A lot of species on earth do not care for their offspring; they spawn thousands of eggs, that hatch into larvae, and then grow up towards full size.

If a hypothetical species was sentient in the final steps of that process, then what sort of society might they form? There would be no maternal or paternal bonds, no biological imperative to remain together after mating, no biological urge to protect the young.

This could have a ripple-on effect throughout society and their entire world-view. Would they even form a society as we know it with no incentive to group together to protect their young?

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    $\begingroup$ It's worth noting that the distinction lies in where a species evolves to expend energy on their young. Either you expend energy on producing a lot of offspring in the hopes that some make it, or you expend less energy on producing a smaller number of offspring then expend energy on nurturing the offspring until (more or less) around reproductive age. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Sep 26, 2014 at 13:11
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    $\begingroup$ why did this made me think of the beginning of 300 ? $\endgroup$
    – Fulli
    Commented Sep 26, 2014 at 13:51
  • $\begingroup$ Can this happen in an evolved sentient species? Does anyone have an example, even of a primate that does this? $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Oct 2, 2014 at 20:00
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    $\begingroup$ @James Of a primate? No. Biologically they are similar to us. There are a huge number of non-primates that use this strategy though so unless you can come up with a solid reason to prevent it there is no reason to think that sentience could never develop in one. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Oct 2, 2014 at 20:15
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    $\begingroup$ The Green Martians in Burrough's "John Carter of Mars" novels behave a bit like this. barsoom.wikia.com/wiki/Green_Martians They are clearly inspired by the Greek Spartans. The key part is that they heavily screen the eggs and the young, keeping only the 'best'. Thus they apply their intelligence to maximize the communal benefit of having lots of eggs. Of course they are under immense environmental pressure and have few resources, so that explains a bit as well. $\endgroup$
    – Jason K
    Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 14:01

12 Answers 12


Studying the r/K selection theory can give some insights on the problems such a species would find on their road to building a civilization.

r-selection species (which produce a lot of offspring they don't care after) have a lot less chance of becoming intelligent than K-selection species (producing few offspring with long parental care):

  • they don't need much intelligence, because their success is not depending on individuals being successful. Real life insects, for example, are very dumb but still very successful.
  • Without parental care it's hard for non-genetic information to be passed through the generations.
  • they are very low on the food chain, so it's harder for them to take control over their environment.

Of course, we assume that they evolved naturally, and were not created by supernatural means, or "uplifted" or completely engineered by another species.

Now, let's take a look at how such a species would behave like, if they, despite the above problems, still managed to develop intelligence.

If they become intelligent and build a civilization, they will probably be in control over their environment. This means that they could start to care for their young (which they didn't do while they were less intelligent - otherwise they would not be an r-selection species) and prevent most of them from dying, so overpopulation would very quickly become a serious concern. We cannot ignore this, because if competition arises between tribes or nations, the one who do care for their young would quickly out-breed the one who doesn't.

This means that their culture would be so different from our human culture, that we would probably find them extremely abhorrent. They might feel similarly towards us. This would make an interesting plot point (aliens which are alien not only in their ear shape, but having a truly bizarre and for us incomprehensible culture)

  • if they continue to allow most of their young to die, they could sooner or later develop interesting ethical views based on this. An extreme version of this was explored in the novel Three Worlds Collide.
  • if they use birth control, how would they enforce it? How would they deal with someone who doesn't cooperate? In the human world, if a group decides to have a lot more children than others, would lead to changes only on relatively long terms and could probably be dealt with, or their mentality might change over time. However, for a species where an individual can produce thousands or millions of offspring, a few non-cooperating individuals might quickly cause trouble by quickly building an invading army (either armed, or an army of illegal immigrants) This must lead to eugenics, maybe forced sterilization and similar strategies, which a lot of modern humans find horrible.
  • they could be very territorial and war-like, and would keep their population in check by constant warfare. This might be a cheap sci-fi tactic to create faceless and always evil enemies for our human explorers, or they could be developed into a very interesting concept, like in the case of the Ur-Quan.
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    $\begingroup$ If competition arises between tribes or nations, the one who produces the more offspring is probably going to outbreed the ones that produces less offspring. It takes time and resources to care for offspring, so either they would have to produce less of it, or they'll end up fighting internally over who gets the resource, ending up into a society that doesn't really care for its offsprings anyway. It's less than clear whether or not the ones who care for their offspring will outbreeds the ones that doesn't. $\endgroup$
    – Lie Ryan
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 23:59
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    $\begingroup$ I could imagine some form of Darwinist survival of the fittest being created intentionally. Since adults would only raise so many to adulthood and the natural threats the killed them off in the past are removed by society, leading to risk of over population, the 'parents' would create their own way to further thin the horde by creating extra challenges to ensure only the best survived to adult hood. Perhaps parents would have different desires for their young and thus would set up different 'challenges' to weed out the best at whatever they consider most important. $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Commented Mar 12, 2015 at 16:50
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for a good answer and a Star Trek reference that appears to have been unnoticed for more than a year. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 28, 2016 at 5:40
  • $\begingroup$ Larry niven's draco tavern came up with an interesting idea, an advanced R strategist species that designs lethal scenarios for its offspring, they are tailored so only the most intelligent/cooperative of their offspring survive. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 12:50


  • They have evolved to an intellegence/technology level simular to our own.
  • They have a lack of resources that need to be managed just like the real world.
  • They want the species to evolve/survive.
  • They take some time to reach maturity.
  • They are mostly like us but with the one difference that they have many children at once in larval or egg states and feel little to no affection to their own children as a result.

Obviously this answer can only be speculation but:

  • There is a strong incentive for some to survive but not nearly all.
  • Their continued evolution would mean that they should attempt to make the strong survive.
  • I would expect special parties may wish to give ones an edge based on genetic or observed additional value of that one.
  • You don't want the populus cannabilizing them immediately; waste of resources.

So, this species would probably raise their young to a stage where their value can be assessed compared to the economic cost of raising them to that stage. Mostly parents which seem to have value for the species would be allowed to have their young enter the program. For those econmics and to prevent rebellion, this raising would be in small, closed off, resource starved environments. They would be forced to compete with each other under conditions which depict their value. This would most likely include puzzle/intellegence tests, teamwork exercises, and athelics/combat/fitness competition. This would be observed by a third party to provide aid to those who show exceptional potential in high value areas.

Essentially, while I did not strive for this, this would be the Alien Hunger Games.

The main differences are the survivors would support the system as it is the only ways for the species to survive and they would also most likely eat the corpses of their breatheren or use the resources for something.

After being raised: the young would be the main workforce of the society. Those with enough power to keep them in line would do so. Likely the society would view murder/violence as less of big deal than we do but would not encourage it outside of times they wish to cull the herd. The eldest would most likely have the weapons and try to keep the youngest adults from obtaining them beyond the rudimentary ones. There is little to no nepotism. The carrot for working and staying in line is survival, the next big screen showing of whatever is shown for entertainment (probably killing some youth for sport or gameshows), and the potential to reach the next stage of living.

  • Those who produce profit, show effort, show dicipline, and show loyalty would be allowed to advance in the administrative ranks to keep the population in line.
  • Those who meet at least the lowest level guard requirements and also show exceptional intellegence would be recruited into scientific/engineering/medical ranks to keep the eldest alive and in comfort.
  • Those who meet high level guard requirements and are appealing would become servant/entertainers/etc.
  • Those who show athletic ability will sometimes be recruited as soldiers as there would definitely be war/conflict. Their loyalty and valor will determine their rank.
  • High rank officials of any group will become the ruling party as they eldest die off and the process will continue.
  • Expect a large number of well armed forces living is great comfort charged to do nothing but protect themselved and the eldest from harm.
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    $\begingroup$ Hi, this is all good stuff but I think we could do with more "back it up". I know in a speculative answer like this we can't really prove anything but it would be nice to see more detail of the reasoning behind each conclusion here. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Sep 26, 2014 at 21:51
  • $\begingroup$ @TimB Assumptions are assumptions. The next bullets are (to me) trivial from the 3rd assumption. If all of the bullets are true, the "Hunger Games" is the best means to controllably curtail the population and protect/teach them. The control is to support the bullets, the curtailment is due to resource limits. They support the system and are put to work as that is what is needed for an individual and system to survive respectively. The society after that is how uncompassionate fascism works and how rulers protect themselves. If you have any specific questions on how I came to a conclusion ask. $\endgroup$
    – kaine
    Commented Oct 9, 2014 at 15:26
  • $\begingroup$ This example (Alien Hunger Games) can be seen in GRRM's Sandkings. $\endgroup$
    – March Ho
    Commented Dec 28, 2014 at 9:21

In comparison to the highest voted answer, I'll try to find a way how a peaceful and strongly bonded society might not care for it's youth. A lot of those ideas are taken from pack animals (for the social aspect) and insects (for the reproduction mecanics). I don't know if you had a clear idea when you said "not care about it's young".

Why should they not care about the youth

First, there are too many off them. Like insects they lay eggs and forget them until they are adults. Maybe the mothers have so many children that they take so much energy and resources that the packs who did this eventually starved and died. In this case, the adults might live in close-knitted groups, but lay their eggs far away and let the youths come back and rejoin the pack. As pointed in the comments, this setup works if there is not a lot of competition between adult and young. It might work if the adult population inhabit 20% of the land, but in a situation like real-world humanity, children wouldn't have enough space. Or if, for example, the young are aquatic while the adults terrestrial. This also produce the next point.

Second, the children are so different that adults are instinctively disgusted. That society might be naturally xenophobic if they hate their own species on the basis of appearance. Maybe the babies are born as larvae and the adults don't want them.

Third, the children are violent while the adults are social. Imagine that the children are savage, aggressive and hormone driven. So much that they can't live with the rest of society. The adults would birth them, then throw them out where the youth would mature and calm down before coming back to society. This case is similar to how teens are troublesome until they (hopefully) grow up and become adults.

How would an advanced society like these be

If there are too many children or adults reject them. Since the adults don't really hate children, a children would probably form groups on the fringe of society. Because there are so many, they would probably be forced out of the cities and into the wild, living as bandits and hunters. Possibly, they could trade with the adults, being like the natives who traded with white men or some of them hired as labourers by adult. Eventually being accepted back into society in some ways. Those that don't make it might die or survive as wildlings. Society might see those wildlings as not even part of the same specie.

If the youth are violent and a threat. The children would hunt and pillage outside of society. Cities and villages would probably have police or militia to protect themselves. In this case, a youth uprising might actually be a legitimate danger. Eventually, the youth would calm down, realise that they would be better to join adults and try to prove themselves. Once again possibly by trading, creating art, socialising and being hired as labour. Society might also have some groups who would actively look for those acceptable children.

  • $\begingroup$ I largely like this idea; likely both would exist in this kind of world. There are a few things to point out. Such a idea works well when there is alot of land/resources so someone can say "you go there we will stay here". I assumed that without intervention or protecting the children in a resource/land starved environment adults would take from the children to an extent that it would be disadvantagous. It is also a complete waste of resources as you have a workforce who are just wild animal food. My civilisation would approach your children, promise to protect them, and we would take over $\endgroup$
    – kaine
    Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 19:47
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    $\begingroup$ This would work very well if the species were less like us and had laval/tadpole/aquatic children which don't have to rely on the same resources/land to live. It would also work well in earlier stages of civilisation development. $\endgroup$
    – kaine
    Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 19:49
  • $\begingroup$ Good point about resource competition. I especially like the part about aquatic children, I'll edit the answer. $\endgroup$
    – 3C273
    Commented Oct 5, 2014 at 1:40
  • $\begingroup$ @kaine : Concerning the part about your civilisation taking the children. I'll just say that the answer assumes that the specie has some form of built-in revulsion of it's offspring and that it's mostly peaceful and not as oppressive as the one you described or that children are detrimental to society. In the former case, no society could use the children. And in the later, you'd possibly be taking crazy animal.If they could be talked to by adults, then they could as well be accepted in any civilisation. $\endgroup$
    – 3C273
    Commented Oct 5, 2014 at 1:46
  • $\begingroup$ @kaine again : I reread it and and above comment was not quite right. The answer assumes that this society is alone on it's continent or that the specie's genetic make them less likely to act like you said. The question is then whether or not an innately peaceful race could gain sentience. The young could also just be a problem for both type of civilisation, because they're too feral or because they're aquatic or larval. Or just because there are too many and it drains too much resources. I actually don't think our answers are incompatible, even inside the same society. $\endgroup$
    – 3C273
    Commented Oct 5, 2014 at 2:07

There are two assumptions I just can't get by in answering this.

1) Is a physical being capable of intelligence on our level without an extended childhood development period where they are fully dependent on another to survive while they develop? I can't think of an example on Earth where a strong degree of intelligence arises without a dependent childhood. It leaves me asking if this scenario is even possible (intelligence without dependence)

2) Can compassion and understanding develop outside of a nurturing childhood environment? Much of what we consider empathy (the ability to detect and care for another beings emotions) finds its roots directly in a child's ability to make bonds with other humans at a very early stage in their life (including the time in the womb). Lacking this development at an early age has a known effect to create very anti-social tendencies within a child (a complete lack of these bonds has produced 'feral' children in the past that really are not capable of what we would consider normal social interactions). I would imagine there is a high mortality rate among the larvae, which means only those strong enough to survive become adults...meaning those that survive to adulthood are going to be fitting into the 'alpha male/female' category far more frequently.

I hate to say it outright, but I believe part of our intelligence lies squarely in the upbringing of a child to be intelligent. But lets say this hypothetical race did come to bear:

Two big steps for humans...for quite sometime we were loyal to a person (a warlord like figure). When this warlord passed away, the loyalty would pass to the next person to prove themselves capable of leading (with a transition that sometimes destroyed the tribe)..this did evolve to tribal and a group of 'elders'. The dynasty setup of Monarchy were loyalties were to a 'king' or 'queen' concept replaced this, giving a little more permanency to descendant of power. Finally, this loyalty transitioned away from the person and towards a much more abstract concept of nationhood.

I can fully see our hypothetical race here getting to this warlord scheme...an entire race where each individual overcame relatively poor odds of surviving that are now actively competing with one another in adulthood. Compassion likely wouldn't exist to the extent we see in human culture...I see nothing more than a culture composed of roaming and rampaging wralords that are living by the survival rules they learned in youth...survival at the expense of others.

There's quite a few other questions that come up...language is learned in youth where our brains are in a configuration that simply yearns to learn new languages...after youth this ability greatly declines. How exactly do youth learn the language? or any schooling for that matter? Heh, adult education annex is the only schooling? Why even teach youth that you don't care for? How does a peoples history pass down? How does a society evolve without history?

  • $\begingroup$ These are excellent points, and exactly why I find this question fascinating. These hypothetical sentient beings would be so very different from us in so many ways. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Oct 5, 2014 at 7:26

The Assumptions

I'm assuming we're talking about a heavily r-selected species that forms a group and then something we can call a society. There could be many ways that such a society could form; likely due to: herding / predator avoidance, perhaps for resource sharing, but with the possibility of other forces making such a society.

Real-Life R-Selected "Societies"

Ants, some fish, and some birds can be considered r-selected and can form social bonds within a flock/herd/swarm. As individuals interact, some individuals establish dominance. That appears to make the basis of a society (see def. 3a). Of interesting note are Locusts, who exhibit solitary and swarm behaviors. The species in question could easily adopt behaviors from those groups.

Non-Biological Reasons to Group

These are all biological reasons to group up (which are pretty good). What are some (good) non-biological reasons?

  • Mob Rule. Two people/groups get what they want without the third party being able to do much. As soon as this starts, the only way to counter-act it is to form more groups.
  • Big Projects. If this is a intelligent species, they'll note that two individuals can perform more things than one. If a group thinks something is a good idea, they'll do it, and may even organize themselves to do so.

You could have a society that does this without too much difference in thought if the species has a life cycle that has several metamorphoses along the way. So consider a sentient butterfly like critter.

  1. Adults lay eggs and forget about them.
  2. Caterpillars and other transitional forms survive on their own. Culling happens as usual.
  3. A chrysalis forms and attracts the attention of the adults, who collect them and care for them. These are the "babies" of adult society and are nurtured from birth and educated.

One thing that would be different is that the "blood tie" is missing. So either a sentimental tie to the one you found replaces it, or this would be a public duty.


Without parental care it's hard for non-genetic information to be passed through the generations.

I don't know about this. Alligators lay eggs, and also use tools (sticks to bait birds). I doubt that information is genetic. Probably it's emulating other alligators.

An example of a sentient species that does not care for its young in scifi is Kren of the Mitchegai

Cort says:

It is hard, but not impossible, to pass information. However, at some point maintaining large amounts of data becomes an interesting challenge

Maintaining large amounts of data becomes writing after it gets too complex to teach easily. Although you might have to postulate a rather interesting form or writing, that can be instinctively learnt... at least for starters (ie: in the evolution of language) - or a means of use of the young by the elders that will encourage older, non-related sapients to teach. Maybe it's alternating sexes teaching? Giving a whole new emphasis to the teacher-student relationship. Probably would require hermaphrodites too. You teach the ones you're going to knock up. Which would be a nice selector for driving more brains into the population, you only knock up the ones who're smart enough to learn how to read.

  • $\begingroup$ I think his quote is reasonable. I think it is fair to draw a line between "managing to emulate a tool, once" and "learning enough to fill a brain large enough to warrant being called 'sentient.'" It is hard, but not impossible, to pass information. However, at some point maintaining large amounts of data becomes an interesting challenge. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 3:48
  • $\begingroup$ It's not 'once', and it applies to all alligators in the region. Granted, most of the other learning we've studied is in mammals. Probably because we've not been looking for it - we've not done a good job in learning about non-human tool use, and about transmission of learned behavior (ie: culture). An aside, a recent study has shown that primates have culture. $\endgroup$
    – user3082
    Commented Nov 23, 2014 at 7:41

If a species developed intelligence, minus empathy for their young; they might just organise themselves in a way we'd consider hopelessly cold blooded. Children make good workers, and adult individuals might choose to breed simply to provide a workforce for themselves. I think it's important in this case to realise that you don't need to be empathic to want to nurture something. Scientists nurture cultures of bacteria; doesn't mean they love them or care if the individual bacteria live or die. The point is the bacteria have been raised for a purpose; same with this hypothetical species and their children. Just as the scientist is invested in the bacteria's survival as a whole (be a bit bad if all the bacteria died before the test was complete), so would the adult be invested in the survival of their offspring.

Those adults who decide to invest in rearing their young will probably end up with stronger offspring. This will then enhance their own chances of survival. The adults care for the needs of the children because that makes loyal workers. Or they just abuse, exploit, and eat them. But the tribes who organise for training better workers will do a lot better long term than those that don't. And this could be done purely for rational self interest rather than gushing parental instincts.

Then a system of morality we recognise might emerge; of basic rights. Indeed a system of duty might emerge similar to Confucius. The parent has an obligation to the children, just as the children have an obligation to the parent. This way they both recognise the need to coexist peacefully and work together. The relationship between individuals would be calculating from the start. But, this complete lack of empathy would cause problems, it'd basically be an entire society of clinical psychopaths. Which is why honour systems with clearly defined roles, duties, and rights, would have to emerge to counter the natural chaos and constant plots to backstab for better social standing. Their culture might not end up as alien as you'd hoped.


There are multiple models from Earth to can draw on for how this might work purely reproductively. But I think that's not the hard (or interesting) question.

The big question is how such a species would build on the advances of previous generations. Without this all progress is limited to what can be achieved by a single individual. Humans do this by storing our generational knowledge in long-lasting media, then teaching our young during their long dependence how to access this knowledge.

Your sentients will not have that option, at least not in an intuitively recognisable form.

Find your solution to this question, then pick or design a reproductive model that feasibly supports it.

Throwing something out there: young have a different form form adults. They hatch in spawning pools or perhaps oceans. When they metamorphose to adult form they crawl onto the land. The adults are extremely long lived. They pass on "knowledge songs" to these young. They form "mentor bonds" that are not biological kinship but psychic in nature. They form coalitions and alliances that are fluid and based on complicated shifting dynamics of influence, prestige, charisma, ancient and inherited chains of "mentor-bonds", "karma bonds" of good or bad deeds between past mentors, and so on.


There are couple of things that should be considered in addition to things already stated:


Organisms which are strongly r-selected tend to have shorter lifespans and this could have a great influence on how society behaves.

Survival to reproductive state

If we assume that technological growth causes the same decrease in infant death as it has for humans, then it is very difficult to foresee a future for such a sentient species, since they would quickly consume all the natural resources of their planet and/or destroy themselves over said resources. However, I think this is unlikely given the parameters suggested by the OP, since research into infant care would probably be ignored if the young are not cared about.

Thus, if the young are weeded out by natural selection, I would imagine great evolutionary strides in a short number of generations. To the point where you may have entirely different species evolving concurrently.

Model of Reproduction

This is an important point because certain organisms (like ants or bees) will have designated egg-layers (queens) whereas others (like mosquitoes or roaches) will not. Based on the model that is used, society would develop differently. A genetic level caste-system can arise from ant-like reproduction methods (similar to the one that already exists for some species of ants), where as there might a be "clan" or "tribe" based system for roach-like reproduction.


In Star Wars, Episode One, some of the villains belong to the Neimoidian race. The wiki has an interesting thing to say about them:

Before taking their adult form, Neimoidians spent the first seven years of life as "grubs," maggot-like larvae that were forced to compete with each other over a limited food supply. Only those that hoarded the most food survived.

I'm leaving that quote here just as food for thought.

I believe that no mortal society will thrive if their young are not reared somehow. But the rearing doesn't have to be gentle. Adults may have no parental attachments to their young, and they might place the young in situations where they must violently compete among themselves for survival. But this phase of life would be spent in a controlled environment.

It doesn't have to be controlled such as in a lab, or confined area. They might throw their young to whatever kind of wilds exists on their world - but they should guarantee that a minimal amount of individuals survive into adult life. If the amount of survivors starts dropping, they can always intervene to save at least a few younglings.


The Martians in Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land are exactly like this. They spawn many non-sentient young, which compete violently, and only the strongest survive to reach sentience. At that point, they are collected from the wild and brought in to start their education. Heinlein wrote the book specifically to challenge humanity's five biggest taboos - the Martians reversed all five, and yet had a superior and appealing culture. "Never harm/neglect a child" was one of the five big taboos.


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