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The Chirr are a race of space-faring aliens that look vaguely like rat-sized ants. They've got powerful mandibles and small, fairly dexterous hand-like claws, though their chitinous nature makes delicate manipulation somewhat more difficult for them than it is for humans. They dwell in huge hives comprised of hundreds of millions of workers who are genetic clones that come from a few breeding queens.

Just as with ants, the queens do not lead the hives, only produce more workers. Individual Chirr aren't significantly smarter than rats, but over the past few tens of millions of years, they've been evolving to collectively produce better and better structures and tools, starting with huge cities and progressing into electronics, computers, and now finally space flight.

One thing that has baffled human scientists is exactly how they've managed to do so. We're used to thinking about doing things as individuals, making individual discoveries, and learning as individuals what the cutting edge in a given field is. The Chirr cannot do this. An individual is not intelligent enough to make discoveries like calculus or fluid dynamics. The Chirr are not telepathic, do not have a central brain creature, and do not in any other manner meld their minds together, except to the extent that vocal, olfactory, and tactile communication can transmit ideas between individuals.

They do have an endless willingness to work together to solve problems, almost no sense of ego driving them to do better than their fellow workers, and will die without hesitation for the good of their hive. Chirr do not have a strong sense of self, but have a very strong sense of belonging to their hive. In short, they have all the traits that have allowed eusocial insects like ants and bees to behave as a group far more intelligently than any individual can act, but are individually far smarter than any ant, though significantly less intelligent than a human.

How have they harnessed their abilities to grow into a technologically advanced race?

Note: I'm also wondering if this is even possible. I'd like to use the Chirr as an alien race in a game I'm working on, but only if they make sense. If they don't, and if technology capable of spaceflight is outside of the realm of such creatures, I'd like to know why you think that's the case!

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    $\begingroup$ This feels like idea generation... $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Oct 15 '15 at 3:43
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    $\begingroup$ "An individual is not intelligent enough to make discoveries like calculus or fluid dynamics" - neither are the vast majority of humans. It just takes one out of a billion to come up the idea, and then the group works together to work out the implications. $\endgroup$ – abcde Oct 15 '15 at 4:20
  • $\begingroup$ Intelligence aside, what are they physically capable of doing with their bodies? Can they do everything a human can? Like, are they physically capable (not mentally capable) of picking stuff up, turning knobs, opening doors, etc. (or similar things that maybe humans may not easily do on their own)? $\endgroup$ – Shule Oct 15 '15 at 6:21
  • $\begingroup$ Keep in mind that bees have been shown to outdo supercomputers with finding the shortest distance between two points (the traveling salesman problem). They also have been shown to be able to learn complex things to gather nectar from flowers, and communicate that information (in an unknown way) to the rest of the hive so that they don't have to figure it out themselves (that may have been bumblebees, though; I'm not sure). They're also supposed to be good with colors, and may communicate via pheromones. $\endgroup$ – Shule Oct 15 '15 at 6:37
  • $\begingroup$ You might be interested in the "Tines" of Vernor Vinge's "A Fire Upon the Deep" and its sequels. Individuals in the race are composed of 4-8 ~dog like bodies that communicate through sound and act as a single entity. $\endgroup$ – Mike Nichols Oct 15 '15 at 18:14
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I'd say it's not impossible, just very unlikely. So don't let that stop you. ;)

Hofstadter uses an interesting analogy in the "Ant Fugue" of the GEB: the individual neurons in our brain aren't sentient by any means, but through the sheer number of them and the sheer scale of their interactions, they're able to represent an intelligent mind. Or consider the transistors inside your CPU. Each on its own is effectively a tiny switch, no intelligence there. The transistor doesn't understand differential calculus. But through enough interactions between them, the CPU as a whole can take derivatives of complicated functions far faster and more accurately than my human brain can.

Of course, depending on their individual intelligence and the structure of their society, the scale of the Chirr colony might need to be incredibly enormous for such things to happen in a reasonable amount of time. But the idea in and of itself is entirely conceivable.

You might also look into the Church-Turing Thesis, which predicts basically that any calculation a human can perform, a universal Turing machine can also perform (and vice versa, since a human following a list of rules can simulate a universal machine). Some philosophers have taken this idea and run with it to talk about the nature of consciousness and the mind. But it's not too hard to imagine a Chirr colony becoming "Turing complete"—Conway's Game of Life is about as simple a simulation as you can get, and yet with enough cells interacting it's possible to build a Turing machine from it.

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  • $\begingroup$ Turing-complete hive (or sub-hive) units could be a great solution, and I can see a number of factors which would make this more likely. E.g. if their speed of communication are much higher than human-level (via a more efficient method of data transfer - such as short bursts of sound and/or smell which are modulated - and brains evolved for processing it). $\endgroup$ – Bemisawa Jun 8 '17 at 18:40
  • $\begingroup$ It could also work if they are more purely rational (in which case the technology they develop will depend on what their motivating forces are - what do they perceive as valuable?), or if their civilization has had untold eons to develop (and thus the slower speed of processing was compensated for more easily). I could also picture a species which swarms not for purposes of mating, but for purposes of problem-solving through close-by communication. Heck, maybe they have naturally-occurring quantum computers as part of their mechanism for intelligence, which they can only use when swarming. $\endgroup$ – Bemisawa Jun 8 '17 at 18:44
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Weaver ants in Africa use chemicals to communicate, and can work together to make huge colonies with hundreds of nests spanning many trees and containing millions of ants.

With a rat sized ant and some intelligence and reasoning ability, I don't see why they couldn't come up with more advanced technology, though I don't think it would look anything like we have.

Rats aren't necessarily stupid, and we'd likely be in trouble if they had more reasoning ability.
(I don't know the IQ of the average rat to back this up though)

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Without knowing exactly what they're capable of physically, and assuming that communication is all you're wondering about (with it being all they need in order to develop into such an advanced society), you might just give them the biological ability to receive and transmit radio wave communication. It's not an utterly preposterous idea for a life-form, in my opinion.

You might want to read up on these articles before you think up ideas of how a life-form might be able to do what a lot of our devices can:

This might be a little too close to telepathy for comfort, though, since to a human, it would probably look like telepathy, until they found they could intercept their communication with radio devices. However, just for the record, radio waves are light, much as red light is light. It's just that our eyes aren't made to see it (unless you're special).

Humans would have a harder time intercepting many other kinds of light communication, seeing as not all light goes through walls. So, it would be pretty awesome if they were capable of doing it with several 'colors' of light (considering radio waves as one color, or class of colors) so that they could use different ones for different purposes.

Another implication here is that they could intercept human radio communication with biology rather than technology.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'd rather stick with more conventional senses and means of communication. I like the idea of the aliens being fairly simple, unimpressive creatures that achieve everything they do simply by combining their efforts, without needing any extraordinary biological gifts. $\endgroup$ – ckersch Oct 15 '15 at 18:06
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Human technology is based on individual effort. A single smart individual comes up with a good idea, does some math to be sure it will work, then builds one prototype.

The Chirr don't bother with all that complicated math - they simply build a million bad ideas every day for a few centuries. Eventually something works, and the solved problem is easily shared with the rest of the hive. Fortunately they had already spread into space when some hives started using that approach to develop nuclear weapons.

The fact that they don't understand how any of their own technology works would be very easy to miss when nobody expects to be able to discuss advanced math with a Chirr anyway.

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Interesting concept

You say the Chirr (strange name, is Ch err or ch ear or I don't know) only care about the rest of the hive, but not for themselves. To this extent why not place an almost immovable force in front of the Chirr one that is slowing killing the hive over millenia forcing them into a scenario where the only way for the hive to live is to leave their current planet, doing so would create catalyst for the "good of the hive" to become the hive becoming greater, maybe they build so high that they reach the stratosphere, at this point the Chirr would have to evolve to breath in space and to survive high amount of gravity, this is natural for a hive species, take the Bee, to this day we still don't know how it flies with such tiny wings, but because it can it survives to this day.

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What if they didn't 'create' the technology?

Perhaps they conquered, or simply outlived an advanced race and inherited it?

A race like that would make sense.

Alien race comes along, and finds them. A fiercely loyal race like that would make an excellent military tool once the queens were kidnapped. Something just went wrong...

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  • $\begingroup$ That said, technology which they inherited would be designed for another species, so they might have a somewhat more difficult time using it depending on their respective body mechanics. That's not necessarily a counterargument, though - a race using advanced technology that doesn't quite work for them could be an interesting flavor, and an interesting puzzle for human archaeologists. Alternatively, that other species made them customized versions of the technology after kidnapping the queens. Arguably not the best plan on the part of the architects. $\endgroup$ – Bemisawa Jun 8 '17 at 18:33

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