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Creating Intelligent Species

This article is a companion post for the Creating a Alien Ecosystem series.

A few of you asked me how to create intelligent species out of an ecosystem of relatively unevolved aliens, so here's a guide for you. We're going to use my ecosystem as an example - and that means our warm-climate creatures, since at the time I'm writing this, that's the best-developed part of my ecosystem. That means we have a spread of 16 Orders we can look at.

Picture of a dragon working on robotics.
A dragon working on a... motherboard? Artwork by Dante Rexe.

For anyone just joining us, 'Order' is a reference to taxonomic biology. At the time I'm writing this blog post I haven't broken my Orders of aliens down into individual species, so for now I'm treating Orders - that is, groups of animals on a par with 'primates', 'whales, dolphins, and porpoises', 'frogs and toads', etc., as species. We can break them down in another blog post. Here's the start of my blog post series about building an alien ecosystem from scratch, if you would like to read it yourself.

Below is a list of elements that contribute to species being able to ascend from non-sapient to sapient (or into 'intelligent' races). I mostly drew from Wikipedia's article about this, so if you'd like to explore the ins and outs of these further, You can find the article here.

Anyway, here's the list we're going to use:

Screenshot of empty spreadsheet with the above list across the top and each of my Orders down the left hand side.
Screenshot of spreadsheet with empty table, ready for us to use. Click here to see full size image.

In this blog post we're going to score each of our species according to the above: how much relaxation time do they get? How much reason do they have to be aggressive? And so on. For that, I'm going to use a spreadsheet, but feel free to do this in any way you like.

I've prepared a spreadsheet which you can see on the right, ready for us to start scoring the different Orders.

Also, for anyone who's just joined us in this blog post, I'm using familiar terms like 'Insectivore', 'Eels and morays', etc. as a way to keep this ecosystem easy to work with. They already differ from these species and will get their own unique names by the end of this series.

Screenshot of spreadsheet showing one column filled in.
Screenshot of spreadsheet showing the Carnivore column filled in. Click here to see full size image.


Let's start with an easy one: who eats meat or anything else energy-rich, and who doesn't? I'm going to score every Order that eats exclusively meat, fish, or insects a 5, anything that eats an omnivorous diet a 3, and anything purely herbivorous a 0. You might notice that the score at the end, in column J, reflects the scores. That column is going to keep score for us so we can work out who scores the highest, by the end of this exercise.

Screenshot of spreadsheet showing two columns filled in.
Screenshot of spreadsheet showing the Carnivore and Empathy columns filled in. Click here to see full size image.


This one is fairly easy too. The more cooperative the individuals of an Order are, the closer to 5 they get; the less so, the lower the score. What I'm looking for here is how much social thinking the animal does.

For instance, I scored insectivores a 5 and pheasants 2 despite them being a part of the same cooperative arrangement because the insectivores do most of the thinking in that relationship: the insectivores plan extra routes of escape from predators and proactively modify the pheasants' burrows, watch out for danger, and call out if danger appears. The pheasants, on the other hand, posture to one another (this will score well in Culture since the pheasants have a good sense of one-anothers' beauty), and only respond reactively to the insectivores' vigilance. Overall, they're doing far less work in that relationship. Even their lax attitude towards the insectivores modifying their burrows could be either a sign of intelligence (impulse control) or lack thereof (they just don't care). I'm erring on the side of them not caring.

The bats and insectivores have a good lead, but we've got several more markers to look at yet!

Screenshot of spreadsheet showing three columns filled in.
Screenshot of spreadsheet showing Carnivore, Empathy, and Big Brain columns filled in. Click here to see full size image.

Big Brain

This seems like another easy one. Some of these species have bigger brains than others, and they've scored higher. However, the small species who have the potential to grow bigger get a higher score too. For instance, Seals scored higher because while they don't have particularly big brains at the time of their evolution that I've been looking at, they live in the open (indeed, they are mostly aquatic so the sea itself may support them in growing much bigger - including their brains). Insectivores, on the other hand, live in burrows dug by a less-intelligent species, so will need to stay small to be able to continue to live in those burrows. If they can't grow much bigger, neither can their brains.

The sapient-species markers that are left are potentially more complicated, so now that we've handled the simple ones, let's get those done. I'd like to work on Reduced Aggression next.

Screenshot of spreadsheet showing four columns filled in.
Screenshot of spreadsheet showing Carnivore, Empathy, Big Brain, and Reduced Aggression columns filled in. Click here to see full size image.

Reduced Aggression

I'm looking at this one from two angles: firstly whether or not the animals, by and large, have enough water, food, space, and potential mates to go around without having to fight for it, and secondly, how much incentive they have to cooperate rather than fight. We've already scored the animals for cooperation so I'll just score for aggression in competition here: the higher the need for competition, the lower the score.

In my ecosystem, bats are aquatic and get by, by cooperating with their predators. They're constantly in harm's way so need to live on their wits. Aside from that, they live in large groups of their own kind, so benefit more from cooperation than competition. Vulnerable creatures like them can't survive by getting distracted with fights. Anglerfish, on the other hand, evolved to wait for prey to pass by and then strike. They rely on their quick reflexes to catch prey, not their intelligence, and they don't live in groups. Ultimately, mindless aggression works best for them, which puts them in something of an evolutionary dead-end.

Screenshot of spreadsheet showing five columns filled in.
Screenshot of spreadsheet showing Carnivore, Empathy, Big Brain, Reduced Aggression, and Relaxation Time columns filled in. Click here to see full size image.

Relaxation Time

Let's go for this one next. Some of these creatures, like anglerfish, wouldn't have a concept of relaxation. If they're alive, they're laying in wait of food to wander by, so as such, I've scored anything that lives on that purely instinctive level a 0. Once again the pheasants get the better end of the the deal with the insectivores, but this time it works in their favour: they can spend most of their time out of survival mode and just enjoy life.

Column J is starting to look quite varied, now! Our most mindless predators are lagging behind at 6 - anglerfish, toadfish, and eels and morays - while a couple of species are heading for 20 - the insectivores, bats, and seals.

The final three markers would probably occur during a later stage of evolution, as these creatures started to evolve beyond a pure 'animal' state into something we might begin to call 'intelligent'. Therefore I won't be too harsh with my scoring. If any of these creatures show any signs of language, sexual preference for more intelligent mates, and a preference for aesthetic beauty in mates, I'll score them higher.

Screenshot of spreadsheet showing six columns filled in.
Screenshot of spreadsheet showing Carnivore, Empathy, Big Brain, Reduced Aggression, Relaxation Time, and Language columns filled in. Click here to see full size image.


Language is a tricky one for some of these species. For toadfish, anglerfish, and eels and morays, they're never likely to have anyone to talk to, so naturally they're unlikely to develop a language. Other species, such as the seals and gliding tree mammals have a certain amount of social life, but I'm guessing they'd have little to say to one another. They spend time together but don't need to cooperate to catch their food, so lack the impetus to begin trying to cooperatively vocalise, unless it's to warn one another of danger, which really only takes a bellow, not a complex message, unless it becomes worth their while differentiating different types of predator. But if you only have one escape route and it works just fine - slip into the water or leap away - why develop a sophisticated warning system?

Our insectivores and pheasants once again present an interesting challenge. The insectivores would likely develop a fairly complex language for their size, but I think they'd only talk with each other. The pheasants may communicate too, but they have less incentive to bother developing their own language and may simply rely on the most straightforward messages from the insectivores - that is, their warning cries - and even then, their only responses are likely to be to run for cover.

Screenshot of spreadsheet showing seven columns filled in.
Screenshot of spreadsheet showing Carnivore, Empathy, Big Brain, Reduced Aggression, Relaxation Time, Language, and Sexual Selection columns filled in. Click here to see full size image.

Sexual Selection (for Intelligence)

Intelligence isn't necessarily key to survival for many species, so most species in my ecosystem haven't scored for it at all. While I have the bats pegged as a clever bunch, I don't think they'd spot higher or lower intelligence in one another - I think they'd all mostly assume that everyone in their colony is more or less as clever as everyone else, and leave it at that. I also suspect that they wouldn't select mates based on apparent intelligence. They lay huge quantities of eggs which they leave to their own devices, so I suspect they'd also mate on a first-come, first-served basis rather than being actively selective.

Pelicans on the other hand are pretty mindlessly aggressive, but do put some effort into raising their offspring and are reasonably sociable, so I think would seek mates that are intelligent enough to be capable of impulse control - an animal cannot mate with a partner they also want to chase away.

Screenshot of spreadsheet showing eight columns filled in.
Screenshot of spreadsheet showing Carnivore, Empathy, Big Brain, Reduced Aggression, Relaxation Time, Language, Sexual Selection, and Culture columns filled in. Click here to see full size image.


Our final marker is for Culture. Again, there isn't much I can go on here as, at the level of evolution I'm imagining these creatures, culture isn't really a thing yet. I would imagine them further along their evolutionary paths, but I believe that only some will evolve further, and that depends partially on the other markers we've looked at.

With that in mind, I've scored everybody a 0, except for the pheasants, who are already enjoying one anothers' aesthetic beauty or ritualistic displays more than most species. My passerines are mostly very peaceful, colourful freshwater creatures with little need to actively cooperate, but they do live in very large colonies, so as such I think they may develop a very limited sense of preference in one another for certain colours and patterns, and perhaps for patterns of behaviour. The insectivores are essentially only interested in danger and being aware of it, so I wonder if they would hyper-focus too much to develop a well-rounded culture.

Screenshot of spreadsheet showing all columns filled in.
Screenshot of spreadsheet showing all columns filled in, and with column J set to highest-lowest. Click here to see full size image.

End Results

And that's the scoring done! Now all we need to do is filter column J so that the highest-scoring Orders come to the top. See the final diagram for the results of this.

We can see that insectivores are by far the highest-scoring Order. Personally I'm not entirely happy with this, as I suspect that despite their generally high score they'd probably hit an evolutionary dead-end due to their cohabitation with the pheasants, which is probably going to keep their bodies, and therefore their brains, small. Without the hardware to develop high intelligence, they won't be able to develop it past a point.

However, that isn't too much of a problem. Bear in mind that this is a relatively short list of 16 Orders, and the only reason I've limited myself to that is to keep this demonstration short and simple. If you wanted to develop several of the ecosystems that will be living on your alien planet, or if you waited until later in your ecosystem development when you had individual species to assess, you would have many more rows to complete, which in turn would give you more Orders or species with high scores.

Let's assume that the insectivores become the dominant species of that continent or this whole alien world. We can apply some circumstances to mitigate size problems if we want to: perhaps some populations of these insectivores chose to live in the burrows of something far bigger than pheasants, or they discovered geologically naturally-occuring dens within their native range so no longer had to rely on the pheasants for shelter. Perhaps the pheasants develop a species-specific illness that wipes them all out, forcing the insectivores to move on and start digging their own burrows. We're the ones creating these worlds so we get to choose.

So that's how to develop intelligent species from your animal-level aliens. I hope you found this helpful! I'm working on several blog posts at the moment so don't know which one to signpost you onto next, but it'll probably be to do with finding the most colourful possible geological features so that you can create vibrant landscapes!


Title image by Dante Rex, commissioned by drakellendros for Dragonrex, and used with their kind permission.