Scenario: In my Evil Overlord plan, I release a poison into the wild which should kill all humans. However I made some sort of mistake in my poison design and I killed all Vertebrates bigger than 0.5 cm.

The poison under discussion is a plot device, made out of unobtainium and handwavium. It works just fine, thank you. (Except the deadly flaw I mentioned earlier. Oopsie!)

So what Earth is left with is just insects. The question assumes that what is left alive on Earth tomorrow is just insects. The flora stayed alive and unharmed.

I know it is safe to assume that Earth will survive this. It is safe to assume from the perspective of answering the question that this will be the next golden era for insects and they will grow to maximum size plausible for insects on Earth which should be circa 1m in size.

Now, can I assume that today's insects would be able to evolve into sapience?

By sapience I define:

  • Ability to use tools
  • Ability to improve on such tools
  • Ability to create art

I know I hand-waved a lot in this setup. So I would like to have at least some scientific plausibility in my story.

Time does not matter. Given a million or billion years, is it plausible to assume that current insects will evolve into some sapient form, if given the perfect environment in which to do so?

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    $\begingroup$ Thank you for actually defining what exactly you mean by sapience. It does make the question much easier to answer. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Jul 20, 2016 at 10:47
  • $\begingroup$ Termites create massive (on their scale) architecture and grow cultivated fungal gardens (agriculture). Ants keep aphids (domestication). I'd say the ground work is there to at least allow a hand-wave "yep, it happened!" argument. I think the real question - that I'm not qualified to answer - is, "what are the evolutionary drives to develop intelligence?" (And, of course, do those drives apply to insects...) $\endgroup$
    – Ghotir
    Jul 20, 2016 at 14:14
  • $\begingroup$ I'm going to put my money on the (descendants of) the remaining tiny frogs under 0.5cm to achieve sapience before the insects. $\endgroup$ Jul 25, 2016 at 18:44

6 Answers 6


Are you aware of Portia? These tiny spiders are already:

  1. Tactical planners
  2. Trial-and-error learners
  3. Capable of making complex plans
  4. Social behaviour

So are they sentient in your terms?

They hunt other spiders and they use other spider's webs against them and can learn a new spider species "language" as to how they should manipulate the web to lure the prey spider. As the other spider's web is not something that is part of them (like their own web) and they can learn to use it, that could count as tool use.

Can they improve on tools? Their trial-and-error learning facility suggests they might learn how to.

Art? They can recognise webs built by their neighbours. Could they trial-and-error learn to embed meaning in these?

They seem to have established themselves in an evolutionary niche that favours what you are looking for, and given evolutionary time why would they not adapt to be better at what they already do?

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    $\begingroup$ They are also not insects. $\endgroup$ Jul 20, 2016 at 12:34
  • $\begingroup$ @WillihamTotland - no, they are not. But it is a case-in-point where it is already happening in the natural world, and therefore can be used as a point to extrapolate that it would be at least plausible in other lifeforms (i.e. insects). $\endgroup$
    – Fayth85
    Jul 20, 2016 at 13:28
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Adrian Tchaikovsky's novel Children of Time is all about intelligent Portia spiders, should you wish to widen it out from insects. Also, do you really mean ONLY insects and tiny mammals have survived? That's going to be a weird ecosystem. The smart insects might have company - smart octopuses and smart crustaceans in the sea. $\endgroup$
    – DrBob
    Jul 20, 2016 at 16:12

Most likely, no. Insects are too well adapted to their environment which means there is little or none selective pressure for them to acquire increases in their intelligence to survive. So unless the environment changes and these changes are such that natural selection can push the arthropoda into developing more intelligence.

Among us (now extinct due to a slight careless with chemistry) vertebrates those species which have developed sapience there is the phenomenon of neoteny where organisms enjoy extended phase of childhood. Adulthood tends to harden the arteries and slow down any capacity for learning and intellectual adaptation. Humans seem to have developed their intelligence because of the massive amount of social interaction we are exposed to and is part of our behavioural heritage.

I agree with TrEs-2b that arthropods like insects and spiders have no capacity of childhood and adolescent learning. They are effectively hard-wired for the behaviour they need for the ecosystems they inhabit and for their survival.

The only tools they have are biological adaptations, eg, web building in spiders and nest building in ants. The only improvement comes from evolutionary changes. No tools in the human sense or tool-making. No tool improvement. No art.

They do communicate via pheronomes and chemical markings. if environmental changes did something to select for enhanced communication this might be the beginning of the evolutionary road to sapience. It's just that this is highly improbable. Very, very improbable. Pity. Smart insects would be a nice idea.

Environmental changes for possible rise of insect sapience

After posting the above answer realisation struck! There will be changes to Earth's environment in the future. Plus the fact that the OP's Evil Overlord has established what are several of the necessary changes for the rise of insect sapience.

In roughly 500 million years time the planet Earth will undergo increased heating as the Sun's evolves along the Main Sequence. This means the future environment will be undergoing massive changes and while insects have been adaptationally stable for many hundreds of millions of years, to survive they will have to undergo radical evolutionary change.

Insects are poikilotherms, their metabolic activity rises with temperature. A hotter planet means more active active insects. This will increase their interaction with their environment thereby increasing selective pressures and driving the increased probability of further adaptation.

However, the first two environmental changes have already been put in place. Competitors with sapience have been removed by the Evil Overlord's poison. Since all large vertebrates are also gone this means any vertebrates with a potential to evolve sapience are also out of the race.

Second, with humans and most of the apex fauna gone plants will thrive and as their abundance rises so will the oxygen content of Earth's atmosphere. A more highly oxygenated atmosphere will enable insects to grow bigger. This means insects will be able to develop bigger brains and comprehensive nervous systems.

If these conditions continue for the next 500 million years as temperatures and environments undergo changes to adapt it is feasible that insects might develop the correct suite of evolutionary adaptations that will enable, at least, insect to acquire sapience.

If so, an insect sapient species may arise under the light of a Sun turned red giant and by the time they develop civilisation this will be under a white dwarf star.


Yes but with a big ol' asterisk

The no part

There are many reasons why they couldn't and no reasons why they could. Evolution has simply favored insects to rely on instinct and not intelligence. From the ability to be near independent from birth (spiders and mantis') to using metamorphisis to make parents not consider children a threat to their food source. But the biggest problem is that instead of birthing one-eight children and raising and teaching them to survive. Insects mostly lay dozens, if not hundreds of eggs and hope that, while many die, a few survive, this does not nurture sapience.

* < Imagine this is bigger

If you're willing to bend your definition of insect, I can offer a solution that meets all the requirements of sapience; The Anthill. This species has the capability for intelligence, they can use and improve tools and since they can have complex pheromone based language, art in the form of scent is possible. The only drawback lies in that a polymorphic creature may not fit your definition of insect.


Yes. But then they won't be insects any more....

There is an evolutionary path from an ant to a Horsefly to a Human. You step from from the fly, to its mother, to her mother and so on, until you reach the last common ancestor (probably something worm like) and then forwards again.

It took that worm 800 million years to evolve intelligence, It might take the insects a similar amount of time to do so again. The say the past is another country: the future may be another planet.

The insects, if given 800 million years, probably won't look much like insects do now. There is no reason to suppose that they will have chitin exoskeletons or open breathing systems. They will have split and divided into groups as different from each other as starfish are from starlings. After all, just look what only 65 million years of evolution can do to a treeshrew.

  • $\begingroup$ I would have to both agree and disagree. No, they won't be like insects we know today, but yes they would still be direct descendants of insects we know today. Your wording makes this a bit difficult to digest in that sense. $\endgroup$
    – Fayth85
    Jul 20, 2016 at 13:35
  • $\begingroup$ I think the point is that when we say "insect" we carry with that word certain expectations: exoskeletons, compound eyes, etc. Similar to the word "fish" (swimming, scales etc) Can a fish evolve tool-use, art etc? Yes they can and they did. But the fish that have tools are not scaly swimmers, they are hairy tree climbers and savannah runners, that don't look much like fish. So I may be a fish in the cladistic sense, but most people wouldn't describe me as such. $\endgroup$
    – James K
    Jul 20, 2016 at 13:41
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, in that way I fully agree with you. $\endgroup$
    – Fayth85
    Jul 20, 2016 at 13:50
  • $\begingroup$ Sometimes you stumble upon your old answers and, are pleasantly impressed with yourself. Well done "me of two years ago" I like the line "as different as starfish from starlings" particularly $\endgroup$
    – James K
    Jun 4, 2018 at 22:26

No. Insects are restricted in size (to about 10cm for bulky shaped bodies) by their exosceletons and their way of distributing oxygene through tracheas in their body. This will hinder them in developping big enough brains.

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    $\begingroup$ Did you manage to read the whole question? I am building on assumption that insects can grow up to 1m in size if given perfect options. And I am prefacing the question in a way to know they have perfect options $\endgroup$ Jul 20, 2016 at 10:48
  • $\begingroup$ The maximum length of 1m can only be reached be needle-shaped insects like dragonflies (and there are fossil findings of giant dragonflies in the carbon age). $\endgroup$ Jul 20, 2016 at 11:38

it is just about plausible that over a long period of time an insect could evolve into something sapient, but it is more likely that it would simply no longer be an insect and would evolve into your sapient being

however, this is a fictional universe, in which case of course it can happen if it makes a good story


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