Under what circumstances could an inherently individualist species become intelligent and advanced?

Usually, animals require social interaction for intelligence to develope. Or at least that's what is commonly assumed. Yet, many largely solitary animals like alligators and monitors are still smart, in some cases enough to use tools or learn commands.

I want to make my species inherently individualistic as stated in my question: Would my species even create a government?, but several answers stated a species that asocial would never become advanced.

Our species became intelligent, or so I've heard, in response to rapid changes in our environment. What rapid changes would drive a largely solitary species to become smarter?

Ideally, I'd like it to match the evolutionary path I've laid out for the species. They were originally aerial predators that became terrestrial, omnivores that lived largely in mountainous, temperate rainforests and fjords.


2 Answers 2


I love cats.

Just wanted to get the most important fact out first.

Cats evolved from solitary predators, yet they have no issue with fitting into human families and forming long lasting social relationships with humans. They also have decent skills in reading human behaviour relevant to themselves.

So why does a solitary predator evolve what is clearly a decent set of social skills and social intelligence?

This is because hunting successfully requires small kittens to learn lots skills and knowledge from their mother and practice those skills with their siblings. A kitten that is not very good at learning from observation or from playing is going to starve as an adult.

So cats are good at observing and interacting with humans because it is just an alternate use of skill they need to have as kittens in order to survive. And since it is so vital and in nature has to happen in limited time, this relatively narrow and specialized intelligence has to be very efficient.

So cats are kind of dumb and instinct driven except when they are not. When the task happens to match that gift for learning from observation or interaction, cats suddenly appear much smarter than dogs. Or small children for that matter.

This prelude is here because I think this is the type of intelligence you want your people to have. They are not smart in the same way a social animal like humans are. Instead their focus would be rapidly learning from observation or direct practice thru play.

Well, mostly I just wanted to talk about how awesome cats are.

Now, to the actual question.

What would this imply for the evolution of their intellect and society?

Well, if you want more intelligence than cats without meddling from some alien pet owner, you need to extend the "learning period" or childhood of the species. You need to increase the complexity of the skills they need to learn from their family and the time it takes to learn them.

You can probably use the transition to being omnivores as step one for this.

For the rest I'd suggest tool use. For whatever reason the species has hands or some equivalent. For climbing trees? Some food sources they use require use of tools to get. Smashing crustaceans with a stone can lead to stone axes. Using a stick to get termites can lead to spears. Making nests and stone axes can lead to building shelters. Shelters with spears leads to walls and protective obstacles. Longer childhoods can lead to permanent structures and even settlements for raising children.

Basically if you can plausibly find a case for evolution of technology, learning that technology will then require learning more skills, leading to better intelligence and longer childhood. Which will lead to more technology, including social technology. And so on.

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    $\begingroup$ Nope, cats aren't solitary, they can tolerate solitude but otherwise build their matriarchy when feral "Cats are social animals that, in feral conditions, live in groups consisting mainly of queens and their litters. The density of the group depends partly on food resources. " $\endgroup$ Feb 29, 2020 at 3:28
  • $\begingroup$ @AdrianColomitchi Made an edit. See if it is enough to fix it. // Oddly enough I think you pointing out my mistake makes cats a better model for the species in question as it highlights the evolution of social skills and structures in response to cats needing learn more complex social skills over longer period of their lives than their ancestors did. $\endgroup$ Feb 29, 2020 at 3:37
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    $\begingroup$ @AdrianColomitchi LOL. The "queens and their litters" even matches my proposed path to society. $\endgroup$ Feb 29, 2020 at 3:38
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    $\begingroup$ Heh, I have this feeling that if cats were to have opposable thumbs and a wee longer life span, the dominant intelligence on Earth would be called catity not humanity. $\endgroup$ Feb 29, 2020 at 4:33

In a "trial by worsening environ conditions", the species must show some traits that will not drive them extinct but push them further into developing intelligence. A sketch of conditions required (but not sufficient) for a species to develop intelligence:

  • large brains and cranial capacity. 20% of the energy budget of humans are allocated to brain. Not a sufficient condition, though, elephants by example - almost there, good memory, but they didn't get to use fire

  • dexterous limbs able to manipulate objects in the environ, but must be somehow lacking. Will be required to develop tools but one won't need tools if the limbs are versatile beyond a certain limit. Example: octopus seems intelligent enough, able to use object as tools, but can get around without using any most of the time

  • average metabolism, so that the physiological needs can be met without spending all the wake time feeding. I feel that being omnivorous is almost a requirement (due to the quite complex metabolic needs to support intelligence) but it's only feeling of my guts. Example: research suggest pigs are as smart as dogs/chimps. In any case, being omnivorous allow a certain amount of resilience in switching from one diet to another when push come to shove.

  • long physiological period of childhood, until the progeny is physically developed enough to live independently. An "evolutionary defect" on its own, but together with the other traits above, this weakness become a strength: the experience of the older generation is transferred to the progeny. I assert one simply can't get around this one, I don't know any species that did it without.

Only... ooops, sorry if the last condition pisses on your creative needs... but this last condition requires family and socialization. Because there's no way a mother, alone, can rear children to an independence age amounting 25-33% of the total life-span (taking 12 years as childhood and assuming 36-48y as the life expectancy before/during Stone Age) and do it in a way in which the population can grow. And any population that socializes the progeny rearing will be much better suited to environ than one that doesn't.

Now, last, feel free to poke holes in my argumentation above, I don't pretend that I can demonstrate any of the above beyond doubt or that I am the depository of the Ultimate Truth.


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