What conditions (physical or cultural) would make the following world plausible?

A species is advanced in the life sciences, especially when it comes to freezing embryos and in vitro fertilization. However, they have no gunpowder or means of travel besides medieval ships and horseback.

This doesn't necessarily have to be on Earth, since our scientific advancement proceeded in a different order, but could such a path of progress be realistic under different circumstances?

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    $\begingroup$ You have a bigger problem - any society with advanced life sciences has advanced learning and experimentation. Even if you manage to unmake gunpowder somehow, nitrocellulose is actually easier to make, even accidentally. I doubt you can make nitric acid or cellulose go away. $\endgroup$ – Sean Boddy Jan 16 '16 at 16:35
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    $\begingroup$ A water-breathing culture $\endgroup$ – user23614 Jan 17 '16 at 12:06

I'm going to start with the easy one: gunpowder. I do that so that I can show you some options to see where you might go if you adjust your world to be easier to realize. You will need to adapt their culture along the way. How much you adapt it is dependent on how much you decide you really need to keep for your world.

Sometimes science and engineering seem very directed, and some articles like "The KMOS Redshift One Spectroscopic Survey (KROSS): Dynamical properties, gas and dark matter fractions of typical z~1 star-forming galaxies" (arXiv:1601.03400) may defend this belief, the majority of such discoveries have consequences far beyond their initial expectations. To choose an example by smooshing together two posts I've recently read: Alan Turing never expected to have an attempt at redesigning currency, like Bitcoin has. It's going to take some work to make a world which is more advanced than us in some medicinal fields, and yet 1500 years behind on basic chemistry. It was quite a feat for the Chinese to invent the stuff back then. Nowadays, if you really understood what your highschool chemistry teacher was telling you, he or she told you all you needed to know to figure out how to make gunpowder. The chemical equation for gunpowder may be a bit messy:

$6 KNO_3 + C_7H_4O + 2 S → K_2CO_3 + K_2SO_4 + K_2S + 4 CO_2 + 2 CO + 2 H_2O + 3 N_2$

but it turns out you don't even need to get it right to understand combustion. One commonly offered simplified version is:

$2 KNO_3 + S + 3 C → K_2S + N_2 + 3 CO_2$

Now this is simple enough that you might even see it on a high school chemistry test. Advanced medical science without a single member of the society that knows basic high school chemistry? Possible, but it shows just how hard we are going to have to dig to accomplish you goals. And it gets harder. Addressing Sean Boddy's comment, gunpowder is only one of many compounds that go boom. In fact, it's not even all that good of one by comparison. As a society evolves it is going to come across hundred of explosive compounds, any one of which could replace blackpowder's role. In fact, it may be worth noting that nobody uses black powder anymore except fireworks manufacturers and war reenactors. It has been completely and utterly replaced by more powerful compounds. Getting rid of all of them may be as hard as getting rid of the air we breath (literally. Nitrogen based compounds are a big deal in the explosives world, but plants are rather dependent on nitrogen). Many of these compounds even work underwater.

The solution is to set up a world where the society does not reward the discovery of black powder. Maybe they have all the pieces put together. Maybe they even know how to use it, but maybe it just isn't a social option.

One option might be a world with a world religion that prefers slow and steady movements. Members of the society are expected to be in control of their actions at all times, and once you pull the trigger on a gun or explosive device, you are no longer in control. Maybe quick flashes like that are reserved for Gaia, and the ultra-pure priesthood. Sure, you might know how to make gunpowder, but it would literally be heresy to make it and use it.

Maybe the society was given their advanced medical tech, with an expectation that any failure to control the proliferation of explosives would result in being cut off from that tech.

Maybe their society is more centered around life energies, rather than physics. Maybe they literally just don't see the value in the ability to disrupt another life as much as an explosive can do. Failure to see value in something is a powerful way to prevent it from being developed.

Now all of this has been focused on gunpowder. What about travel? Travel actually cuts down your number of options noticeably. Basically, you don't want these guys to travel. Modern medicine includes things like control of electricity, magnetism, computers... freezing embryos is actually a lot more advanced than just sticking them in the freezer under your fridge.

With this, I think you collapse your options. It's still valid to have all of this medical technology handed to them by a benevolent alien with a request never to make blackpowder or any modern vehicular travel. However, its almost impossible to fail to develop some kind of useful mechanized travel with the basic tech needed to do medicinal techniques like you describe.

My vote would be for a Gaia world, where it is recognized that the planet is alive. A society built around this belief would develop amazing control over nature and natural processes, but may never learn chemistry. For example, one of the big advances in embryo crypreservation was Slow Programmable Freezing which rely on complicated equipment to carefully control temperatures. However, this sort of slow smooth control is something life excels at. It would be easy for them to adapt a life-energy based approach without actually needing to understand the chemistry.

This would also explain travel. Someone who depends upon life as much as they would wouldn't use a coarse automobile or similar mechanical device to travel. They'd use organic life to make it happen.

In all, you are going to need to find a way to make them not only "not want use blackpowder and mechanized travel," but actually "want to not use blackpowder or mechanized travel." Something in their culture is going to have to actively oppose it the entire way. And whatever that is, it is going to have to reinforce itself for thousands of years to make sure nobody ever gets a different opinion.


I would argue that the key to solving both of these issues is to put a stop to combustion. Here's my logic:

  1. Any intelligent civilization capable of building ships and domesticating large animals must arise on a planet that is decently old.
  2. Evolution dictates that there must have been many generations and species that went before.
  3. When these species die, they are covered up by rocks as geological processes go on.
  4. Eventually, fossil fuels will be produced.
  5. Fossil fuels are a source of energy that is easily exploitable. Combustion makes it possible to "burn" these fuels and release energy.
  6. Any civilization capable of advanced medicine to the degree stated needs advanced technology.
  7. Any civilization capable of advanced technology needs a strong power source.
  8. One power source that would have been discovered relatively early is fossil fuels.

Combustion plays a role in both gunpowder and advanced technology, so there must be some condition that makes it impossible or extremely infeasible. First, though, I'd like to address the primary issue of gunpowder.

The problem of gunpowder.

Gunpowder is composed of three main components: saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal. Take away one of those components and you have a mixture which is much less reactive.

  • Charcoal is used in many applications, and while its absence would not be terrible for society, it might stunt technological growth a little. Therefore, our world should most likely still have charcoal.
  • Sulfur is extremely important for biological processes, general involving sulfur atoms in a larger compound. You could not have an Earth-like world without sulfur, although if you opt for different alien biochemistries, this could work.
  • Saltpeter also has found its way into many everyday items, including such mundane things as toothpaste. It also has some scientific applications. Again, just like charcoal, it is not necessary for society, but the absence of saltpeter would still take away some of our conveniences.

We have to take away saltpeter or charcoal to ensure that gunpowder can not be produced. I would suggest having a world without saltpeter, since its industrial applications are not as obvious and important as charcoal's.

The problem of combustion.

It turns out that we can - as I alluded to earlier - boil the problem down to one of combustion if we look at it the right way. The obvious choice here, then, is to simply have a world without oxygen - or very little oxygen.

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    $\begingroup$ A “simple” way to make combustion impossible (well, less feasible), would be to have your species be aquatic, living in the ocean of a water-covered planet. I think it’s safe to say that this would pose a strong delay to the advent of combustion-based technology. $\endgroup$ – Wrzlprmft Jan 16 '16 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Wrzlprmft Very good point. I had been so caught up in trying to make the planet and its inhabitants Earth-like that I completely forgot about options like that. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Jan 16 '16 at 16:07
  • $\begingroup$ Charcoal is actually very important for technological development, since the higher heat of a charcoal fired furnace makes metallurgy easier. This led to the virtual deforestation of Britain in the 1500's, leading to the switch to coal. Even coal works better when it is turned into coke, (which is an analogous process to turning wood into charcoal). $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Jan 17 '16 at 2:30

I don't think it is likely to not have developed gunpowder, but it can be uncommon. If this species has a very peaceful society, and little danger to itself, it might not find it that necessary to develop their war-making capabilities.

However, while they may not possess weapons, the level of technology they have related to medical sciences would not make it likely to have only horses and sailing ships. You could make it post-apocalyptic, which would make this more likely, or maybe they were given the medical science by aliens. Or, their world could have very rugged terrain, and they use animals to travel on land. However, they would probably still have something more advanced than ships with sails. However, if this planet also had high winds above the rugged terrain, then sailing ships would be more reasonable, and flying machines would be extremely difficult to develop.

  • $\begingroup$ This is pretty close to what I was going to answer, not that it hadn't been discovered, but that no one bothered to do anything with it and it's kind of a trivia. Same for internal combustion. If no one is in a hurry and all are ok with trips taking days or weeks, then there's no reason to make anything faster. They could just be very long lived, and so being out on the road for a while is a nice diversion. $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 Jan 16 '16 at 18:03

The question as asked already has been answered historically: yes.

Ancient societies practiced various forms of medicine. The oldest known "patient" is a skeleton recovered from a Neolithic site which shows evidence of healing from massive injuries. While it seems obvious from the remains the patient never fully recovered, they certainly recovered enough that their bones knit and they were able to be cared for by the tribe for some period of time after the injury and recovery period. (Perhaps he was a particularly funny guy or story teller, or knew some obscure but vital art like flint knapping, which made it worthwhile for the tribe to expend resources to heal him and keep him going).

Neolithic people were also practitioners of the art of Trepanning, or drilling holes into the patient's skulls. Why exactly they did this is unclear, but being able to cut into the skull and remove the bone from a patient in neolithic conditions (i.e. using stone tools) is pretty astonishing, especially when you realize many of the recovered patient's skulls show clear signs of healing. The patients obviously were living for months or perhaps years after the operation.

Ancient Greek surgeons had surprisingly modern looking surgical tools to treat battlefield injuries, and many ancient cultures seem to have had reasonably advanced knowledge of anatomy, with perhaps the only thing really missing from their tool kit being the germ theory of disease.

So fairly advanced medicine was being practiced as far back as the Neolithic period. We obviously don't have evidence of herbal remedies or soft tissue injury treatment, but it seems fairly safe to say that if they could deal with big things like treating a person who may have been mauled by a bear/fallen off a cliff, or successfully drilled holes in people's skulls and kept them alive, they probably kew a lot of other medicinal procedures useful for their day to day activities.

  • $\begingroup$ I like this one because it brings into question what "advanced" medicine is anyways. We like to believe modern medicine is new and unique, but modern medicine is always looking to older cultures to learn $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jan 17 '16 at 3:45

It could just be that people are to timid to do those things.
Anything that makes a loud noise is to startling and stuff.
So they mix up the powder, it goes boom, and they say "ahhh! Ok let's not do that again!"

Other science and technology wouldn't have the same effect, and so wound be easier to pursue.


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