Typically, we might view the evolution of the brain as a linear progression: with its primitive reptilian brain stem as the origin and the lofty neocortex as the pinnacle. However, I'm aiming to depict an exoplanet that whose formation and conditions spurred its inhabitants to develop abstract thought as one of their brains initial functions. That is to say the conventional progression from regulating the body to critical thinking would be broken: leaving scientists to conclude it's merely a result of Earthlings' primordial lineage.

Initial thoughts

Initially, I dismissed my idea as being too absurd. Brains are expensive pieces of biology and require energy to fuel; evolving abstract thought for "fun" while competitors hone fight/flight could be your ticket to remove yourself from the gene pool. However, in an energy-rich world, or a world where reproduction hinges on the ability to solve abstract problems, perhaps such brains could be plausible. This is where I hit a dead-end, I could not think of any such situation.


What characteristics/events of/in the exoplanet would be required to conceivably trigger the evolution of abstract thought early on in the evolution of brains?

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    $\begingroup$ I am not sure an energy rich world would remove the need for optimizing usage. If I have learned anything from the landlords I have had so far, is that the more money they have the more they look to any single cent they can pocket. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 9:52
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    $\begingroup$ That notion of brain development (MacLean's "Triune") has been regarded as dubious at best for several decades now, and I'd avoid basing any of your thinking on it. Here's a quick counterargument I found; there are many better ones, but I didn't make a note of where I found them at the time :-/ thebrainscientist.com/2018/04/11/you-dont-have-a-lizard-brain $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 12:01
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    $\begingroup$ How do you know that a crow does not have abstract thoughts? (1) The neocortex is a specifically mammalian development of the brain. (2) Some birds do have a theory of mind (that is, they can try to understand what another animal is thinking, for example in order to decide whether it poses a danger or it is friendly), which is what I assume you mean by "abstract thought". And birds do not have a mammalian-style neocortex. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 13:05
  • $\begingroup$ Is your question specifically about abstract thinking, or brainpower in general? It is generally assumed that humans are capable of abstract thought because their brains are so much overpowered, compared to other animals, vertebrates and non-vertebrates. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 18:42

2 Answers 2


Creatures that evolved in a highly advanced zoo

Planet Howaida never evolved life of its own; eons ago it was a barren wasteland that the Arashians settled and turned into a giant park for the study of lifeforms of all kinds, without the need for galactic travel. It was divided into hundreds of thousands of compartments, built so that each can simulate the appropriate conditions for each little ecosystem. All enclosures are maintained fully automatically by an AI that introduces adverse weather when the internal population gets too high, produces nutrition when it dwindles, and manages the stability in a myriad more ways, that should be undetectable to dumb animals.

But then the Asharians vanish. However, the zoo stays behind, and it is self-sufficient that it continues doing its job for a million years longer. And over that time, two things happen:

  • Different creatures evolve the intelligence to subtly trick the AI and gain more nutrition and offspring for themselves. The AI was meant to deal with dumb creatures, not with sophisticated organisms; in fact it included controls, specifically for any intelligent beings that were accidentally trapped inside.
  • The system breaks down, bit by bit. Parts of the mechanisms become exposed, malfunctional programs wildly fluctuate the conditions, and breaches occur between enclosures that turn very different species into neighbours. But because the system is modular, this does not occur everywhere at once.

Slowly but surely, all the evidence of the Ashari super-zoo vanishes as the last remaining pieces of technology are claimed by erosion; leaving in its wake a highly diverse population that is specifically evolved to trick AI. This intelligence comes in handy for dealing with the unsuitable climate as well, and although it fades over time, becoming a rudimentary organ, the right conditions can cause it to spring back into action. Planet Howaida may yet again harbour a spacefaring society; and this time native.

  • $\begingroup$ ... and when humanities robotic probe arrives, driven by ai due to long time delays, the creatures are able to manipulate it and trick it into reporting whatever they want it to. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 11:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Ash because all AIs are exactly the same ;-) $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 12:24

Aliens whose analogue of the brain evolved from the retina of the eye. More and more processing of the incoming signal, more and more "neurons", more and more information quality for completely independent "automatic" systems throughout the body.

So it turns out that the brain will give other systems not instructions, but well-processed information about the world. It turns out such a strange creature realizing itself only as an observer, as a library of data about the world, isolating patterns in incoming information.

So you can imagine that

the eye brain does not care about the survival of the entire individual or species, it maximizes its understanding of the environment, because this is what evolution has sharpened it for

At some point, these brains understand how to control and exploit other systems, but this does not lead to an increase in the efficiency of the whole organism, because the brain that has received control is an egoist, it does not want to multiply. And so too smart eye brains are discarded, over time

In general, it turns out a race balancing on the verge "I need to reproduce and do all the conditions so that I can reproduce" and "I want to know the world and that all" Moreover, all maximizers of their own knowledge exist in parallel with the biological platform. You could even say this is symbiosis, the body as a whole "rides on its back" in the selfish brain, and their goals coincide only partially

and my english is not very good sorry

  • $\begingroup$ "it maximizes its understanding of the environment, because this is what evolution has sharpened it for", uh, but that would have been done in the service of "the survival of the entire individual or species". Stuff doesn't generally evolve because it would be cool, after all. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 13:55
  • $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime The part can be improved to better fulfill its function. The function of this brain is to maximize understanding of the environment. Other systems are responsible for reproduction and regulation of the body. All unbalanced individuals are discarded over time. $\endgroup$
    – trotzt
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 14:00

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