Is it likely intelligent life will be violent?

Inspired by this post by BrainGlutton.

My understanding of evolution leads me to believe that any truely intelligent life will probably be pretty blood thirsty. This is because intelligence tends to be a trait of carnivores who hunt their prey.

So we probably won’t find a planet descended from deer, but it wouldn’t be inconceivable to find one descended from, say, great whites.

It’s entirely possible that a group of herbivores on another planet evolved to outsmart the natural enemies in their environment. I don’t think it’s automatically a given that hunters are necessary for the evolution of things like abstract thought though it seems you can make a good case for that happening on Earth.


I think you misunderstand evolution.

For example sharks have remained basically unchanged for millions of years, because they are successful at surviving. They don’t show intelligence (e.g. using tools) because they are don’t need it to be excellent killers of fish.

Gorillas are pretty intelligent, but they are not carnivores.

I would expect intelligence to arise in creature who do not have natural advantages. Such species need to use tools, language and devise new strategies to prosper.

As I understand it, human intelligence evolved at least in part from the interaction of our minds with our hands. I.e., our ancestors first developed better manipulating appendages, and then superior ability to do something with them became a differential-reproductive survival advantage.

Most vertebrates do not have hands or anything like hands, because they need all four feet for walking. Even among primates the use of hands for manipulation did not lead to great intelligence until early hominids developed fully bipedal locomotion – a rare development. Only one other time in Earth’s history did an animal evolve fully bipedal locomotion – resulting in the dinosaurs and, later, the birds.

Perhaps if there were a world where the animals included something like our vertebrates, but with six limbs instead of four, potentially freeing up the foremost pair for manipulatory purposes in a very wide range of life-forms, sentient life would be very common, in several different ecological niches.

Or perhaps not. Elephants have trunks but they have never evolved sentience.

Wow. First I agree with Der Trihs in another thread, now with Brainglutton?! Is the apocalypse nigh?

Even if we find sentient herbivores, that doesn’t say much about violence; deer and such are quite violent towards each other. More importantly, the violence of carnivores that is due to their carnivorous nature is directed towards their food, not each other. And carnivores tend to be cautious; they can’t afford to be seriously injured, since then they can’t run down prey ( not a problem for a carnivore civilization, but the prehistoric instincts would still be there ). A society of carnivores might well be less violent.

As I understand it, only in mating fights, which rarely if ever kill either male.

As I understand it, most animals, including herbevores, are violent all the time, it’s just more spectacular in mating season. More violent than humans by an order of magitude or so; humans aren’t super-violent, just super-lethal.

To use your mating fights as an example, how many deer would there be left if they were shooting at each other and not clashing antlers ?

I wonder if we could find enough data to compare percentage of vegetarianism to Deaths due to conflict per capita.

As we don’t have any other planets to compare, comparing cultures here would be the closest thing.

No cite, but I recall claims that vegetarians are more likely to die from both suicide and murder. That strikes me as being more likely to be a side effect of vegetarianism being un-natural to the human body, and wouldn’t apply to true herbivores.

Moving ahead to discuss the sociology of advanced technological civilizations and not their prior evolution…

Using Star Trek as a starting point for discussion, contrast how the Peoples of Earth progressed towards interstellar flight, both technologically and socially, with the alternate universe spawned when McCoy jumped through the Portal of the Guardian in the ep City on the Edge of Forever. Assuming Spock was right when he posited that a Nazi Germany with the bomb conquered the world, an interstellar civilization led by Nazi ideology would be pretty scary (now as to why the GSS Bismarck wasn’t in orbit around the planet after McCoy jumped is another topic-as is “Greyshirts” as cannon fodder). This assumes the Nazi’s various militant/racist attitudes did not moderate in the following 3 centuries.

This is basically a response to Carl Sagan and others, who when SETI was first put into motion automatically assumed that a spacefaring civilization would have a sociological awareness more or less equal to their technological abilities, I don’t necessarily see it that way, as such as civilization, if it became dominant due to bloodthirsty means (via the atomic bomb), would probably keep on being bloodthirsty.

This is my understanding as well. A relatively well known researcher of black bears that I know teaches people that black bears in the wild will commonly “slap” or even nip at other black bears when they are annoyed with them. It isn’t out of a desire to seriously hurt or kill the other bear, but to basically tell it, “you’re pissing me off, go away.” It’d be akin to you punching someone who annoys you at work, which would be very antisocial behavior that wouldn’t get you accepted well in human society if that was how you normally responded to annoyances. So I do think most animals are like this. Black bears aren’t herbivores, but they tend to consume the overwhelming majority of their diet from plants and insects (not stuff they have to “hunt down.”) They tend to take deer opportunistically as opposed to relying on hunting to get by.

On Earth we define carnivores as animals that hunt other animals for food, herbivores as those that eat plants. On another planet life might not be divided into animals and plants. There might be a kingdom of life forms that had some characteristics in common with both plants and animals. In such a case it wouldn’t be clear whether life forms that ate from such a kingdom would be herbivores or carnivores.

Of course, ST:TOS did deal with the possibility of an aggressive, martial human interstellar civilization in Mirror, Mirror.

I don’t think Sagan would have much worried about that, since what we know of physics (so far) means it would be impossible for an aggressive alien civilization to attack us, or even visit us. Communication just might be possible – with lag-time of years between responses.

Everybody dies of something. If you reduce one cause of death, others take up the slack.

We are being a little anthropomorphic here, I think, in our assumed definition of intellegence.

Sure, I agree that tool manufacture and use, and the ability to transfer the knowledge (ie Language/readiding/writing) implicit in such behavoir is ONE hallmark of intellegence.

Imagine a hive mind type of organism. It wouldn’t need writing or reading in the equation, as its knoweldge would be ubiquitous among its members, and would simply be absorbed by new members as old ones died off. By our standards, it could be extremely bloodthirsty (Not hive= its either “Threat” or “Food” or “Both”.) Or it could be benign (Not Hive=usefull or not usefull to hive growth)

Our intellegnece is linear, and tends to map out in two dimentional “maps” (Imagine a logic tree… neatly drawn on a single, FLAT chart)). Imagine a organism that was more three dimensional in its mental structures. A “logic map” from such a species would probably seem incomprehensible to us (Some theorists like John Lilly think that the “grammar” of Cetacean communication is based on 3 dimensional forms, - a human would transmit a picture of his new car, a whale would transmit the “shape” of the sonar echo of the “car”.

Even in human language, there are vastly different Grammars… Navaho and Haida-quai both use a Verb/noun form that is unknown in many other tongues. (We say… “Look at the chair!” They say the equivilent of “A Chair-ing! We share its event!” (a poor example, direct translation is impossible).

What I am getting act is that the internal “grammar” of intellegence affects how we catagorize the world we percieve, and our reactions/thoughts to it. An utterly alien grammar may be impossible to comprehend, and if ewver encountered will be very unlikely to to cross model well against the modality of the human symbol set.

So, can we call them “violent”? Sure. But they may feel that they are just being “Jmortlig”…

sorry for rambling on so long…


The premise has been that in order for mankind to survive after nuclear weapons he will have to become more civilized. To last the next generation of weapons will require real moves toward peace. Otherwise it becomes planet of the apes.
We can not get any more aggressive and survive. It may be questionable now.

Yes, eventually. There’s still a difference between death by suicide at twenty and death by old age at 85.

My premise above was that (as per such works as Man In The High Castle and Fatherland) the most aggressive Terran societies ended up winning WWII and hence there was no serious opposition which could have a nuclear deterrent (unless Japan and Germany started rattling sabers, which they very well may have). “Peace” can be enforced via rigid and omnipresent repression by the dominant societies. WWII was the last opportunity for such a faction (or alliance of same) to attempt to gain worldwide domination without doomsday weapons causing the end of civilization (and I assume in the Star Trek scenario I outlined that the use of nukes by the Germans was limited and they basically issued ultimatums to other countries to basically “surrender or die horribly”).

Why would it be impossible? I think it is extremely improbable, but not what I would classify as impossible.

I know very little about physics, but it is my understanding that from everything we know about physics, the light speed constrain just isn’t ever going to go away. That there isn’t really a work around to that. However, working within that framework, I can still easily imagine a scenario where we could be attacked.

Imagine there is an advanced species that lives somewhere in the Alpha Centauri system, and they want to attack us. Sure, from what we know about physics, they aren’t going to ever be able to travel faster than light. But can we be certain there is no way to travel very fast?

I think we could probably, with current technology, have something traveling through space at around 150,000 mph. The Galileo probe was at one point traveling like 106,000 mph through space.

At that speed, it would still take something like 20,000 years to reach earth.

But what if we had something going at like, 33,000,000 miles per hour? That’s how fast you would have to be going to get from Alpha Centauri to earth in 30 years. That’s only 5% of the speed of light.

Thirty years is a long time in the life of a human. But maybe a life form evolving on AC lives for 300-400 years. For them, it’d be a significant journey, but if they were a race that just wanted to conquer, it wouldn’t bother them.

Or maybe it’s a hive-mind type species, in which case maybe they could send a big vessel that functioned as a self-sufficient hive, traveling through space. Within the hive, over 30 years many of them would be born, grow up, and die, but the hive itself would be alive and functioning. Ready to conquer when it got to earth.

Better yet, imagine such a species that starts out as small eggs that can burrow into soil and eventually grow into fearsome insectoid monsters. Or imagine an alien race advanced enough in biology to create such a thing. They could just launch thousands of things the size of a space probe and land them on earth. They would then burrow into the ground and a few years later millions of them explode out of the earth (functioning as a hive mind) and kill everything, then the alien race that created this “weapon” sends some colonists on the slow 30-year boat to Earth.

Working under the current constraints of human biology and physics, sure it is impossible. But change the biologic factor (life cycle, way we reproduce, maximum age) and advance the technology some (but without exceeding the speed of life) and it’s not impossible by any means.