May 21, 2019

The Human Swarm

A new book by Mark Moffett’79 takes the biologist’s epic insight about insects and animals and uses it to think about human societies.
  • Acclaimed biologist Mark Moffett’79, described as a “daring eco-adventurer,” has photographed and researched ants, tree canopies, and frogs, just to name a few of his subjects. His new book is about what we can learn about human societies from the animal kingdom.
  • The Human Swarm was published by Basic Books in 2018.

The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall

A book by Mark W. Moffett’79

Mark W. Moffett’79, an acclaimed biologist described by the writer Margaret Atwood as a “daring eco-adventurer,” wrote this paradigm-shattering investigation of the social adaptations that bind societies.

The Human Swarm draws from findings in anthropology, psychology, and sociology, attempting to get at the root of essential questions humans have had for thousands of years: How do societies develop? How do we keep them going? And, why do they fail?

In his entertaining style, and with a keen ability for communicating scientific ideas to general readers, Moffett points out that most species of animals live in small, tight-knit groups, as humans once did. When an outsider approaches, they recognize the situation immediately and usually go on the attack. But humans exist in communities numbering in the thousands, even millions. How can such vast groups function as societies? For example, why can an American travel to another country, walk into a crowded cafe, and be accepted peacefully by an entirely unfamiliar group of humans? No other animal species seems to have this ability–except for ants.

Moffett writes that the idea for this book first came to him in 2007, when he encountered a kilometers-long battlefield of Argentine ants in a town near San Diego. Two super colonies, composed of billions of ants, defended their turf against each other. He pondered how the individual ants in such vast numbers identify with their respective groups when they appear almost identical. Filled with similar provocative stories about other animal societies, this book also points out that we can learn more about ourselves from how ants build societies than we can from chimps, our closest genetic cousins.

“[Moffett] intrigues by setting human societies in the context of those of the animal kingdom,” writes Publishers Weekly. “This fine work should have broad appeal to anyone curious about human societies, which is basically everyone.”

Moffett, often called “Doctor Bugs,” is a writer, photographer, and regular guest on NPR’s Fresh Air, CBS Sunday Morning, and the Colbert Report (Stephen Colbert calls Moffett “ant man.”) He is a research associate at the Smithsonian, a visiting scholar at Harvard University, and the author of three other books.


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