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Imagine an Earth-like society that has developed into the digital age. They have computers, the Internet and most of the conveniences of the modern age, but they still use a significant animal workforce for:

  • transporting members of the society over land, sea and air;
  • transporting goods over land, sea and air;
  • supplying power to their electronics;
  • performing actions that in our world are done by heavy machinery like harvesting crops, manufacturing, large-scale construction,...

In effect, you got the Flintstones, but with modern materials instead of everything being made of stone. In addition, they have very good reasons for using animals that aren't grounded in superstition or religion.

What would these reasons be?

The animals can be different from Earth, it's just the society that's earthlike: no magic, sentient being who are inventive and full of resolve, and the entire world is in contact with one another.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure what tags to apply to this. If anyone has better tags to suggest, feel free to edit. $\endgroup$ – Nzall May 27 '16 at 13:02
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    $\begingroup$ Computers generally don't do anything phyiscal at all - I don't really see the connection between computing and replacing machines with animals. If there's solar power but no power-dense fuel like petroleum, then you can power computers but not vehicles, so your next best power density could be feed for work animals. $\endgroup$ – Todd Wilcox May 27 '16 at 16:47
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    $\begingroup$ @ToddWilcox AFAIK you need a lot of energy to manufacture (advanced) computer parts, though. $\endgroup$ – Daniel Jour May 27 '16 at 18:17
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    $\begingroup$ What @DanielJour said. You need a tremendous amount of energy to refine and purify the metals to build a microprocessor - this source cites ~4000 MJ for a laptop. 4 GJ is approx 1 Million Kilocalories; caloric intake of an average human is 2000 Kilocalories. You'd need to have 10 animals that each have 50 times the "strength" of a human work for a full 24-hour day to produce a laptop. I doubt you'll have many computers on your world. $\endgroup$ – Guntram Blohm May 27 '16 at 18:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Guntram Blohm: But there's a difference between having the energy, and having it in a portable form like fossil fuels. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf May 27 '16 at 18:42

18 Answers 18

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So, this is actually fairly simple to answer. Limit the strength of engines and machinery but allow the development of electronics.

This means they can use machines for doing detailed work (like creating computers) but not for anything that involves "heavy lifting".

There are a number of ways that this could happen, just having them not invented seems very unlikely so I would suggest instead that materials are the problem.

If there is no good materials available for making decent metals or seals (so poor quality rubber and steel or iron) then machines would not last very long if set to doing anything demanding.

Cars might exist but they would shake themselves to pieces by the time they've done a thousand miles. Engines would be constantly springing leaks and spraying oil everywhere, etc.

In order to do this I'd suggest having iron in very short supply in this world, you could also look at the other materials we use in a similar way and see which of those you need to restrict but iron would be a good start. No steel, no cast iron furnaces, limited blacksmithing. Basically everyone is stuck with bronze tools and they do not hold up so well.

I'd also restrict access to high temperature fuels, have wood that burns at a lower temperature and either no coal deposits or also burning cooler. With limited access to high temperatures again it becomes hard to work with and develop advanced metallurgy. You would need to hand-wave a bit how they come up with the wires etc for the computer processing but you can do a lot with copper and glass.

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    $\begingroup$ The problem with this is that you need high-quality metals for electronics. If your copper is full of impurities due to bad metallurgy, it won't conduct as well and your electronics will have bugs. $\endgroup$ – Nzall May 27 '16 at 13:25
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, and no. See the expansion I added as you were writing the comment :) You need different characteristics for electronics than you do for machinery - you need conductivity but not strength or hardness for example. You need to tweak metallurgy in this world so they get one but not the other. $\endgroup$ – Tim B May 27 '16 at 13:28
  • $\begingroup$ I feel that wouldn't prevent them from using water wheels or wind turbines which are pretty good at mechanical work. $\endgroup$ – AmiralPatate May 27 '16 at 13:50
  • $\begingroup$ Sure, water wheels could be made from wood easily enough for example. That's fine. It still doesn't let them build cars/etc which was the purpose of the question. $\endgroup$ – Tim B May 27 '16 at 15:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Matt it's not that simple though. Early computers used valves for example not chips at all. Pure silicon could develop out of glassworking techniques or maybe they come up with a way using less pure materials. Human ingenuity would find a way even if it's not quite the same way we did.... $\endgroup$ – Tim B May 28 '16 at 7:13
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Having technology is really cool.

But most of the time, your technology still requires power.

So, the answer is simple: On this planet, there is no source of energy that would be cheaper or more abundant than an animal's workforce, or it has been used up a long time ago.

[EDIT] following NZall 's comment: To explain away wind and solar energy, it could be that they used up their fossil fuels before they invented smart grids and a feasible means of storing energy, while the labour of beasts can be "switched on and off" when needed, so they don't have to store energy (other than sunlight in fodder)

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    $\begingroup$ Actually I like this answer - that they were used up - a bit more than my one... It allows for the invention of all the stuff we have today but not the use of the high-powered stuff. $\endgroup$ – colmde May 27 '16 at 13:37
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    $\begingroup$ Sounds weird though, that even wind and solar energy were used up. those are A LOT more efficient for converting energy to motion than first growing plants with them, then feeding those plants to animal. $\endgroup$ – Nzall May 27 '16 at 13:42
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    $\begingroup$ where do the animals get their energy? $\endgroup$ – djechlin May 27 '16 at 22:25
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    $\begingroup$ And why no hydro pumped by local wind power? $\endgroup$ – Damian Yerrick May 28 '16 at 1:04
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    $\begingroup$ For solar and wind. It is expensive to make solar panel and wind turbines. Plants are just sitting on the ground free for the animals to eat. Who cares about how effecient they are. $\endgroup$ – Catprog Sep 7 '16 at 6:40
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A possible straight forward answer for this is that fossil fuels - (or at least oil) - do not exist or were never discovered or the process for refining them was not discovered. This would make it difficult to drive the big machinery that you need for heavy lifting.

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It could be an environmental factor limiting the size of machines. The atmosphere might be filled with acid, fine grains of sand or something else that is harmful to machinery or just metals in general. There is a process to shield objects from this effect, but it is expensive or otherwise impractical to use on large or moving structures. The animals and people would be evolutionarily adapted to the environment however, and suffer no ill effects from it.

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They have suffered a catastrophe in the past that caused vast numbers of deaths specifically linked to technology failure and they have good reason to believe that the same might happen again. This time they will be ready with a backup system that doesn't need oil or cables or broadcast power to work.

However an animal-powered transport and power network cannot be kept in mothballs and wheeled out when needed. The infrastructure of stables, farms raising animals and growing crops for animal feed, and people such as riders, drivers, grooms, veterinarians and blacksmiths, all needs to be permanently in place. So they have made a virtue of necessity. Everyone extols the virtues of a slower pace of life, the opportunity to interact with these magnificent animals, and the job opportunities available for many people who had little useful role in their previous more mechanistic society. I would imagine it would be a point of status to show that you could afford to travel by horse-drawn carriage at a leisurely pace rather than being rushed around in a fume-spewing box as if you were some peon who had to come running when the boss called.

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An unpredictable environment. Adaptable lifeforms.

If you look at all our machines, they all need a carefully controlled environment to work as intended:

  • Cars need a sturdy flat surface
  • Planes need obstacle-free airspace without major disturbances
  • They need a constant supply of very specific replacement parts and fuel/lubricants to run
  • Dont take the environment into account much (they just assume that we humans ensure the environment is ok, if its not, they suffer some catastrophical failure)

What separates animals, is that they have evolved to adapt to a more dynamic environment. They might be able to survive on multiple food sources, maybe even without food for a while. They will be able to avoid dangers and work around novel obstacles. Further, you can specifically design your lifeforms to be extra-adaptable (smarter, adapted to wide range of environments).

So, what features of the environment would work here?

  • Rough uneven terrain, which can shift around or break under your feet if youre not careful (think random caves, quicksand, mud, structures formed of weak organic material...).
  • Lots of dust, particles, sharp rocks, random chemicals, random strings and webs of some material, that will mess with anything that didnt specifically evolve to this diverse environment over millions of years.
  • Highly varying temperature, humidity, other weather patterns, over both space and time.
  • Diverse lifeforms that will crawl in your machine, attack it, eat it, or do something else, because it doesnt have the advanced techniques that the beasts of burden have developed (even if thats just "not being a clumsy noisy machine built of delicious iron").
  • Varying access to resources / locations, so having a production chain with a dozen steps in it, to keep things functional, rarely works at scale. Of course, you cant be extreme about this to still allow for computers. This isnt even necessary if the other factors make machine impractical, though.

But, I would like to emphasize, that the point of "unpredictable environment" is that you can't simply list out all the features. Thats what makes it unpredictable, and thats why you cant build a machine and infrastructure that works properly. Not with your limited knowledge (compared to what the beasts of burden carry in their biological design)

If you want to harm production of machines (not just practicality of machines), you could give computers an advantage by ensuring that theres plenty of materials for them, and that the computers themselves dont break and are powerful (so you dont need many, and you dont need a constant supply).

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Ethics and Morality

Long ago this world was swept by war and destruction. The "winners" of this apocalyptic war found themselves alone in a vast wasteland. Vowing to ensure that the world would never again be destroyed by war, they outlawed any and all non-biological energy generation and storage.


Risk

Ages ago terrifying dragon-like creatures evolved with the ability to feed on raw electrical energy. In a never ending cycle, the dragons would destroy most of the world, then sleep for generations while the planet was rebuilt. Realizing that the dragons would awake when power generation levels exceeded a certain threshold, the people of this world came up with an interesting strategy for assuring that the creatures never awake.


Oxidization

This one might be a bit of a stretch, but maybe their atmosphere is SO rich with oxidizer that any electrical discharge could cause a catastrophe. Or maybe some imaginary element's presence in the atmosphere makes energy generation impossible (e.g. unobtanium gas) because all of the electrons are lost to oxidization before they can be used.

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Lots of answers here already but I'll throw in my two cents.

Maybe their technology has just gone in different directions from ours.

We tend to think of all technology as being on the same scale. It's easy to imagine a society that is more primitive than ours -- just look at our own past. It's easy to imagine a society more advanced. But we tend to think of all sorts of different branches of technology on the same timeline. Like, nuclear power is a mid-20th century technology, and television is a mid-20th century technology. So we think that a society that has television would also have nuclear power and vice versa.

But who says? Perhaps people on another planet would be far ahead of us in one area, but far behind in another. Perhaps their electronics is very advanced so they have artifical intelligence and android robots, but their medicene is way behind so they have no concept of organ transplants and no drugs beyond herbs that people find in nature. Maybe they use advanced robots to put leaches on patients (or whatever the equivalent is in their biology).

This would be problematic in some ways. Technologies depend on each other, sometimes in ways that aren't obvious unless you know the whole history. Like, early computers were in many ways based on tabulating machines, machines that would read punch cards and calculate totals. Those tabulating machines were based on principles developed for looms, to make cloth with patterns in it (jacquard looms). If our society had never seen a need for cloth with pretty patterns rather than plain solid colors, we might never have invented computers. Or at least, they would have had to have a different history.

The idea that a society could invent electrical and electronic devices, but never invent internal combustion engines, doesn't seem all that far out.

You could explain it based on available resources. Maybe the materials to make computers are plentiful on this world but petroleum is rare to non-existant.

You could explain it based on need. Like the old aphorism, "Necessity is the mother of invention." Perhaps the people on this world never perceived a need to travel very fast or very far. Like the population is small and everyone lives close together, and the people aren't all that curious about exploring the rest of the world, so the few people who travel and explore just don't create enough demand for advanced transportation technology.

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As others have said, no fossil fuels. That makes it quite difficult to get energy into a portable form. (Look at range limits of electric cars, for instance.)

You wouldn't really have a pure no-mechanical-transport system, though. You might have e.g. electric trains for long-distance travel & urban trolleys (as in much of Europe), or heavy equipment that could be run from electric cables, like some mining equipment. Limited air travel would be possible with biofuels, but would be more expensive. (Just not possible to do with animals, barring 'magic'.)

So for local transport, and work on small projects, you're back to horses &c. If in addition you have a lot of rugged terrain, that's another factor. I can ride a horse in a lot of places where I wouldn't drive even a 4WD vehicle, or even take a mountain bike.

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They have computers, the Internet and most of the conveniences of the modern age, but they still use a significant animal workforce

You've just described modern day planet Earth. Although you and I obviously have computers and internet, consider that a significant proportion of the planet still does not have these things. Yes we in the more developed part of the world have cars, iPads, dishwashers and robot vacuum cleaners, but there also millions of people living in a far less technologically advanced world and thus still rely on animals for things like:

Agriculture: Agriculture

Transportation: Transportation

Construction: Construction

So in your world the answer to how high technology can exist alongside more primitive use of animals can be the same as on Earth - the modern technology is not evenly distributed. Maybe, like Earth, this is due to the economic model in use - or perhaps other religious or social conditions have divided the world into technological "haves" and "have-nots".

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Sort of exotic, but maybe noise reduction? These guys might heavily rely on hearing (like we rely on sight), or maybe their world has some apex predator or really nasty vermin that are attracted to sounds. Anyone, no one there thought that developing a lot of noisy combustion engines was a good idea.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is an interesting idea, but why wouldn't they develop noise cancellation? Comparing to our own world, we developed radiation shields in order to safely use radioactive materials. $\endgroup$ – Kys May 27 '16 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ and you expect horses are quiet $\endgroup$ – Donald Hobson May 27 '16 at 17:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Donald Hobson, the OP said that their animals could have evolved differently. $\endgroup$ – user8808 May 27 '16 at 17:13
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Rather than assuming that the subjects did not discover how to apply principles such as combustion and electromagnetics to create engines and motors, suppose they did (or at least are capable of doing so), but they cannot practically implement them on this world. While some of the other answers cover this possibility (such as Tim B’s limited materials answer in the vein of Asimov’s Foundation), based on the Nzall’s question we should also look into why someone who has the materials would instead choose to use beasts of burden. Consider some of the reasons why we use machines in the first place. They are mass produced, they efficiently convert fuel into motion, and they never tire. Notice also that production time is always shortening and fuel efficiency is on the rise (as well as effective fuel discovery). For earthlings this usually means that, economically, the Ford pickup truck beats the oxen and the charger beats the thoroughbred racing horse.

In another setting however, suppose the beasts of burden could be mass produced, they fueled themselves (or very little effort was required to feed them), and their stamina was boundless. In that instance machinery would be ignored in light of a more profitable investment. As far as what this could be, consider anything from giant insects to plant-based beasts of burden.

These reasons work especially well for air travel, since that took us a LONG time to develop, but the animal kingdom has had it down for as long as we can remember.

Compare this to computers, which can take far less resources per unit (although production usually does involve intensive industry). Where engines and motors are used for things they do better than animals, these are used for things animals simply can’t be trained to do. As a result, people with unlimited manual labor resources can still see advantages to electronics.

Also, while superstition and religion are specifically set aside in this question, culture is not. In many European countries air conditioning is readily available, but unused; they simply have different tastes. If this society were to view machines as heavily polluting, noisy, dangerous, and distasteful, then I see no reason why people in our exact situation could not have chosen a “more green” world dependent on animals instead of machinery. I feel however, that this is close to the border of how subjective an answer can be before the moderators start to frown at it.

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The issue to be overcome is not so much in powering things as producing them.

According to this paper (citing a Dept of Energy report) copper production takes 81.9 -106.5 million btu per ton, approximately 39301 horse power for 100 btu. Hauling, the most easily replaceabe by animals takes 13.14 million btu, so you would still need to produce 25545-33406 horse power per ton.

Using animals for this presents a number of challenges. In addition to the sheer amount of power needed there are a number of issues.

Firstly there will be an upper limit to the amount of power one animal can produce, given that there will also to be an upper limit to the size of an animal, before it can no longer support itself, and I suspect the amount of extra power diminishes as it get larger. So we can't escape having to use very large numbers of animals.

Secondly there is the question if how to convert animal power to a usable form. Here we will be up against the inefficiencies/loss brought about by conversion to a usable form. A large of the energy consumed in existing copper production is likely to be in the form of burning fossil fuels directly in smelting etc, so there would need to be much more energy consumed in their absence. A useful comparison here is aluminum smelting which is powered by electricity. There are very few aluminum smelters in the world since they can only be sited in places with an abundance of cheap energy (usually hydro-electric) and an easy way of getting enough raw materials (by boat).

This will be a very difficult scenario to overcome. The existence of electronics on a mass scale is is likely an indicator not just of a technologically sophisticated society but also an energy rich one.

There are two ways I can see this happening, a post-industrial world and a trader planet.

In the first scenario the planet followed much the same energy rich, technologically sophisticated path that Earth is on. At some point however they hit ecological limits and/or (mostly) ran out of feasibly extractable resources/fossil fuels. At this point society transitioned to one where the source of nearly all raw materials is recycling (which tends to be much more energy efficient) and there is a very limited power supply. What little energy dense fuels there are left must be strictly rationed to support vital uses. Since this would also put a limit on production it makes sense to use non-technological means (i.e. animals) wherever possible.

In the second scenario the planet lacked (energy dense) resources, with one important exception, but was still able to develop a culturally and socially sophisticated society despite, or perhaps because of this (this is implicit in having things like the Internet). However it turns out they have a near monopoly supply on feasible amounts of a resource that is much in demand in other societies on other planets (think Coltan) that might not be able to produced elsewhere in great amounts. Thus they were able to trade technology with other planets in exchange for this resource.

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They might not have developed the technology to grow meat or products like milk or eggs without the use of animals. They could set up vast agriculture systems to produce cattle, chickens, etc. to assume these tasks. Computers could be extensively used in the automation and even design of the agriculture factories but the physical work of actually growing the meat would be left up to the animals.

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It could be a cultural/religious thing, like the Amish.

I know - you said that it shouldn't be a superstitious/religious thing, but in my experience, Amish people don't use certain technology for pragmatic/community based reasons more than for religious reasons.

Many Amish families families DO use technology. They use telephones, they use diesel engines in mills, battery powered tools, cash registers, and propane refrigerators, and when they hire out to do work for the English they ride in cars as passengers, and some groups of Amish use tractors on their farms - So they do use technology, but they also use animals for many things that we've replaced with mechanical tools. They're very selective about what technology they use, with the idea that what they use shouldn't impact their way of life, but instead protect it.

I'm not an expert on Amish thought, so I can't say exactly all of their reasons, but here you're just looking for a reason for people to do or not do something - and the Amish people's philosophical model of not using a technology because it doesn't fit within their community might be a good fit.

It's not that they can't do it - they just don't believe that they should.

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  • $\begingroup$ The question includes "In addition, they have very good reasons for using animals that aren't grounded in superstition or religion." Could you flesh out the cultural aspect of your answer (as distinct from religion)? $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio May 27 '16 at 22:31
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This is simple - your world is an ocean, with thousands of small islands close together - Islands just big enough for one or two farms - It is easy to lay cables across the small stretches of ocean, but it would be impractical to develop large machinery, as it would be difficult to move it from one island to another, and it would have limited use on one island. On these small islands, there would be no point to having roads, or cars. Because animals are need for food production, almost all the land must be devoted to feeding the animals. As such, the animals are also used for transportation and energy production. With the land devoted to farming, there is no way to make other energy production facilities. These islands never had the chance to develop oil rigs, iron mines, large ships, highways, roads, or cars -none of those were ever needed. There was no point in trying to get fossil fuels, as nothing used them. There was no point making a gas or diesel engine, as petroleum was never discovered. There are few trees on these islands, so the wood is used mainly for building houses and barns, rafts, and some small ships.

On the largest of the islands, there was a rocky hill. Blocks of stone were cut from this hill, and used in mechanical processes. Some were made into millstones, some were used as counter weights for pulley systems. One day, as stone was being cut, some random dude discovered copper. The people of the islands liked the cool looking shiny metal, and did lots with it. Someone decided to make really thin strands of it, and wrap it into a cable, as these new copper cables were much stronger than ropes.

A common method for processing grain was putting livestock in a hamster wheel and using that mechanical power. One day, another person decided to use this spinning shaft contraption as a winch to wind up the copper cables. Apparently, something strange happened during that process, and he managed to discover electricity. "This is neat," he thought, "I should make a computer!" and so he did. As soon as he had made a computer, Jon Skeet sensed the presence of another electronic device in the universe, and somehow managed hack time and space, manifesting an internet connection long enough to show the inhabitants of this island nation stack exchange. After they had access to Electrical Engineering, Stack Overflow,Physics, Biology, and Mathematics (to name a few,) the island nation's technology boomed. New computers were developed, internet cables were established connecting the islands, and all the citizens of the world had access to Stack Exchange. (they lived happily ever after)

However:

There was still no need for large machinery. There was still no way to power large machinery. There was little to build large machinery out of. There was no practical use for large machinery, as there was no easy way to transport it between the small islands. Livestock stayed central to the economy- The LHWG (Livestock Hamster Wheel Generator) was optimized, but remained the central power production system.

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Animals are huge

May be there are really huge animals like dinosaurs, or civilisation was created by tiny creatures?

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Non-Metallic Planet

Not a gas giant, but not a rocky planet, either. Rather, a planet with just light elements, like the first 3 rows of the periodic table, or so. You probably need carbon or something similarly flexible to get life at all, and iron and other trace elements are necessary for earth-based life, but it is at least plausible that exo-life could use something other than iron to carry oxygen. Or, there are only trace amounts of iron on the planet (iron is a rare-earth metal) and most of it is bound up in living things. This prevents you from making anything we would recognize as cars and trains and planes, as their sturdiest construction material would be something like wood (if you have stone, then you have Si, and if you have Si-based electronics, you probably have other heavier metals like Fe and Ni, and thus, cars).

Electronics

So, how do you get electronics? Most conductors we use today are metals, Cu to Fe to Au. Well, this is where it gets tricky. This planet would basically need carbon nanotube-based electronics. It turns out that you can make carbon nanotubes using very low tech (pretty much just burn any organic matter and you will get some by pure chance). But how you turn that into electronics without the benefit of metals requires a bit of creativity. On the other hand, without metals to begin with, an alien would be forced to think differently anyway. You could also use conductive polymers, or go the biological route and use doped water to make wires. Consider that we already have the most energy-efficient computers in the known solar system sitting inside our heads.

History

So, carbon nanotube electronics would be the cutting edge of technology on this planet, while neuro-electronics would be the default mode of computation. They would most likely have bio-computers rather than what we think of as hardware. This would also help explain the energy sources. They would lack the Si and rare earth metals necessary to make PV solar power, as well as the radionuclides for nuclear (no U, Pu, Th, etc.). They would have fossil fuels, but nothing sturdy enough to build boilers, let alone internal combustion engines or gas turbines. The best internal combustion engines you can build with light elements use the ATP cycle and power your muscles.

The question then becomes not: "Why do they use animals?" but rather: "How did they get electronics?" At some point, they could likely develop counting and mathematics on their own, and could build basic mechanical computers like abaci from just wood. They may even build primitive machines like a TinkerToy computer to play tic-tac-toe using wood and animal parts (bones, etc.). But at some point, they would realize the need to build fast switches in order to make a truly general computer. This is where things get ugly...

In the course of hunting, they will notice that sometimes animals move after they are dead, and they will wonder what causes this movement. Eventually, they will realize that nerves are conducting signals to muscles, and that nerves are actually wetware switches. However, they will also realize that nerves degrade very quickly once their host creature has died. So to exploit the natural wetware electronics, they will need live creatures.

In the beginning, they will select animals which are a convenient size for handling, like small rodents. They will figure out how to use stimuli on one end to trigger behavior on another. For instance, they might notice that pricking the paw of a rat causes its tail to move. Or maybe if you price one paw lightly, the tail doesn't move, but if you prick both paws, it does. And now you have the crudest bio-switch (a kind of logic gate), whose energy source is almost any organic matter, but runs reliably on vegetables. You just need to chain them together by connecting the tail to needles on the paws of downstream rats, and you can build a complete ratputer to do simple calculations.

Progress

While this sounds terribly cruel, keep in mind that you can't build a decent-size circuit with rats, and these scientists/engineers will figure that out pretty quickly. Also, such a ratputer would be very power hungry (in the most literal way) and produce a serious waste problem. So you need to miniaturize. You then move to smaller and smaller animals, until you can work with, say, ants. Because insects already communicate with each other, you may actually be able to train them to use multiple modes of transmitting information in a computational network. You could use mechanical stimulation for precise calculations (a leg moving could tickle the antenna of a downstream ant), and pheromones for high-level signals. Also, the ants could be explicitly trained to produce certain behaviors (being fed one sugar drop makes its 4 leg wiggle, and being fed a different flavor drop makes its 5 leg wiggle).

Over many generations, they may actually be able to create a breed of insect which is specialized for computation! The legs may naturally lock together, forming quasi-mechanical circuits, and the ants may become specialized for their task by increasing signal propagation rate, accuracy, and even adding new functions which would not occur in the wild. Eventually, the legs could fuse together, creating a kind of hybrid creature in which each ant brain is like a local distributed CPU, operating on a mesh of power droplets raining down from above, and releasing waste to a collector plate below. Multiple "compute boards" could be stacked into a 3D space to provide more powerful computation. And since the antennae and eyes and carapace would become redundant, these features would be bred away until the ants eventually formed nearly pure neuron networks with the minimal internal organs to support them, complete with interlocking feeding/respiration/waste plumbing so that they can be packed densely.

Conclusion

The limiting factor for all civilizations we know of is energy. Technology only moves forward when energy availability increases. Fire to cook food releases more nutrients for humans. Food for humans powers population levels. Fire to melt metals provides tools for building, hunting, and warfare. Fire contained in metal can be harnessed to power machines. And nuclear fires contained or uncontained can be harnessed to do planet-altering things.

If you prevent energy from being harnessed, then you can't plausibly build vehicles or computers at all. So forbidding fossil fuels is both implausible and unnecessary. The only way to prevent earth-like technology is to take away the key ingredients which underlie our tools: metals like Si, Fe, Cu. These give us concrete, steel, and wires. Whatever is left can be used by biology to build alternatives.

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