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I've been thinking on the concept of the human race dying off (the reason doesn't matter), but most of the other living species on the planet survive. Although we die off, the remains of books, the internet, buildings, garbage, etc. are left behind.

The issue I've been trying to solve is the plausibility of another species (now unhindered by human interference) evolving intelligence like our own and the ability to use tools over a span of time, but still soon enough to discover what remains of our society before they effectively disintegrate as a result of weathering, erosion, etc. The idea is that, as a result of finding bits and pieces of our race, they could reverse engineer a lot of our technology and thus the civilization they form could grow at an accelerated rate.

I'm not talking about a "Planet of the Apes" scenario as a lot of primate species are already very similar to homo sapiens in terms of their ability to pickup and use items, and are already pretty intelligent. The species I'm thinking about would evolve from another non-primate mammalian species, thus evolution would take longer for them to develop such characteristics.

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My first thought when reading the question was that you were describing a sudden end to human life followed by (or at the same time as) an alien landing. Could the alien species reverse-engineer our technology and benefit from the remnants of our culture? (I can imagine scenarios where the surviving aliens are not the ones who built their ship or understand the alien tech...either another species on board or a group of people who were culturally isolated from the builders...perhaps it's a penal colony.)

Then I re-read it and realized that you are asking about earth evolution. The problem here is time.

  1. How long would it take for another species to evolve to the point where they could understand written language, use computers, operate machinery, etc? We need evolution both of intelligence and of their bodies to be able to do these things, though many species could physically manipulate some of our tech right now, if they knew how.
  2. How long will our tech last such that it's usable in some way?

Looking at the evolution of primates, it appears that the line that created humans split off about 7 million years ago. We got crude stone tools about 2.5 million years ago. Around 100,000 years ago, we got sophisticated tool-making (while this number is in dispute, it's not going to be off by a million years). Scientists argue that these early humans had the cognitive ability for modern tech, but the culture wasn't there yet.

So the question is, how long will it take a species to go from basic tools to modern human cognition? Many species (including several non-primates and even non-mammals) already have the ability to make tools. How long would it take them to make the transition? Assuming they have any incentive to do so...

I don't know the answer, but it's likely at least 10,000 years and probably at least 100,000. And that doesn't even take physical issues (eyesight, manipulation of objects, body size, etc) into account.

So how long will our tech last while waiting for this?

  • Books: Certainly hundreds of years, maybe even a couple thousand under the right conditions.

  • Writing on more durable materials: Some will endure 10's of thousands of years (we have cave paintings, Egyptian carvings, etc). Assume some might make it through evolution if we accelerate the timeline, but there won't be very much there. No manuals or histories or anything substantial.

  • Computers: Tens or hundreds of years as a huge maybe. As for "the internet," that is a huge network of computers with many components that require maintenance. So no way would that last more than 100 years. No chance of evolution happening in this timeframe.

  • Buildings: These would last for a while in the beginning, and animals could make use of them. But eventually, they'd all fall apart. Will the Skyscrapers Outlast the Pyramids? A few buildings will make it thousands of years, but climate plays a big role too. I would say that buildings left over after 10-100 thousand years would not be a factor...they would not be usable or influence the development of technology.

  • Garbage: Some, sure. We have garbage from tens of thousands of years ago and artifacts from earlier as well. But mostly it's buried. Over time, landscapes shift. We don't generally have access to things after that amount of time without doing serious archeology.

As I see it, you have two choices:

  1. Put human technology and artifacts into a time bubble so they are artificially preserved (think the magic of Sleeping Beauty, or use alien/future tech).

  2. Bring in almost-human aliens who have the cognitive ability already but who need some time (a few hundred years maybe) to really figure out the technology part.

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    $\begingroup$ nice answer, except the time to evolve a new sentient species is far longer than 100K. its more on the order of, imo, conservatively 3-5 million. humans were already bipedal perhaps as early as 6-7M years ago, which is probably along the critical path. it would be fascinating to imagine which might be the successor genus - ape, monkey or, less likely, something along the raccoon line. $\endgroup$ – theRiley Dec 3 '18 at 2:55
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    $\begingroup$ I completely agree. I was giving very very minimal numbers. We can argue that some non-primate species are already close to sentient, if not there already. So closing that gap might be sooner than we think, with the right environment. Though it's likely not a species with our body shape and abilities. This book is terrific, even if the author doesn't think as highly of octopuses as I do. goodreads.com/book/show/… $\endgroup$ – Cyn Dec 3 '18 at 5:15
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Evolving new species will take too long, most human artefacts will be gone. You can have humans set up a vault containing their knowledge, and new species discovering it. While they will be interested in our technology, they will not want to emulate or society until they figure out why we died out

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  • $\begingroup$ basically agree, except the part of why we died out preventing curiosity about an advanced ancient vanished culture. we cared about the olmecs, and mississipian cultures before we knew what their problems were, to the extent we've even reached conclustions about them. $\endgroup$ – theRiley Dec 3 '18 at 2:59

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