By Tanish Pradhan
We are humans, the dominant species on this planet. We have moulded our environment to ensure our comfort and security. Our intelligence and technology ensure that no other species on Earth could challenge our dominance. While there are a large number of traits and abilities that put us on the top of the hill, our intelligence is the factor that distinguishes us from the rest. Can we, however, imagine a scenario where things could have been different? Hypothetically, if other species had sentience and intelligence that rivalled ours, could they compete with us for dominance? Who then would be the dominant species on Earth?
We have always imagined other species with similar cognitive abilities as ours in the forms of aliens or other creatures of fantasy. This line of thought has prompted the creation of numerous books, shows and films. But very rarely have we included the creatures around us in this thought experiment. To even begin to grasp the implications of such a scenario, or to answer the question of dominance, we will need to consider a multitude of factors.
Considering that we are delving very deep into the hypothetical, it would be best to make some concessions regarding the impossibility of some ideas. For an ant to have our level of intelligence, it would have to have a brain the size of ours, and then it just would not be an ant. For this reason, we will only be considering equal cognitive abilities and disregarding the biological changes necessary for the same.
A war of each against all?
If animals suddenly all became as smart as us, it certainly would not change a lot about their nature. The carnivores and predators would probably attack their prey more efficiently, and the herbivores also would not want the predators around. Our track record is not too great either. One look at our history will tell you that most introductions between different tribes have not ended in peaceful coexistence. Even today we engage in armed conflict against each other. Moreover, most species display territorial aggression, not just towards other creatures but also towards other individuals of the same species. This instinctual ability would make it much harder to maintain peaceful coexistence.
While it is possible that some creatures may overcome instinct and move towards the formation of basic civilisation, it is impossible for all species to do so. The planet will still be engaged in a chaotic, violent power struggle till a decidedly dominant species is established. Furthermore, the struggle for resources will continue to exist. It is hard to imagine any outcome where these intelligent species will live in a peaceful world.
Even with sentience or intelligence, a vast majority of the species on earth pose no real threat to us. This is because of the various abilities and skills which we have evolved or learnt. Here, we will discuss which species could probably pose a legitimate threat in the war for dominance taking into account their capacity to use the same skills.
The mind trumps brute strength
As humans, we are not nearly as strong or as fast as most animals on earth. It is obvious that if we as individuals went head to head with say a cheetah or a rhinoceros, we would be beaten easily. This disadvantage puts us in a very vulnerable position. Most large herbivores and carnivores would be able to defeat us and establish dominance with ease. Other primates and apes also have far superior physical traits. Even most birds would be able to take us down using their speed and unique ability to fly.
What we do lack in raw physical strength though, we make up for through perseverance and knowledge. Humans have evolved the ability to run longer and farther than nearly any other animal. In open terrain, we could track and follow an animal until we either caught up or it died of exhaustion. We also have the vast cache of knowledge related to martial arts and survival techniques which gives us a slight benefit when pitted against creatures that use mere instinct to survive. We have the advantage of being able to use military techniques and manoeuvres. This gives us a clear edge when fighting in groups.
The way that our species learnt to make and use tools was what set us apart from the others. The ability to manipulate simple objects in our surroundings to create other complex objects let us unlock a whole new host of abilities. This also meant that we were able to compensate for certain weaker traits. It means, if we lacked natural weapons like claws or horns, we could substitute them with knives or spears. Tool use was an essential step towards dominance. If new sentient species cannot learn the ability to use tools, they will not be able to compete with the others.
Very few species on earth have the physiology to create or use tools. For example, a tiger probably would not be able to fashion an axe. This leaves behind very little competition. Most primates having opposable thumbs are a worthy opponent. Elephants, octopi and certain birds have also been seen using tools. The elephants and birds, however, are limited to the use of a single grasping organ, limiting their abilities.
Strength in numbers
Our population is one factor which gives us a clear edge over any other species on the planet. Over centuries, we have bred and multiplied into a super species which spans the entire globe. We have also simultaneously suppressed the habitat and population of other species.
Here, a good question is whether we could consider the smallest of species like insects or germs as well. Ants, for example, would have an advantage of ridiculous proportions. They inhabit almost all landmasses, breed easily and they have a stringent social structure. What is more, more they can also effectively communicate over vast distances and lift objects many times their size.
If germs became sentient, however, it would become a huge problem for everyone. They exist everywhere, breed rapidly and are essential for many natural functions. Our body cannot survive without them even though they constantly mount an onslaught to destroy and consume our biological resources. The thought of a smart E.Coli or TB strain is particularly terrifying.
Adaptability and conscience: The humane traits
Another factor which has given us the natural edge for millennia was the ability to create, manipulate and use fire. It made survival much easier, made colder environments more accessible and made food simpler to digest. Moreover, the majority of other animals are mortally afraid of fire. Even with newfound intelligence, it’s hard to imagine most creatures defying their instincts.
A fundamental difference between humans and animals, as many philosophers would like to have you believe, is the fact that we operate on a moral conscience as opposed to pure instinct. This conscience is not an inherent trait of humans, though. It has slowly developed in us over a vast stretch of time, derived from numerous cultural events and mythologies, passed on from generation to generation. There is no reason to believe that an animal who suddenly receives intelligence would possess the same moral conscience as us. This gives them an edge in a conflict scenario since they could operate on pure cold logic.
Our ability to become a global species was heavily dependent upon our ability to adapt to various habitats, terrains and environments. If a creature cannot survive in a particular environment, it cannot hope to challenge the dominance of creatures that have perfected survival in that environment. Therefore, an animal like a dolphin or whale may struggle to exert territorial dominance, but could not possibly challenge humans for global dominance. The same goes for creatures that are restricted to remote environments like oceans or swamps.
Technology: The game changer
The single greatest reason, however, that no other animal can challenge our global dominance, is our technology. We have centuries of knowledge which have helped us develop the cutting edge technology we possess today. Even if other animals got smarter than us, there is no way they would be able to understand, let alone learn to use, our immense technological stockpile. Our deadly military resources could overpower even the strongest of creatures and our vehicles could outrun birds in flight.
Even if a creature of similar physiology like a chimpanzee were to steal guns or cars, they would at best be able to mount a minor resistance which we would dismantle with ease. One might say we had an unfair start, but one cannot deny that we have taken absolute advantage of it.
Our thought experiment has done an excellent job of reaffirming our prowess as a species and is a great way to recognise just how far we have come from our modest origins. While it allows us to contemplate what might occur if animals become intelligent or sentient, it does not do much to help us understand what might happen if we lose our dominance. There indeed does not exist a way to conclude that another species might do better than us at preserving the environment or at ensuring the welfare of its people. While we may have numerous flaws, we deserve to express a fair amount of pride for who we are. We may be just one of numerous species inhabiting a planet of negligible importance in this vast universe, but we are also way, way more.
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