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There is no genetic engineering allowed, just selected breeding and offspring selection. There is no genome sequencing, imagine medieval technology plus mendelian principles. The laws of heredity are understood quite well, if perhaps not perfectly. The species we can use are those that were present on Earth circa 10,000 BC, so pretty much the same as today. Assume that an effective political or social organization exists that can maintain this breeding focus across the generations needed. The goal is to achieve another human-level intelligent species.

Is it possible to breed another species into intelligence? How long would it likely take?

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  • $\begingroup$ The simple answer, and more likely to work, is to use the time to split a new species off of homo sapiens. Is that allowed? $\endgroup$ – Samuel Oct 21 '15 at 22:31
  • $\begingroup$ Nope. Unless you can get fertile hybrids. There must be nonhuman DNA in the mix. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Oct 21 '15 at 22:32
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    $\begingroup$ How intelligent are we talking here? I've seen some birds go through pretty complex mazes, and there was that gorilla that knew a whole bunch of words. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Oct 22 '15 at 14:16
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    $\begingroup$ This answer to a similar question provides much inside in this topic also. But as Thriggle stated you should rather concentrate on generations instead of time: <worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/a/81868/38503> $\endgroup$ – Olga Maria May 26 '17 at 10:11
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Yes, we can do it in 5,000 to 250,000 years.

It's possible, by way of not being against any laws of physics. That's the easy part of the answer.

The time it would take is all kinds of guessing. To simplify the measurement of the final product we should choose a species that would closely resemble us, that is, a primate. It's unclear where in our own evolutionary history we could be considered to be at the same intelligence of other higher primates, but it probably happened in the last million years.

The selective breeding will have a significant advantage over natural selection in guiding towards a single trait. That advantage will certainly provide at minimum a 4x improvement over the natural selection Humans used.

Just think how long we would be waiting for a wolf to turn into a poodle, or even a labrador, without guiding them. This can be thought of as rolling a handful of dice attempting to match some set of values, with selective breeding we get to just roll the ones that don't match.

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    $\begingroup$ Personally, I would hope a wolf would remain a wolf for the duration of its life span. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Oct 22 '15 at 3:16
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    $\begingroup$ Whence the timeline and the 4x estimate? $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Oct 22 '15 at 12:29
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    $\begingroup$ @SerbanTanasa "all kinds of guessing". There are no data on how long something takes to evolve, via natural or selective means. Natural selection has no end goal, so there is nothing to measure, while artificial selection is primarily for enhancing existing features, not getting new ones. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Oct 22 '15 at 14:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre I guess my response was deleted. But I really did learn in church that evolution is one animal transforming into another. That's apparently offensive to someone, but it's what that church was teaching, as a means of disproving evolution, of course. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Oct 22 '15 at 14:26
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    $\begingroup$ Completely disagree with this kind of guessing. Why 4x speed is 250k years? The evolutionary process from apes to Homo sapiens sapiens took ~8 millions of years (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_human_evolution). Bearing in mind that homo sapiens is the only intelligent species that 8 mil years could be unprecedentedly fast. We just have no idea how long could it take for another species. $\endgroup$ – enkryptor Apr 5 '16 at 10:07
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Via selective breeding as you have defined it cannot achieve novel features. Breeding is a selective process using available genetic material. You select for attributes you desire and filter out attributes you don't want. Nothing in this practice produces novel features.

Even the smartest animals do not have the ability to breed via selection offspring with normal human intelligence (or more accurately, there is no reason to believe that this possibility exists within their gene pools)

Some breeding techniques prior to gene sequencing introduce novel features via exposure to radiation -- such techniques are slow and random, but do result in novel sequences. Use of retroviruses may also be a possible technique that could be considered valid in your scenario although you don't really get novel sequences as you are copying them from a different source.


The vast majority of dog variation is a result of breeding over the past 200 years or so, clearly the wide variation is not a result of mutation, but the pre-existing genetic potential -- otherwise we would see large changes in many other species as well.

While there is a natural level of mutation, estimates of that rate vary considerably. But this natural mutation does not fit in the definition of "selected breeding and offspring selection". I.e., the question is how fast can selection and selection along accomplish an evolutionary goal.

I tried to make it clear that I was saying that selection and selection alone can't produce novel features. New species on the other hand is possible via selection as a difference in species does not necessarily require novel features. If dog variation was not a result a human breeding, I have little doubt that they would be considered different species as the variation is considerably larger than that of any number of species.

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    $\begingroup$ There is ground level amount of mutation, is there not? Otherwise the great amount of variation in dog breeds would be incomprehensible. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Oct 22 '15 at 12:35
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    $\begingroup$ The problem with this argument (and I suspect the argument is valid) is that nobody knows exactly what it takes to produce intelligence. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Oct 23 '15 at 5:03
  • $\begingroup$ @SerbanTanasa none of the dog breeds have wholely new traits, pretty much all are just variations on existing (physical) traits. Shoter legs, longer body, shorter nose, color variation but still black, white, brown or a variation of it. $\endgroup$ – Mormacil May 28 '17 at 11:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Mormacil Likewise, intelligence isn't a wholely new trait either. Plenty of animals on Earth (including non-mammals such as Avians) are reasonably smart already. It's completely within reason that a well-organized breeding program could select for specimens with the best problem solving, speech centers, abstract thinking, and after hundreds of generations arrive at a sentient creature. $\endgroup$ – AugustDay Apr 7 at 0:36
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We've sort of been doing this already with the smartest dog breeds, such as border collies. As best I can tell, most of the really smart breeds were originally bred as shepherds. The first use of dogs as shepherds probably dates back to antiquity, but there was a massive explosion in dog breeding in the 1800s, which is when most of the modern dog breeds originated. Although there certainly was some artificial selection on dogs all along, the really deliberate selective breeding started then.

Currently, some of the smartest shepherd dogs are doing tasks similar to human toddlers. Chaser, a famous border collie, has over a hundred dog toys which she knows by name, and will find the correct one on command. A researcher placed several toys she knew and an unfamiliar toy, and then asked her to find a toy with an unfamiliar name, and she was able to guess that the name she didn't know went with the toy she didn't know. This is something researchers have previously only seen human children doing, around the time of the language boom at 18 months or so.

In comparison, Jenna Marbles did a dog IQ test on her chihuahua and two Italian greyhounds, prompting a pile of Youtubers to test their own dogs, and they found that around half of all dogs fail stage 4 object permanence, putting the majority of dogs around an 8 month old level in human terms.

If we keep on breeding border collies and similar breeds for smarts, eventually we conceivably might get them to be sentient. But who knows how long it would take? It's taken roughly two hundred years or longer to go from around an 8 month level to an 18 month level, so a rough, probably wildly inaccurate estimate would be almost 4,000 years to get them to a human level. And that's assuming a steady rate of increase in intelligence, which I have no idea if that's plausible in the slightest.

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Fast, except we have no idea how to measure it.

Selective breeding is powerful.

In the past few thousand years, we have managed to turn a single species - the wolf - into a range of animals incredibly different from one another. Natural evolution is slow because it has no direction, but if you know what you're aiming for, you can breed a single trait into pretty much whatever you want.

The problem with breeding a species to become intelligent (in the sense of human-like intelligence) is that we don't really understand what intelligence is, let alone how it works.

It's one thing to measure the legs of a puppy, raise and breed the dogs with the shortest legs and the longest bodies together and make a dachshund, but we can't even figure out how to properly measure the intelligence of our own species. How could we measure it in another?

Border collies are considered to be the most intelligent dogs, but they are intelligent in the way we made them to be - they are good at following directions and herding sheep. Ultimately, our ability to breed an animal for a trait is dependent on our ability to measure that trait, and the foundations of true sapience are still too much of a "black box" to measure properly.

It could be that some of the vital steps to creating sapience are qualities we wouldn't be testing for. For example, social behavior is now considered to be an important part of the root of intelligence, but most of our "intelligence tests" do not test for social ability. There is also the issue that as an animal grows smarter, it may become less interested in doing silly tests for humans, and may get lower scores as a result.

How would one measure whether, say, any given rat was closer or further away from sapience? We could breed them based on how quickly they can run a maze, but we don't really know if maze-running has anything to do with the basis of human intelligence. Ultimately we'd wind up with rats who were good at running mazes, but probably no closer to thinking like a human.

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There are metrics for non-human intelligence that are comparably as effective as those we currently use for humans. Multiple species demonstrate problem-solving, theory-of-mind, self-recognition, and possibly even symbolic reasoning (Google 'corvids intelligence' or 'non-human intelligence metrics' for multiple references). Individual animals already find evolutionary advantage in intelligence, and therefore its development is ensured, given not too much suppression by other intelligences.

The development of an intelligent civilization relies on more than intelligence: our single existing data point strongly suggests that collective learning is the necessary spark. Human culture exploded after we learned to use language (not just to speak) AND grew in population density to the point that trade in ideas could have significant impact on individual lives within individual lifetimes.

The big questions become: 1) How did humans develop the ability to use language to convey symbolic information?, and 2) How long would it take for another species to do so?

The Chomskian concept of a human Universal Grammar (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_grammar) is a tidy concept, but does little to explain any evolutionary process. Recent research into FOXP2 and other genes (Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2015 Jun 2;112(22):6848-54. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1411270111. Epub 2014 Nov 24.) starts to reveal genetic pathways towards speech and possibly toward language formation and comprehension, but we'll probably be in the dark ages for a few decades more. Even if taken at face value, this analysis offers very little progress toward an answer today for the OP.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to world building. Your answer is good, but please quote the relevant information from the wiki link into your message. That helps future readers find the information quickly, or at all if the link goes down. $\endgroup$ – Trevor D Dec 21 '18 at 18:50
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About as long as it took for humans to evolve to our level of intelligence.

Maybe a marginally shorter period of time.

I'll make the claim that intelligence breeds by itself. Being smart confers a survival advantage, that gives you a reproductive advantage. Humans evolved intelligence as fast as biology and the environment allowed - the individuals that didn't were quickly eliminated by those that did. Identifying other smart individuals and copulating with them is a very smart strategy.

In nature, this would only be slowed down by cases of an intelligent individual having the misfortune of being sick, or injured, to the extent that a less-intelligent individual becomes a better choice. Being supervised by already intelligent people, you can protect and take care of those to stop the process from slowing.

I think the optimal strategy is to put them in an environment that favours intelligence over, say, brute-strength, then leave natural-selection do what it does best, and only interfere when you're confident that nature is going to make a sub-optimal choice.

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    $\begingroup$ Speed of evolution is not only dictated by the strength of the selective pressure (assuming for a moment that it is the same in nature), but also the size of the population. By intentionally creating smaller gene pools, the group executing this can magnify the effects of chance genetic mutations $\endgroup$ – Fabio Beltramini Oct 22 '15 at 1:26
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    $\begingroup$ I often hear the trope that smaller groups magnify the effects of genetic mutations (or speed evolution). That is false. For traits that are neutral, small groups have a better chance of fixing one trait or another due to genetic drift being more likely to lead some alleles to extinction. However, as far as advantageous traits with actual selective pressures, large groups evolve faster. This is because a larger population has more novel mutations, and once a successful mutation occurs it will propagate through the entire population due to the selective pressures. $\endgroup$ – user11599 Oct 22 '15 at 4:05
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    $\begingroup$ Humans were selected for a large host of other things besides intelligence, such as capacity for violence, disease resistance, etc. Intelligence carries a huge metabolic burden in the form of expensive brains, so it was only one among a large host of factors being selected for. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Oct 22 '15 at 14:25
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    $\begingroup$ If this answer was correct then most animals would have human level intelligence. This does not seem to be the case so there is a problem with the answer. One potential problem is that inteligence carries a metabolic cost, the human brain is a very expensive organ. Another problem is that several of the benefits of intelligence applies to the group rather than the individual and those benefits only weakly contribute to selected for intelligence. $\endgroup$ – Taemyr Oct 23 '15 at 7:44
  • $\begingroup$ "Being smart confers a survival advantage" -- this is demonstrably false. Wolves are generally considered to be smarter than most dogs; their increased intelligence was necessary for wild living, but as they became domesticated, they lost some of that intelligence. As @Taemyr said, there is a large metabolic cost to supporting a large brain like ours, so in some situations, there is actually selection pressure against intelligence. $\endgroup$ – Salda007 May 28 '17 at 9:05
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Possibly as fast as zero years or zero generations.

Nobody knows how intelligent various non human species on Earth are. There are already about a hundred species of mammals on Earth that - like Humans - would probably seem to be semi intelligent or even fully intelligent to objective extraterrestrial observers. And also some non mammal species might fall in this category.

Until the intelligence of all those species is accurately measured some unknown time in the future, nobody knows how much - if any - improvement they need to be considered sentient, and thus how long or short a time it might take to make them as intelligent, on the average, as average humans. For all that is known at the present, it is possible that for some of those species a stupidity program might be needed to make their intelligence equal to that of Humans.

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    $\begingroup$ Hi @M.A.Golding and welcome to this dungeon of creativity. I like your first post. Could you maybe try to backup your claims by adding examples of intelligent animals? This would raise the quality of this answer in my opinion. Top grade if you find papers supporting your claims, but common knowledge is usually enough. I'm looking forward to many good questions and answers from you and hope you stick around. Greetings, J_F_B_M $\endgroup$ – J_F_B_M Apr 1 '16 at 19:26
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    $\begingroup$ Actually, we do have fairly good ideas of the levels of intelligence in a number of species, though obviously far from all. This isn't an exact science, though, and depends enormously on the specific definition of intelligence you are working with. As a thought experiment, take two dogs out of the same litter, have one growing up in the wild with no human contact and the other receive intense (obedience, tricks and work) training from the best human dog trainers in the world. After 5 years, compare their intelligence. Which one is more intelligent? How do you determine their intelligence? $\endgroup$ – a CVn Apr 1 '16 at 19:29
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The biggest hurdle in selective breeding programs like this is ... how are you going to determine the intelligence level of a non-primate creature? Once this is established (and it would be really troublesome when two creatures have very little difference in intelligence), the rest is easy.

The next thing you need to do, after determining intelligence level is to push your creatures for greater intelligence. Make intelligence a difference between meal and no meal. Unlike what many people believe, evolutionary changes are not always random mutations. Genes changes, but the changes have more to do the way creatures want to change (this is completely subconscious, and determined by the instincts and requirements of the creature). Hence, if driven for intelligence (as opposed to waiting for intelligence to happen randomly), the creatures would get intelligent faster.

Having said that, I must say that it is impossible to determine the time span in which any given target of intellect can be reached by any given species.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Unlike what many people believe, evolutionary changes are not always random mutations." you clearly don't understand evolution. $\endgroup$ – Donald Hobson May 27 '17 at 17:51
  • $\begingroup$ @DonaldHobson: One of us doesn't understand evolution, yes! Don't be too confident about finding order in chaos. $\endgroup$ – Youstay Igo May 27 '17 at 20:06
  • $\begingroup$ @DonaldHobson Actually the way its explain is basically survival of the fittest, or that is how I took the answer. If only the intelligent of the species get to eat, than those who are not intelligent are less likely to survive and thus less likely to breed and pass on their genes. $\endgroup$ – Warm Shadow May 27 '17 at 23:34
  • $\begingroup$ "Unlike what many people believe..." Do you have any basis for this other than your own assertions? $\endgroup$ – Ben Barden Dec 21 '18 at 18:33
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Why not just use brain size as a proxy for intelligence? It seems to work:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/phenomena/2013/01/03/scientists-breed-smarter-fish-but-reveal-the-costs-of-big-brains/

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