On the Life Ball of my fantasy stories, a particular species of delphinidae- I call them black dolphins- have evolved and advanced at least as much as humans and other intelligent races. Among other things:

  • Black dolphins have a highly sophisticated language. They discuss abstract concepts, contemplate the future, and debate alternative points of view. Whether a written form exists and how it works is now the subject of another question.
  • They have religion. The exact nature of their gods and how they worship are still in development.
  • They have government and politics. Most pods are oligarchies. Larger pods have what we would call Ministries of Education, of State, of Natural Resources, and even Justice (yes, dolphins can commit crimes).
  • They create art and fiction. Where there is a sandy bottom, they force water currents from their fins to create intricate crop-circle-like designs. Others grab stones and pieces of coral and stack them in sculptures. They are entirely satisfied with the ephemeral nature of these creations. They love to invent and tell folk-stories and fairy-tales.
  • They have science and mathematics. Most black dolphins know the basic underpinnings of algebra and geometry, and the idea of the method of hypothesis -> experiment -> conclusion -> repeat.

Does all of this necessarily mean that the black dolphins have houses, stores, courts, theaters, churches/temples, conference halls, and so on?

On land, all of the humans, elves, gnomes, and so on, at the very least have villages with an assortment of wooden huts, all the way up to grand cities of stone and steel. As the species developed, so did its ability to erect structures to display that development. Did the black dolphins keep pace?

My question is specifically about my black dolphins, but I am also interested in the generic concept: Do the ideas of "being civilized" and "building structures" automatically go hand-in-hand? Does a species gain intelligence and sophistication only as a result of building things? Is it possible to have a species as advanced as we are, or even as we were ~4000-5000 years ago, and never even have any sort of enclosed space?


2 Answers 2


Technically, going by the earliest meanings of the word, Civilisation does necessitate building. Civilisation came from the latin Civitas, which meant "City". A Civilisation, then, was a society that could build cities. No structures, no cities; no cities, no civilisation.

Now, having said that, it's hard to truly pin down what "civilisation" is in the modern sense, or how we could identify it among a species very different from our own. Still, let's go with Wikipedia's quick intro on the subject. A Civilisation...

is any complex society characterized by urban development, social stratification, symbolic communication forms (typically, writing systems), and a perceived separation from and domination over the natural environment by a cultural elite.

Civilizations are intimately associated with and often further defined by other socio-politico-economic characteristics, including centralization, the domestication of both humans and other organisms, specialization of labour, culturally ingrained ideologies of progress and supremacism, monumental architecture, taxation, societal dependence upon farming as an agricultural practice, and expansionism.

Let's take these one at a time, starting at the top.

Urban Development

This is what we're asking about, so we'll give it a pass for the moment.

Social stratification

This could simply be a result of human psychology rather than an essential trait of civilisations; after all, one could argue that by that definition, societies that are least theoretically democratic or meritocratic were not 'civilisations'. However, happily, you mentioned that most pods are oligarchic, so we can probably give this a point in favour.

Symbolic communication forms

I would argue no on this. Ephemeral art that will be washed away with the tides really is less a form of communication, more a form of self-expression; it's about the artist, not the audience. Unless they have some more permanent way to record the thoughts of great dolphins, this is a point against.

Perceived separation from and domination over the natural environment

Again, the ephemeral nature of their art and creations argues against this. I suppose they may farm kelp or coral to increase their food production, but there's only so much you can dominate the surface of the sea. One against.

One out of three isn't a good score. Let's go into detail with the remaining common features:


Oligarchical politics and ministries for various tasks suggest this gets a point in favour.

Domestication of both [dolphins] and other organisms

No information on their farming practices, so I can't award a point either way here.

Specialisation of Labour

Again, unclear. The existence of ministries would suggest perhaps? Half a point in favour.

Ideologies of progress and supremacism


Monumental Architecture

No architecture at all. Point against.



Dependence upon farming

Unknown, but it's hard to imagine how pods could farm. I'll mark this as half a no.


Without construction of any sort, it's hard to imagine borders that could be expanded. Still, it's possible that a large pod could forcibly integrate a smaller...I'll leave this as unknown.


2.5 in Favour 5 Unknown 3.4 against.

I would suggest that without some form of permanence, you cannot have a true civilisation, and that's the big problem here. These dolphins don't make permanent homes, they don't create permanent art, they don't alter their environment...these the hallmarks of civilisation, and they just don't meet them.

  • $\begingroup$ By this definition, nomadic cultures would not qualify as civilized. Yet they do build things- tepees, tents, yurts- they just move them from time to time. $\endgroup$
    – cobaltduck
    Dec 19, 2016 at 21:09
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    $\begingroup$ @cobaltduck Indeed, which has been used as an argument for why they are not civilised. As I said, there's no clear and unambiguous definition of what a Civilisation actually is. $\endgroup$
    – Werrf
    Dec 19, 2016 at 21:10
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    $\begingroup$ Good answer but the British English spelling of "Civilisation" as opposed to "Civilization" is driving me insane : ( still +1 $\endgroup$
    – Zxyrra
    Dec 20, 2016 at 0:22
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    $\begingroup$ Another thing this answer helps with, indirectly: The need to work out how the black dolphins treat their "wild" cousins- the commons, the bottlenoses, the spinners, the speckleds. Hopefully they can improve on our own Real World relationship with gorillas, chimps, bonobos, and orangutans. You've brought out a lot of thinking points. $\endgroup$
    – cobaltduck
    Dec 20, 2016 at 13:23

You're missing a few crucial pieces of the puzzle when it comes to your civilization:

  • The ability to record past knowledge,
  • The ability to effectively pass that knowledge down to new generations
  • The ability to disseminate information accurately and widely

Essentially, you need written words, and the ability to keep accurate records.

When a court passes a verdict, that verdict must be recorded, so that people don't remember the details incorrectly. And someone (presumably not the person who passed the verdict) must then be informed of what should happen to the guilty party (imprisonment, banishment, etc.). Communicating all these details strictly by word of mouth is bound to end up having some pretty interesting consequences (broken telephone effect).

And written records need to be kept somewhere, right? And not only that, but there must exist a place where they are created, and posted for people to read.

Do you know the joke that Government exists only to feed the bureaucracy which spawned it? It's totally true. You can't have government without records, and paperwork.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ There are human precedents for memorization of legal decisions and passing them by word of mouth. Supposedly, Ancient Greek orators had large swaths of the law memorized. There are specialists in Islam who memorize the Koran to be a living reference. With enough memory and the loud, carrying voice under water, I as a reader could find it plausible that knowledge is preserved and passed only orally. $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    Dec 19, 2016 at 20:34
  • $\begingroup$ @SRM - orally, sure ... to a point. When your government has evolved to the point where you have ministers of education, health, natural resources, etc. it becomes problematic to educate new generations, teach them history, and skills, not to mention law, etc. purely by word of mouth. Ditto for communicating the government's decisions, news, etc. $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Dec 19, 2016 at 20:37
  • $\begingroup$ I could throw a wrench in this answer by saying that many black dolphins have eidetic memory. You do make a good point, though. I suppose I do need this species to have a written language. $\endgroup$
    – cobaltduck
    Dec 19, 2016 at 20:40
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    $\begingroup$ @cobaltduck - I'm pointing out a possible hole in your world, and you can certainly choose to fill it by giving your species eidetic memory. That's 100% the purpose of this question, and my answer. However, editing the question based on my answer, and rendering it obsolete, is a breach of SE etiquette, and the question would probably get rolled back to its original details. You might ask a second version of your question in a different post, having refined it based on the answers you get on this one :-) $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Dec 19, 2016 at 20:54
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    $\begingroup$ Ack! Greatest apologies for the misunderstanding. I completely understood that to be the intent of your answer, and I never meant to imply I would "move the goal posts" for yours or any answers. The whole "throw a wrench in it" thing was meant to be jocular. I am the up-voter. $\endgroup$
    – cobaltduck
    Dec 19, 2016 at 21:04

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