create their impressive artifacts. As a mathematician, I was most impressed with termites' used of pheromonal gradients in building appropriately-sized royal chambers (pp. 112-113) and ants' use of a "Buffon's needle" Monte Carlo estimate to determine the size of a particular nest chamber (pp. 100-101). The inherent energy-dissipating properties of spider silk, discussed quite well on pp. 168-170, might even offer me a future application for my Calculus II students!

In short, if you're hoping to find evidence of the brilliance of birds in nest design, or if you're hoping to learn that chimpanzees might someday show a knack for complicated tool construction, you're looking at the wrong book. But if you're hoping for a level-headed discussion of the evolutionary biology underlying some of the most magnificent artificial constructions in nature, this might be the book for you. ( )
  TurtleBoy | Mar 22, 2008 |
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It is a family story, and therefore probably untrue, that when at the age of about six I went missing on my short walk to school, I was eventually found watching a beetle negotiating the gutter.
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"'Animal builders' create structures - whether homes, traps, or for courtship display - that amaze us with their apparent ingenuity. But how do creatures with such small brains build these complex forms, sometimes working in teams with a clear division of labour towards a common goal? Which skills are inherited and which learned? And how did these behaviours evolve? Mike Hansell considers builders from across the animal kingdom to explore these questions and reveal the ways in which different animals achieve their building feats."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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