On another planet there is a life form that has the same level of intelligence as humans on Earth, but it has no appendage to manipulate its environment. It has similar social structures to humans before farming was invented. Also it has a language that is of similar complexity to the languages of humans before farming was invented.

Would this sapient life form be able to develop an advanced civilization with advanced technology, or would its lack of an appendage prevent it from developing technology and civilisation?

By appendage i mean no opposable thumbs, no trunk, no crab like claws, no tentacles with suction cups, and nothing else that would make for a limb or extremity that would be useful for manipulating its environment.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ How does it survive? Manipulating one's environment is one of the hallmarks of life. Any creature that fails to do so quickly falls victim to natural selection. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    May 4, 2019 at 5:41

3 Answers 3


You note these creatures have language, so I’m going to assume they have a mouth. I’m further going to assume that mouth+body does not constitute an appendage for the purposes of this question, as even slime moulds manipulate their environment with their bodies.

Fish and birds use tools and build homes with their mouths, and insects (most notably social insects like ants, bees, termites and wasps) are noted for their architectural abilities despite having nothing at their disposal but mandibles and spit. Not only that, but ants engage in both farming and domestication, all without the benefit of manipulative appendages.

So your hypothetical species can absolutely build complex things. It might require several members to provide the requisite control, but with language and cooperation there’s no reason they can’t advance.

PS: All the links contain creatures that are stupidly cool. I particularly recommend the architectural termites.

  • $\begingroup$ The "Tines" aliens from Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep are exactly this! $\endgroup$
    – Juraj
    May 5, 2019 at 22:13

Some animals don't have appendages, but still manipulate their environment. For example:

  • Sponges
  • Worms
  • Snakes
  • Electric eels.

Sponges and worms are notable for changing the environment by swallowing it.

Snakes are leg-less lizards that still manage to move quite quickly. Some can strangle things in their environment; others can inject poison into it. An intelligent snake on an impressionable surface would be able to write; another intelligent snake could raise its head high enough to read the writing.

The combination of any form of locomotion with the ability to partially swallow and then spit out an object provides the ability to carry things from place to place. A mother cat carrying a kitten is an extreme example, but an intelligent snake could pull off similar tricks.

Electric eels combine the flexibility of snakes with, well, shocking amounts of electricity.


No, a sentient life wouldn't be able to have advanced technology without an appendage (unless it has magic)

I want to give you an animal on earth that is very smart yet doesn't have any limbs to manipulate its environment: dolphins.

Now imagine dolphins on land. Without any appendages dolphins can only move things by biting it with its mouth or nudging it with its body. It wouldn't be able to use a spear, stone, or stick because it can't move it effectively (a dolphin's neck isn't exactly flexible). So dolphins on land cannot make any advanced tools. Even if somehow they are able to manipulate fire (that they got from lightning), they can't craft anything. On top of that, animals with appendages move faster than those without. The dolphins are going to get murdered.

3 dolphins are trying to forge metal. One dolphin is using its head and mouth to hammer, another is keeping the fire alive by nudging wood to the fire, and the third holding the metal with a stick attached being held by its mouth so it doesn't fall of. It would fail.

Now, in their natural habitats which is underwater, advanced tech wouldn't be available because there is no consistent source of fire.

My reasoning:

Appendages are any sort of body parts that are flexible thus able to manipulate the environment. So all limbs are appendages because they can move in a flexible way, even though it can't hold things. (For example, an elephant using its feet to knock down trees.)

I count snakes as having an appendage because their tail and mouth can each hold a different item, so technicaly they can smash 2 rocks together to make fire.

  • $\begingroup$ I tweaked your answer a little mainly for grammar. I also very much suspect that in the elephant sentence, you meant to use "e.g." (which in English reads as "for example") rather than "i.e." ("that is"). "E.g." is used with incomplete lists of examples; "i.e." is used when one thing is basically equal to another. By all means feel free to edit further if you feel I changed your intent in any way. $\endgroup$
    – user
    May 4, 2019 at 8:46
  • $\begingroup$ Thx, sorry for the bad grammar $\endgroup$ May 4, 2019 at 9:18

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