I like to think about how sentient alien species could be radically different from us.
The aliens I am writing about now don’t have hands or tentacles or any other type of appendage that they can use to manipulate their environment. The result of this difference is that there are a lot of things we can do that they cannot.
On a purely physical level, a species without hands cannot hold things. They cannot pick something up and carry it somewhere else. If you’ve ever watched a baby develop, you know that being able to carry stuff around is a key driver for wanting to walk instead of crawl. It’s a darn useful thing to be able to do. If an alien were configured so that it could nudge things onto part of itself – eg its upper surface – then it might have a crude capability to carry things around. But it would be very crude compared to what we can do. My aliens cannot hold things the way we do.
I think if a species cannot hold things, it’s harder to develop a concept of ownership. Something I can hold in my hand, something I can hide in my hand, something I can carry around and keep with me – it’s mine. Owning something external is, of course, still possible (think corporations, houses, animals), but it’s much more abstract. And, in the case of cats, there’s the eternal question of who really owns whom. 😉 Ownership is a key concept for humans that my aliens don’t have.
If a species cannot hold things, it’s not going to develop tools. It’s not going to probe termite mounds with sticks, it’s not going crack nuts with rocks, and it’s not going to cut things with knives. (It could be argued that some Earth species use their mouths to use tools, but they can hold things with their mouths. My aliens can’t.) Tool use is one of the features of humanity that define us as an intelligent species. My aliens don’t use tools.
Finally, if a species cannot hold things or use tools, it is not going to create physical things. It’s not going to mold clay into bowls or build skyscrapers. Being a creator is a fundamental aspect of who I am, and I know I am far from alone in feeling so. This is not part of my alien’s identity at all. (Although it could be – hands, ownership, and tools are not required to create music or stories…)
And yet … assuming a handless alien could also be sentient … and there’s no reason such a thing couldn’t evolve … there are still a lot of points where we could be the same. A handless alien can still love, can still plan, can still fight, and can still contemplate what would be different if they had hands.
What do you think a handless alien would be like? And, more interestingly, what could an alien have that we do not that would have such a profound effect on who they are?