Animal Architects by J.L. Gould and C.G. Gould: a book review

Animal Architects: Building and the Evolution of Intelligence by James L. Gould and Carol Grant Gould

The 2007 book Animal Architects: Building and the Evolution of Intelligence by James L. Gould and Carol Grant Gould explores structures built by animals – nests, cocoons, spiderwebs, beaver dams, and the like.

The hexagonal tubes of a wasp nest

This is an extremely interesting topic, and so I read this book with great interest. Animal Architects is very readable, and provides good information on spiders and insects – especially social insects like wasps, ants, bees, and termites. There is also an extensive discussion of how birds build nests and bowers.

The mud nest of the American cliff swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota)

I found the discussion of bird nests particularly interesting – especially the way in which construction style was linked to taxonomy (p. 181).

The male Great Bowerbird (Chlamydera nuchalis) of northern Australia builds and decorates an elaborate bower (which has no practical utility, but exists only to attract females)

The authors are based in Princeton, New Jersey, but there is a surprisingly large number of references to Australian wildlife (about a dozen mentions). Perhaps this reflects the interesting range of birds and insects living in Australia. Well-known animal architects like the beaver help to round out the overall story.

Beavers survive the winter in lodges like this

However, four things annoyed me about this book. First, there are readings for each chapter, but no specific endnotes. Second, there seemed to be considerable speculation, as to the cognitive mechanisms that might be involved, without any actual evidence being cited. Third, there was no reference to simulation studies. In many cases, the only way to tell whether simple programmed rules can generate observed behaviour is to program the rules and try it out. The results can be surprising at times (for example, bacteria can home in on chemical concentration gradients, in spite of not being able to sense the direction of such gradients, and not being able to steer). And fourth, some statements seemed rather debatable. For example, many biologists would disagree with the claim that “the [wasp] builder needs to know where she is in the overall structure under construction, and what needs to be built there” (p. 88) – arguing instead for stigmergy as the key mechanism. There is also the rather odd statement that “human speech has fewer than three dozen consonants” (p. 273). In fact, there are more than this just in Hindi, and far more in the IPA.

See here and here for other reviews of the book.

Animal Architects by James L. Gould and Carol Grant Gould: 3 stars


One thought on “Animal Architects by J.L. Gould and C.G. Gould: a book review

  1. Pingback: And So They Build by Bert Kitchen: a brief book review | Scientific Gems

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