Consider a planet similar from Earth: very suitable for life, with vegetal and animal life forms thriving onside.

I wonder if one of these life forms could raise as a civilization as humans did, if genetic evolution would have give to them at least the same intelligence, but a very short life expectancy ? (I'm talking about a life expectancy of some weeks, or even some days).
It could be comparable to some insects life forms actually on Earth.

I think the main problem here would be education: it takes years to a human to learn to speak, walk and then basic writings or arithmetics, and then sometimes more than two decades to earn a competence level sufficient to be useful to his or her community.

But if this problem was bypassed, by a very strong instinct, or even a technological or magical technique, giving to each individual strong knowledge or abilities at birth, could it stabilize on a complete civilization ?


If your answer is no, why do you think it's just impossible, and how could it be possible ? What would be the shortest life expectancy acceptable ?

  • $\begingroup$ Fast forward humans. In fact, regular humans would do the trick if you do the time dialation correctly. $\endgroup$
    – PyRulez
    Jun 9 '15 at 13:33
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    $\begingroup$ The short answer here is no... $\endgroup$
    – James
    Jun 9 '15 at 14:14
  • $\begingroup$ A hive mind or inherited memory will take care of most practical problems preventing development. But if these are in play, why evolve? The hive will be immortal and the worker will have nothing to prove, no time to acquire individuality. $\endgroup$
    – Bookeater
    Jun 9 '15 at 17:33
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    $\begingroup$ Days of what? The term day is relative to our rotation around the Sun. A day on this other planet might not be (and probably will not be) the same as a day on earth! $\endgroup$ Jun 9 '15 at 21:11
  • $\begingroup$ Too short for an Answer: ants. Our cells are replaced during our lifetime; a multi-body being would be similar on that scale. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jun 12 '15 at 0:13

You can do it, but you should look at the whole of society, not the individuals. Consider: as an individual you hold onto the tiniest sliver of what science can do. As a whole, we put implants into the skulls of deaf people to let them hear, and we travel so fast that the ablative shielding on the space shuttle is necessary to avoid burning up in a fireball! Societies do amazing things!

I would recommend focusing on a very non-individualistic culture. If you wanted to make this work with an American style of outlook, you'd find yourself running into all sorts of challenges. Individuals would think of themselves more as part of the whole. That would allow them to work on parts of a task which society understands is necessary to continue growing but for which the implications are less obvious to the individual. Their medicine system would probably more resemble Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). In TCM, many small ideas are floated around, all of which have minimal negative side effects, but may have benefits. Over the generations, the less effective approaches die off, while the more successful ones survive. With less time to learn, this approach would be more effective than our medicine, which prefers one to go to school for 12+ years before you start.

I do not think that society would appear "as intelligent" as ours, even if it just as capable. Intelligence as we think of it tends to require time spent learning. If you keep the ratio of learning to doing identical to that of humans, there wont be much time to learn this way. I'd expect to see more emotional intelligence out of this society. Instead of rising to meet a challenge like we do, I'd expect to see them to adapt to the challenge, slowly shaping it into something which is less challenging.

I could see a caste like system developing where there is a small group of individuals continuously maintaining an "intellect" of the society. They would be taught from a young age (minutes?) to be extremely open to external shaping of their neural pathways, allowing for rapid transmission of essential parts of the intellect. This caste would, by necessity, need to be as isolated from the rest of the world as the neurons of our brain are sheltered inside our bony skull today. They would likely not be able to discern a false message implanted by an enemy agent from a real message implanted by their elders. They would only be allowed to communicate with the most trusted members of the race, minimizing corruption.

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    $\begingroup$ Wait, we put implants into deaf people to make them move so fast they turn into a fireball? $\endgroup$
    – Theik
    Jun 11 '15 at 7:33
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for catching the ambiguous lack of commas. I really did not intend to use deaf people as fiery weapons hurtling through the air with ablative shielding on them. Maybe next worldbuilding question ;-) $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Jun 11 '15 at 14:23

The answer is yes, if you believe swarm intelligence is possible. The individual are simple and expendable, but the whole (the swarm) retains the knowledge in the collective memory.

This eliminates the need for a long personal life - individuals are more like sensors and memory banks for the collective and are constantly being replaced.

Swarm intelligence has been fairly popular in the sci-fi world (Ender's Game, District 9 etc), but I'm somewhat skeptical if such an organism will be able to achieve highly technical civilization.

On Earth, you have ants, bees, some types of fish and others who show that swarm intelligence is at the very least plausible.


Your question brings to mind a book called Dragon's Egg, in which Robert L. Forward postulates just such a scenario:

Dragon's Egg is a hard science fiction novel written by Robert L. Forward and published in 1980. In the story, Dragon's Egg is a neutron star with a surface gravity 67 billion times that of Earth, and inhabited by cheela, intelligent creatures the size of a sesame seed who live, think and develop a million times faster than humans. Most of the novel, from May to June 2050, chronicles the cheela civilization beginning with its discovery of agriculture to advanced technology and its first face-to-face contact with humans, who are observing the hyper-rapid evolution of the cheela civilization from orbit around Dragon's Egg.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for Thinking a million times faster than humans. That is what makes it work. The absolute time spent on each generation is irrelevant. If each individual living creature perceives its life as lengthy, with plenty of time for education and exploration, the society will thrive. $\endgroup$ Jun 9 '15 at 19:43

Difficult to answer. First problem: language. Language is the carrier of knowledge between individuals. If they live to short to learn to speak, they probably have no real chance. Civilization is build over generation and by a lot of people, so no communication, no civilization.

A world like this would be boring, so let's assume they can speak from birth (or have some other form of advanced communication). The life expectancy still would pose a problem, but civilization is possible. They would probably develop some form of living memory, sages that tell their knowledge to the kids, that take over the title of sage a month later then the old sage dies. So some kids are selected at birth and all they do is listen to the old sage, so he can transfer as much knowledge as possible. Leaders of community would consult the sages. Civilization in this scenario is broken easily, you only have to disrupt the line of sages, by war, illness or something like this.

Script would bring such a civilization out of the woods. Let's assume they can learn read and write in the course of a day, they can write down knowledge and access it again. Again wise men have to exists, because otherwise nobody would know what scripts are existing and a script exists for a current problem. But these wise men don't need to be in a straight line, they can be trained simply by going through the library and peek at the documents.

You could add other ingredients like genetic memory (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_memory_(biology) ), storing ghosts of deceased for asking them later for guidance (as the Dancers do in the novel Alien Influences by Kristine Kathryn Rusch), telepathy or something like this to make things more interesting.


Tl;dr Yes, absolutely.

Long answer: Preservation of knowledge: Where are you going to keep it? How are you going to mutate it? Societies are based on information sharing.

Humans have external information transferal systems in the form of writing. If we want to remember something, we have to write it down. If we want someone else to know something, we must either tell them in person or write it down. Given the tens of years required to get a human from their ABCs to the level of astrophysics or David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, it seems unlikely that any degree of external information transferal would suffice. They would need something else:

DNA would work nicely as a storage system. It's incredibly information dense, storing billions of gigabytes (exabytes) in a single gram. For comparison, the combined storage capacity of Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon are in the realm of <10 exabytes. Information density of this magnitude is sufficient to model/store everything that humanity knows about the world. Also, the human genome is only about 1.5GB of data.

Let's give the aliens the ability to transfer memories between themselves while they are living instead of just through procreation as life on earth does. This lets them share racial memories as well as whatever information they have gained in their life and want to share. Since ideas are coded in DNA strands, this gives new meaning to "ideas are a virus". Storing information in DNA also means that a single individual could possibly know everything that the species knows. That boggles my mind.

I can imagine how DNA of these creatures is stored as a biological analog of GitHub. If the description of the biology of our aliens is co-mingled with the racial memories, there's an opportunity and mechanism for some super crazy fast evolution of these aliens.

Basically, these aliens would be biological computers of the highest order. If you've ever heard of Turing Machines, that's exactly what these are. But this is just the long(er) term/racial memories. DNA lends itself very well to copying and manipulation but it doesn't fair too well for making fast decisions, so let's give these aliens "normal" brains for short-term memory and immediate information processing.

Time to adulthood: Humans, except in rare cases, don't usually make non-physical labor contributions to society until adulthood. Given that the life-spans of our aliens are so short, let us assume a superprecocial species based on laying eggs/hatching with a gestation time equal to the life span. Being superpercocial basically eliminates the need for childhood. This is beneficial in a few ways. 1) Adults no longer need to spend their short, precious life training/raising young. 2) New members of the species are able to make instant contributions. Also, being superpercocial combined with such a short life span means that whatever form the alien is born in, that's what it's going to look like for the rest of its life.

Gestation: Mammals don't have superprecocial offspring but birds and insects do, so let's look to them for examples of how gestation would work. Birds lay hard eggs that offer protection for the embryo, a nice feature. Insects lay soft eggs or build/find spaces that the embryo can develop in (see honey bee gestation for more details). Laying hard eggs as large as an adult doesn't make any sense as ostrich eggs are only 1 to 4% of an adult female. Let's go with the incubation chamber approach as this will keep adult reproductive organs small and give the aliens a good start on spatial reasoning. An efficient means of feeding a growing embryo would be to include the body of a deceased alien in the chamber when the egg is laid. This gets us a large fat/protein/mineral/water source that the alien community didn't have to gather. And, if the DNA racial memories are stored in a special organ, then the growing embryo can absorb that information to bootstrap their knowledge base.

Energy requirements for breeding: Let's assume human sized aliens because that's easier to work with. What If makes a good estimation that an average human is worth about 110,000 calories. Let's go with 100,000 calories for simplicity, composed of 62 percent water, 16 percent fat, 16 percent protein, 6 percent minerals, and less than 1 percent carbohydrate. This translates to roughly 16 pounds of fat and 16 pounds of protein in an adult alien. Organizing all that fat, minerals and protein into an adult takes lots of energy on top of just living. Notice that the calorie requirments for human teens is 200 to 400 calories per day higher than an adult but in our case, that development from egg to adult is compressed into a few days/weeks of gestation in the egg. I have no idea how to calculate the calorie requirements but make the point that a human child consumes hundreds, if not thousands of pounds of food during childhood. Whatever it is these aliens eat, they're going to be extremely hungry when they hatch.

Perhaps instead of using fats to power growth to adulthood, the aliens used hydrocarbons like gasoline. Fat gets you 9 calories per gram, gasoline gets you 36 calories per gram. If they can't consume hydrocarbons then they're going to need to live in a tropical jungle because I don't know of any other environment that generates as much life/food. Or, they can form some kind of symbiotic relationship with a another life form that generates huge quantities of food to feed their society.

Gas powered, biological Turning machines. These things are awesome!


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