I should title this rise ‘from’ the planet of the naked mole rats, because this is abou how well suited the naked mole rat would be to create a society that would make way better spacefarers than we ever could. Not that they wouldn’t make a decent society on the planet but as I’ve already discussed elsewhere, planetary locked civilizations are the universes second class citizen.
If you’re unfamiliar with the naked mole rat, you’re in for a treat, this is a fun animal to know about.
Full disclosure, I haven’t done any credible research on mole rats or anything. I’ve just read about them a bit and remember some stuff. If any of the specific here are inaccurate, meh- pretty sure the point about them making good astronauts is just as meaningless regardless if this is accurate or not. But- as a rule I encourage people to never believe anything I say and check me on everything, and everyone else too.
So the name is pretty descriptive. Naked mole rats are rodents, they live underground and root around like moles, and they are militant nudists, or just don’t grow hair.
Naked mole rats are unique for being the only known eusocial mammal, meaning that like some insects, they have genetically distinct castes and only certain castes are reproductive. They’re sort of hive mammals with queens and workers and whatnot. They’re already closer to being the Borg than humans are even with all our gadgets.
I think eusocial species in general have tremendous advantages in creating civilizations due to their innate cohesion. Of course such a society might be a horrific dystopian nightmare to us, but the universe doesn’t care how you survive. At some point I may do a thing on the reasoning for why eusocial species are probably the dominant form of intelligent life in the universe but for now just know that’s what I think so I’m going to say some things based on that assumption.
I’ll get into more about the eusocial aspect as it pertains to mole rates in a minute, but let’s look at some of their other advantages first.
They have relatively long lifespans for small rodents. Longish lifespans seems like a critical necessity for civilization in general. But now that I said it I’m rethinking it because who knows what constitutes a ‘long’ lifespan in a universe of infinite possibility. Maybe a society of quantum fleas that die in 2 seconds could build a sophisticated culture that perseveres at cosmic timescales because they’re just really good at assimilating all the cultural knowledge in the first 100 ms to make the next 1900ms a very productive life.
So idk- maybe lifespan is so relative you can’t say ‘long’ means anything, but I’m still saying a longish lifespan is advantageous, even though I can’t really think of a meaningful metric for ‘long’, lets just say “ish” covers some environmental tuning variable that makes it mean something.
A big thing is that naked mole rats oxygen demands are incredibly flexible compared to other mammals respiration. They’ve evolved to deal with living underground, where oxygen may or may not be sufficient at any given time and place. They can switch to a whole different cellular respiration process that extends the time they can survive in low oxygen or high CO2. You’ll have to look up the biological mechanisms for yourself, but the gist is they have options that give them time to deal with an absence of oxygen before it kills them.
Naked mole rats don’t itch apparently- they lack some protein or receptor or whatever and they don’t itch and don’t feel a lot of common pain sensations on their skin. Might be a double edged sword in some ways, but you can’t argue that it solves a lot of problems before they start.
Any species that goes to space is probably going to have to deal with very common periods of extreme discomfort. There are plenty of ways to get around the issue, but just not feeling a large majority of what causes immediate discomfort seems like a very effective solution.
There’s a lot going on with their biochemistry that’s just a little different than most mammals in ways that were adapted for subterranean tunnel life, but seem to translate pretty directly to space tube life. Even humans seem to favor tubes in space, so seems like a species that was made for tubes would do even better with them.
And they’re pretty accustomed to being tightly packed into small spaces because they live literally crawling on top of one another in underground hives. And that segueys us back into the unique advantages of naked mole rats being eusocial, really hope I’m saying that right.
Insects have the best known eusocial species, bees and ants being the most familiar examples. Insects in general do have some amazing advantages that could work for space, but so far we haven’t seen any examples of high order thinking from insects, so the eusocial thing may be useful, but maybe limited in scope without more capable individual units.
Naked mole rats aren’t exactly geniuses as they are, but they have a lot of the basic architecture of higher mammals so I don’t see why they couldn’t evolve greater mental capacity while retaining a lot of their advantages.
Humans as a species have been successful because we are Earth’s premier generalist species. We can do pretty much anything, pretty well, but not amazing. We can walk, run, jump, climb, crawl, swim, bite, stomp, grab, twist, pretty much everything every other animal can do, just not as well as any of them. Also we can digest a lot, but there are omnivores that put even humans to shame. The only thing we really do that’s genuinely amazing is distance running, bipedal locomotion is so efficient we can persistence hunt by basically jogging towards animals until they die of exhaustion. Of course it works best when you can carry water and that’s technology, but that’s what being a generalist lets you do.
Though being a generalist can be generally advantageous, you can never be quite as effective as a specialist in their specialty.
I’m compelled to mention a Heinlein quote about generalists here. He said:
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
I’ve always liked that quote and I wholly agree with the sentiment regarding human beings. Though I’ve come to think the last bit might be a little unfair to insects, at least eusocial insects.
I think eusocial species are generally successful because they can be a little bit generalist as a species, while the individual castes carry the specializations.
Rodents in general might be Earth’s second most impressive generalists. They also do a lot of what every other animal does, just not nearly as well.
A eusocial rodent has the ability of a eusocial species to retain cooperative instincts while specializing genetically, but is adds the a generalist mammalian framework that those genetic specialities could be extended on.
Naked mole rats are a highly generalist species that can take advantage of specialization without necessarily losing their generalist capacity. Plus all the other stuff from being tunnel dwellers. Seems like a winner to me.
It does seem weird and unfair that little wrinkly pink dirt monsters would be such a perfect species for spaceflight. I don’t know what to tell birds- nature gave them a taste of space but they’d make terrible astronauts. And giraffe’s might have made great astronomers but their Mercury program would have been a horror show. I didn’t make the rules, I’m just trying to put together an all-star team of Earth life to represent Earth in space, because humans just aren’t cutting it.