There have been a few races in science fiction (e.g. The Dwellers: from Iain M. Bank's The Algebraist) that have no concept of empathy. They do not care about the fate of others in any real way, the Dwellers regularly engage in ritual war amongst themselves for entertainment, hunt and enslave their own children, etc. The Prime Aliens from Peter F. Hamilton's Pandora's Star series are another example of a species with no concept of empathy for others.

Moving into the fantasy genre there are a range of other examples: Drow, Goblins, and suchlike, which also have no real concept of empathy or compassion.

So the question is whether a 'real society' could form, advance and gain technologically, without changing their nature. Could such creatures trust each other and co-operate enough to develop working infrastructure, economics, and all the other prerequisites for a technological society?

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    $\begingroup$ I'm no expert, but I feel like Chimpanzee Culture may be a good place to start. They can be real jerks. $\endgroup$ – PipperChip Dec 5 '14 at 14:46
  • $\begingroup$ For a human example, why not try the Aztecs? They were one of the greatest civilizations on Earth while still believing in human sacrifice and blood letting. $\endgroup$ – Shollus Dec 5 '14 at 18:12
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    $\begingroup$ @PipperChip and Shollus, both those organisms show empathy for their own offspring at least. Better to look at non-social creatures, like spiders and go from there. Or for a collective, ants. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Dec 5 '14 at 22:05

What you propose in your examples require more than a lack of empathy, but also a bloodthirsty nature to the point of lawlessness and anarchy.

I look to ants for my answer. They appear to totally lack empathy, but they would also never set up wars for sport. If a worker ant is killed, the hive reacts, but not in an empathic way. They recognize the death and make decisions. Is this a threat to the hive? No? Then there is extra food, and someone is needed to perform the job that the deceased used to do. If yes, then they react to the threat.

If a guard was killed, the queen gives birth to a few more guard eggs than normal and the hive adapts in the short term.

They can suddenly change goals and act as a civilisation would, such as when they decide to move the hive or split the hive and promote a new queen. If it suddenly occurred to a group of ants that they needed to visit the moon, I wouldn't bet against them.

So, no, I don't think empathy is a requirement for civilisation, but practicality and an understanding of the value of an individual's life to the species as a whole is.

  • $\begingroup$ If it suddenly occurred to a group of ants that they needed to visit the moon, I wouldn't bet against them Excellent! $\endgroup$ – Binary Worrier Apr 17 '18 at 6:50

By the most literal definitions of empathy, yes, it is a requirement. However, the bar can be set quite low

em·pa·thy ˈempəTHē/ noun: empathy

the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

If I can expand the word "feelings" to include "desires" which are usually not treated as feelings by human sociology, it becomes clear that civilization can only occur with empathy. Civilization requires working together to solve common problems: it is impossible to solve common problems if you have no ability to understand the desires of those around you.

However, by expanding "feelings" to include "desires," I also include a very weak definition of empathy that can suffice. If a group is capable of conveying their desires to each other, it is capable of identifying win/win scenarios. If it chooses to proceed towards these win/win scenarios, then civilization can begin.

One place this process could start is the unknown. Whenever there is an unknown, there is a risk of the individual dying or similarly undesirable outcomes. However, we rarely actually know the risks. We have to estimate them. If an individual decides to err on the side of caution, that individual is less likely to enter competitive situations where they could be injured. They are more likely to seek out win/win scenarios that come with less risk of injury. That could be sufficient to start the march towards higher and higher calibers of empathy.


One good sci-fi example of how to make non empathy possible to grow into civilisation is Vulcan civilisation.

For example this answer on sci-fi StackExchange hints, that whole "logical" thinking of Vulcans is based on cultural decission and not biological.

Non empathy can be cultural decission and does not have to be biological

But what if we wanted to have non-empathy civilisation, which is based on biology of the species?

  • Such species has to breed "perfect" children. (Able to take care of themselves since first minute being born)
  • Pregnancy rate should be short
  • Or, the breeding should be "externalised" (like Earth fish)
  • Basically, parents should not be required to care about their children. The empathy which we Humans feel to almost any small offspring of mammal is more biological, than rational. And we have it because we need to take care of our children

So, good shot would be to adapt aquatic race which was hugely discussed here and just externalise their breeding process


Well I would expect, for them to last very long at all, they would have to breed like rabbits. Because they would likely wipe themselves out otherwise and probably not even care (I think the goblins would fall into this).

Another way for such a society/race to form could be it was kept as a slave race by a very cruel set of masters. Kind of like dog fight masters. Trained to be vicious and are freed somehow, either they turn on their masters or something else takes them out.

I was going to say I didn't think species would do well with this, but there are plenty of successful fish that eat their own young, even some of the Apes perform Cannibalism from time to time. So I think large batches of young might allow such a society to form, humans need so much time and effort to raise, that if everyone in a society was that way they would die off. We do have plenty of examples of individuals like that, serial killers, extremists of all sorts, Dictators etc.


Empathy and altruism gives your species/tribe competitive advantage to develop more complex culture (to differentiate from mere animals). Helps to promote if not your own genes, genes of your close tribal relatives. Without it, species is collection of loners, hard to establish any progress. There is no shared learning and knowledge.

So I expect empathy would be requirement for any complex advanced civilization. It might be limited to own species, and disregard any other species considered less advanced.

Examples from sci-fi are not exactly relevant because they do not show how (with lack of empathy) species differentiated from animals and developed complex culture and technologies.


No, empathy is not required. It is possible to have a complex society without trust and with everyone looking after their own self-interest, even flourish, without empathy. Though, it probably makes things easier.

Here we have an example of the economic analysis of competing security forces.


Here we have complex societies at the brink of nuclear war who do not trust each other, yet war does not occur due to their own economic self-interest.


Here is how double-deposit escrow works for trustless transactions. (Seller deposits 2x, buyer deposits 1.1x, after transaction, seller gets 1x refund, after feedback, buyer gets 0.1x refund.)


You may also consider the complex networks and hierarchies of ants and bees, which probably do not have emotions.


Yes: unequivocally yes. The definition of the word "civilization" is, of course, entirely up to us (we could call a puddle of chemicals a "civilization" if we wanted to define it in terms of its ability to work together and eventually produce technologies or whatever). To call a process without empathy a "civilization" is to reduce the meaning of "civilized" to some kind of crude mechanical formula (potential to spread through the universe, or something like that) without reference to love, art, etc. Empathy is right there at the heart of "civilization": anything that lacks it, no matter how much it might resemble a civilization physically/technologically/etc., is more like a cancerous threat to civilization than civilization itself.


No, empathy is not required for functional society capable of creating a technological civilization. This is because educated self-interest can do everything empathy does for us.

But, a VERY BIG BUT, a species capable of creating a civilization would almost certainly have empathy. This is because empathy can do the important parts of what educated self-interest does, without education or real understanding of your surroundings.

For a species without empathy to create civilization, it would need to develop high level of intellect and sophisticated culture before developing concepts of family or social interaction. This is not flat-out impossible, a solitary species that has genetic memory and does not need to nurture its young due to exotic reproduction COULD do it. In theory. But it is highly unlikely because such species would have no real need to develop intellect anyway. Much of the evolution of intellect we know is based on handling social interactions or the complex needs of social groups. But what use could a solitary species have for sentience?

Worse, developed intellect requires developed brains which generally means that the newly born need parental care. This might be different for species with genetic memory, as the learning period would be shorter, but parental care and parental empathy would be so much more efficient, and thus more likely to evolve. For that matter while species with genetic memory are common in fiction, there is no real explanation why such would evolve when after a certain point social evolution is simpler and more efficient.

My suggestion would be: If you want a civilized species without empathy, a species that used to have empathy but lost it after creating a civilization is vastly more believable than a species that never had empathy.

Incidentally, while such civilization would almost certainly be distressing to visitors with empathy, where is no need for it to be particularly evil or abusive. Almost everything we generally count as our "better impulses" makes perfect sense from the viewpoint of "optimal strategy" for the individual. That is why we evolved those impulses in the first place.


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