Science fiction thought experiment

Consider encountering the following two intelligent species different from our own:

The first species is extremely intelligent but nonsocial and solitary. Individuals typically discover all kinds of scientific truths about the natural world – even surpassing our own scientific achievements. But they do not communicate them with others or pass them on to the next generation because they have nothing like language. Each new generation and individual embarks on its own journey of scientific discovery. It is a species with science but no language.

The second species is quite the opposite they have language but in their idyllic world they make no effort, nor have they much need, to discover anything about how the natural world works. Instead their society goes through transformations entirely based on cultural elements like the stories they tell. It is a species with language but no science.

Now to which of these would the idea of “civilization” be applicable and how? Which of these might you expect to experience a “fall of civilization?” What do you think this says about whether civilization is founded upon language or science? BTW this is derived from the film “Arrival” in which the main characters disagree on this issue.

This should be a highly interesting discussion.

I fear i already know what the purpose is behind this thread, but im keen to see where it leads in any case.

I shall go and watch the movie as im not sure i have seen it.

Civilization deals with social and cultural development and organization. It is questionable to talk about civilization without social relationships and a society where information is shared.

Arrival was a nice movie, I liked it. My memory of the discussions in the film focus on a bit different matter. As far as I understood, the basic hypothesis behind the film was that language forms the reality. The arriving aliens had a language that included a different concept of time and that caused the key person to be able to somehow transfer information between the future and the current moment. One source of conflict within the marriage of the key person was that she allowed something happen although she knew it would lead to suffering and death.

1 Like

As a Marxist, my father thought economics was the key to understanding human history and society. I think this is foolishly one-sided. Then it goes on to make it all about production and the means of production. Which I think is another foolishness. We have ample demonstration in modern times how economics can be driven by creativity alone, like in the work of entertainment. To be sure unless more basic needs are taken care of, this is not likely to happen. But there are many places on earth which are rather paradisiacal and basic needs are free to all who live there. Thus the second species above is not so far fetched, and you can have a species whose economics is driven entirely by entertainment alone.

There is no hidden agenda. It really is about the question raised in the early part of the film. Though… obviously the simple fact that this question seems so significant to me reflects my own priorities and ways of thinking. Actually the reasons for me starting this thread is more about realizing why the answer to this question isn’t as obvious as I originally thought. My immediate reaction to the claim of the physicist in the film was incredulity that he could make such a foolish claim that science is the foundation of civilization. But when you think of how we most commonly describe the development of civilization, it is all about technology: stone age, bronze age, iron age and some extend this with things like “the industrial age,” and “the information ages.” But… on the other hand, if you look this up you find others have described the development of civilization in quite different ways.

It has my highest recommendation as the best science fiction of recent times. It refutes one of the more common science fiction presumptions that mathematics and science is the universal language which we can use to communicate with aliens. To be sure it has the advantage that the answers we get are likely to be the same. There is just one problem with this – no guarantee that an alien species will ask the same questions.

1 Like

It is some time since I saw the film - the importance of language was obvious, but I recall the central theme was how a human being could communicate with the alien. I tend to think that the differences between these natures may be reflected in meaning, being and expressed in some form of communication. However, the way time is experienced is also part of the theme of the movie, but I would like to hear/read other opinions on this.

I thought the alien had a type of communication(?). Nonetheless, the alien nature and existence (I presume) are radically different to ours, so a commonality or universal language may not be possible?

Very interesting question! I personally think you need both high levels of science and social communication to form civilization.

I think of the octopus and dolphins when I think of this question. The octopus is incredibly intelligent and is capable of lots of high problem solving, even using tools, but they are solitary and not social.

Dolphins are the opposite, they are incredibly social and have a complex language, but cannot use tools and I have never heard of them using novel techniques to solve problems.

I’ve always felt like octopi would build a city if they could communicate and work together, and dolphins would build a city if they had something more adapted to building than their flippers.

1 Like

I guess for me the negative consequences would be that one civilization even though individually though may be smart they would they would really be holding civilization back because they could never grow last what they know individually. The other civilization would be better. They would thrive more and have a way to at least socially develop and build off of that. But it would also be limited a bit by how ambiguous it is. Proverbial truth and fairytales for example may be a great way to convey some truth, but it would be a terrible way to teach science.

Given that “civilization” seems to generally be used (when it is used in a technical sense) to refer to cultural patterns, and as the former species doesn’t really have any “culture” to speak of, it would seem that the latter species is the only one to which the concept can be applied. However, I would need to have a better sense of how “civilization” is defined to know how best to answer the questions.

Since science requires language in order to be be articulated, can you really have science without language? To be clear, by this I mean science as a method and body of knowledge not science as a shorthand for natural processes, which exist regardless of whether we have language to describe them. From a scientific perspective, I would say that civilization is in the same category as natural phenomena such as an ant colony or beehive. Since all human societies have language, not just just those that are organized into the complex societies that we call civilizations, I would not say that language is by itself the defining feature of a civilization. The same could be said for scientific knowledge. All cultures have a systematic approach to understanding the world and corresponding accumulated knowledge, even though it may not correspond to what we call science today. For this reason, I would not say that what defines a civilization is knowledge either. I would say what defines a civilization is increasing social complexity. There probably is no exact line where you can say one society is a civilization and that another society is not, but there is clearly a qualitative difference between, for example, the pre-historic Chatham Islanders and the Inca Empire. We would say that the latter is a civilization while the former is generally not considered to be a civilization. This qualitative difference is related to the level of social complexity not the degree of knowledge per se, though more social complexity will be associated with a corresponding increase in knowledge and information. A collapse of civilization either for a non-scientific but social species or anti-social but scientific species would be a collapse in complex social structures in their societies in my opinion.

Yes there is little doubt that science gains enormously from language. But if you define science as something which requires language then the debate is finished because it means language is the foundation of civilization regardless of how crucial you think science may be. Besides it has been long articulated that the language of science is mathematics and I think there is no doubt that math is more important for science than language. Some might even say that language often gets in the way. Besides I haven’t yet seen a good argument why the first species above isn’t possible. And while many scientific discoveries are a group effort, the role of the solitary genius is also clear.

In addition there remains the question of the second species which again I don’t see a good reason why such a thing is not possible. It looks like a civilization to me with possibilities for ups and downs. It might be a hard for us who have science to greatly value such a civilization, but neither do I see any great justification for judging it to be primitive. It seems to me that what science adds is power and I am not so sure that this is the greatest thing let alone essential for civilization.

Indeed… but the first species above doesn’t have any social structures.

I recall a history professor once saying that Marx could only have emerged from a Calvinist society.

(I seem to recall Luther was German. ; - )

What is a social structure?
Even species with non-social and solitary life style have some form of social structure. These species are usually territorial or possibly have some other social way to maintain distance to other individuals. Communication is crucial in this although it is not always verbal or does not necessarily give much more information than basic identity, status, sex, reproductive state.

The species need to reproduce and usually take care of the young. Transferring resources and information to offspring improves the survival prospects and often the reproductive success of offspring. It is difficult to imagine an advanced species that does not somehow improve the success of its offspring.

To conclude, a species totally without some type of ‘language’ or social structure is science fiction rather than real world. Fine for your theoretical questioning but not something we could meet in the known universe.

1 Like

I disagree.

There are many alternatives for reproduction than ones which require communication or social interaction.

And I don’t see why identity and status need have any role in the first species.

Communication is not language. What I mean by language is something which has a representational capacity to rival that of DNA… having something analogous to Turing completeness.


Granted this whole thing is entirely science fiction. I made that clear from the get go.

But it is not the case that a species without some type of language, social structure, or even communication is science fiction. These abound in the real world.

In any case… regardless of whether you believe otherwise. Your belief is not proof or evidence. And thus I repeat… I see no evidence to show that the first species is impossible.

I understand that your example was just for the purpose of your question. That is fine and maybe I should not have commented about how realistic the imaginary species were as it is a side track. But well, I am a curious human and your examples were interesting feed for thinking.

If you say that language must be able to mediate abstract or otherwise complex novel information, then I agree that language is not necessary or even common in the world. As a simple man, my interpretation has been that also simpler forms of communication are some form of language. Chemical and visual signs are as real language for me than audible speech or written symbols (text).

Identity and status are important for species that try to avoid potentially hostile individuals, like territory owners or aggressive dominants. Leaving scent marks or emitting loud sounds are examples of communication that tell this kind of information.

You are correct in saying that there are alternatives of reproduction which do not require social interaction. However, evolution seems to favor reproduction with social interactions, unless there are severe constraints, like being a sessile species. Parthenogenetic and vegetative reproduction produces clones and a population of clones usually disappears in a relatively short time (short in the evolutionary sense). Even sessile species may have invisible chemical communication, so being sessile is not a quarantee of not having social interaction.


Another possibility explored in science fiction (like Orson Scott Card’s “The Speaker for the Dead”) is that one sex is vastly different and more primitive and/or smaller than the other. In which case the interaction between the sexes might not be anything like what we call a social interaction. An example in nature like this is the Triplewart Seadevil Anglerfish.

P.S. I would never consider the word “civilization” to apply to ants and bees just because they have chemical communications. That sounds absurd to me.

1 Like

Yes, but it was Calvin who made work theologically important, thus the Calvinist work ethic.

Darn it, now I’m going to be pondering just what it would take to be able to regard some species of ant as having a civilization!

“Arrival” is an excellent sci-fi film. It’s currently on Netflix, but hurry up because it’s coming off on September 30, tomorrow!

This topic was automatically closed 6 days after the last reply. New replies are no longer allowed.