15
$\begingroup$

If all humans on earth died out from a deadly plague, which species is most likely to take over the role us Homo sapiens left behind? Which species is intelligent enough to build their own civilization?

$\endgroup$
  • 17
    $\begingroup$ Most likely none would. There are about 375 million years between the time Tiktaalik and friends crawled out of the sea and the present day. Humans have been "civilized" for (very generously) maybe 37,500 years. So that's about 99.99% of the time that there have been no (known) civilized creatures, and the Earth got along just fine. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Dec 10 '17 at 18:34
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Jayden, are you OK with answers about how a current species could evolve and then build their own civilization? $\endgroup$ – Nicolas Raoul Dec 11 '17 at 7:03
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ A species might be able to build their own civilization but does not necessarily take over earth. Are you okay with that kind of answer? $\endgroup$ – Vylix Dec 11 '17 at 9:49
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ Right now somewhere in the deep sea, networked microcephalopods are debating on their neuron-powered Stack Exchange about what would take over if they were to disappear. $\endgroup$ – Nicolas Raoul Dec 11 '17 at 14:20
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Who says humans are in charge in the first place? I'm sure every large predator thinks it rules its habitat, and could present a pretty convincing case. Besides, direct human influence ends at the coast and the ground. That's 30% of the Earth's surface and basically none of its volume. $\endgroup$ – Devsman Dec 11 '17 at 17:51

12 Answers 12

35
$\begingroup$

No species is intelligent enough to build its own human-like civilization. If all humans died out the world would slowly revert back to the wilderness from which it came. Many different species of wild animals would proliferate into the habitats left by man but none of them would “replace” man at least not in the short term.

Over millions of years it is a matter of opinion what would happen. It might be that history would repeat itself and one of the great ape species might evolve along similar lines that we did. It is also entirely possible that this would not happen at all as conditions now are different from those when Homo Sapiens first evolved.

$\endgroup$
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Species evolve all the time, and the question does not specify a time limit, so the first paragraph is off topic. $\endgroup$ – Nicolas Raoul Dec 11 '17 at 6:58
  • 13
    $\begingroup$ @NicolasRaoul I disagree question "Which species is intelligent enough to build their own civilization", answer "No species is intelligent enough to build its own human-like civilization". Which part of that does not answer the question? If it was the human like part then I put that in to give the question some focus. I have anwered the question over the short and long term what's the problem with that? $\endgroup$ – Slarty Dec 11 '17 at 9:56
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @SimonRichter Forget the oil, we've used up all surface deposits of pretty much any useful mineral. A successor species will have a lot of trouble getting metallurgy of any kind. $\endgroup$ – SPavel Dec 11 '17 at 15:48
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ @SPavel We have taken all of the surface minerals and refined them and left them back (mostly) on the surface. After a few eons they may have to be dug out again, but before then you can skip the mining step entirely. You're welcome. $\endgroup$ – Jeff Lambert Dec 11 '17 at 16:30
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @JeffLambert Good luck reusing our rust, I hope you don't dig up anything toxic or radioactive when you go digging in garbage dumps for it. $\endgroup$ – SPavel Dec 11 '17 at 16:47
22
$\begingroup$

Here's a dark horse candidate for you: raccoons.

Raccoons have complex social lives; are intelligent, creative, and capable of learning, enough to pass the Aesop's Fable Test (tool use); understand causality enough to tackle locking mechanisms;

In a study by the ethologist H. B. Davis in 1908, raccoons were able to open 11 of 13 complex locks in fewer than 10 tries and had no problems repeating the action when the locks were rearranged or turned upside down. Davis concluded they understood the abstract principles of the locking mechanisms and their learning speed was equivalent to that of rhesus macaques.

have better memories than dogs;

Studies in 1963, 1973, 1975 and 1992 concentrated on raccoon memory showed they can remember the solutions to tasks for up to three years. In a study by B. Pohl in 1992, raccoons were able to instantly differentiate between identical and different symbols three years after the short initial learning phase.

have a neuron count rivalling primates (admittedly the connection between neuron count and intelligence isn't proven, but it's unusual for a non-primate of its size);

Within the raccoon’s cat-sized brain lurks a doglike number of neurons. So many, in fact, that if you were to look only at neuron count and brain size, you might mistake the raccoon for a small primate.

and they are, of course, quite skilled with their hand-like paws.

$\endgroup$
  • 12
    $\begingroup$ If Raccoons evolved opposable thumbs they could take over the world. But they'd probably keep humans around to provide a ready supply of garbage :) $\endgroup$ – Crazymoomin Dec 11 '17 at 19:37
  • $\begingroup$ Pom Poco.. youtube.com/watch?v=_7cowIHjCD4 $\endgroup$ – geotheory Dec 11 '17 at 20:16
  • 9
    $\begingroup$ @Crazymoomin It's been suggested that our efforts to outwit garbage-seeking urban raccoons are actually making them smarter - pbs.org/wnet/nature/raccoon-nation-full-episode/7558 $\endgroup$ – Luke R Dec 11 '17 at 20:29
  • $\begingroup$ @geotheory Not the same animal, calling them raccoons in English is a slight mistranslation, they are really raccoon dogs or tanuki (who have more fox-like paws). $\endgroup$ – Crazymoomin Dec 11 '17 at 21:13
  • $\begingroup$ Humans think raccoons lack the brainpower, opposable thumbs, social skills, and problem solving abilities to take over the world after we're gone. Racoons being a stubborn animal will take over the anyway, because they don't care what humans think. $\endgroup$ – cgTag Dec 12 '17 at 15:19
12
$\begingroup$

There are a number of species with the potential to redevelop civilization in a post-human world. I like the idea of cephalopods taking over, but as Slarty points out, it is just as likely that apes could take over again (humans are a species of ape). The species would need problem-solving intelligence, an ability to communicate complex ideas, and the dexterity required for toolmaking and construction. Offhand, the only species I can think of with all of these requirements would be cephalopods, apes, and maybe elephants, though I am sure there are probably plenty of others.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Dolphins, perhaps? $\endgroup$ – Ballistic Porpoise Dec 11 '17 at 16:56
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @BallisticPorpoise The problem with dolphins (and cephalopods) is that in their natural environment they can't use fire, which is a pretty big obstacle to developing civilization. $\endgroup$ – Michael Borgwardt Dec 11 '17 at 20:47
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @MichaelBorgwardt The bigger obstacle is that they have no need. It's speculated that dolphins have their own rudimentary language, and they can be taught a kind of sign language where placing one's nose in a particular labeled hole means a certain thing, but once dolphins were taught the set up and learned the words for "play" and "food" it's just about all they ever said or were interested in. Basically, dolphins are incredibly well suited to their environment and have no need for tools. Whereas humans evolved in an environment of great change and harsh environments. $\endgroup$ – Shufflepants Dec 11 '17 at 22:17
  • $\begingroup$ +1 I too like the idea of octopodes as the dominant life form. $\endgroup$ – tox123 Dec 12 '17 at 3:10
  • $\begingroup$ I would be more concerned about the ability to construct and use tools than the ability to harness fire. An oceanic civilization would still be able to construct fires on water (e.g. floating oil or wood), and even conquer space by launching from barges (or from the land with adaptive gear). In the millions of years it would take to evolve though, dolphins (and any other contemporary species) could be quite different by then. $\endgroup$ – Nicole Sharp Dec 12 '17 at 8:39
7
$\begingroup$

Wikipedia defines a civilization as a "complex society characterized by urban development, social stratification imposed by a cultural elite, symbolic systems of communication (for example, writing systems), and a perceived separation from and domination over the natural environment."

No other species on earth is intelligent enough to form a civilization. Significant evolutionary changes would be needed for any other species to be able to do so. Such changes would be distinct enough to be considered a separate species. What species another intelligent lifeform will evolve from is entirely different question.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ So in sort no current species besides Homo sapient is intelligent enough to build a civiliation. What future species might arise to be able to do is speculation. (said somewhat ironically) Would it be approparite to point out that, accourdming to current scientific thought, for the vast majoiry of life on earth there was no species capable of 'civiliationation; and no nessesity for one in the future. (That said I do klinda like it) $\endgroup$ – P Chapman Dec 10 '17 at 21:05
  • $\begingroup$ "What species another intelligent lifeform will evolve from" is what the question is about, I believe. $\endgroup$ – Nicolas Raoul Dec 11 '17 at 7:00
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @PChapman Technically, that'd be no current species besides Homo sapiens is intelligent enough to build a civilization as defined by Homo sapiens. That definition may or may not be a reasonable one, but we're already positing something very different from what we have... $\endgroup$ – a CVn Dec 11 '17 at 8:16
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @NicolasRaoul That may be the intent of the author but that is not expressed in the text. "Which species is most likely to take over the roll of humans?" and "Which species is intelligent enough to build their own civilization?" are both asking about an existing species, no mention of evolution is made in the question. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Dec 11 '17 at 9:07
  • $\begingroup$ Hive-dwelling bees and ants get surprisingly close to meeting that definition without much in the way of intelligence. $\endgroup$ – Ben Dec 12 '17 at 0:33
7
$\begingroup$

How about ants?

In Bernard Werber's The Ants, there is an extract where a fictionnal writer says that if an extraterrastrial lifeform would arrive on Earth, it would seek contact with ants before humans.

Think about it:

  • auto-management of an habitat for a whole colony
  • communication and heavy teamwork
  • population control (soldiers, workers,...)

Of course The Ants is a work of fiction, but hey, we are worldbuilding here!

$\endgroup$
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ You could indeed argue that ants fill some of the components of the definition that @sphennings quotes from Wikipedia. They have a stratified society imposed by a queen, they definitely have urban development where they change nature to form complex cities (termites also come to mind) and they farm, so domination over nature could be argued too. And they are very numerous possibly with a higher biomass than humans not that long ago (bbc.com/news/magazine-29281253). They also have quite complex communication systems (although not symbolic). $\endgroup$ – Dolf Andringa Dec 12 '17 at 11:42
4
$\begingroup$

The answer is simple. Any species is capable. The real question is how long do you want to wait?

Of course after waiting millions of years (or longer), chances are the new species won't actually look anything like the original species. Whales evolved from a land based wolf like creature over the last fifty million years.

$\endgroup$
3
$\begingroup$

The only candidates lies with the great apes

The only potential there is, is that some of the other great apes develop intelligence. To me, this seems very unlikely to happen before the sun burns out the Earth's atmosphere, even as advanced as they are today.

My guess is that it might be possible for Bonobos, but I don't think it's remotely likely to happen. Chimpanzees is a close second, but the aggression they exhibit might be a hindrance. I can't think of any other species that would stand a chance.

If any species is to evolve into human like intelligence, there must be some evolutionary force(*) that drives that intelligence. I'm not familiar with any force that will do so, but clearly, at least one such force exists, or we wouldn't be here discussing it.

In order for a civilization to appear, you must have more than just intelligence; you also need to be able to make tools and meta-tools -- that is, you must be able to make tools that you use to make other tools. This requires dexterity that only apes possess at the moment; this alone bars all other species from developing any kind of civilization. Curiously, many great apes already make tools, including orangutans who use spears for fishing.

(*) This is not meant to be understood as some physical force of any kind. Merely some sort of mechanism that requires the development of higher-order intelligence.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ I believe as human evolved in the last 1~2 millions years there's no reason other great apes can evolve in a similar time frame (provided humans becomes extinct in the next century). The driven force can be social complexity/communication since a more complex social interactions demands language and bigger brains and it can pay off in survivability or in short; better team work == more food $\endgroup$ – jean Dec 11 '17 at 12:21
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ This answer needs timelines. I am not aware that the Sun is supposed to burn out the athmosphere in the 2 mio years. A quick glance through Wikipedia shows something around 1-2 mio years for a coarse timeline where precursors of Homo Sapiens (i.e., Homo Erectus etc.) already had "relatively" advanced stone tools. So if 2 mio years at the most were enough for us, it can easily be enough for some other species. Actual civilization doesn't even show up on the scale; that's just a little blip in the last 3-4 thousand years. The sun, in comparison, is measured in billion, not million years... $\endgroup$ – AnoE Dec 11 '17 at 13:25
  • $\begingroup$ @jean We have evolved into what we are today through some very specific circumstances. I'm not suggesting that it's impossible for something similar to happen again, but I just don't think it's likely to happen. $\endgroup$ – Clearer Dec 12 '17 at 8:40
3
$\begingroup$

Empire of the Rats!

Ok, The common rat is a mammal that has adapted to nearly as many environments as homo sapiens. They are reasonably smart. All they need is a small boost in brains and opposable thumbs and they could be lords of creation.

Rats have followed humanity all over the planet and we are always hard pressed to get rid of them. They get to wherever we go and then adapt to their environment, often thriving. This adaptability to a variety of places is the key.

Humans, unlike our cousins the great apes, have expanded and adapted to different environments. Most of the other great apes have stayed in a specific range.

Rats might not be objectively as smart as some other animals, but they are extremely adaptive, and that will give them a better chance to evolve up to, then past ape level intelligence.

Rats also get one final edge....NIMH! (sorry, couldn't help myself)

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

There are plenty of possibilities, providing that we are not too strict with our definition of 'civilization'. Generally, I would consider tool-making, social structuring and a mechanism for knowledge transfer, to be essential. Beyond this, recognisable buildings and structures (although networked tunnel systems could count) and language (especially written) would seem to be reasonable requirements.

Wikipedia includes "a perceived separation from and domination over the natural environment", but this is largely subjective and it could be argued that simply developing and maintaining living areas would satisfy this.

Tool-making requires some manual dexterity, so the species would need some capacity for this - this tends to rule out fish, whales and dolphins (without significant evolution)

Obviously primates, also rodents and many birds, possibly also cephalopods - all of these are reasonably intelligent and dexterous.

However, another requirement, I think, for what we might recognise as a civilization is a reasonable longevity, within which knowledge can not only be acquired over time, but also passed on (first by word of mouth, later through written language). It could be expected that the process of knowledge transfer, and the need for it, would in time produce some kind of written language, but this too would require further learning and tuition and therefore time. Longevity is therefore essential, as is the ability to develop an aural tradition.

Rodents and cephalopods are not particularly long-lived at present.

Taking life-span into account as a key criteria, the best candidate would seem to be a species of parrot. Parrots already have complex social structures. Note also, that parrots, like many birds already build their own dwellings (nests) and in particular the Monk Parakeet actually builds large communal nests on occasion. Parrots have also shown facility with human language, and the capacity to develop their own.

How exactly a parrot would evolve over time, though, I haven't worked out. I just think they are the best candidate for knowledge acquisition and transfer and, therefore, the handing down across generations of a civilization and they seem already to have many of the other necessary skills.

$\endgroup$
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Longevity is useful, but I am not sure if it is really a requirement. Octopi develop much faster than humans and have a number of unique neurological features not accessible to mammals. If a species can develop an eidetic memory, they would be able to learn and disseminate knowledge very quickly even if they die young. Also, lifespans could change greatly over the millions of years needed to evolve into a civilization-building species. $\endgroup$ – Nicole Sharp Dec 12 '17 at 8:47
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You may be right, @NicoleSharp, but an eidetic memory is not learning, it is seeing and remembering; Useful knowledge acquisition is not knowing what the picture is, but what the picture means, and of course, being able to develop that picture further. I still think longevity is important, particularly considering the timescale of our civilizations, but I am unfamiliar with how cephalopods view the world, and maybe fast brief civilizations are viable. +1 $\endgroup$ – Lee Leon Dec 12 '17 at 9:00
1
$\begingroup$

This is just an assumption, but I believe that in the event of a mass extinction of humans, animals as we know them will tend to disappear as well. But excluding the hypothesis that what will "kill" humans kill all living beings, I think that exploiting oil and nuclear weapons, for example, with a lack of human maintenance will have repercussions on animal life.

So for me, if there is anything that will build a civilization, more or less like ours, it still does not exist and will evolve from the conditions that come to exist.

Sorry for my English, I know it's not perfect at all :)

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ We could effectively kill ourselves off without killing off everything else, but you make a good point, there would be other casualties. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Dec 12 '17 at 9:34
0
$\begingroup$

"Which species is most likely to take over the role us Homo sapiens life behind?"

Let's assume the plague you mention is only capable of infecting humans and is able to spread quickly enough to infect all humans before killing them. If humans start dying en mass then this will cause problems for every living thing on earth as well.

With mass extinction, panic is going to spread quickly and the typical breaking down of civil society will cause riots, looting, and general anarchism as people try to do whatever they can to survive which is likely to cause things like fires which on a mass scale could linger for quite some time since nobody would be keeping them in check.

Most people would probably assume that first point, but one idea I had if humans died is all of the manual tasks in place to keep things like nuclear reactors in check. Without human intervention on many processes you will see things like nuclear reactors going critical because of insufficient cooling which will completely destabilize an environment and kill of large areas. I'm sure the military arsenal of nuclear weapons need some kind of maintenance as well although I am unsure to what degree and if they would also be likely to explode as well in which case we have an even larger problem. Aside from radiation you would have to account for environmental disasters that would spawn from large fires, nuclear, etc. Depending on the severity, you could see large portions of the earth in darkness due to smoke which could cause temperatures to drop. (This is conjecture of course since we don't have much knowledge on mass nuclear breaches)

I think the imprint we have on the world is too much for us to leave or all die off without causing a crippling blow to other creatures on the earth as well. This is not to imply that all life would cease as this is very unlikely to kill less populated areas such as deep jungle and aquatic creatures.

I will assume you are giving an infinite amount of time for evolution to take place in which case nobody truly knows what will rise up or how creatures will evolve. Aquatic creatures would likely reign supreme as all of the fallout on land and rising sea levels. By the time they would be evolved enough to come back to land, there would likely be little no evidence of human structures left as this would require millions and millions of years.

"Which species is intelligent enough to build their own civilization?"

The creatures with the largest brains in the least populated environments would be the most likely (After millions and millions of years to completely change to how we recognize them today). Apes, Dolphins, and other mammals are easy choices, but who really knows after such a long time if they would not die out to some other disaster or some new creature become the apex predator and eventually evolve and start it's own civilization.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ I think the scenario of nuclear meltdowns from power stations ruining a huge portion of the planet is overblown. While it will cause significant environmental damage, the worst effects would be in the immediate 30-50km radius around the plant, and after a century or so it would mostly recover save for the plant itself. Many reactors would not melt down at all if they were properly shut down (so unless everyone disappeared rapture style), instead slowly releasing a small amount of decay heat (and radiation) over the centuries until the fissile material inside is used up. $\endgroup$ – Crazymoomin Dec 11 '17 at 17:10
  • $\begingroup$ I understand what you are saying. The main idea was that many processes need manual interaction from humans or they can fail catastrophically and really hurt areas. Reactors would clear decent sized areas, but who knows what downstream effects it would cause. Nuclear reactors are cooled by water, thus a meltdown or explosion could contaminate large bodies of water which would destabilize the ecosystems around them. $\endgroup$ – Klumpy Dec 11 '17 at 18:36
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Indeed, but these effects would mostly be local and (on a planetary timescale) very temporary. There aren't that many nuclear power stations in the world, even if you created a 50km radius "circle of death" around each one turning it into a wasteland the vast majority of the planet would be unaffected by this. While there would be more far-reaching consequences such as fallout these would be less severe and shorter lived than more local destruction. Material in waterways would be heavily diluted if it reached an ocean. In short, I think it would be severe but not apocalyptic. $\endgroup$ – Crazymoomin Dec 11 '17 at 19:35
  • $\begingroup$ Fair enough and I agree. I didn't get a chance to look at the possibility of nuclear weapons detonating after becoming unstable due to age, but I did read the radioactive section would take about 25,000 years to be useless so that might be something to look at later. I'll update my answer if I come across something promising. $\endgroup$ – Klumpy Dec 11 '17 at 21:55
  • $\begingroup$ Nuclear reactors have shutdowns up the wazoo. This one is a non-starter. Refineries and other large scale industrial plants are still a potential problem, but many have automatic processes that kick in when the power goes off. And the grid will fail fairly quickly. $\endgroup$ – Sherwood Botsford Dec 12 '17 at 1:05
0
$\begingroup$

For another creature to take over the role of homo sapiens, you need to define the role of homo sapiens.

What creature could cultivate crops for more food, build cities, create governments, start wars, raise taxes, quarrel over differences in appearance, initiate the concept of freedom of speech and then restrict it with political correctness, invent fertilizer for crops and then turn it into explosives, create flying machines and destroy cities with them, refine information transfer and transfer rubbish with the result, and worship the Kardashians?

It's not so much a question of finding a creature capable of that, but one willing to stoop that low.

$\endgroup$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.