One of the benefits of humanity is our subconscious need to explore. It is a simple instinct of primitive people wanting to know, not only what is in your territory, but almost what is around your territory. From this came greed, ambition and a bunch of other things humans have. But let's say, for some reason, humans were out of the picture.

Assuming that I want a Neophobic species (like rats for a random example) to evolve sapience, what environment would best support this? Why would a species that, not only avoids, but fears new things evolve sapience.

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    $\begingroup$ This brings to mind the 'Pierson's Puppeteers' in Larry Niven's Known Space novels, a highly advanced race, with caution/cowardice as the prime species characteristic. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierson%27s_Puppeteers $\endgroup$
    – Catalyst
    May 14, 2017 at 11:19
  • $\begingroup$ I challenge the notion that "our subconscious need to explore": consider all of the Indians, Chinese, Japanese & Africans who still farm and herd the same way their ancestors did thousands of years ago, and why the Japanese developed the proverb, "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down". $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    May 14, 2017 at 16:38

4 Answers 4


An "awakened" or successor species might pair dominant neophobia and sapience. Or, sapient species might cycle between neophobia and neophilia.

Basically, a species that is designed from the ground up to to fear novelty while at the same time being capable of tricks like literacy could do it by hypothesis.

A subservient species that grows into the spaces left behind by a fallen empire (dogs take over the planet as humans depart) might do it more "naturally". Here's a just-so story along these lines: humans grow more and more technologically advanced, and as we do we bring our pets along for the ride. Spot would be more fun if he could talk and scan the junk mail (with a child's intelligence, he'd love to do it!), and for that matter let's give that guy some thumbs so he can be player #2 in my video game, right? But as we progress, the standard of a child's (or childlike pet's) intelligence grows with us. Eventually humans could be massive coneheaded walking brains with dogs as bright as bright 20 year olds. Then somebody hits the wrong button on the gene resequencer and a retrovirus wipes out all humans. Whoops.

So, the modified dogs take over, but their level of understanding is not nearly that of the coneheaded humans that left them behind, and experimentation and exploration are not particularly popular because that's not what they had been used for in human society for generations. They're mostly happy to stick around at home doing what they usually do (using the remaining technology that they had always been allowed to use), and when they don't, they pay for it.

A first-to-flourish sapient species might be neophobic in some eras and neophilic in others, however, and I would argue that humanity is just such a species. Humans have not always been enchanted by exploration and discovery. There have been centuries when we barred ourselves from crossing the seas by drawing serpents at the edges of our maps. There have been centuries when witchcraft was punishable by burning, and any student of history or sufficiently poetic scientist will tell you that novel science counts as witchcraft. We're culturally tending strongly neophilic now because new things keep paying off. Every time a new thing shows up it's even better than the last one, a belief which seems doomed to exponential self-reinforcement by confirmation bias until we either become as gods or destroy ourselves.

On that note, it's worth considering that an occasional neophobic cycle might serve an important role in the evaluation and adoption of technology. Our recent technological advancement has been very cool, to be certain, but we've sorta destroyed our planet, and maybe if we had arrested our development (even for the worst of reasons) for a couple of centuries in 1900, and really thought about whether we needed a billion cars or not... well, maybe the oceans wouldn't be in a death spiral. Or maybe they would be, but it'd be 200 years later!

  • $\begingroup$ Have you read Niven/Pournelle's Footfall? $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jun 22, 2016 at 1:06
  • $\begingroup$ I have not, but I browsed the wikipedia summary and I see what you're saying. ;) $\endgroup$ Jun 22, 2016 at 3:09
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    $\begingroup$ @SudoSedWinifred, stop what you're doing and go read it. $\endgroup$
    – Joe
    Apr 27, 2017 at 0:06
  • $\begingroup$ I like this answer $\endgroup$
    – user6415
    May 14, 2017 at 15:00

Consider the following characteristics:


  • Extreme longevity
  • Little to no regenerative capabilities
  • Narrow variety of digestable food
  • Reproduces late in its life cycle


  • Creature's food sources are reliable and sedentary
  • Other organisms are potential lethal (toxic plants, defensive herbivores, etc.)

Two things save us from our own creativity: our ability to learn from our mistakes, and our ability to recover from them. If you take away our ability to recover from accidents, we become much more cautious. Imagine a creature finds a fruit they have never encountered before. If the creature is like our own ancestors, they eat the fruit, get sick from it, but gradually recover over a short time. If eating that fruit was probably lethal, however, the creature would be much less inclined to try it. Similarly, exploring unfamiliar territory could lead to insect bites (or some equivalent), poisonous plants, or other environmental hazards. If these dangers were life threatening or debilitating and necessities were already close by, then a lack of curiosity would be evolutionarily favored. With these environmental characteristics, only those creatures that are extremely cautious survive long enough to reproduce.

Now that the neophobia (cainophobia?) is out of the way, we're looking for intelligence. This can be easily explained with the hostile environment. The more intelligent the individual, the more likely they are to identify and avoid danger. Likewise, social functions develop in order to collectively combat these dangers. As with our own ancestors, those who could cultivate or domesticate their food would develop more complex social functions.


Basically I agree with @Kys; but will expand a bit: Intelligence (with or without sapience) is effectively the ability to learn predictive patterns.

Whether they predict the future, or the unknown past. Although predicting the future (whether it is one second, one minute, or billions of years from now) is obviously useful, we can also use predictive patterns to understand the past: Sciences such as geology, astrology, forensic crime investigation, archaeology, paleontology, evolution; all of those use patterns to infer what must have happened. Most of those patterns extend into the future, but not all are predictive of the future: For example, evolution does not tell us anything specific about the future, just the generality that mutations will occur and may be adaptive and preserved. But the theory of evolution does not tell us if it is possible for any species with brains like ours to be smarter than humans. (Size may not matter and our most amazing prodigies may represent the peak of possible intelligence using neurons).

Put another way, intelligence is learning predictive abstractions; or "models" of how natural forces (gravity, weather, etc) work, and how other animals will behave and react. These can be useful for survival and successful reproduction. Such learning does not demand consciousness or sapience; in my field AI techniques are very adept at learning such patterns and trading them in the stock market. But they aren't conscious or sapient, they have no sense of self.

On this theory, sapience emerges when the patterns learned end up being complex enough to demand a predictive abstraction of yourself as an actor in the outcomes. As an actor in the model, the prediction becomes an "imagination", imagining the outcomes of our own actions is an exercise of such a model, and leads to planning and intentional manipulation of the environment and others. (In fact, we call people with poor models of themselves, and imaginations that are poor at predicting what will happen or the consequences of their actions, "dumb.")

Consciousness does not require any language; it is just the constant cycling of this predictive models of yourself as an agent, first, and others and the environment and situations, to determine what you will or should do next to accomplish some goal or desire.

Using this as the model of distinguishing between "intelligence" and "sapience / consciousness", we can answer the question: The species does not need to explore, but it does need a high motivation to survive and reproduce.

To develop sentience, it needs to (like humans) be weak against predators so it cannot rely on speed, claws, camouflage or any natural physical advantage at all, it must on slightly higher intelligence than the predators that lets it predict how they will behave so it can avoid being ambushed, or poisoned (snakes, insects, spiders), or chased down. Or develop unnatural tools (spears, nets, deadfalls, spike pits) to give them a chance against their attackers.

pre-Humans were prey at one point, frequently. We were not always hunters.

So you just need a strong evolutionary pressure to make better predictive models a survival advantage, particularly for a weak species that has nothing else. Neophobia is not an issue, being physically afraid of the new is fine, but does not prevent one from developing an abstract predictive model of the new thing (aka "understanding it"). In fact, if there is pressure to expand one's territory, for more space and food for the kids, better models will help do that: So loving a big family can suffice: They don't like the new, but they need the space, they need the safety ("safety" is itself a prediction of the future), they need the food.

In humans it is hypothesized that once we used intelligence to conquer most physical threats, it was our social environment (other humans) that created a feedback loop of higher intelligence to understand other humans, and out-do them for resources needed for survival and reproduction. So every advancement in our ability to understand affords a reproductive advantage, but becomes the standard 'floor' within a dozen generations or so, until another mutational advancement comes along, which then becomes the new standard 'floor', etc.

Which may lead to our current state of very high intelligence, compared to other animals, but for most people still barely enough to hold their own against other humans: We are our own biggest competitors.

So a similar thing could happen for a fictional species, small advances in intelligence first afford them survival in a hostile world, but once that world is mostly tamed and controlled, even better predictive models are needed for them to compete against each other for their reproductive resources.


I suppose they might fear the unknown because they are a herbivore species and us such are prey to many predators living around them. I would also propose that they are cave/underground dwelling creatures, since (at least as far as I know) there are no predators who live underground (on Earth).

Hope it helps at least a little bit.

  • $\begingroup$ they are not herbivore ... their diet is way larger than ours going from seeds and grass to meat and even poop or plastic, they are also famous for eating other rats and dead humans. $\endgroup$
    – user21718
    Jun 21, 2016 at 18:45
  • $\begingroup$ Well...that sound pretty gross... $\endgroup$
    – James
    Jun 21, 2016 at 19:29
  • $\begingroup$ @Threose The OP is asking for a creature with neophobia, of which rats are just one example $\endgroup$
    – Kys
    Jun 21, 2016 at 19:34
  • $\begingroup$ A prey species still becomes smart in order to have more food options and find new sources. They are both curious and afraid of something new. I speak of experience from my pet pionus. And rats, for example, will let one pack member try a new food first. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jun 21, 2016 at 19:50
  • $\begingroup$ Predators live underground $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jun 22, 2016 at 1:17

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