Sunday, June 16, 2013

Creating an Alien Race out of Insects

Macrotermes bellicosus
The basis for my conception
of Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head
(The cerci [tails] are my addition.)
Microphoto thanks to
Dr. Timothy Myles

       There has been some discussion on different groups lately about how to create aliens. In one instance this involved developing insects into intelligent beings.  That's exactly what I did in my books, so how does one set about doing such a thing?

         I tend to favor realism and so for my conception of the universe I chose to use the panspermia principle (a spreading of DNA throughout a sector of the galaxy that gave rise to similar creatures on different hospitable planets) and allow the resultant carbon-based lifeforms to run a course of parallel evolution.  On these planets, certain organisms become dominant and it makes sense that if intelligence is going to evolve, it will do so within the dominant species. 
       On the planet 2 Giotta 17a, mammals never evolved.  Insects became dominant, and a species of proto-isopteroid (termite) grew large and gradually developed intelligence.  The important thing when creating creatures of this type is to research the Earthly form and then take its behaviors and determine how these instinctive behaviors might develop and change as the creature becomes intelligent.  Which features would evolution select for and which against?
       I wanted my termites to be large enough to interact with humans, so it was necessary to account for this large size.  Insect size on Earth is pretty much restricted by the inability to circulate oxygen and by the weight of the exoskeleton.  I gave the planet a slightly higher oxygen content (I've learned you can't make this too high, or the whole planet will combust).  Then I tinkered with insects' respiratory systems -- giving them air sacs inside the spiracles something like protolungs that pump oxgyen deeper into the tissues.  I also overcame the problem of the heavy exoskeleton by making the chitin lighter but stronger, giving it a composition similar to spider silk.  I also gave my termites crosswise internal plates that brace the outer skeleton.
       Then it seemed reasonable to me that any intelligent creature who is capable of attaining a higher level of civilization would evolve something like hands.  So I gave them opposable jointed claws on their front feet.  Of course, they also retain their dextrous mandibles and palps to supplement the grasping ability of the claws.  I made them capable of running on middle and rear legs and pushing things with their front pair.  I made them tool users at the stone age level, but I also gave them the wheel.  They use this only for wheelbarrows to move small loads, although they are on the verge of finding other uses for it.  They also understand the use of levers and pulleys, but they lack fire.
       So what behaviors do they retain from their lives as social insects?  One essential holdover is the Caste structure.  If you're hatched a Warrior, that is what you inescapably remain.  The same is true for the Workers and the Alates.
       The Alates posed a problem.  On Earth an alate termite or ant is a potential reproductive, and most of them are destined for a quick death.  Thousands or millions of these winged beings fly out of the mound, only to be eaten by almost every other creature that exists.  An infinitessimal number will be successful in mating and starting new colonies.  So what role could Alates fill in my termite world?  They are too big and heavy to fly and a ground emergence of reproductives just didn't seem plausible or necessary.
       I decided to change their Caste fate.  I allowed evolution to favor those who lived longer, until Alates came to have lifespans between 20 and 30 years like all the other Shshi.   They developed particularly acute intelligence and used their astuteness to overcome their physical fragility.  Alates also have the advantage of possessing eyes, while Warriors and Workers are blind.  Furthermore, the reproductives still come from among the Alates, although not all are capable of reproducing.  I created a separate group with a hormone mix that makes them fertile.  These Alates are given special treatment, so that if the fortress's Mother or King dies (they mostly have only one breeding pair at a time, just like terrestrial termite mounds), new reproductives can be drawn from the nursery.  If the fertile Alates aren't needed, they can be sent to other fortresses; if not then with time they simply molt into normal Alates (all Alates keep their wings unless they become Mothers or Kings).  Alates are also noted for their verbal abilities; the Remembrancers (bards and historians) are always Alates.  All of these differences give the Alates a subtle edge, allowing them to dominate and control the governance of the fortresses (mounds) in spite of their physical shortcomings. 
       The Warriors and the Workers required less tinkering.  The Workers are divided into sub-Castes, partly according to size and strength, although the Builders have a specific physiological alteration:  They possess the bak'zi|, a gland on the top of the head that produces "mortar water," a substance that they mix with sand and soils (or dung in some cases) to produce mortar for masonry.  Termite dwellings on our world are mostly built of earth (or carton, i.e., chewed wood), but on the termite planet they build fortresses out of mortared stone.  All this building is done strictly by instinct, by blind Workers who have almost no knowledge of mathematics.
       Other Worker sub-Castes include the Growers (who work in the Fungus Gardens or in the orchards), the Feeders (Warriors can't feed themselves because their huge heads and mandibles prevent them from bringing their forelegs to their mouths), the Tenders (including the smallest of Workers, who care for the Mother and the King), and then the lowliest of sub-Castes, the Dung Carriers and the Charnel Workers.  And that reminds me that the Shshi practice necrophagia, as has been noted in some terrestrial termites --  termites are creation's best recyclers, so why shouldn't that extend to the dead?  Termite flesh is a great source of protein, which would be lost if not ingested!
       Workers are not locked into a sub-Caste, however.  If a Tender prefers to become a Feeder, it can arrange to switch jobs.  Even those possessing the mortar gland can choose another "profession" -- they could become Growers or Tenders, especially if if those sub-Castes are low in numbers.  Without the bak'zi| a Worker could still build; for example it could make wooden items like tool handles or wheelbarrows or bowls or woven curtains, or it could help to quarry, carry, and place stones or to plan structures.
       Warriors have fewer choices; their prime imperative remains to protect (and rarely to fight active wars).  Warriors can have astute minds, but they often are rather dense-witted and easy for the Alates to take advantage of.  This helps drive the plot in The Termite Queen.  Warriors are good at organizing -- they form Cohorts and phalanxes (about 15 to a phalanx) and have a military command structure.  They are conditioned to obey their commanders (another plot driver in TQ), although the best of them can override this.  They also retain the instinct to bang their heads on the walls if the fortress is threatened (maybe this helps to account for their dense-wittedness!)  This behavior alerts their fellow Warriors to prepare for battle, just as it does in Earthly termite mounds.  They also make instinctive threat postures.  These postures can be sensed by their rivals through bioelectric and pheromonal signals (remember, they are all blind).
       What about individuality?  Social insects are famous for the "hive-mind," the ability of the whole group to function as one organism.  Here I made some significant changes.  I didn't want my termites to engage in those "death circles," seen among ants -- unthinkingly following the being in front of you until everybody drops down dead.  I wanted my termites to have personalities, to be individuals capable of making their own decisions and fraught with all the flaws and virtues that thinking organisms can possess.  So each one is unique even while the Caste imperative can't be escaped.  Warriors will always be protectors and fighters, but some are smarter than others, or have a better reasoning ability, or are simply more charismatic.  A Warrior can't become a Worker or an Alate, but it can share the helping instinct or the ability to govern.  Workers will always want to help others and take care of things, whether it is  buildings or "people."  Alates will always be thinking and planning (or scheming), and they can share in the qualities of the other Castes and also in their flaws. 
       Occasionally, we get overlap.  A Worker can long to be a Warrior or an Alate, for example.  We see this in Za'dut, my trickster character.  It was hatched a Builder, but it would have given anything to have been a Warrior.  It learns to fight with weapons-not-growing-upon-the-body and takes advantage of any opportunity it can to fight alongside its Warrior companions.  At the same time, Za'dut possesses an unusually agile, Alate-like mind.  You get three-in-one with Za'dut!
       In later books of my series The Labors of Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head, we will meet an aberant male Alate who is infertile but who retains a yearning to be a King -- who remains sexually attracted to an infertile female who is equally attracted to him (this was how I was able to utilize the Orpheus myth).  We also meet intercastes (you can read about one of them in The Storm-Wing), who are genetic sports with physical characteristics of more than one Caste (Warriors with huge mandibles but also with eyes and wings, for instance).  We'll meet another of these later, a female intercaste with eyes and rudimentary wings, who makes a perfect Atalanta character.  You can see that there is great stuff to come in the series!

      So my advice to anyone who wants to create an alien race based on insects or any other social organism (mole-rats, for example) is to research the topic thoroughly, decide what characteristics are compatible with intelligence, and then start working out details of the adaptations. 
       For example, if your chosen species is bees, then you'll have to consider whether your intelligent life form can fly, what kind of structures they build, whether they have developed to grow the flowers that provide their food, what happens to the drones, who really rules the colony (is it a democracy of Workers or a monarchy ruled by the Queen?) etc. 
       If the species is ants, you'll have to take into consideration that many ants are carnivorous and ferociously warlike, although there are some species (like the leaf-cutters) that grow fungus for food.  I can imagine a world where you would have two races of formicidiforms -- one pacific, agricultural vegetarians and one a horde of bellicose Warriors rampaging across the land  and eating their enemies.  If you could come up with a plot, their interactions might make a thought-provoking novel!
       I'm planning to write a subsequent post on my non-insectoid aliens derived from real creatures.


  1. As usual, you have a detailed and thoughtful approach to development of aliens and alien worlds. Most of us are too lazy for all the work!

    Very interesting piece.

    1. Sometimes the research is part of the fun! Thanks for stopping by, Marva!