So, I have a story in which all of humanity flee's the Earth. The reason as to why they left is out of the scope of the question. After they leave, I want for the domestic house cat (or some other small cat) to develop sapience in the new human-less world, but how do I justify this?

What evolutionary steps would be required to have a house cat evolve sapience? if this cannot happen, how close can I get to it? How soon?

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    $\begingroup$ I don't think it's possible to give a truly scientific/realistic answer to this, as sapience (of the human level) only evolved once on earth and nobody knows how or which circumstances were key factors. $\endgroup$
    – Nicolai
    Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 1:15
  • $\begingroup$ Unlikely, intelligence seems to be tied to group hunting. Felines hunt alone, much like octopi which don't seem to become much smarter. It's possible but not in the shape of common housecats. And give it millions of years. $\endgroup$
    – Mormacil
    Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 8:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Mormacil where is the evidence that intellegence is tied to group hunting. Crows, racoons and early humans were scavengers while elephants are herbivores. Those are some of the smartest animals on Earth. $\endgroup$
    – TrEs-2b
    Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 10:07
  • $\begingroup$ Crows and humans both have complex social constructs. Also humans are exhaustion hunters, not scavengers. Dolphins and chimps both kill in groups and are about the smartest. $\endgroup$
    – Mormacil
    Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 10:36
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    $\begingroup$ I'll just throw this number out there: it was only 50 to 100 years ago we didn't even recognize animals as capable of feeling pain. "Kick it, it screeches, no more than a machine that hasn't been oiled." I can only imagine what the world would've looked like with sophont felines back then... (humans are jerks) $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 14:01

4 Answers 4


Cat's already have developed brains based on how folded the cerebral cortex is (estimated twice as much surface as dogs, with features comparable to about 90% of humans), but to make them on par with humans their brains would need to enlarge significantly.

Humans have had at least two evolutionary leaps in brain size. No one really knows why. One of the leaps coincides roughly with evidence of fire. Cooking with fire allowed humans to get more nutrition from the food they were already eating, but it's debated whether fire led to bigger brains or bigger brains led to fire.

There was another evolutionary leap in human brains, and it's assumed that people began living in larger communal groups around that time. Some theories suggest that as social groups became more complex, human brains expanded to track important people and extended family relationships. How would tracking social connections effect evolution? When you are more likely to die at the hands of others in your own species than from environment or predators, keeping track of who your friends are might be very important to survival, as well as having a good understanding of what others are thinking (called Theory of Mind).

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So you have a good chance with cats. They rank among "intelligent animals" but there is much debate about how intelligence should be compared (it's important to take studies that compare human and cat intelligence with a little skepticism, and many online articles are playing to a willing audience). If you own a cat you've no doubt seen them display an understanding of mechanics they cannot operate (like doorknobs). It's hard to imagine they will grow useable thumbs and start building complex machines, but It does seem reasonable to imagine a similar evolutionary path of brain expansion that changes how cats co-exist in larger communities (female cats already live communally but male cats are typically solitary roamers), and they would probably need to start cooking their food. Even then you might need 200,000 to half-a- million years of evolution before a cat society starts resembling ours.

  • $\begingroup$ What in that article are you citing as evidence of intellectual equivalence to a ten year old child? That bit about information recall duration of about 10 yrs? $\endgroup$
    – The Nate
    Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 5:55
  • $\begingroup$ @TheNate , and that was followed by my advice about taking these comparisons with skepticism. Did you read the whole sentence? $\endgroup$
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 8:23
  • $\begingroup$ ... I thought the evolutions of brains was believed to be down to rapid climate change, which encouraged brain growth due to the increased necessity for problem solving and long-term planning... I would have written an answer including this but i can't remember the source other then it being a documentury... $\endgroup$
    – Hannah
    Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 10:44
  • $\begingroup$ You make a claim unfounded by the link you supplied. "A little skepticism" doesn't change that. $\endgroup$
    – The Nate
    Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 13:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Hannah, I think the jury is still out on causes. There are BIG holes in our fossil evidence. As with fire cooking, they appear to have happened "around the same time" but that "time" is spread over tens (hundreds?) of thousands of years and not simultaneous around the globe. Neanderthals supposedly had bigger brains but did not become the dominant species…. As stated elsewhere, intelligence itself isn't well understood. If you find an article it might make an interesting answer: climate change. $\endgroup$
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 21:40

Khajiit has wares if you have coin. Humans have made leaps in intelligence that have allowed us to obtain sentience. Some have proposed the hypothesis that a mass freezing 70 thousand years prior meant that only the more intelligent humans could survive as they were forced to find new ways of keeping warm and finding food.

In a social group, intelligence was required to have many friends within the group. As time went on, intelligence itself became a desireable trait in a mate that meant only the more intelligent could find mates, meaning that intelligence became self-perpetuating without the need for natural disasters to weed out the less intelligent.

The big breakthrough was spirituality and wondering the origins of the world we lived in, evident by the cave drawings and the basic formings of religion, which shortly thereafter resulted in culture, art, pottery, and the beginnings of civilization.

Logically therefore, for felines to evolve like us, they'd have to live a very similar existence, and felines as of now are somewhat genetically inflexible. Cheetahs are very similar genetically, with very few differences, but this is mostly due to the fact that genetic mutations are likely going to produce a less-effective sprinter, which is one of the most important traits of a cheetah for survival. Something must occur that dramatically changes how felines hunt and survive.

My idea is that some natural disaster occurs that makes food scarce and the only food available is difficult to impossible to catch on one's own, involving flanking and intelligent tactics of this sort. Perhaps another species evolves alongside the felines which too develops intelligence (though not necessarily sentience, but likely herbivores), meaning that for the felines to catch their prey, they too need to grow smarter (think velociraptors of Jurassic Park). Though this herbivore counterpart would have to be one of the few surviving animals, or otherwise rather than grow smarter, felines would simply hunt things it can catch instead.

This would oblige felines to stay grouped together and therefore socialize. Perhaps this natural disaster too would affect temperature requiring the more intelligent felines to skin their prey and use them for protection against the cold (nuclear winter would have the same effect of blocking out the sun that a volcanic explosion would). This too would encourage their paws to evolve into something they can use more easily for both hunting and for tools, though I'm guessing given enough time, the need for claws would eventually subside in favor for hands rather than paws for the most part.

As time passes, their brains would grow bigger, and the necessity for speed would be discarded in favor for smarter tactics, as simple speed would not be sufficient to catch their prey. The increased brain size would allow them to walk on hind legs, though they may still favor all-fours when speed is important.

Hope that helps!


We don't know why monkeys evolved intelligence. So, we can't really say how to "do the same thing" with cats. The other thing that needs to be said is that you are probably assuming that whales or octupuses or any other animal aren't intelligent. Well, we keep on finding more and more examples of animals behaving in ways we thought were ours alone, so what we need to distinguish is technological intelligence (which we understand - that is, we understand what it is, if not how it came to be) from other kinds that killer whales, or birds or some other animal has. To get tech. intelligence, the species needs to free up its hands (you could possibly argue for a prehensile tail, but that would be difficult to use, not being "under" the creature's eyes). How do you go from a four legged cat to a two legged cat? Well, send them into the trees. What would force them (slowly over many generations) into the trees, well I can think of 3 things,

  1. most land is submerged (in their region)
  2. There are predators on the ground which eat cats and/or
  3. The food is all in the trees. Once they've evolved hands that grasp, then they have to come down out of the trees so you'd just "reverse" the cause they went arboreal. And you should note that a number of big cats spend a lot of their time (already) in trees. Plus, of course, Lions hunt in packs, so socialization which is likely to be important as well, is also already started.
  • $\begingroup$ I've heard the thing with octopi is they have very short lifespans (maybe 5yrs). :( $\endgroup$
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 21:43
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think it is he is ASSUMING other animals cannot. In his world he is building, this is what happens TO cats. They actually evolve. What ever it is that blocks them from it might help weed out the cats to evolve to be superior cats but suggesting to use a different animal defeats the purpose of his question. $\endgroup$
    – ggiaquin16
    Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 23:49
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding Khafir! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$
    – Secespitus
    Commented Jun 13, 2017 at 11:43

You would need to construct an evolutionary theory in which the traits of sentience were advantageous enough to feline development. First you would need to define what kind of traits these are. Things like shorter gestation periods and longer adolescence allow for humans to develop bigger brains. In particular, a larger neocortex allows for more complex social structures for humans.

Social intelligence for humans is a large component of things like language development, language development is a form of abstract thinking, abstract thinking leads to tool construction, and you can see how each of these things lead one after the other.

So what was the initial even causing shorter gestation periods in humans? Bipedalism had a part to play in this. The drying out of climates caused food to become more sparse in forested regions and walking on two legs became a better mode of transportation for prehistoric apes.

I think this also should lead you to ask questions like, what features of a feline would remain were they to develop sentience? If felines began to walk upright and develop abstract consciousness, would their legs develop more like human legs? What human features and feline features remain along side sentience is an important question to work out.


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