I never really bought the Buggers' story that they didn't realize humans were thinking creatures.

The quote the queen uses is something like "We never thought intelligence could arise in a species which cannot dream one another's dreams" or the like. So far so good, right?

I can see how during the first contact they'd slay the astronauts... "Turning off their radio" as it were. They could reasonably think they weren't hurting anybody, because drones are like fingernails. At this point they must have thought they could eventually contact the humans' queen.

The entire First Invasion can be written off this way. But during the Second Invasion ... the humans attack them with sophisticated tactics. They shoot them with nuclear missiles, from spaceships. This can't possibly be instinctive behavior. They had to have realized that there was an intelligence running the humans, whether they could telepathy-talk with it or not.

Bugger units landed on Earth. Remember Ender on the colony world? He discerned pretty quick from artifacts that the Buggers were rational. Couldn't the BQ (Bugger Queen) have figured this out while "scathing China"? Skyscrapers, artificial lights, heck, straight-line roads might have been a tip. I haven't read the book where China gets scathed, but it sounds pretty metal.

To me it seems like the BQ knew darn well that something non-animal was happening on Earth, and was going to slay or displace it anyway.

So, my question... What am I missing here?

  • 49
    The issue wasn't that the buggers(formics) didn't think that humanity was intelligent, it was that their entire society was based around a very small number of intelligent queens directing billions of unintelligent drones and communicating through a form of mental telepathy. They simply couldn't conceive of an entire race made up of queens. Eventually they realised that there was a directing intelligence in the 2nd invasion (Ender) and attempted to communicate with him via the game.
    – Valorum
    Sep 12, 2017 at 20:04
  • 7
    @j4eo I'm just thinking that the BQs claim ("Aw shucks, we had no idea youse were thinking beings") is a little disingenuous. If that really were the case, I'd've thought they would stand down as soon as the 2nd Invasion was opposed with agile spaceships, lasers, missiles, etc, or at the very least when the BQ got a good look at the planet & our artifacts. It strains credulity that they could have a whole space war with us and think they were just doing wild animal removal. They should have grabbed a "drone" and punched him to the beat of the Fibonacci sequence or something...
    – akaioi
    Sep 12, 2017 at 23:39
  • 4
    @Valorum: I think you misunderstood the question. The question summarized is "How is it even remotely reasonable for Buggers to assume there was no sentience controlling the humans, when the humans were using nuclear missiles?" The question is not about realizing that individual humans are sentient. Sep 13, 2017 at 0:35
  • 5
    Racism? I mean, there have been plenty of crimes against humanity on earth where people have argued that their fellow humans aren't really human because they're of a different ethnicity.
    – pjc50
    Sep 13, 2017 at 10:37
  • 9
    @j4e0 The second invasion was the same fleet - the colony fleet from which the scout ship was launched in advance. It couldn't turn back easily. The scout ship told them the planet already has a queen, so there's going to be a fight (Which the Formics were certainly willing to do!) - it didn't tell them that every human is a Queen. They wanted to displace the "human queen", not kill her (unless necessary). Imagine the horror if you thought you were just cutting someone's hair (realising that it was intelligently combed), but you're really killing individual sentients!
    – Luaan
    Sep 13, 2017 at 13:17

6 Answers 6


There was never any doubt in the mind of the Formic Queens that humanity had an intelligence, they simply didn't understand that all humans, individually, had intelligence and individuality.

Formic society was extremely limited, consisting of a very small number of queens, who each commanded thousands or millions of drones. Those drones were part of the queen, yet had no individual intelligence.*

The queens expected humanity to function similarly. Even when they were invading Earth, the concept of an entire society of beings with individual bodies - ONE body to ONE mind - was completely alien to them.

War for the formics had always been a pretty formalized thing - drones would be slaughtered en masse, but they were considered disposable and no real damage was done. When one side gained an advantage and could threaten the opposing queen, that queen would surrender. They only rarely killed another queen.

It wasn't until they studied Mazer's attack plan and realized that it had taken the humans that long to understand that the formics had a single queen that it even occurred to them that humans might be individuals. As a species, they recoiled in horror, knowing that they had slaughtered thousands or millions of queens (to their eyes), not a similar number of drones.

So I'd say that what you were missing is that the Formics (Buggers) didn't think that humanity was non-sapient or non-intelligent, they simply didn't understand that we are individually intelligent.

*Other answers have pointed out that later books (which I have not read) include drones which are, indeed, intelligent. This fact in no way changes my answer, as the general pre-Ender formic society seems to consider them an abomination and/or an anomaly.

  • 21
    @user54373 I think it perfectly backs up Jeff's answer. They never dreamt that thought could arise in billions of individual, independent creatures ("lonely animals who cannot dream each other's dreams"), not that thought hadn't arisen among "spacehip-building, city-building, nuclear-missle-throwing, Ecstatic-Shield-stealing humans".
    – Chris G
    Sep 13, 2017 at 0:00
  • 11
    @user54373: The quote you quoted seems quite clear to me. BQs realized that humans have thought but never thought that individual humans can have thought.
    – slebetman
    Sep 13, 2017 at 2:35
  • 22
    @user54373 The assertion here is that the Buggers thought there were some Human Queens somewhere, and that they were killing Human Drones - expendable, meaningful-only-as-resources, remote controlled Drones. They knew that humans were intelligent, but they thought all the intelligence was far behind the front lines just like theirs was.
    – Douglas
    Sep 13, 2017 at 6:04
  • 8
    @akaioi No, you continue to misunderstand. They understood from the get go that humanity was intelligent. They "never did we dream that thought could arise from the lonely animals who cannot dream each other's dreams". This doesn't mean they didn't see humanity as unintelligent; rather, it means seeing humanity as intelligent, assumed we where not lonely animals who cannot dream each other's dreams (ie, we where hive minds). Intelligence to them implies hive mind.
    – Yakk
    Sep 13, 2017 at 17:59
  • 8
    @akaioi Displace the Hs: yes. Kill rogue Hs with no queen: yes. Kill the H queen? Not so much. If the Bs thought that all of what they were doing wasn't killing a queen, then they'd do it. It is like sparring with a friend in some RTS. You can eradicate their base in–game, time and again, but would you go and stab that person? Probably not (we'd hope). Of course, that all depends on whether the Queen was being straight–up and honest with Ender — but, whether or not, the scenario outlined in this answer is reasonable as a standalone. Sep 13, 2017 at 22:27

I believe you are right to question the Hive Queen's story. The first formic war could be chalked up to a misunderstanding by a terraforming crew, but the second invasion was war. We can't really know if they thought they were killing sentient beings or just drones, but we do know one thing - The Hive Queens lie.

In Shadows in Flight, Bean's children

have an encounter with sentient male drones that tell a different story than the Hive Queens tell. Hive Queens claim that the drones are merely their appendages, controlled by the mind and empty without the will of a Queen directing them. The male drones show that this is not true. Drones have enough intelligence to perform almost any task without any direct interference from the Queen. Sometimes, they rebel against the Queen and exert independence, but are quickly shut down by sheer force of the Queen's will. The Queens have learned to enslave the drones completely, and lie to Ender, and perhaps themselves, about the nature of the slavery.

This shows that the Queens are liable to tell very large lies to either ease their own consciences, or appear of higher morality to Ender, the humans, and the father trees.

I find it very unlikely that the HQs were ignorant of their actions against the humans. I think they either had a change of heart, or were simply rebuffed. But whether or not they actually believed individual humans were block-headed drones, which I doubt, they certainly intended to kill any undeniably sentient human queens if they existed. In the best case, they assumed humans were varelse, with no means of communication for diplomacy.

  • 4
    +1 for excellent point & quote showing that the BQs can tell fibs. I'm willing to believe they were fooling themselves during the 2nd Invasion, but ... c'mon.
    – akaioi
    Sep 12, 2017 at 23:42
  • 3
    @MooingDuck if the news ever gets out things might get tense. From the Buggers' point of view, the rebel drones must be sick, insane, or even monstrous. But from a human perspective it looks pretty bad, like the drones were being enslaved with mind control. I'm not surprised Ender & co are chary about spreading any gossip. I haven't read the book where this all comes out, I think I may just have to now!
    – akaioi
    Sep 13, 2017 at 1:40
  • 9
    I never saw that as a lie, but as the viewpoint of the queens. From their pov, drones are just lesser beings that they control like appendices, and sometimes they malfunction. It might as well be that in the evolution they always were like that, but only recently gained the ability to act individually, which is so alien a concept to the queens that they can't really understand it, also because they evolved to have no need to understand it
    – PlasmaHH
    Sep 13, 2017 at 7:12
  • 5
    Wasn't there also a massive story thread about the Hive being unable to consider being wrong? And as such they routinely change their memories without actually meaning to. This makes everything the Queen says about the past highly suspect. Personally I always assumed she didn't even remember the reasons for stopping the war, and only remembered what she wanted to. Especially considering she was but a larva at the time, and we know nothing about the actual coherence of the memories she inherited.
    – Reaces
    Sep 13, 2017 at 10:48
  • 5
    @akaioi That's what she was though. A cocooned larval queen that was left specifically for a human to find... Why wouldn't they leave her with the memory that the war was unintentional? Leaving the last hope of your species with the memory of being the purposeful aggressor in a bloody violent war seems like a bad idea... Especially considering she had to use her thoughts to communicate with Ender.
    – Reaces
    Sep 13, 2017 at 18:08

I guess the Bugger Queen's reasoning process can be conceived by analogy.

Imagine you are a schoolyard bully who routinely beats people up and steals their lunch money, but will never outright murder one of your schoolmates. Stealing is accepted in your school and nobody condemns this, but murder is not.

One day, a new schoolkid enters your school. You beat him up and steal his lunch money, as usual. The next day, he returns and pushes you off the 10th floor railing. On the way down, you realise that when you punched him in the face, you had killed off millions of his cells. Each one of these cells was a sentient being in itself. To you, killing some cells is simply part and parcel of stealing. To him, killing some cells amounts to murder.

Since the Bugger Queens had never encountered a race that is sentient on the organism level in addition to the hive mind level, they assume that any intelligence displayed by humanity (such as attacking with nuclear missiles) is part of the normal resistance encountered when they are fighting for territory. As such, they ignore it. Only when they notice that humanity is aiming to kill all Bugger Queens in retaliation do they realise that humanity is retaliating for the death of sentient beings.

  • 1
    March you make a good point (and excellent analogy!), so let's dig a little more. What was the BQ's endgame? Specifically, if they thought we had a queen, what was to happen to her after the invasion? Was the BQ planning to coexist with the now-chastened H queen? With Buggers there's got to be some kind of transition as you kill off more drones; at some point it becomes less of a forced haircut and more like an amputation. I do agree that they must have been shocked at the totality of the Hs response.
    – akaioi
    Sep 13, 2017 at 15:29
  • 2
    @akaioi I don't think it was ever explored in the original 4 novels what the BQs did amongst themselves when they disagreed, and how BQs warred amongst themselves. It may even be the case that the BQ that attacked Earth was a deviant of some kind. In any case, I doubt that there is a canonical answer for the excellent questions you posed.
    – March Ho
    Sep 13, 2017 at 17:44

Short, direct answer, straight from the original novel:

We are like you; the though pressed into his mind. We did not mean to murder, and when we understood, we never came again. We though we were the only thinking beings the universe, until we met you, but we never dreamed that thought could arise from the lonely animals who cannot dream each other's dreams. How were we to know? Believe us, believe us, believe us.

The Formics knew there was intelligence; but it was of a totally different nature than what they expected.

It's as if we discovered that not only was there an intelligent civilization on an alien world, but breathing the atmosphere somehow murdered thousands of inhabitants.

  • 2
    The OP's question is based on not believing the words of the Formics, that they are lying. Working under the assumption that the Formics have lied to justify themselves precludes their statements as valid counterevidence.
    – Flater
    Sep 14, 2017 at 12:03
  • @Flater, sure. But the OP has some misconceptions. This is it the explanation straight from the horse's mouth, and we don't really have any other sources, so it's take it or leave it. Sep 14, 2017 at 12:42
  • 6
    I'm noy saying you're wrong, but your answer does not answer the core of OP's issue. OP is already aware of what the Formics claim, he just doesn't think it's truthful. Your answer only repeats what the Formics say without justifying why their statement must invariably be correct. If anything, the Formics also continue with "Believe us, believe us, believe us.", which reveals that they know that they may be considered as liars, which lends credence to OP's question, how do we know that they're being truthful and not just lying to save their asses?
    – Flater
    Sep 14, 2017 at 12:48
  • @Flater, we don't. Sep 14, 2017 at 17:02
  • OP says "They had to have realized that there was an intelligence running the humans" as other answers note they did think that an intelligence was running the humans, they just assumed the intelligence couldn't have been the humans themselves. Not sure the given quote really demonstrates that though.
    – gmatht
    Sep 16, 2017 at 15:20

The two answers already given deal with the situation from the in-universe point of view. I would like to point out an another approach to this problem. That is - the perception of intelligence (since OP used this term).

You seem to think that the usage of advanced tools is a definite proof of intelligence. For humans it is logical to view the world that way - we are definitely intelligent, and we are the only species to use spaceships and nukes, so one fact is connected to the other, right?

Wrong. Right? Maybe??? The fact is, humanity has no frame of reference on this matter. We do not know any other intelligent species that uses tools as advanced as ours. We are defined by our tool use, and our civilisation is inseparable from tools. But the only (possibly) intelligent species known to us (cetaceans and higher primates) use nothing like these. On the other hand, many animal species generally considered non-intelligent (to give some example, crows, beavers, coral polyps and banded acaras) do use primitive tools and/or construct quite intricate structures, but we do not take those as a proof of their intelligence. We assume that dolphins and higher primates are intelligent based on other factors - that they apparently self-aware, that they have a language and seem to be able learn (to an extent) human and artificial languages, etc. And if the Bugger civilisation is as defined by their philotic communication as we are by our tool use - it would seem logical that they dismiss humanity as a species that although using intricate tools, seems to lack any (known to them) means of communication. Is it possible for a specie to evolve into using spacecraft and nuclear fission? Current data shows that it is highly unlikely... in Earth-like environment. In other environments - who knows? It is not proven to be impossible.

Thus, while it is possible that Bugger queens lied about knowing that humans are intelligent (either as individuals or as a hive-mind) during the second invasion, that lie is at least believable. Just because you met a being that defends its territory and is efficient in that, does not mean it is intelligent. It just means that it is better adapted to its environment. And while "intelligence" currently seems as the best choice in adapting to Earth's environment, that might not be true in another environment.

P.S. I'm thinking that "sentience" would be a better term than "intelligence" in this question, but I am not a native English speaker, so I might be wrong.

  • Technically, we evolved into being able to (learn to) use spacecraft and nuclear fission... But it's still unlikely.
    – wizzwizz4
    Sep 13, 2017 at 6:50
  • 1
    Octopi use tools. Just wanted to correct that point of detail.
    – Clement C.
    Sep 13, 2017 at 12:29
  • 2
    @ClementC in another Orson Scott Card book, Lost Boys, an emotional climax happens when the main character proves to a petty teacher that the plural of octupus is not octopi, but octopuses. I just thought it ironic that someone would misuse it on a comment about an OSC book. Normally wouldn't correct it, but it was funny to me.
    – BlackThorn
    Sep 13, 2017 at 15:06
  • 2
    Those Latin words, it's all Greek to me.
    – Clement C.
    Sep 13, 2017 at 15:09
  • 2
    @DanilaSmirnov My point was that octopuses/i ARE considered intelligent.
    – Clement C.
    Sep 13, 2017 at 15:11

You're making a few leaps in your assumptions:

I can see how during the first contact they'd slay the astronauts... "Turning off their radio" as it were. They could reasonably think they weren't hurting anybody, because drones are like fingernails. At this point they must have thought they could eventually contact the humans' queen.

It makes no sense to kill the astronauts to "turn off the radio" and then try to contact the human queen. If they wanted to contact the human queen and thought that the astronauts were psychically connected to the queen, they could've used the astronauts.

It makes much more sense that they simply saw the astronauts react differently to their presence (e.g. one panics, the other remains diplomatic, the third one becomes hostile). Their different approaches directly proves that humans are not a hive mind, thus confirming their notion that humans are not intelligent (as they already assume non-hive minds to be incapable of intelligence).

But during the Second Invasion ... the humans attack them with sophisticated tactics. They shoot them with nuclear missiles, from spaceships. This can't possibly be instinctive behavior. They had to have realized that there was an intelligence running the humans.

If you know how evolution works, then you should see that complex tactics are not always proof of intelligence.

Giraffes didn't always have long necks. No giraffe has ever "thought" to extend it's own neck. There was never an intelligent thought by a giraffe that contemplated how to achieve a longer neck.

However, giraffe's necks still grew over time. Because the giraffes who just happened to be born with longer necks, also ended up as being more succesful (because they could reach more leaves than their short-necked brothers), thus making them more likely to procreate and pass their genes on.

Over centuries, giraffe necks increased in length. This cleverly solved a problem in their environment: being able to reach as many leaves as possible. However, this is not a sign of intelligence.

The same is true of ants. Suppose that ants are not always born with an innate sense of group spirit (living for the colony instead of yourself). Let's say there is a 50/50 coin flip whether an ant is selfish or selfless (for the sake of example).
We can already conclude that the ants are not intelligently deciding to be selfless or selfish. It is simply their genetic makeup that invariably drives their behavior. The ants are not intelligent.

So let's say 100 ants exist, 50 selfish ants and 50 selfless ants.

The selfish ants live by themselves. Even if they try living together, their selfish nature will eventually break any alliance that they have.
The selfless ants, however, start working together, and their alliance does not break (because they all observe their common shared ideal, and don't resort to selfish behavior).

As it turns out, a colony is much stronger than a sole ant, and after a year many more selfish ants have died (compared to the selfless ants).

If this same pattern repeats itself time and time again, then the selfless ants are more likely to survive and procreate. Over time, this means that the ant population disproportionately favors selflessness over selfishness (genetically speaking).

Over centuries' time, the ants will be selfless. But they did not bcome selfless intelligently. It happened evolutionarily.

The humans' tactical approach may simply be a consequence of their genetic makeup. Centuries of evolution may have proven that humans who do have tactics are more successful (evolutionarily speaking) than humans who do not have tactics; thus making "tactically inclined" humans genetically predominant over a long period of time.

Your assumption that human tactics prove human intelligence are not necessarily correct. Human tactics could also have emerged as a long-term consequence of evolution.

Note that I only addressed human tactics, but the same principle applies to everything else, including the fact that humans use weapons.

  • So did Neanderthals. But someone alive in 2017 doesn't consider a Neanderthal as intelligent. If the Buggers are sufficiently advanced, they will consider human weaponry as "laughably simplistic", and not as an indication of intelligence.
  • The weapons may have been developed by another species, and humans have gotten their hands on them before their civilization reached a point where they're intelligent enough to build them themselves (like a child who finds a gun and plays with it).
  • Many animals make their own weapons (venom), but their bodies automatically (genetically) produce this weapon. The animal does not intelligently know how to make venom.

Could the Buggers have realized that humans are intelligent?

Yes, you are right about that.

Should the Buggers have invariably realized that humans are intelligent?

Not necessarily. The indications of intelligence that they "should have seen" are not irrefutable evidence. There are explanations that can forgo the acknowledgement of human intelligence.

Furthermore, it stands to reason that the Buggers' notion that "non-hive-minds cannot possible be intelligent" inherently prejudiced the Buggers to assume that humans cannot possibly be intelligent regardless of wielding weaponry and tactics.

Consider what a (figurative) echo chamber is:

In news media, the term echo chamber is analogous with an acoustic echo chamber, where sounds reverberate in a hollow enclosure. An echo chamber is a metaphorical description of a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a defined system. Inside a figurative echo chamber, official sources often go unquestioned and different or competing views are censored, disallowed, or otherwise underrepresented.

I would argue that a hive mind is inherently an extreme echo chamber. A hive mind only has one opinion, so they are not experienced in how to handle conflicting ideas. The same wrong notion ("non-hive-minds cannot be intelligent") gets repeated over and over, to a point where it is assumed as a common truth, and no longer as an unproven assumption or a rumor.

And once you accept something that common truth, then you won't easily be swayed to believe the opposite. So it's perfectly possible that the Buggers never reevaluated their prejudices, even if they could've noticed human tactics and weaponry.

  • 2
    It is absolute that the buggers must realize immediately that humans are intelligent. A non-intelligent does not wield nuclear power or spaceships. That is utterly impossible. If they eliminated hive-mind the only viable conclusion is individually intelligent.
    – Joshua
    Sep 14, 2017 at 18:05
  • 2
    @Joshua Your definition of intelligent is not the same af the Formics' definition of intelligent. By their own words: "we never dreamed that thought could arise from the lonely animals who cannot dream each other's dreams". This strongly suggests that they dismissed evidence like weapons and spaceships, because we already didn't dream eachother's dreams (= their minimum requirement for considering intelligence). Similarly, it's not impossible for an animal to not realize that plants are living creatures, as they don't look anything like an animal (don't move around, don't seem to eat, etc.)
    – Flater
    Sep 14, 2017 at 19:38
  • 2
    @Joshua: You said "If they eliminated hive-mind the only viable conclusion is individually intelligent" but that is precisely the point, they actively thought intelligence to be impossible if you lack a hive mind. Their idea turned out to be wrong, but they believed it at the time. Which boils down to the point in my answer. Could they have known? Yes. But did they realize it at the time? It's at least plausible that they never considered it, because we didn't fit their initial markers for intelligence.
    – Flater
    Sep 14, 2017 at 19:40
  • 1
    Controlled space flight is irrefutable evidence of intelligence. Yeah sure a machine can do it, but that machine was made to do it. If they couldn't find a hivemind demands they conclude there is either individual intelligence or a hivemind they can't find. The only conclusion we can draw for the buggers claim is they are lying.
    – Joshua
    Sep 14, 2017 at 23:27
  • 1
    @Joshua: If you consider ants to not be intelligent, then the Formics can consider humans to not be intelligent. Take the example of the leafcutter ant. They cut leaves, not to eat, but to feed to a fungus that they farm. When the fungus consumes the leaves, it leaves a byproduct that the ants can eat. The ants learn which leaves the fungus likes and which it doesn't. I would say that agriculture is a marker for intelligence. Yet you dismiss it, just like how the Formics can dismiss weaponry as proof that humans are intelligent
    – Flater
    Sep 18, 2017 at 16:01

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.