So, I had a species that primarily lives off meat and insects, but I came across numerous articles which seem to point out that sapience and civilization is near impossible without being omnivorous. This led to me wondering, Based on our current understanding of how sapience evolves, are insectivores and carnivores viable to become sapient, create civilization, and get technology to at least the level of the Middle Ages over time? What complications would arise from this? Pros and cons?

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    $\begingroup$ Being omnivore is advantageous, but I personally can't see why non-omnivores can not be sapient. Can you share links to some of the articles that you mentioned? $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Sep 23, 2020 at 18:20
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    $\begingroup$ i mean... vegans exist so $\endgroup$
    – Topcode
    Sep 23, 2020 at 18:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Topcode I am talking about evolution. Humans can be vegans, yes, but the entirety of the human race wasn't exclusively herbivorous from start to finish (Although our far past ancestors were). $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Sep 23, 2020 at 18:24
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    $\begingroup$ VTC as opinion-based. We barely understand our own evolution, asking if it's possible for something else to evolve is asking for complete conjecture. Keep in mind that SE is not a discussion forum, but uses the model one-specific-question/one-best-answer. It's impossible for there to be a best answer here because we have no science to back up any assertion, hence my VTC. I could also have VTC'd as needing focus (you're allowed to ask just one question, I count 3) and both the 2nd and 3rd would cause closure for "needs clarity" because they're too broad (whole books could be written to answer). $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Sep 23, 2020 at 22:45
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    $\begingroup$ @topcode Vegans exist and subsist now because we developed sentience, cooking, science, biology and nutrition science, and then carefully and deliberately worked out what things humans need in which proportions to thrive, modeled model a diet that contains all of those without including animal product, and developed a global infrastructure that enables us to assemble said diet. It's not something a nonsapient species could conceive of. $\endgroup$ Sep 24, 2020 at 8:40

7 Answers 7


Those articles claiming that sapience and civilization is near impossible without being omnivorous are (perhaps) suffering from anthropocentrism: "The only evidence we have is ourselves, so the only possible answer is like ourselves."

You wrote that your species "primarily lives off meat and insects" (emphasis mine). So that means they do eat things other than meat and insects... they are omnivorous! So, if you want to be in line with those articles... you're golden.

Either way: remember that sapience is an evolutionary adaptation, not necessarily an evolutionary advantage. In other words, being sapient isn't necessarily better or worse / more evolved than not being sapient.

First, a clarification: "Sapience" is the ability to know things, and reason with that knowledge.

Are octopuses sapient? It certainly seems so. What about chimpanzees? Yeah, I reckon. Dogs? Uh huh. Elephants? Sure. Dolphins? It can be argued, indeed. What about horses? Hmmm. Again, it could be argued.

No one really knows what environmental pressures result in sapience, but going by the definition and the examples I just listed off the top of my head, dietary choices and even environment don't seem to matter. So your bug and meat eating critters are fair game.

Now, what about civilization?

Well, what is civilization?

Wikipedia says, "A civilization is any complex society characterized by urban development, social stratification, a form of government and symbolic systems of communication such as writing."

Good enough. So while there might be sapient complex societies with social stratification (see, again, chimpanzees), that's not a guarantee of "civilization" as we define it.

However! Do elephants need writing? Nah. But they do have ultrasonic long-distance communication and seem to have institutional (cultural) memory (as do ravens, btw). So maybe "oral history" is just fine rather than writing.

Urban development and a form of government are, essentially, technology with the purpose of scaling up small groups. Where there is prosperity (read: agriculture or a perennial and abundant food source) there is population, and with population, urbanization and government are handy (perhaps necessary) tools with which to manage a large group consistently and with a minimum of conflict... things advantageous to the ultimate goal of any species: to make sure one's offspring have offspring.

That's a very long winded way of saying, again, sure your bug-and-meat eating critters can have a civilization, given an environment with the right resources in the right amount.

You can extrapolate the complications over time by considering the behavior of your proto-critters, much as you can extrapolate human culture and behavior by looking at the behavior of "lower" primates. Think about how elephant society works and draw conclusions as to what they might be if there were millions or billions of elephants instead. That's an extreme example, but I hope you get my point: an elephant civilization would be very different from a crow civilization would be very different from an octopus civilization.

As for pros and cons... evolution doesn't think in terms of pros and cons, better or worse. If a species' babies grow up to have babies, that species is well-adapted to their environment. If sapience means more babies grow up to have babies, that might become a dominant trait. If the population gets big enough and language helps them stay organized and have grandkids, language (or agriculture or animal husbandry or roads...) might become a dominant trait.

Go forth with your bug and meat eating critters, and multiply. :-D

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    $\begingroup$ Nit pick: Elephants use infrasound to communicate, not ultrasound. $\endgroup$
    – njuffa
    Sep 24, 2020 at 6:46
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    $\begingroup$ @njuffa Wht do you mean? Dumbo flies around, so obviously he must use ultrasound - echolocation doesn't work with infrasound ;-) $\endgroup$
    – j4nd3r53n
    Sep 24, 2020 at 12:41
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    $\begingroup$ On a more serious note: You've given a very good answer, but one of the things we have realised in recent years, is that we don't actually know what 'sapience' is, much less how it arises. Many of the criteria we used in the past seem to fit an ever widening class of animals, and I think your answer reflects this. $\endgroup$
    – j4nd3r53n
    Sep 24, 2020 at 12:47
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    $\begingroup$ Symbolic systems of communication are not just writing. The key component is that your system allows you to communicate in the abstract. So, I would not say the distance over which an animal can communicate is important, but in how much detail. It's really hard to tell how much any animal is communicating in its "native language" in nature, but we know that many animals like dogs, chimps, and horses can be taught to respond to complex human commands; so, we know the capacity is there. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Sep 24, 2020 at 16:54
  • $\begingroup$ Good catch, @njuffa! $\endgroup$ Sep 24, 2020 at 20:49

The real issue here is a consequence of Trophic Levels and the Ten-Percent Law. As quick summary, significant energy losses occur every time an organism eats something, so it's getting about 10% of the energy that the thing it ate got from it's source of energy.

Since every creature has some energy needs and civilization needs a lot of creatures in a (relatively) small area, you need a lot of resources to support these insectivores/carnivores. This is why you have a lot of primary consumers (like insects who eat plants) and much fewer tertiary consumers (like tigers).

This means that carnivorous civilizations are limited to areas that consistently produce a lot of food or are constrained to move with their food source(s). This isn't to say culture or technology is impossible while being entirely carnivorous. The Inuit have a nearly all-meat diet and are still a civilization. There are social groups with dolphins and whales in spite of their all-animal diets.

There is also the idea that more advanced technologies happen when people spend less of their time and effort simply trying to get food and more time and effort on learning about and experimenting with their world. This is simply harder when you are not a primary consumer or producer.

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    $\begingroup$ This rationalizes my devotion to all-you-can-eat BBQ. Thanks! $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Sep 23, 2020 at 22:48
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    $\begingroup$ The Inuit are maybe a bad counter-example, since they became carnivorous after they became sapient. I believe the current leading theory is that we were sapient before we even left Africa. $\endgroup$
    – Turksarama
    Sep 24, 2020 at 4:36
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    $\begingroup$ Well, yes. I'm pretty sure the people who didn't leave Africa are sapient. $\endgroup$
    – Robyn
    Sep 24, 2020 at 5:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Robyn: It could be parallel evolution. Simply looking at the current Africans is insufficient. We don't know yet exactly which genes are necessary for sapience, so we can't look at regional variance of those genes and estimate the age of those genes. $\endgroup$
    – MSalters
    Sep 24, 2020 at 7:53
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    $\begingroup$ While carnivores are more limited than herbivores in population density, I don't see population density as a limit to developing sapience - humans didn't really get "large" social groups (more than several dozen) until well after sapience and agriculture. Also, I think the free-time argument might be backwards. It's herbivores which generally spend much of their day eating. It's generally the carnivores which have a bunch of free time between intermittent bouts of procuring a nutrient-dense meal. $\endgroup$
    – R.M.
    Sep 24, 2020 at 13:52

Many plants are poisonous or only grow in certain places at certain times of year; so, herbivores need a good memory and discrimination skills. Carnivores on the other hand benefit from complex reasoning skills and a certain sense of self-awareness to be effective at tracking, stalking, and ambushing their prey. The reason Omnivores are normally associated with intelligence is that they have both evolutionary pressures so they can develop memory, discrimination, complex reasoning, and self-awareness all in one package. These are the general building blocks of sentient thought.

That said, it is possible for any animal to find a niche in which all of these skills are needed regardless of what they eat. For example, let's say your insectivore were some kind of migratory animal that survives by moving between different seasonal insect blooms that happen at different times of the year and in different places, they would need a good memory. If they lived in an environment where some of their prey insects use mimicry to closely resemble poisonous bugs, then they could develop a strong sense of discrimination to keep them from eating the bad bugs. If some of the bugs they hunt are faster than they are, then they would need to develop complex reasoning to figure out how to ambush their food, and if some of the bugs they hunt have keen senses or if they are a prey animal of something with keen senses, then they would need to develop to be self aware enough to not make a lot of noise, or stalk without cover, or stand upwind of things they are stalking/hiding from.

This just leaves the final element of being driven to modify one's own environment for better survival. For humans, it was agriculture that really sparked the growth of civilization, but not all animals that modify their environment do so for growing plants to eat. Some animals build nests or burrows to keep their young safe. Some animals build caches for storing food for winter. Various species of ants farm fungi or honey dew secreting insects. And let's not forget, humans raise animals for food too. The ancient Steppe civilizations produced great empires like the Mongols and the Scythians off of animal husbandry and not agriculture; so, your animals may get into the practice of farming prey animals as they get smarter so that they can stop wasting energy on migrating. Once they are "farming" for food, their evolution could follow a similar growth as humans.

  • $\begingroup$ While beaver dams may create fish ponds, that is not the beavers' reason to build them. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beaver_dam $\endgroup$ Sep 24, 2020 at 12:40
  • $\begingroup$ True, revised answer. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Sep 24, 2020 at 13:35
  • $\begingroup$ I feel like the start of this description is a 'just so' story, "Humans did these things and are sapient, so that must be what is needed. I believe tool use and living in complex social system was far larger drive of sapience than what you listed. Look at all the near-sapient species on earth other then Humans. Chimps are omnivorous sure, but bonobo are basically herbivores that occasionally scavenge (but don't hunt as you describe!). squids, dolphins, dogs are all carnivorous. Clearly high intellect doesn't need one to be omnivorous, and plenty of omnivorous aren't very intelligent. $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Dec 9, 2020 at 19:41
  • $\begingroup$ @dsollen I have not said it is required at all, only advantageous. My second two paragraphs are all about the exceptions to how you do not NEED to be an omnivore to develop the same traits. Also, tool use and complex social systems are the results of intelligence, not conditions that create it. You need something to make you intelligent enough to start doing those things before they can become environmental factors. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Dec 9, 2020 at 20:15
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki true, but since bonobo and dolphins, to name just the biggest examples off the top of my head, both use tools and live in complex social dynamics while not being omnivorous (like I said technically bonobo are, but it's a very tiny part of their diet and isn't from hunting) It's clear that it's possible to get to that level of intellect without an omnivorous lifestyle. at which point tools and social structures take over to push towards sapience (assuming you don't already consider bonobo & dolphins sapient of course) $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Dec 9, 2020 at 20:23

I don't forsee much of a problem in evolving intelligence/sapience, but not eating plants makes it much harder to live by farming. You need a lot more land, or maybe very fertile land, to produce the same amount of calories from meat instead of plants. That makes it much more difficult to move from hunter/gatherers to farming communities, which are needed for a Middle Ages level of technology. You can't really take your iron bloomery with you every time the community moves with the herds.

However farming insects could solve this in part. In modern insect farming, some species can produce 50% of the food mass as insect meat (Wikipedia link), so then you only need twice the land area compared to eating plants directly. Farming insects presents some difficulties of their own. Unlike plants they run away, but they can't be stopped with something like a fence, and I don't think there are any insects that can be herded. (Though in your fictional world there might be. Nest building insects like bees and ants tend to stay in one place.) So I guess the bugs need to be kept in some kind of boxes, with the 'humans' harvesting the vegetables and feeding it to the bugs.

  • $\begingroup$ If the species lived near water and depended on fish as a major food source that could 'suffice' for energy resources well into technological level closer to medieval times, after all fishing, without any worry about over fishing, was a primary energy source in many coastal villages long after farming was created. Maybe in this world instead of large continents most land mass is made up of smaller islands so that there is usually plenty of coastline for fishing? $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Dec 9, 2020 at 19:56

On Earth, for mammals, one of the potential problems is that intelligence is expensive, and requires omega-3s, which can be tricky to find in nature.

Insects are apparently a potentially good source of Omega-3s (per https://www.infona.pl/resource/bwmeta1.element.elsevier-c89c5b3e-6a99-335e-94ad-4c556add6141). So, if you're in a place where there's a LOT of insect biomass, you probably have the nutritional basis to support evolutionary pressures towards a big brain.

Note that large brains aren't always required for intelligence: it's just the cheapest way to get smart. Turns out, because weight is a huge issue when flying, Corvids and similarly smart birds do much more with far less brain, by instead having their brains loop the information more often. This is slower in theory, but since their brains are smaller, they save on signalling transit time, and achieve intelligence on a par with animals that have a FAR higher brain:body mass ratio.

There are also distributed neural systems, such as the nine brains of an octopus, where the brain is scattered around in the body.

And there's hive intelligences, where the "intelligence" is an emergent property of the complex behaviors of the members in response to pheromonal stimuli. I'm not convinced that there's a way for hive intelligence can result in anything approaching the lateral-thinking and symbology of true sapience, though.

So what kind of evolutionary pressures support large brains, or one of the alternatives? Well... for the most part it seems to be about having to think up new approaches to finding resources, like shelter, safety, or food.

If you can make the insects plentiful, but variable (different insect types in different seasons? Each species dangerous in a different way, found in a different environment, etc?) so that the creatures have to think adaptively and cooperatively to forage for them, that could work.



The key trigger for sapience is fire/cooking. Raw food requires a longer gut to get the maximum energy from eating. Cooking starts the breakdown process before the food is consumed.

What this means is the creature requires less intestines and the intestines require a lot of energy to run. Cooking the food allows a smaller gut and creates a surplus of energy in the body which allows evolution to start increasing the brain power (which also takes a lot of energy)

As long as there's enough insects for them to cook, it's possible.

See Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

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    $\begingroup$ Cooking is especially helpful to break down the plant structure and make the nutritious content available. For digesting meat it is far less important, as that is much easier to digest by itself. $\endgroup$
    – JanKanis
    Sep 24, 2020 at 11:50
  • $\begingroup$ I disagree that fire is a trigger of sapience. All the intelligence required to understand how to make a fire had to have been developed form some other driver, or they wouldn't have evolved. then one day a final eureka moment happen, possible driven by one additional useful mutation, and fire was had. That likely drove a few more mutations to somewhat better control fire, but it's unlikely 'getting better at not accidentally burning yourself when you make a fire' wasn't what took us from 'really smart but not sapient' to 'now you are officially sapient'. $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Dec 9, 2020 at 20:02
  • $\begingroup$ Also if you define fire use as sapience then does making smores over a fire you started qualify a creature as sapient, because if so we should really do something about how a bunch of people in Africa like to kill and eat sapient bonobos shouldn't we? (google.com/…). ps they can also cook on a stove. $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Dec 9, 2020 at 20:05

I'm going to say definitely yes, because it already happened.

Neanderthals were purely carnivorous and were probably sapient. The line for sapience is kind of unclear, and our knowledge of neanderthals is likewise not 100% certain, but since neanderthals definitely had tools and fire, probably could speak modern languages, and buried their dead (though we don't know if this was symbolic/religious or just practicality) I'd say they were probably sapient. There is admittedly limited examples of Neanderthal art or jewelry which one could use to argue a lack of symbolic representational skills, but it's quite possible the limited artwork is due to cultural or environment factors that made it unlikely they would survive, and besides it's not clear that art making is required for the basic definition of sapience.

Now to be fair the inability to eat plants was ultimately the downfall of neanderthals. They were adapted for extreme colds and so when the ice age ended and the northern regions thawed out they found themselves outside of their element. With the prey species they primarily depended on also going extinct they risks effectively starving to death as they were unable to hunt enough meet to keep up with their much higher metabolic requirements compared to prehistoric homo sapiens. Had neanderthals been able to eat the now far more abundant plant life that could have helped them replace the calories lost when their usual prey died out.

However, having your entire world environment change practically overnight, as happened when the ice age ended, is kind of a rough deal for any species to survive. In a theoretical world where the ice age hadn't ended, or if there was more land in the north part of the world so that neanderthals could have continued migrating towards the colder north pole to compensate for the warming affects, neanderthals would have had a real shot at a modern sapient creature.

I'd say it's harder for a creature that can't eat plants to achieve sapience, the lost of adaptability offered by eating plants and the lower efficiency of raising livestock vs farming would be a problem for a generalist species (high intellect and sapience is more beneficial to generalist species, so sapient species would likely be generalists). In fact it's likely that while a basic sapience can be achieved without plant eating, as with Neanderthals, as the sapient species continued to develop into the degree of intelligence and technological ability of modern humans they would also tends to evolve towards a more omnivorous diet.

If you want a carnivorous sapient species I would suggest you go the same route that caused it to happen with neanderthals and remove plants! The ice age made plant life far less abundant as the ground was more often buried in snow. This, combined with the need for a much higher caloric diet that was only sustainable through large quantities of meat, was what drove neanderthals to adapt to a mostly carnivorous lifestyle in the first place.

So if you create a world where plant life is less common, or it takes extremely specialized adaptations to find and eat the existing plant life, you would better justify why a sapient species living there didn't tend to evolve towards an omnivorous lifestyle. I'd probably suggest a cold world where fish, instead of small herbaceous, made up the low ends of the food chain. Alternatively if you had a sapient aquatic race they would have to be carnivorous as it would be the only viable source for energy on the scales of the size of animal you would want to be sapient, they couldn't live off of kelp alone.


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