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"The wealth of the universe is all over your head. We need to take command of the solar system to gain that wealth..."
- Larry Niven

  The ability of a species to think, to reason with discernment and wisdom.  

As far as I know, the first instance of this term in science fiction.

In the meanwhile, on earth, unknown to Gaillard and his fellow-exiles, who had made no effort to communicate with the abandoned world, an amazing thing had occurred; a final proof of the virtual omnipotence and all-inclusive sapience of the Martian.
From The Planet Entity, by E.M. Johnson (w/C.A. Smith).
Published by Wonder Stories Quarterly in 1931
Additional resources -

The word has been in use since the 1400's, so it's not a unique construction. It is used in science fiction to show that an alien is the equal of humans, or homo sapiens (the same root word), in their capacity for thought, wisdom and discernment.

For science fiction fans, a pivotal use is found in the 1962 novel Little Fuzzy, a likable (and Hugo award-nominated) tale by H. Beam Piper. In the story, the legal question of whether or not a corporation effectively owns a planet is decided by whether or not the planet has an indigenous species that shows sapience. If the planet has a sapient species, then they "own" the planet.

"...They’ll quibble about statements of fact and statements of opinion. And what they can’t exclude or attack, they’ll accept, and then deny that it’s proof of sapience."

“What the hell do they want for proof of sapience?” Gerd demanded. “Nuclear energy and contragravity and hyperdrive?”

“They will have a nice, neat, pedantic definition of sapience, tailored especially to exclude the Fuzzies, and they will present it in court and try to get it accepted, and it’s up to us to guess in advance what that will be, and have a refutation of it ready, and also a definition of our own.”

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from The Planet Entity
  More Ideas and Technology by E.M. Johnson (w/C.A. Smith)
  Tech news articles related to The Planet Entity
  Tech news articles related to works by E.M. Johnson (w/C.A. Smith)

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