So, bit of an unusual question, but here goes...

As I've read on other questions on the site, a creature gaining sapience would not automatically translate to a society equal to ours, and I believe it's safe to say that this isn't exactly a novice idea. Multiple films and TV shows show aliens, for one example, having an ant colony-style structure.

So, one thing is imagining forms of intelligent life, but another figuring out what kind of society has spawned from that intelligence. A species with a eusocial caste structure -again, like ants- could be envisioned as a communist-like society. On the other hand, giving intelligence to a solitary creature, such as an anteater, would probably spawn no society that can transcend the death of the individual, for it wouldn't be in their nature to come together.

So, after a somewhat lengthy prelude, my question is this -

If a species of herd animal gained intelligence, what form of society would most likely develop, given the difference in their hard-wired behavior compared to us troop-descended humans?

Any answers would be greatly appreciated.

  • $\begingroup$ Can you maybe specify the criteria you want to use? Else I think this question is highly opinion based. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Sep 8, 2018 at 15:10
  • $\begingroup$ You might be interested in Pierson's Puppeteers created by Larry Niven. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 8, 2018 at 15:13
  • $\begingroup$ L.Dutch I'll try to edit some in later, if I can think of any... $\endgroup$
    – N Francis
    Commented Sep 8, 2018 at 15:18
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure this question could even be answered. Humans closest relatives are the bonobos and the chimps both of which have radically different social structures from human society, even hunter gather society. Indeed humans themselves all have radically different social structures from each other. Sapience gave us countless practical possibilities in how to organise our social structures, as well as making previous social structures obsolete. The same would probably go for any other species that develops sentience like we do, they would likely have many varied social structures. $\endgroup$
    – Ummdustry
    Commented Sep 8, 2018 at 16:13
  • $\begingroup$ "A species with a eusocial caste structure -again, like ants- could be envisioned as a communist-like society" -- that is, for special and most unusual values of the phrase "communist society". And assuming that sapience and eusocialty are compatible, which is not at all self-evident and may constitute a very interesting exploration. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Sep 8, 2018 at 17:02

3 Answers 3


Herd animals have social structure. Use that.

Most herbivorous animals live in matrilineal groups of old females and their descendants and pre sexual young. The dominant male of the day might reside with these groups (like horses and hippos do) or it might reside separately (like elephants). Sexually mature non dominant males are kicked out of the birth group by the dominant male when they come of age. These nondominant males are solitary or live together as equals.

That is a fine system for intelligent creatures too. A problem with intelligence: it is at root an arms race with intelligent conspecifics, who want to kill you and take your resources. A problem with intelligence and the social structure of herd animals is that a lot of the energy of the males is devoted to either ousting / killing the dominant male or maintaining dominant status. I suspect that entities as intelligent as humans (or chimps) will need to find some way for males to cooperate on some terms, or their intelligence will wipe them out.


The only technical intelligence we know is Human - have a close look.

If you look at dolphins, they have complex social structures, as well as many other mammals too. Normally this revolves around a dominant (male or female) group or individual surrounded by subservient others, in a competitive group vs group environment.

If you look at us, or rather the genus homo, we have been around for over two million years. You could argue the first evidence of cities, a major hallmark of intelligence, was 9000 - 10000 years ago.

So there is a difference between intelligence and technical intelligence. It begs the question of: Why didn't dinosaurs, in their 250 million years, develop technical intelligence? Why don't dolphins now?

There is a theory that a solution to the Fermi Paradox may be that life might be abundant- indeed, it may be intelligent - however technical intelligence is so rare that it hasn't happened in the universe before we developed it. Looking at the only evidence, us, developing technical abilities after such a long time of being around lends credence to this theory.

So the chance of developing technical intelligence is almost zero if this postulate is true, and the only gauge of this is our own society. Thus there may be a few factors to develop such intelligence which is rare and not inevitable:

  • Fire: although other species developed stone tools, only the homo genus developed fire. It was developed independently around a dozen times amongst 1,200,000 years, and only caught on relatively recently, around 400,000 years ago when it became mainstream. Without this development humans cannot disperse from its native environment, and it has been argued cannot create home groups.
  • Inadequacies: Humans are not very physiologically adaptable. We can only withstand a limited temperature range, uncomfortable in the rain, eat only a minority of foods of certain types and texture, can't run fast, not particularly strong, can't fly and so on. Security is a major problem. These deficiencies have been argued to spur on intelligence by virtue we need to find ways to overcome them.
  • Farming and Cities - We need farming to free up labour and thought to develop technical abilities, and cities are concurrent with complex social structures.

In your herd society, using the above one of the main problems is already you have a large group. Individuals in herds act in accordance with established rules, and distance themselves from others in the group according to these rules. They are not usually intelligent, and only react to their immediate surroundings which usually include others in the herd.

The herd 'reacts' to the environment usually by those at the outer edge, and migrates across environments to suit the best and ideal temperature, food and other requirements.

Therefore a key ingredient to the above definition of intelligence is removed - that of fire, it is not needed. Another ingredient - insecurity - is already dealt with by the protection of the herd, and the formation of cities is not necessary too, and therefore the development of farming.

For technical intelligence to occur in your herd society, according to the above definition, the herd needs to have a need for fire (perhaps for food), a need for farming (same) and a need for security (perhaps other herds that roam and conflict with these herds). A command structure is needed to retain knowledge and pass it down. It could be old to young, perhaps the older individuals are in the centre, which hold the knowledge, and younger more fit are at the edge.

Yet there also needs to be adversity - not just other conflicting herds, but where technical intelligence needs to be required. Ie- perhaps if there was acid rain, the only way a herd can survive is to erect structures to accommodate the herd, or fit in caves. The knowledge for this needs to be passed to subsequent generations.

Again, as herd mentality is simply following those around you, you need to constantly fight this complacency with learned knowledge transferred from individuals. Eventually the herd mentality will likely break, with a centre group of individuals (likely hereditary) will develop, as this is the most efficient form of knowledge transference from generation to generation. It is inevitable then that it may actually be a monarchistic society eventually (perhaps with varying degrees of size of aristocracy).


In Surface Detail, Banks introduced the Pavuleans, an alien society evolved from a hoofed herd species. Their civilization is described as conservative and slow to change, and valuing "Collective Wisdom" over individual exceptionality. They are also distressed by heights and being alone; their buildings are gently sloped ziggurats and they sleep communally.

That's just one possible take on the stereotypical herd mentality, of course. There are numerous human social structures all derived from that same aforemented "troop" so I would suggest taking one aspect of one sort of herd species and build upon it.

A more flock-like herd might value individualism as much as we (tend to) do, but each individual would be highly aware of everyone around them and it would produce a sort of dynamic conformity that ripples across society like the change of direction in a flock of starlings. Imagine a society changing as rapidly as fashion; belief systems and values might rise and fall on a seasonal time scale, distinct language and nationstates might be inherently precarious concepts.


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