Countless times in science fiction I have seen civilizations that rely exclusively on biotechnology; These societies, often due to environmental factors, never invented certain basic technologies needed for a conventional industrial-age technological environment, nor any of the technologies a conventional industrial-age technological environment is generally recognised as a prerequisite for developing or developing the prerequisites for, but despite this, they have developed technologies which fulfil the much of the same functions as our technologies but which are biological in nature.

My question, then, is can such a civilization actually exist? Can a society, under the right circumstances, develop a level of industry and amenities equivalent to the 21st-Century First World without certain technologies humans would consider basic by using biological means alone (at least past the industrial level)?

Now, when I initially asked this question, I was very vague as to how advanced the civilization could get by non-biological technologies before it no longer counted, so I will give the criterion that the cut-off is the industrial revolution.

For example, the following technologies would be considered to preclude a civilization from being "biotechnology-only":

  • The steam engine
  • The Stirling engine
  • The internal combustion engine
  • Electricity
  • Automated weaving machines
  • Sewing machines
  • Automated printing presses
  • Any method for making steel cheaply enough to use as a common bulk construction material
  • Complex clockwork timekeeping systems
  • Typewriters
  • Any form of inorganic computer, including electrical computers and mechanical logic engines

Whereas a "biotechnology-only" civilization could still have the following:

  • Fire
  • The wheel
  • Basic metalworking and metal tools
  • Pottery
  • Complex large-scale construction using stone, clay, and other nonbiological materials
  • Plumbing
  • Aquaducts
  • Canal-building, including for transport and for irrigation
  • The plough
  • The seed drill
  • Sailing ships
  • Papermaking
  • Manual printing presses (including movable type)
  • Hourglasses, water clocks, and other primitive but effective timekeeping systems
  • Advanced knowledge of mathematics and geometry

Bear in mind that the above lists are by no means complete or exhaustive and are simply intended to serve as examples of the general kinds of technology a "biotechnology-only" civilization could and couldn't share with Earth.

I'm sorry if this question is too opinion-based, but I couldn't resist good opportunity to analyse a trope that has become a staple of science fiction...

  • $\begingroup$ goodreads.com/book/show/325661.West_of_Eden the intelligent dinosaurs went this route. $\endgroup$
    – Jontia
    Jan 22, 2022 at 10:36
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    $\begingroup$ Only with a large dose of handwavium, we need normal technology to achieve biotechnology, you need some kind of biological intermediary. then there are the things machines just do better like wheels. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 22, 2022 at 12:52
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    $\begingroup$ "Also, such civilizations are typically depicted as aquatic, so I must ask: Even assuming this is possible, is it possible on land, or is the unique nature of marine life indispensable for this to work?" // I think you've misconstrued the point in those depictions, they're normally depicted as aquatic not because aquatic animals have any special utility for this but because aquatic worlds can't easily develop what we consider normal tech with electricity & the fire needed for metallurgy etc so the authors had to find other paths. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Jan 22, 2022 at 15:41
  • $\begingroup$ Are sewer pipes allowed? Is reinforced concrete allowed? What about the nonbiological wheel? I suggest slimming down the question to replacing electricity and combustion technology with biotech. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Jan 22, 2022 at 17:51
  • $\begingroup$ Lilith's Brood gives a good example. The civilisation is very different from our own, and it makes little attempt to provide "hard science". $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Jan 22, 2022 at 17:54

6 Answers 6


I think the question is a combination of path dependence and technological balance at a point in time.

Dr. Freeman Dyson described in this speech at Boston University Freeman Dyson: Heretical Thoughts About Science and Society the difference between green and gray technology. Green is biology based and gray is physics-based. Human civilization became green with the development of agriculture and swung to gray mainly through electromagnetism. But, the story hasn't ended. Technology hasn't stopped.

Looking at the economic situation around Boston, we are much more of a green tech than a gray tech.

When we moved off the farm and into cities, we switched from the green of then to the gray of today. But, the gray technology has created tools to increase the reach of green (bio) tech vastly. We have better tools to manipulate green processes and apply creativity to green processes.

In my expectation, a biotech-dominated society wouldn't eschew physics technology, but on balance, if there is a biotech method, it would tend to be used rather than a physic tech method. If you looked at that society from a distance, you might see primarily biotech. If you were writing a story set in that world, the biotech portion of that society would be more visible. With more economic activity within biotech, that would just be a more interesting story.

Unless, you were writing about some lower-tier engineer working in physics tech, the under-appreciated portion of society, you might have an idea or a conflict that could be thought-provoking and entertaining.


Could such a society exist? Sure, why not? We would have to think of 21st century 'industries and amenities', as you put it, that only work with inorganic technologies to prove otherwise. Yet the boundary between organic and inorganic is hard to pin down. Is a lichen 'stoneworking' because it feeds on stone? Hardly, but it just goes to show you that this line is fuzzy.

Imagine a world where life evolves but 'flora' take a completely different route towards homeostasis. There is no photosynthesis. They evolve some miraculous method of extracting energy from the neutrinos coming from their star ( consider that on earth at the surface of the Earth, the flux is about 65 billion solar neutrinos, per second per square centimeter). 'Neutrosynthesis' would then be at the heart of the energy economy of life on this world in the way that photosynthesis is on ours.

We can imagine that life takes a radically different course on this world, but it is still conceivable, to my mind, that 'fauna' eventually evolve, first in the oceans and perhaps even spreading to land. Crucially, the atmosphere would not contain much oxygen (most of Earth's oxygen comes from photosynthesis, which would otherwise be depleted by oxidation reactions). So there would be no possibility of discovering fire, which you highlight as a key 'gap' for bio-only civs. But fire is clearly an anthropocentric concept when considered chemically. We don't refer to rusting as 'fire', but that's merely a convention:

Fire is the rapid oxidation of a material (the fuel) in the exothermic chemical process of combustion, releasing heat, light, and various reaction products.[1][a]

And note [a] reads:

Slower oxidative processes like rusting or digestion are not included by this definition.

Who decides how slow is too slow to be a fire? When you look at it this way, every animal with a stomach has 'fire tech'.

I suspect the concept of 'metal-working' is vulnerable to the same line of approach.

Since there is no reason to project the human definition of 'bios' onto our hypothetical alien civilization, I think it is perfectly feasible to imagine a civilization that never discovers 'fire' or 'metalworking' as we conceive of it, though they would certainly need their own means for transforming energy and matter if they are to reach modern-day earth levels of complexity.

  • $\begingroup$ It's like this: unevolved lichen isn't "stone working"; but lichens that have been bred to grow in the form of Celtic knot patterns and eat stone voraciously (until they're removed) most certainly are the tools that a zootech civilisation might use to decorate stone structures. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jan 23, 2022 at 6:33

Self modification makes a lot of this a lot easier.

While a lot of these technologies are tricky without self modification, but if you can self modify you can do a lot of these better. Imagine a species that has an extremely strong self repair ability and regeneration. They are one with nature, as the phrase goes. They can then emulate a lot of technologies.

This would be likely to happen on a very metal poor planet, where their only native resources were biomass.

The steam engine can be emulated by grafting people onto animals

The main reason the steam engine is useful is because it allows you to move people very quickly a huge distance. But birds are even faster. They can graft their brains onto birds, much like the infamous Vladimir experiment where he grafted a head onto a dog, and move huge distances. New bodies can be grown on site with enough biomass. More advanced technology, victorian level, would let you freeze a newly grown body so you could just plop your head on it and walk around immediately.

Likewise, more advanced experiments would let you replace the brain of a large elephant like animal to move large objects.

Automated machines could be made with factory lines of sliced out brain parts.

A lot of the inventions are really useful because they allow you to train a machine to do a regular task. This could be replaced with a factory line.

Extensive experimentation in brain removal would discover that you could remove certain brain parts, and get a body that would do a regular task on command. People would repeatdly learn how to do a task, have that part of their brain sliced out, regenerate it, and repeat. This lets you make factories which can do whatever you want.

Computers can be replaced with sliced out brain parts.

Rather than turning sand into electronic minds, you could turn brains into automated machines. Extensive experimentation with slicing out brain parts would discover you could network them together to do particular tasks. People supplying computers could repeatedly learn the needed skills, have that part of the brain sliced out, and supply more.

Steel production can be replaced with biosteel.

It's extremely common in the animal kingdom to do biometals. Our bones and teeth are mineralized calcium, bacteria use mineralized iron and beavers use iron to strengthen their teeth. Biological materials are custom made with precise structures, and are often stronger than their native compounds. Spider silk say is stronger than steel.

They can find a native organism which processes bioiron, like the beaver, and extensively crossbreed and modify it to produce biosteel, so they can have widespread access.

Biomineralized silicon lets you make inorganic computers.

Some organisms use silicon to grow internal structures. This could be changed by extensive genetic engineering to grow computer chips.

Historical progress.


The race in question, which we shall call trolls, is extremely hardy. Harsh conditions on their homeworld have forced most organisms to get extremely strong regenerative abilities. They regenerate any lost body parts rapidly, and can quickly heal from horrific wounds. Early experiments in prehistory with captive enemy prisoners discovers that if you grow a part of a troll with a fetus of a native organism then you can then crosslink the two. Unknown to them, this depended on luck and genetic compatibility, but extensive experimentation soon domesticated a number of native organisms, allowing them to be controlled by the trolls.

Families which did this had a guaranteed income, and formed guilds around controlling particular animals.

Iron age

In the iron age a number of organisms were discovered that used iron from meteor hits to grow shells and teeth. While iron was still extremely rare, some prized weapons were grown from such organisms, and extensive breeding allowed the shape and size of such things to be customized.

Medieval age

The domestication of a fast herbivore and a fast large bird allowed the feudal era to expand. People could cut off body parts, grow new bodies from them, have them shipped afar, and then fly their heads to them to be re-attached. This allowed a lot of mobility and movement, and many large troll empires were formed with the increase connectivity, and many large wars happened.

Industrial era

Extensive experimentation with captured prisoners discovered that you could remove a part of the brain, and get a brain dead troll which would follow a certain set of rules. This, along with the discovery of several large meteor impacts in more primitive regions which had a lot more iron allowed the industrial era to begin. Large machines which relied on strung together troll brains allowed the mass production of useful goods and the expansion of the economies of advanced nations, along with more extensive use of iron and steel to make powerful war machines.

Modern era

With their biotechnology substantially ahead of our own, they quickly discovered the secrets of genetics, cells, and modification. Experimentation with the losers of wars yielded many secrets, and new techniques, like multiple eyes strung together, were used to pierce the secrets of tiny things.

With this came the discovery of microscopic organisms which had much wider arrays of biological mineral deposition. One useful one used silicon as a type of skeleton, and experimentation discovered this could make a crude brain. Over time, computers, often crosslinked with troll brains, would start to spread, and civilization would reach the same heights as our own.


No, because telecommunications.

Humans have a limitation called a "Dunbar number" to the number of people that a single individual can maintain a theory-of-mind for. This is the limit to the size of a community that hasn't developed written record keeping.

Once you have writing, you can have civilization, but science will progress slowly. The invention of the printing press allowed the distribution of knowledge, and this was the spark that allowed the industrial revolution.

Can you come up with a similar method of distributing knowledge that is purely biologically based? What capabilities would a society need to already have in order to generate the required biology? Could they get to that point without mechanical means?

This conundrum is multiplied when you consider telecommunications. We might be able to move goods around the planet in a reasonable period of time, but moving information around is how cultures progress their social structures and technology.

Consider the simplicity of a telegraph. It's just a pair of wires with a little electricity. To do this biologically, you'd need a single organism (or colony thereof) that was thousands of miles long. Even then, it would be many orders of magnitude slower.

This gives you a feel for the difficulty in complexity leap between hard tech and bio-tech. Hard tech's essential simplicity means that improvements can happen orders of magnitude more rapidly than biology based advancements. The real question would be why any race would do one when the other was available.


I'd say It's possible but without electronic tech's assistance in analyzing and allowing them to come to some manner of direct genetic modification as we are able to know it's going to be slow-going indeed.

What you'd have available to you through breeding would be beasts of specific burden(fast riding beast, slow towing beast, whale-like ships, maybe huge hydrogen jellyfish for things like hot air balloons(ludicrously unlikely, but aliens, so meh)), or housing/storage(reverse of hermit crab, imagine a beast that naturally grows a hollow shell that people, or other things, live in or use to store things, living urn, living house, what have you), or light sources(bio-luminescence).

A high heat source might be possible with help from certain bio-produced chemicals(bombardier beetle's stuff being able to reach 100C for example, for boiling water, maybe higher with higher quantities), but metal processing might be out of reach unless you happen to have a scaly foot snail on hand to breed so that its shell or whatever grows into the specific metal-bearing shapes that you want.

This all assumes that your people have the patience for guiding the glacier that is evolution, only being mildly faster and being able to be steered by the tiny boat that is your civilization pulling on the glacier by a rope and powered by a few rowers. Whatever path you go, purely bio-tech will be slow-going for civilization advancement, to say the least.

As for bio-civs being typically depicted as aquatic, it's mostly because life as we know it arguably runs on water(+ reactive chem fuel(food)), and running a bio-civ would require a huge amount of it so it's better to simply have them be in the ocean and be surrounded by it(electricity would also be a problem underwater). Hydrothermal vents might also naturally help underwater civs with being slightly more advanced than hunter-gatherers, hunter-gatherers with cooking!(don't make the mistake that most do of thinking they'll help with metal processing) I imagine the coral being like a naturally growing hard structure that their cities can be built out of also plays a part, though by that logic it's easy to imagine a land-based bio-civ using and growing trees for specific structures instead.


I doubt it. The computers and electronics in a Smart Phone compute literally millions of times faster than humans, we have supercomputers that work literally trillions of times faster.

No biological organism can possibly match that speed. Or even the pixel accuracy of a movie playing on a Smartphone. Or the accuracy we get with thousands of computers working together in a supercomputer to do quantum chemistry simulations, or weather simulations.

Neurons just don't work that way, and nothing biological will ever work that way.

It seems doubtful any animal will ever replace the cost and fuel efficiency of an 18-wheeler, or will ever be able to run with a multi-ton load at 75 mph for 24 hours straight, stopping only for 20 minutes at a time to refuel.

Or will be able to deliver an intercontinental ballistic missile to suborbital heights, or will be able to fly at supersonic speeds, or even be able to carry a few hundred humans and their luggage at 575 mph over the Pacific Ocean.

There is a lot that could be done with precise genetic engineering, to be sure, but modern society depends on all sorts of stuff that can only be done in refined metals, with parts (like computer circuits) much smaller than neurons.

The smallest transistors are now 5 nm wide, while the smallest neurons are about 4000 nm wide. It is estimated it would take about 1000 transistors to simulate a single neuron, but that is not the point in this question: The point is, how many neurons would it take to simulate, say, a double-precision floating point adder at the same precision. That is only some hundreds of transistors, and it would likely be thousands of neurons if we could even do it with neurons, and in neurons thousands of times slower than the billionth of a second it takes the electronic circuit.

These are different domains, and the modern world rests on the electronic circuitry. Without non-organic technology, including steel, steam engines, forges, and electronics, realistically the world is in the realm of the ancient Egyptians. (But even they mined and forged copper tools and such.)

And without microscopes, X-rays and other non-organic technology, I find it highly doubtful we could get very far in genetic engineering, we would be blind to cell-sized organisms altogether.

A Biotechnology-only civilization would be a primitive one, farmers and herders with sharp sticks, atlatls to throw them, and flint knives.

Wait, does flint knapping count as a non-organic technology?

How about forming and firing mud bricks in a stone kiln?

Well, I'm sure they could cook food, at least.

  • $\begingroup$ They don't compute millions of times faster. Neurons are actually slightly faster, the difference is optimization and complexity, a microprocessor is highly specialized compared to a brain, and a brain is far FAR more complex. the real difference is a microprocessor takes up less space and a brain takes less energy. cell.com/current-biology/pdf/S0960-9822(08)00800-2.pdf $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 22, 2022 at 12:50
  • $\begingroup$ @John My computer can accurately multiply two double precision numbers in a billionth of a second. Can you do that? Can any neuron do that? They do compute faster. $\endgroup$
    – Amadeus
    Jan 22, 2022 at 13:06
  • $\begingroup$ Yes it can, play catch sometime, your calculating complex vector curves from visual data in real time, we have only just been able to get computers to do that, the calculation were just too complex, as I said you are referring to a specialized function, not speed of computing. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 22, 2022 at 14:23
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    $\begingroup$ And how do you think they are modeling, magic? AI get things wrong all the time too, the more complex the problem the greater the error because probabilistic calculation is needed in the real world. I see no response to the source I provided for my claim, which actually compares identical tasks. your argument comes down to Oxen can't fly as well as airplanes therefore all animals are inferior and will always be. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 22, 2022 at 18:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Amadeus, I disagreed with your answer at first, but after drive consideration, I see what you mean. Without the benefit of researching biology and chemistry through conventional tool use first, it some very specific adaptations (actually something from the realm of fantasy powers - telepathy, mind control, telekinesis, microscopic sight, etc.) I do not see how a species would isolate biotechnology only. Very advanced selective breeding, with access to exotic animals - maybe something to rival Romans or Maya, but not industrial society levels of sophistication. $\endgroup$
    – Cumehtar
    Feb 3, 2022 at 23:20

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