Humans seem to have a unique ability to invent new ideas and solutions to problems, in a way that no other intelligent creature can. This is clearly not a natural product of our dexterity, intelligence, and language, as there are many beings which seem to have all three, and yet are still unable to progress in the way that we have. But, is this ability dependent on language/inteligence? It seems reasonable that some wild beast could create all sorts of wonderful gadgets by just copying others and experimenting, but perhaps I am overlooking some problem with this arrangement

So, could a being with no language and animal-like intelligence have human-like inventiveness?

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    $\begingroup$ "in a way that no other intelligent creature can" - are you stating it as a fact, or this is how your universe works? $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jul 12, 2021 at 21:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander This is how reality seems to work, at least based on what I know $\endgroup$ Jul 12, 2021 at 21:14
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    $\begingroup$ As far as we know, no other animal has anything remotely resembling human language. (Certainly no land animal; I just don't know much about the communication system of cetaceans.) To the best of our knowledge, human-like cultural development and human-like language are two aspects of the same phenomenon. (Human language has both semantic and syntactic aspects which have no parallels in the communication system of any other animal we know of.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 12, 2021 at 21:21
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    $\begingroup$ Dexterity (our five deft fingers with opposable thumb) seems to play an important role in ingenuity - we can invent and build new things more easily than other great apes and way more easy than cetaceans. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jul 12, 2021 at 21:26
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    $\begingroup$ I've seen several animal language researchers say that the thing that sets people apart is the fact that we ask questions. Trained animals can answer them but even after gobs of examples their subjects simply don't do so themselves. And that is something that even very young human children do incessantly. $\endgroup$ Jul 12, 2021 at 21:30

4 Answers 4


What if I did this....?

Humans do seem to be very smart, and humans do seem to be very innovative.

This could be for a variety of cumulative reasons, like we live on dry land (fire) AND have manipulative digits AND pass on knowledge through generations in written form AND have abundant food (agriculture) AND have had all these things for thousands of years. Look back 50,000 years (a blink in evolution) and we don't look so clever.

Various animals have sophisticated hunting techniques, and dolphins sometimes even work together with humans (without us having trained them) to get catches of fish, which the humans share with the dolphins. Octopi can open containers to get food contained within. Monkeys and apes can use simple tools to carry out tasks. They had to invent these techniques from scratch, and I think they show plenty of smarts and inventiveness in doing so. Our ancestors were arguably more intelligent than current humans, but had a much less sophisticated society.

So what animals seem to lack is a good means to effectively spread the things they figure out to many new members of their species, and maintain skills requiring complex manipulations that can't easily be demonstrated and observed. They also lack a motivation to spread that knowledge if they had the ability to.

So if you could spread knowledge from individual to individual by some means, you might allow a clever animal like a monkey or octopus with the appropriate manipulative digits to transfer information that would allow them to take advantage of past innovations. This building on prior knowledge would allow innovations to be preserved and built upon.

Imagine, for example, if Octopi memory were inherited from parents. All the life experiences are copied chemically and passed on from mother to child during gestation. The animal that learned to open shells with sharp rocks passes on that skill, and the next animal figures out how to sharpen rocks. The next figures out which sharp rocks stay sharp longer. And so on, and so on. Cooperation would be a critical step towards a species controlling their environment, but this is outside your requirements. Individuals watching other octopi could learn new skills by observation, and pass on the knowledge to their extremely precocious offspring.

Soon you have octopi farming shellfish and lobster, cooking their food at thermal vents, feeding the females while protecting eggs to improve survival. All without a language with more than a few chromophores to signal each other.

You might need the octopi to develop a language to develop a full civilization. But to simply innovate, definitely not. And if you can somehow transfer knowledge from one generation to the next without language, then you could certainly develop technology of sorts. Lacking communication, such a species might actually end up being smarter and MORE innovative than us to compensate.

  • $\begingroup$ For example of effective information transmission network in animals, I'd turn to corvids. Crows (and ravens) transmit information parent-to-child and peer-to-peer even between flocks of the same species about dangers, food sources, discoveries, etc. Example here $\endgroup$ Jul 13, 2021 at 7:14
  • $\begingroup$ the big problem you run into with inherited knowledge is you inherit preconceived notions and disinformation too, said people can't forget good things but they can't forget bad things either. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 15, 2021 at 6:01
  • $\begingroup$ @John The most likely solution to this would be to have memories transmitted with the highest fidelity that are the most used/common. "Bad" ideas would be either proved bad by experience and/or remembered as being bad or slowly forgotten as those thoughts were never used. But even societies forget advancements, or mis-remember, so nothing is perfect. It would be individuals trusting or being suspicious of what they remember. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Oct 8, 2021 at 20:50
  • $\begingroup$ helps but does not stop the superstitions and such false positive correlations. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Oct 8, 2021 at 22:05
  • $\begingroup$ @John It isn't perfect. Still pretty good for an animal with animal intelligence and no language. We're not looking for Xanadu, just innovative adaptive behavior. Some fascinating potential if you could somehow program the memories; make the ultimate religious fanatics, for example. Another advanced species meddling could make some really fun stories... $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Oct 8, 2021 at 22:10

In practical terms, no. Individual human inventiveness can be impressive, but the big power is conserving past inventions. Edison didn't have to invent circuitry, or metallurgy, or glass-making. He built on the inventions of those who came before. In order to do that, you have some way to transmit knowledge.

And there is only so much that copying can do, because the copyist doesn't know which details are significant and can only do the exact thing. Furthermore, if he misses a significant detail, the person he's copying can't tell him what he did wrong.


Simple tools yes, complex tools no.

Inventions aren't like lego blocks you can plug together. You could certainly make a spear, or a sharpened rock, or minor simple inventions you saw in the environment that humans worked on, but more complicated inventions require human level intelligence and language.

Imagine making a sword, say. You need to do a lot of complicated tasks together that depend on each other. You need a mine that produces iron ore and another that makes coal. These need to be the right types of iron ore and coal- you need language to coordinate with the miners to get the right sort or your sword will be shitty.

The wrong mix of iron and carbon, the wrong digsite, the wrong shape of iron ore, lots of things can go wrong here.

Once you have the ore you need a furnace, which is a fairly complicated thing to make. Each furnace is individual as well. Simply copying a human smith won't get you the right characteristics, because each forge is individual in temperature and shape, and they used long experience to know how to use them.

After that you need to use your hammer to get it into shape. You need to know from experience when to hammer and when not and where to hammer and the colours of the metal and lots of things. Do this wrong and you get a useless mess of iron and carbon.

You then need to tweak the use of your furnace to temper the blade. You need to heat the sword at lower temperatures to make it solid. This takes a lot of experience modifying the temperature of the furnace. You need to know just when to quench the sword in water or oil.

It's a very complicated process, and learning it without language to learn from elders and with less than human intelligence would be impossible.

In fiction this is done by having inventions be in DNA or a psychic field.

There's lots of hyper advanced alien races in fiction who have animal like intelligence. This is done often by having them be a designed race who has the correct techniques embedded in the blood, so they know what to do. You could have your species be a designed race, by some alien race or advanced local race.


I think animals could have the appearance of human-like inventiveness if they had the following features at minimum:

  • able to, computationally, qualify their environment in terms of plausible interactions,
  • able to quantify progress toward a goal, and itemize their goals (food, safety, procreation, etc)
  • instinctively driven to spend all their downtime attempting every possible interaction between objects in their environment and maintaining a mental record of interactions which achieved progress toward a goal
  • able to learn from watching others (like a squid)
  • pre-packaged with some basic knowledge about how to avoid danger (especially natural poisons and hazardous mechanical interactions)

At that rate, they would not achieve true human-like inventiveness, but they will slowly progress toward technologies which might approximate modern human technologies, (given an infinite number of monkeys with typewriters...).

For example, here's an unlikely scenario which might eventually occur:

A creature who is already well-fed by other means engages in habitual experimentation, and happens to be near some dry sticks and some rocks. The creature randomly applies every object in the environment to every other object in the environment at different angles and with different pressures. The process is long, arduous, and mostly fruitless, but this creature eventually creates sparks by striking stones together. The creature records the sparks as a new environment object and begins applying sparks to every object in the environment as per the regular course of experimentation, eventually setting a small patch of dry stuff on fire. At that moment, the creature notices some predators leap out from nearby hiding places and flee from the fire. The creature is unharmed, and the fire is recorded as a predator deterrent, and so the creature attempts to reproduce fire on a regular basis thereafter in order to be safe.


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