What Species Would Become Dominant On Earth If Humans Died Out?

The new apes in town. 20th Century Fox

The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth

I think you’ll be just … like … me. Mirror by Shutterstock

There’s an undeniable degree of narcissism in the human designation of dominant species and a strong tendency to award the title to close relatives. The Planet of the Apes imagines that our closest primate relatives could develop speech and adopt our technology if we gave them the time and space to do so.

But non-human primate societies are unlikely to inherit our dominance of the earth, because the apes are likely to precede us to extinction. We are already the only living hominid that’s conservation status is not endangered or critically endangered and the kind of global crisis that would extinguish our species is unlikely to spare the fragile remaining populations of the other great apes. In fact, any extinction event that affects humans will probably be most dangerous to organisms that share our basic physiological requirements.

Even if humans succumb to a global pandemic that affects relatively few other mammals, the great apes are precisely the species that are most at risk of contracting any new diseases that drive us from the Earth.

Will another, more distant, relative (primate, mammal, or otherwise) develop intelligence and human-like society? That too seems unlikely. Of all the species that were arguably dominant animals at some stage in the history of the Earth, humans are alone in their remarkable intelligence and manual dexterity. It follows that such traits are neither requirements for being dominant among animals, nor particularly likely traits to evolve. Evolution does not favour intelligence for its own sake, but only if it leads to higher survival and reproductive success. Consequently it’s a profound mistake to imagine that our successors are likely to be especially intelligent or social creatures, or that they will be capable of speech, or adept with human technology.

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