Defining what is a super intelligent civilization: An industrial civilization that invest on scientific progress and that builds and manipulates computers, robots and nano-machines, has efficient automatized communications and understand and manipulates physics and chemistry to a level that they can efficiently create and study natural and novel materials and improve their own biology, ecology and environment.

In a deep ocean planet with no solid surface outside water, if an intelligent industrial civilization evolves living on the deep ocean floor, at which tech stage they would start to study astronomy or try space exploration? How would they understand the universe before discovering the atmosphere? And after discovering atmosphere? And after discovering outer space?

Further if the planet has an additional global ice cover with some kilometers in thickness separating the ocean from the atmosphere, how do this change the evolution of the civilization on the planet?

And, if the planet has a thick and opaque atmosphere, how could this still further complicate the scenarios with and without the global ice cover?

Could any of those possibilities result in a super intelligent civilization that thinks that all the universe corresponds to their own planet or they would always figure out that this is not the case before becoming a super intelligent? Or could this simply prevent them from becoming super intelligent to start with? If they become super intelligent, how hard would be for they to figure out that the universe is not limited to their own planet (if ever possible)?

I am asking this question thinking specifically about what would happen if in the deep oceans floor of Europa or some other icy moon in the Solar System (though they do not possesses thick atmospheres), an intelligent tech civilization was living without knowing the existence of Earth. But this could also be applied to some extra-solar planets or moons.

[This is my first question in this community, so if there is any problems in its format, please provide me feedback and let me edit it before voting to close this question]

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    $\begingroup$ There is several questions regarding aquatic race. Try read this question which is kinda related: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/3828/… $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 8, 2014 at 11:19
  • $\begingroup$ Would they be naturally capable of the underwater analogue of flight? If no, would there be creatures capable of that while carrying members of the civilization? The case of "an additional ice cover ... atmosphere" would make me wonder whether or not they could either identity objects/features on/at (the) top of the ice or reliably identify features all the way throughout the ice, since I imagine that they're not getting through the ice without first measuring its thickness. $\endgroup$
    – user3576
    Commented Dec 8, 2014 at 12:24
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    $\begingroup$ @RickyDemer About the analogue, indeed yes. Submarine-like things without the necessity of holding a sealed chamber full of air do not seems to be anything unreachable. And about the ice thickness, probably the very purpose of measuring its thickness or its variations along different layers of ice may make them discover the atmosphere outside. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 8, 2014 at 13:12
  • $\begingroup$ So then, "About the analogue," no, since it would be with technology rather than naturally. Also, this may be because I recently skimmed a bit of Parallax: The Race to Measure the Cosmos, but I can't think of any way "to Measure the Ice Dome" without either features like I described or the top of the ice being very smooth and stars or a sun being easily resolvable. $\endgroup$
    – user3576
    Commented Dec 8, 2014 at 14:20
  • $\begingroup$ As this is prior work rather than original thinking, I'm not going to post this as an answer. One good incarnation of this idea is the Gw'oth (singular Gw'o) from the Fleet of Worlds series: goodreads.com/series/58169-fleet-of-worlds. Here's the creator's own description of them (warning: spoilers): blog.edwardmlerner.com/2013/04/quoth-gwoth.html $\endgroup$
    – slebetman
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 3:51

9 Answers 9


Water Worlds, probability and life

I have had similar thoughts as yours, specially for the case of a Europa or Enceladus type world, which is starting to seem the most likely type of planets for having liquid water. Think our Solar System, there is one Planet with liquid water on surface, one which had in past (Mars), however undersea oceans are almost certain in Enceladus and Europa and possible in several other bodies Ganymede, Callisto, Ceres, Titan and probably others. The lack of Sun light would certainly hinder development of life but I don't think it could be discarded. The aparent significantly higher probability of planets with water available in underground oceans migh somewhat compensate the less likely formation of life because of missing sunlight.

It is interesting the other answer that mentions that more advanced lifeforms having developed on land inspite of it being much later than ocean life, not sure if that could be extrapolated to other worlds since I wouldn't be sure why that has happened. Ocean life certainly is not in bad shape and there are probably more species at sea that at land. Just seems that the stage they have evolved is in most cases sufficient for survival in that environment without having needed to develop into intelligent beings.

Alien Ocean civilizations

I would make a difference between an ocean civilization in an ocean in contact with an atmosphere vs one under a layer of ice. In the first case the civilization would eventualy reach the surface, and investigate the exterior, how much it could initially learn might depend on how deep they originaly evolved and presence or not of significant cloud cover in the atmosphere.

Under Ice Ocean Civs Some of what applies in this case probably aplies also to previous case if the civilization where deep enough to make light absent.

In these Europa-type worlds:

  • There would be no sunlight anywhere.
  • Therefore vision might not evolve or only in species evolving simultaneously some type of bioluminiscence, competing with other systems as sonar smell or others to interact with the world.
  • Lack of light and vision would make astronomy unknown for long stages of civilization development.
  • Maybe even the absence of paterns found in astronomy might slightly slow develoment of math vs other sciences.

A civilization as we know would probably be sedentarious, this would make it unlikely at first to develop among species living in the open ocean, I speculate if such civilization apeared it would be either at the sea floor on at the sea top, in contact with the ice cover. Current speculation on posibility of hot vents in Europa at the sea floor might make a bottom civilization seem more likely, but maybe a "Top" civilization would be possible too if the life mass is enough for large animals living far from rocky bottom (or maybe the top could be chemically active in some way too.)

Things in our evolution that we take for granted might take a different course of events, even knowing the world is round would probably not be known until the civilization expands enough to reach itself on the other end.

For all this civilization knows they would just as likely think that the ceiling extends indefinately, something that would be possible to continue believing even well after they knew the world was round and therefore that the floor is finite and their world has a "center".

I think this civilization would probably need to be at least at tech levels similar to ours or at minimum mid 20th century levels to even start speculating of the posibility of the world having an outer limit. This knowledge would probably be obtained from theoretical models, probably modeling pressures and gravitation. Gravitation, and Newton laws in general would probably take much longer to be accurately undestood, as on Earth these where modeled with important inputs from astronomy and observation of planets. Other chances are detecting the Sun by some type of radiation penetrating the ice and ocean in levels detectable to some science instrument. From then curiosity would eventualy lead to this new Field of Science (Astronomy). Even then much would be theorical and even debated until finaly being able to breach the ice cover.

Considering that even in present Humans can reach the moon and other planets with probes, but still haven't made holes as deep as might be requiered by a civilization in Europa to reach outside the ice cover (and they would be drilling against gravity!) - maybe there could be a significantly developed civilization that knows little of the universe out of the ocean.

Hey maybe there is a mega civilization now on Europa that is as advanced as us or more but has not developed technology or science to breach the ice cover yet.


I don't think there's a biological objection that you couldn't dispense with with a little research and a little hand waving. The food chain would be based on geo-thermal vents instead of sunlight, but that's manageable. It's also a good excuse for having sedentary (rather than nomadic) creatures who can build up material wealth and bennefit from things like specialization and science.

The key difference would be having technology that works in liquid rather than gas; there's room for lots fun creativity and characterization.

Instead of electricity for storing energy and doing computation you could have extensions of biological processes (like biocomputers). Building becomes much easier, because you can make things buoyant rather than having to hold them up; inflatable structures are very natural. Communication is less of an issue because sound propagates so well in liquid, so radio and telescopes are much less useful (perhaps why your underwater intelligence isn't so great at astronomy).

One stumbling block is not being able to burn fuel the usual kinds of fuel (wood, coal, oil, etc.), so you'll have to find a different exothermic chemical reaction or rely on a process like artificial cellular respiration instead. Alternatively, if there are enough radioactive isotopes around you could get heat by mixing the right minerals together.

Once you've got technology rolling (through bio-tech or primitive nuclear), getting through the ice or the atmosphere is only a matter of time and curiosity.

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    $\begingroup$ One error: You can certainly "burn" fuel underwater. There are plenty of exothermic reactions with high energy densities and output that don't require any reagents to be in a gas phase. Chemistry would probably be a great source for a list. $\endgroup$
    – feetwet
    Commented Sep 13, 2015 at 18:12

I would say most intelligence comes with a level of curiosity. Without curiosity and a need to know, what good is intelligence? So my guess like humans they would keep asking "Why: and "what if" Have a thick cloud that obscures the night sky? Questions like "what is hiding in up there?" would inspire checking out the clouds. A flying creature to observe might bring about this question earlier than without.

Now their world view might be very different and what they believe is possible, we believed earth was the center of the universe, they won't even know about the 'universe'. So once someone successfully gets above the blinding atmosphere there would be a violent shift in the world view.

Similar to having an ocean world covered in ice. while they might progress farther in many ways and remain ignorant of the universe outside, eventually someone would ask "How deep is the Ice?" and like on Europa "where does the water go?" when it squirts out. Not having an atmosphere would significantly retard the water life moving out, because they would be much more likely to die in a surfacing attempt before they could bring back any reports of what is out there.

  • $\begingroup$ Good answer, but you still did not mention about they studying astronomy or if they would become super intelligent before knowing that there are planets and stars out there. Further, I was thinking how would they discovered gravitation, light speed and relativity. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 9:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Victor what is 'super intelligent'? I would expect a better than %50 chance that a race with our level of intelligence would start trying to find out 'what's out there'. because of the different world view it might take a little longer to adjust, but then again, it might be so different from their myths legends and beliefs they leap ahead in their understanding. $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 13:40
  • $\begingroup$ Well, I tried to give a definition that fits it. Lets say that humanity is super intelligent since the year 2000. What I would like to know is if the fact that they don't know that there is something out there until having a very advanced science, may halt their science in a way that they will never reach space exploration. Or only when they are thousands of years ahead of us on science, that someone might say for the first time "hey, there is a weird giant brilliant ball out there". $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 13:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Victor the thing is people are not a whole lot more intelligent today than they were 1000 years ago. We are however on average a lot more knowledgeable. Things are more dependent on when some one asks the right question with the intent and ability to find the answer. $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 13:49

Could any of those possibilities result in a super intelligent civilization that thinks that all the universe corresponds to their own planet or they would always figure out that this is not the case before becoming a super intelligent? Or could this simply prevent them from becoming super intelligent to start with? If they become super-intelligent, how hard would be for they to figure out that the universe is not limited to their own planet (if ever possible)?

The unfortunately boring answer is that life as we know it will not develop to near human levels, let alone beyond. As it exists on earth, complex life (beyond little crustaceans anyway) can't survive the pressure and temperatures at extreme depths (talking in the mile plus depth range). For example a complex circulatory system would collapse, and lungs or the marine equivalent would be unable to fill with air. In shallower depths complex live can obviously thrive, mammals even.

Marine life has existed on earth for significantly longer than life on land and in many ways does not necessitate (to the degree required for land based animals) the degree of evolution that life on land does. Water movement and the ability to manipulate your surroundings is less valuable in a world where, for example, you can't throw a rock as a weapon. Considering the head start time line wise if an intelligent species were likely to develop in water it would have.

In a deep ocean planet with no solid surface outside water, if an intelligent industrial civilization evolves living on the deep ocean floor, at which tech stage they would start to study astronomy or try space exploration? How would they understand the universe before discovering the atmosphere? And after discovering atmosphere? And after discovering outer space?

Now, given that you can come up with a reason for there to be complex, intelligent life on this world here is how I would see things happening. Tech stages would essentially be similar to ours with a few additional requirements of course.

  • Going up: Simply travelling to the surface let alone space would likely require some sort of environment suit.
  • Underwater electricity: This is hard, we can do it today sure but with technology developed in the air...simple things like wrapping lines in rubber. Tapping and controlling electricity is hard enough but doing it in an environment like this makes it much more complex.
  • Collecting natural resources...mining becomes harder, transportation on the other hand would be less energy intensive.
  • There are more but these are the kinds of things you need to explain...or at least consider.

Further if the planet has an additional global ice cover with some kilometers in thickness separating the ocean from the atmosphere, how do this change the evolution of the civilization on the planet? And, if the planet has a thick and opaque atmosphere, how could this still further complicate the scenarios with and without the global ice cover?

Given that life develops to the levels we are talking in the first place these don't really make things much different other than it will take more time for the species to colonize and explore their entire planet.

So yes given that a humanoid species developed (intelligence wise...their anatomy would still be very different). It would be a matter of time until they looked to the stars. This of course depending on them having the natural resources to do so.

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    $\begingroup$ I want to upvote but can't because of the first section. There is plenty of complex life existing at extreme depths in our ocean. Pressure is not a problem as the whole organism is existing at that pressure. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Dec 8, 2014 at 15:45
  • $\begingroup$ @TimB pressure becomes a problem as complexity increases. A chest cavity to house organs for example would require insanely strong bones and flesh surrounding it and when I am referring to complex I am referring to mammal level complexity. That does not exist in the deep ocean...to my knowledge. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Dec 8, 2014 at 17:01
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    $\begingroup$ That's not how it works though, you let water into the chest cavity and the organs etc function at that depth. You don't try and keep the pressure out, you work at that pressure. The reason it's hard for humans is we have all that air in our lungs. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Dec 8, 2014 at 18:41
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    $\begingroup$ For example en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viperfish Viperfish dive up to 5000' deep during the night and then rise to the surface during the day $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Dec 8, 2014 at 18:43
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    $\begingroup$ @TimB We may be thinking of differing depths. Don't get me wrong, 3000 feet is deep, but that's about .57 miles if my math is correct. The deepest part of the ocean floor is over 6 miles deep. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mariana_Trench Thinking about it the depth is less relevant than the inherent differences in water vs air that makes manipulating surrounding objects more valuable. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Dec 8, 2014 at 19:17

Such a being may not even have vision, which would be another serious obstacle to studying astronomy. I will assume that this obstacle is surmountable, either by actual vision or by technological means (ie humans have developed tools to allow detection of phenomena not detectable to personal senses).

Such exploration would go in stages.

Exploring the lower pressures above them would involve some methods of surviving such (lack of) pressure. However, this technology would be fairly linear up to water/air barrier, where it would have a bit of a steep curve and then back to fairly linear.

A shell of ice would result in a delay, but given enough time, explorers could figure out a way to penetrate it. Even prior to penetrating such a shell, there might be theories of some external bodies, depending on any detectable tidal effects and their understanding of gravity.

Essentially, given enough time, the civilization could develop astronomy. Whether the civilization would last long enough would be a great topic to explore and a good source of drama.

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    $\begingroup$ They might not have vision in our sense but they certainly might have other senses of perceiving the world around them as it would be an advantage in their biosphere. These might be thermal vision, maybe magnetic perception for orientation or smell. Under an ice cover even regarding the goal of space conception sight won't be an advantage at all. Except that I agree to you. $\endgroup$
    – Olga Maria
    Commented May 25, 2017 at 11:38

The thing with all of this is... You people do not seem to understand what evolving in the depths of the sea would be like. If intelligent life(Comparable to us humans) were to somehow develop in pressure such as 700 miles deep, they would not have bone structure and lungs as we do or even known aquatic life. Their anatomy would probably seem impossible; Jelly fish like anatomy; Anatomy that would be able to adjust to going even deeper than 700 miles. With living conditions such as their's(Low sources of known energy to live off of), they might live on unknown energy sources that have not been discovered because of our limited technology in going into the extreme depths of the ocean. Considering the amount of possibilities we humans came into existence the way we did, I would say it is completely possible for life in the extreme depths of the ocean with unknown habitats, and living conditions that would be almost completely different to ours with the pressure difference, to develop intelligence comparable to ours.

  • $\begingroup$ This talks about some anatomical development, but not societal development. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Sep 6, 2015 at 16:43

Judging by the evolutionary trends we have seen on our own planet, you cannot have human-level intelligence evolving deep under an ocean.

A Summary Of Evolutionary History Of Earth's Aquatic Life Forms

prokaryotes (very simple, single celled organisms) appeared 3.8 billion years ago

eukaryoted (advanced, but still single celled organisms) appeared 2.5 billion years ago

primitive multicellular organisms appeared 800 - 900 million years ago

sponges apeared some 600 million years ago

pikaia, myllokunmingia and other primitive chordates appeared 540 million years ago

first true fish (class agnatha) appeared 520 million years ago

placoderms, sharks, acanthodes and other jawed fish appeared ~460 - 430 million years ago

transition of fish to amphibians began ~420 million years go

And that's it. The End. That's how far evolution went in the oceans. From the time of first amphibians some 420 million years ago up to the rise of modern man 0.2 million years ago, all the evolution regarding intelligent life forms has happened on land. Amphibians are smarter than fish. Reptiles are quite the more smarter than fish. Birds are very much smarter than fish. And it won't be a comparison matching a fish's intelligence with a non-primate mammal's (let alone a human's)

Our great great great greatttttttttt ancestors left water and settled on land some 420 million years ago. Their evolution took a very long and winding path that led to a myriad of terrestrial life forms. And look where fish went! They are still at the same intelligence level they were 420 million years ago.

So IF there is life in the oceans on some water-planet (a planet with no solid surface and basically a giant ocean floating in the space), you can only expect to find fish there. Nothing smarter.

Further Hindrances

Having a sheet of ice over the water surface (and you are saying it's thickness is in MILES) would totally throw the possibility of photosynthesis out of the window. No photosynthesis means no oxygen. No oxygen means slow, pathetic type of respiration and metabolism. Slow metabolism means your deep-ocean creatures would be limited to simple prokaryotes at most. They can't even evolve into eukaryotes, because eukaryotes had aerobic (using oxygen) respiration and their energy consumption was much more than prokaryotes (simple, sulphur eating cells).

So I don't think you can get truly intelligent (comparable to mammalian intelligence level) creatures on a planet that has no solid crust. I'm sorry, but if you want to put intelligent creatures in the oceans, you will either have to solely rely on hand-waving everything we have known about evolutionary science so far. OR you can have your creatures evolve on land and then RETURN to water (such as cetaceans -dolphins and whales- which are mammals). Then only you can have a very very veryyyyyyyyy narrow possibility that some of their lineages could evolve into forms which are the intelligence level of an ape or monkey.

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    $\begingroup$ You are forgetting about the Cephalopoda <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cephalopod> which evolved completely underwater and are quite intelligent. There are several questions regarding a possible intelligent underwater species on basis of those creatures. $\endgroup$
    – Olga Maria
    Commented May 25, 2017 at 11:06

Knowledge about the universe from under the ice shell

Given in the ocean of Europe you have an intelligent life form. What would they know of the world?

  • They would be able to measure the topography of the downside of that shell as is their heaven.
  • They would be able to measure the chemical compounds of that shell and observe the changes within.
  • They will most likely realize the volcanic activities which blow water up and bring new elements in which are not from their world.
  • They will realize and measure the tidal effects which are caused by Jupiter without knowing anything about Jupiter at first.
  • They might be able to calculate the heat budget of their world - how much comes from below, how much comes from above and in which periods.

I am convinced if you have an intelligent species down there which is able of higher mathematics and measuring those things and have some kind of curiousity about the world they live in they should be able to get a conception of:

  • what is a planet based on their home.
  • what is gravity
  • gravitational forces outside the shell which cannot come from their planet therefore the existence of at least one other source of gravitation outside their own world
  • temperature differentials between inside the shell and outside the shell
  • material components of the outer side of the shell

While it might be quite unlikely for them to ever be able to leave the ocean as they would need to penetrate the shell they might have a conception of at least two celestial bodys - their own they live on and one other which is producing the gravitational force resulting in tidal activity of the ocean.


I believe this is as much an exploration of evolution in general as it is about deep sea life. Any species that evolves has the potential to continue to evolve, stagnate, or perish - or all three. When a species finally evolves to a survival stage, a place where it has access to resources that perpetuate it, food, shelter and defense, it has to have impetus to evolve further. Hence, stagnation is possible. When a lifeform chooses to continue to evolve, it may or may not decide to evolve it's intelligence. It may simply evolve to be more prolific, as in most species.

Biology becomes less relevant than the creativity and motivation of a species to further evolve intelligence.

There is a point when humans reached this stage, and it is in modern times. There are bursts of genius that humanity has reached, but subsided from, then reached again. I believe even crystalline life could evolve to intelligence (given enough time) of genius level, especially for the impetus of immobility. It would want to move if it couldn't, and once it did, it would have an extreme burst of creativity, and motivation.

I believe in the great depths of Earth's oceans, there is a high possibility of life on the precipice of evolving greater intelligence simply because of the impetus to survive such extreme environments. Because of the vast expanse of the ocean floor, and the tremendous amount of resources compared to another planet, it's possible for an entire advanced civilization to remain completely unnoticed by humanity, by choice.

Life itself should have been impossible on Earth, given the primordial conditions of extremely volatile systems like tide, lack of oxygen, volcanism, and poisons present. Yet, we are here for some not-completely-understood reason.

As for the highly radioactive moons around the gas giants, there is a remote possibility, but only if in their environments, there is a safe area for life. This could be where the hyper-huge tidal effects of the gas giants don't resurface the sub-ice-ocean floors on a regular basis.

I wrote a book, The Virtual Resort, that details the evolution of an alien species on a water world, and studied the possibilities in detail.


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