Sep 082012

I was driving along yesterday and happened to drive past a gas station (which is a pretty common occurrence, as there are three along the main road leading toward my neighborhood). As I did, the thought popped into my head: “What kind of civilization would arise if there were no fossil fuels?”

This led to a broader question: “Why wouldn’t there be any fossil fuels?”

And finally to: “What if the first major wave of evolution resulted in a civilization?”

Let’s consider the history of evolution on Earth for a moment. There have been at least two or three “waves” of evolutionary development, separated by massive extinction events that wiped out much of the evolutionary progress that had been made.

For example, dinosaurs evolved over many millions of years into the often large, powerful creatures we know and love from the fossil record and movies such as Jurassic Park. Then they were wiped out by an asteroid impact and the resulting climate change. The next wave of evolutionary progress resulted in our civilization.

Our civilization has benefited from the billions of years before it, in which massive amounts of life has existed, died, and over time been turned into fossil fuels.

Now consider: what if the very first wave of evolution resulted in a civilization. There would be little or no fossil fuel available for them to use. How would they develop differently as a result? Would they rely on wood-fired steam power until they discovered nuclear or solar power? Would they be stuck in the Stone Age forever, unable to make the massive leap from wood power? Or would they discover some other kind of power we haven’t even thought of?

And how would their understanding of biology and of evolutionary theory differ from ours? With a much smaller fossil record to draw from, how well would they understand where they come from? We know with a fair degree of certainty a lot about the evolution of species on Earth, despite the dogmatic opining from certain corners.

This line of thought intrigues me, and I invite opinions!

 Posted by at 9:00 AM

  4 Responses to “A thought experiment about the development of civilization”

  1. If our civilization were to collapse, now that we have used all the easily accessible fossil fuels, would there be any chance of humans ever reaching the same level of again?

  2. Steampunk Saurians! Though, as I understand it, there *was* oil underground by the time of the dinosaurs. It developed from the biomass of marine animals that died millions of years before the thunder lizards. I’m fuzzy on my timing and the processes involved, but I’d guess that would be long enough to turn plankton into oil. Coal might have been harder to come by, though, since I’m under the impression that formed from land-based plants nearer the timeline of dinosaurs. I’m assuming dinosaurs would have been the best bet for intelligence back then. Could be even more interesting to think if marine life had managed to develop civilization before the dinosaurs If you haven’t read it, I think this is a really good novel that takes place after abundant oil: That’s about a human civilization, and so not exactly what you’re talking about, but it does feature people using giant flywheels and super-strong springs to store up work generated by manual laborers and specially-bred beasts of burden. There, the economy is based on calories converted to work by muscles. Biotech and sources of diverse & undamaged DNA also features in the setting.

  3. Your thought experiment assumes that civilization is predicated by a need for energy.

  4. That’s a good point. It would be quite a different civilization without energy though. But yeah, it would be possible, I suppose, to have a civilization without it. But I’m not sure how “advanced” it could be.