With all this talk of Alien Lifeforms over the past few weeks, I have been pondering a small question. May be a simple yes, no answer. May not.

Can a species accidently uplift another species? I say unadvanced in the title, because I'm not looking at advanced alien societies and technology. Only past and fairly current day methods. Nothing fancy.

In the David Brin Novels, Uplift refers to genetically modifying a species to purposely bring about sapience. I assume alot of work is done in the Lab. What I was wondering, can you do everything short of going into a lab and cutting and splicing Genes and Uplift a Species. (I've only read the one book, so forgive me if this actually mentioned in the other books. I haven't been able to find any synopsises that mention this example of Uplift).

Pretty Much, Can Domestication and the process of breeding for particular traits accidently bring about a creature that becomes sapient. Sapience was not the goal, at least initially, but an unexpected side effect. Not limited to humans and Earth but including aliens. Possibly not fully sapient in the David Brin sense of the word 'Uplift', but a proto-sapience? with full sapience a couple thousand or hundred thousand years later.

I know we currently breed animals for reliability and passiveness eg cattle, sheep etc. Therefore I wouldn't expect a cow to accidently gain Sapience. But some domesticated animals are highly intelligent. eg dogs, cats, some birds. A few more years of breeding and they may just turn around and say 'ENOUGH!'. Some may say Cats are the ones who actually rule us...

Some animals are naturally intelligent with little to no interference from humans. eg whales, dolphins, some monkeys (some monkeys are already in the beginning of the Stone Age, did you know that?). A few hundred years of selective breeding could see a potential change for the 'better' (Maybe they are already fully sapient and we just can't understand them!).

How far can a species be Uplifted without genetic modification in a lab setting? Could we (or an alien society) accidently set a species onto the road to Sapience? Make that Species skip several hundred thousand years of 'natural' selection and direct the species evolution in such a way that sapience is gained in a few thousand years of domestication? What other ways are there to accidently uplift another species?

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    $\begingroup$ In the absence of your "no genetic modifications" requirement, Science Fiction is full of examples of accidental uplift... The latest Planet of the Apes and Deep Blue Sea are both good examples. The original planet of the apes didn't involve genetics, so there is precedence, though admittedly, it is fairly soft-science precedence. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 7, 2016 at 17:27
  • $\begingroup$ "damn you! Damn you all to hell!" $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 7, 2016 at 17:35
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    $\begingroup$ Late in the 1970's movie series, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes showed domesticated but genetically-unaltered apes rebelling against their masters before the nuclear war. Admittedly, the apes are lead by a time-traveler, but other than that, the story line parallels your question's parameters pretty closely. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 7, 2016 at 19:38
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    $\begingroup$ I'm imagining an alternate reality in which dogs had better larynxes, so not only did they learn to understand us, but they could literally talk back.Lots of ways that could go .... $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Commented Sep 10, 2016 at 13:52
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    $\begingroup$ If you kill off the stupid ones, the species gets smarter. I suppose that if you carry this on long enough, the species will become a sapient race. Don't expect them to be grateful for this. $\endgroup$
    – EvilSnack
    Commented Sep 11, 2016 at 17:52

4 Answers 4


No and Yes

Uplifting, by its very definition, includes the intention to bring a species to sapience. So, one cannot accidentally Uplift a species.

That being said, of course one species can accidentally increase/change the intelligence of another. For instance, dogs are the only non-human species that understand pointing. Does that make them more generally smarter? No, but it shows that we can impact specific intelligence patterns, which means we could also impact general intelligence.

As for how much intelligence can be influenced, well, just look at humans. We didn't evolve in a vacuum. Who's to say other apes or lions or zebras or something didn't accidentally force us into sapience (certainly wasn't intentional on their part)?

You can't skip the several hundred thousand years of natural selection; without gene splicing, everything you're doing is natural selection, even if you're consciously directing the breeding. But, you can make natural selection go in a direction you want it to go.

See, evolution isn't a straight line, "unintelligent" on one side, "sapient" on the other; chimps are not still evolving into humans because they are fully-evolved chimps that are evolving into the chimps of the future. Without particular selective influences, there's no reason to think chimps will ever evolve sapience in the wild, even on an infinite timeline. After all, there's only one sapient species on this planet, and it's not like jellyfish haven't had just as long to develop intelligence as we have.

If we wanted sapient {whatever}, likely the only way to do it (without gene splicing) would be to intentionally breed for intelligence for a few hundred thousand (or million) years. It takes that long because you're only getting changes with every generation, every generation takes several years to mature, and you aren't guaranteed improvements with each generation. Further, humans have one of the longest childhoods relative to our size, and it's thought this is because of our intelligence. As you increase an animal's intelligence, it's likely the childhood of that animal will lengthen as well.

Which means, ultimately, that some crazy billionaire is going to gene-splice an uplifted {whatever} way before you breed one. I've heard we're really only a couple decades of dedicated research away from uplifting primates, it's just that no one wants to step in that moral quagmire. If that's true (even if it's off by a factor of ten), gene splicing will Uplift a species before selective breeding even if your starting point for breeding was 40,000 years ago (about the time dogs started getting domesticated).


OCD Art Project with Unintended Consequences

Perhaps an alien from a long time ago visits a planet with several continents and many many life forms. This alien notices that there are generally two large clusters of continents, and that one of the clusters would look so nice and neat if there was a connection between the northern continent and the southern continent, which are otherwise separated by a large body of water. The alien spins up his Handwavium drive and speeds up the process of tectonic shifts that bring the two continents together by a relatively narrow landmass.

On the other cluster there is a large continent, and on that continent there are a species of primates that live in trees. With the gap closed between the other cluster's two continents, air currents that go to the primates' natural environment cool significantly, resulting in the trees dying and forcing the primates to live primarily on the ground with more hostile predators lurking in the tall grass. To adapt to the new environment, the primates gradually begin walking on two feet to see higher, and their arms are now useful for holding tools and weapons. This eventually helps these beings perform more precise acts with their hands, such as building fires. Fire cooks food which makes it safer to eat and produces far more calories, thereby allowing their brains to grow significantly and over a long period of time come to develop marvels as vast as steam power, the Internet, and the 99-cent Double Cheeseburger.

So the alien's obsessive-compulsive need to see two continents kiss results in the conditions which spur monkeys from trees and eventually make the humanity we know today.

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    $\begingroup$ Excellent summary of the human evolution. You skipped the step where the primates lost their full covering of body hair in part due to their new standing posture. Resulting in hair in only strategic areas. But I will forgive that slight discrepancy :) $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 7, 2016 at 21:00

Conceptually, yes. It's unlikely, though. It could happen if a species was poised on the brink of attaining sapience ( whatever that means) and the alien influence provided a small push that started a snowball rolling and growing.

Imagine, maybe, teaching a (NB social) creature to speak and to ask questions, as part of assessing it's potential. This creature escapes, or is released, and rejoins its social group. It is able to teach them some of what it has learned.

If it can pass on only a fraction, in a couple of generations that group will be back where it started. But if the feedback between acquiring language and the mental modifications that go with it is positive, that group might carry on improving language skills for its own needs. This could then drive its own evolution, if linguistic ability became a positive factor in acquiring a mate or a high social standing.


If, for example, someone gave animals computer implants to enable them to acquire linguistic ability this might force adaptation in the direction of sapience. if this happened here on planet Earth the "uplifted" animals might include domestic pets, dolphins and whales, and other primates. On alien planets they could choose whatever suitable subject creatures they thought suitable.

Whether this qualifies as being done by an 'unadvanced' sapient species, but they would have to have the capacity to develop the linguistic technology.

Developing this them further, if humans created technology that could be used by animals including pets, then this might extended to include tool making facilities. The technology isn't simply cat flaps, but the whole technology that can be used by humans, however, it has been adapted to have interfaces so animals can control it to manipulate their environment. Provided they could also modify the technology to meet their needs, this could escalate into an environment that would select for animal intelligence. Over the generations this could result in sapience. If this was not the objective, then it would be an accidental uplift.


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