Six Ridiculous Cultures in Speculative Fiction

Building new cultures from scratch is a cornerstone of speculative fiction. From the fictional nations of high fantasy, to the interstellar empires of space opera, to the shadow kiths of urban fantasy, we authors are always crafting new societies to thrill and amaze. But for every well-thought-out and realistic culture, there are a dozen more that seem like they were built by throwing darts at a wall of setting ideas. Let’s look at six of them!

1. Nimbus III: Star Trek V

Robed soldiers headed towards a dilapidated settlement.

It is almost universally acknowledged that the fifth Star Trek film is terrible. In fact, this movie is what cemented the rule of odd-numbered Trek films being bad. The villain’s motivation is nonsense, the characters are inconsistent, there’s no payoff at the end, and our heroes pass the same deck multiple times when climbing up a turbolift. It’s not a great movie is what I’m saying.

In the midst of all that, we often forget where the film starts. That would be Nimbus III, the Planet of Galactic Peace. From some painfully contrived exposition, we learn that Nimbus III was meant to be a joint colonization effort of the Federation, the Klingons, and the Romulans: a project to promote goodwill among the three powers. Then we’re told that the project was a complete failure. That’s not really a surprise, since Nimbus III appears to be a desert world with nothing in the way of resources or prospects.

Next, we’re told that the powers that be had “conned” the “dregs of the galaxy” into settling on the planet, and then these great powers immediately forget about it. I have questions.

  1. Why did they choose this planet? The Star Trek universe is absolutely teeming with habitable planets, most of them lush and verdant. Maybe this was the only planet close to all three space countries, but that seems unlikely given how the Enterprise stumbles on a new class M planet each week.
  2. If Nimbus III was somehow the only available planet, why did they get the “dregs of the galaxy” to settle it? Star Trek has shown us that the Federation is absolutely teeming with people eager for the challenge of colonization. That alone should have been enough, even if the Romulans and Klingons had none of their own people to contribute.
  3. For that matter, what does “dregs of the galaxy” mean? I think the film is invoking the British Empire’s tradition of using prisoners as colonists, but that punishment was specifically used to get around the death penalty, which we can assume the benevolent Federation doesn’t have. What’s more, the British expected economic returns from their penal colonies, which doesn’t seem to be the case for Nimbus III. It’s also possible that “dregs of the galaxy” just means poor people, which would be pretty awful and classist, but that doesn’t make sense either. Even the darkest Trek stories all say that the Federation lacks that kind of abject poverty.

The only possible explanation for this abysmal planet is total incompetence on the three governments’ parts, but that also has problems. We know the Federation at least takes diplomacy seriously and would try to make the project work, alone if necessary. With the Federation’s advanced technology, even a half-hearted effort would yield something better than the impoverished shantytown the film shows us.

It’s unclear if Star Trek V is trying to make some kind of commentary with Nimbus III, since the plot quickly moves on and never looks back. It seems like the planet’s only purpose is to provide a desert backdrop for the messiah-like antagonist so he could seem more like a Christ figure. Never mind that the province of Judea in the final century BCE was a bustling, cosmopolitan place, nothing like the barren Nimbus III.

2. The Deep Ones: Winter Tide

Deep Ones emerging from the waves.

We first met the Deep Ones back in the 1930s, when HP Lovecraft used them in a number of stories, most notably The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Back then, the Deep Ones were entirely evil fish-people, playing into a number of problematic tropes that painted anyone considered other as dangerous. Then, in 2017, Ruthanna Emrys subverted Lovecraft by portraying the Deep Ones as victims of bigotry and state violence. The resulting novel, Winter Tide, is a great story, but it does leave the Deep Ones* in a somewhat confusing position.

In Emrys’s story, Innsmouth is a spawning ground for the Deep Ones. They can only reproduce in the first stage of their life, when they mostly resemble standard humans. As Deep Ones get older, they eventually develop into a more aquatic form, though they retain the ability to walk and breath air. At this point, the newly transformed Deep One goes to join their great civilization beneath the sea. They also stop aging and can live forever if they don’t die through violence or accident, so that’s nice.

Winter Tide’s plot takes place in the aftermath of Innsmouth being destroyed by a U.S. government raid, which is where the cracks start to show. First, why is there only one spawning ground? The Deep Ones have known that humans were a threat for centuries at least, and if the spawning ground is destroyed, they have no way to replace it. That seems like the sort of thing you’d keep a spare around for.

Another question: Why is Innsmouth so poorly defended? Government forces seem to sweep in without any resistance. Remember, the Deep Ones already knew that humans were a threat. In fact, they moved the spawning ground to Innsmouth specifically because humans were getting too close to the old location. You’d think they’d have at least some kind of plan in place if that happened again. Maybe put the spawning ground on an island where humans couldn’t get at it? I’m just throwing out ideas here.

Most pressing of all, why didn’t the other Deep Ones try to do anything once the spawning ground was attacked? They have a mighty undersea civilization, with both large quantities of gold and powerful magic. Why not just offer the U.S. government cash to go away? And if America wasn’t interested, they could have approached one of the other global powers with the same offer. This might not have automatically gotten the spawning grounds returned and its residents freed, but it at least seems worth trying.

There are two possible explanations, but neither of them work. First, it might be that the aquatic Deep Ones don’t care about their land-bound kin, but the story quickly shows us how untrue that is. Second, the Deep Ones might be so concerned with maintaining their secrecy that they won’t risk acting.

That second option seems more plausible, but it falls apart under examination. First, the U.S. government already knows about the Deep Ones at this point. We also find out that the aquatic Deep Ones killed several American soldiers investigating what happened to Innsmouth – hardly something that contributes to secrecy.

But most damningly, the Deep Ones have had no reason to stay secret until just before the book starts. In the 20th century, humans have submarines and depth charges that might pose a threat to the Deep Ones in their home turf. I say “might” because we have no idea how strong the Deep Ones are, though we do know their magic includes weather control. But up until a few decades earlier, humans had no way to attack underwater targets, meaning the Deep Ones would reign supreme in any conflict. Rather than let their spawning grounds be under constant threat, they could have been the world’s watery overlords.*

This is the crux of Winter Tide’s worldbuilding problem. The Deep Ones are meant to be both a powerless minority and a vast aquatic empire at the same time. They cannot be both of those things. They’re also a clear parallel for internment during WWII, but they don’t have the same context. Not only was the Empire of Japan actively at war with the USA, giving it very little bargaining power, but it didn’t care one way or the other what happened to Japanese Americans. Neither of those things are true for the Deep Ones.

3. The Drow: Forgotten Realms

One drow handing a sword to another drow.

It’s time to talk about D&D’s dark elves, who you might remember as Drizzt’s mean family. Literally nothing about the Drow makes sense, starting with their skin color. They have dark skin and bleached hair despite living in a completely sunlight-free environment. The explanation is magic, of course, which is going to be a recurring theme with the Drow. In actuality, this is a silly and somewhat racist concept where darkness equals bad so of course the evil elves need to have dark skin. Claiming “Lolth did it” doesn’t make the idea a good one.

Edit: Drow Evolutionary Theory

This wasn’t the main point of the article, but there seems to be some confusion about how evolutionary pressures might work in regards to the Drow, so I thought I’d clarify a few things. There’s a reason the official explanation is “magic,” because trying to explain this scientifically is ridiculous.

First, let’s make the already major assumption that the Drow have lived in the Underdark long enough for selective pressure to have an effect on the population. This would have to be a really long time considering how long an elven generation is, but D&D time scales are super hazy, so it’s technically possible that the Drow have been down there for the vast stretches of time required, even as their culture (and the culture of everyone else) remains static.

Next, we have to ask the question: does progressively darker skin provide a selective advantage by making Drow less likely to die in battle? No. With how easy magical light is to produce, plus most Underdark creatures having darkvision, the Drow environment is at most like a modern American city at night.

Camouflage works by matching the colors of whatever is around you. The Drow do not live in a black world. They’re surrounded by rock that can be a whole range of colors, but is mostly brown. So if there was elective pressure toward camo skin, it would be toward brown, not black. This is the same reason actual camouflage is almost never black, though of course there are always exceptions like our good friend the black panther.

However, that pressure doesn’t exist anyway since the Drow do not fight naked. They wear clothes and armor which cover most of their bodies, except for maybe the fan service dominatrix armor worn by their sexy straw matriarchs, which I think we can safely discount. And we know the Drow have always worn armor because the world of D&D is static.

Incidentally, this is the same reason that the Drow’s white hair is unlikely to be selected against. Even though it would be fairly easy to see, the Drow would almost certainly hide their hair under helmets, making it a moot point.

Of course, it’s still technically possible for Drow-style coloration to arise from natural processes. Most things are technically possible if you allow for enough random mutations. But there would be no selective pressure for it.

But let’s put the Drow’s skin color aside for a moment and focus on their culture instead. First, they are both a straw matriarchy and a sexy matriarchy. That means Drow women are constantly oppressing Drow men and are also naked while they do it. Not only is this incredibly sexist, but it doesn’t even make sense in-universe.

As with everything else about the Drow, their matriarchal practices are explained by claiming Lolth made it happen. She gave the Drow women power, so they oppressed the men. Presumably, Lolth also made the women want to oppress their men because she’s evil like that. Already this explanation fails because the Forgotten Realms setting is full of gods. You can get power from any of them, so all the men would have to do is pray to any god besides Lolth and they’d be on even footing.

A secondary problem comes from the rules of D&D itself. For the most part, Lolth’s blessing comes in the form of levels in cleric, and while clerics can hold their own, they’re hardly unbeatable. In most editions of the game, wizards and other spellcasters are just as good. And since anyone can become a wizard, Drow men could easily get their own magic power without even turning to religion.

Next, we get to the idea of Drow being an “evil society,” where everyone is constantly on the verge of betraying everyone else. Empathy, love, and loyalty are all considered weaknesses among the dark elves. You hardly need an explanation of why this doesn’t work, but I’m going to write one anyway.

First, the Drow are supposed to be a powerful force, a threat to their fellow Underdark dwellers and the surface folk alike. There’s no way that would work if the Drow were in a constant state of betraying each other. Operations against an external foe will always require some level of risk, and no Drow would be willing or able to take that risk. The only way you could get close to this in real life is with an empire that has no serious external enemies, so all the conflict is focused within. The Drow clearly have a host of enemies to deal with.

But it gets worse! It turns out there are in fact good Drow, or at least less evil Drow who can presumably stay loyal to each other for more than two seconds. They worship gods other than Lolth, so they aren’t obliged to constantly betray each other. That’s such a huge advantage that they should have completely taken over by now. The Lolth worshippers would crumble because they’d never be able to put up a united front. They’d constantly have to protect themselves from their own side.

As a final tidbit, did you know that in some sources, the Drow are also supposed to have been selectively bred for beauty and intelligence? I didn’t, but you find out all kinds of things reading D&D wikis. This is a little thing called eugenics, and it does not work that way. There’s simply no way to breed for abstract traits like beauty and intelligence. We know this because aristocratic families have been trying for centuries, and all they managed to do was spread hemophilia around Europe.

4. Sargas 4: The Orville

A vote tracker from The Orville.

In the sixth episode of Seth MacFarlane’s self-insert Star Trek fanfiction, we leave behind the mediocre Family Guy humor and take on something serious. Okay, the mediocre Family Guy humor is still there, but this is one of the show’s many attempts to talk about something important: cyber mobs and online dogpiling. Unfortunately, this is still The Orville, so approximately zero thought seems to have been given to the episode’s worldbuilding.

Our story starts on Sargas 4, a world that’s nearly identical to the early 21st-century United States, which is great news for the show’s budget. There’s just one problem: the entire planet operates on a Reddit-style voting system. It’s unclear what getting upvotes does, but too many downvotes means you’re arrested, and potentially given brain damage as punishment.

On the one hand, bringing Reddit into real life does sound like a dystopia, but also, how can that possibly work? I have so many questions, starting with how this system was instituted. For all the noise this episode makes about mob justice, the downvote system still depends on the state to arrest offenders and administer punishment. So this system was intentionally put in place by the government.

This is already straining believability, since I can’t think of any politician who would willingly make it easier for the masses to hurt them. Politicians tend to fall squarely on the rich-and-powerful side of the spectrum, and there’s nothing that group of people hates more than being accountable to us plebs.

Then the episode explains more about this system, and it gets even weirder. It seems like there’s only one crime, which is getting a million downvotes, and one punishment, the brain damage that happens when you hit 10 million downvotes. How does this society handle parking tickets and vandalism? What about murder? If there are no laws regarding those things, how can Sargas 4 possibly look anything like the modern-day United States? Maybe there are regular police and courts too, but it’s hard to see a traditional justice system operating alongside the downvote lynch mobs.

Then there’s the question of how many people would actually participate in such a system. Currently, there are only two YouTube videos with over 10 million dislikes; Reddit tops out at 600,000. By that metric, the threshold for punishment would almost never be reached, and our heroes would have nothing to worry about.

In contrast to the real world, The Orville asks us to believe that the people of Sargas 4 are not only far more engaged but also far more bloodthirsty. It’s difficult to test this hypothesis, but since even the most vicious cyber mobs in real life don’t reach anything close to 10 million, I’m not inclined to accept it. But even if we do, that just opens more problems. How does the head of Sargas 4’s IRS survive tax season? Why is the world not full of brain-damaged politicians who broke their election promises?

For that matter, if it’s so easy to stir up a 10-million-strong mob, where are all the people turning this system to their own gain? Are there no demagogues with an ax to grind, no extremist who would love to whip up hatred against their enemies? The only thing more unlikely than this downvote system is that no one has subverted it yet.

Of course, Sargas 4 exists to send a message, not to be an internally consistent society. But what is that message, exactly? Charitably, we could say MacFarlane wanted to draw attention to the very real problem of mass cyberbullying. You might recognize this as the thing that happens to marginalized people when they criticize video games. But with such a clumsy setup, it sounds more like The Orville is complaining about how the rich and powerful are sometimes held the slightest bit accountable for their actions by angry followers on social media.

5. The Airbenders: Avatar

A stone carving of an air nun.

Look, I love Avatar, you love Avatar, we all love Avatar. It is known. And outside of the occasional goof,* the show’s worldbuilding is really good. The countries and cities we see are clearly well thought out, with cultures that reflect both their mundane circumstances and the inclusion of bending, Avatar’s rational magic system. Unfortunately, there’s one exception: the airbenders.

First there’s the issue of their name. Sometimes they’re called Air Monks,* which makes sense given that they’re clearly monks who live in temples. But they’re also called Air Nomads, which makes far less sense. The word nomad suggests people who move around rather than having a fixed home. But the airbenders do have a fixed home: their temples. They might travel between those temples; however, not only is there little evidence of that, but they still wouldn’t be nomads. You might as well call every rich person with two homes a nomad.

But far more pressing than name issues is a question I never thought I’d ask: Where do airbender babies come from? With every other nation, we can assume they get made the old-fashioned way, but it’s more complicated for these fun-loving airbison riders.

Even though airbenders are never stated to be celibate, they have all the trappings of celibacy. They’re completely sex-segregated,* and their aesthetics are based on monastic Buddhist orders, most of whom are celibate in real life. This matches Aang’s origin story: a group of airbenders find him with his unnamed biological parents who certainly don’t seem to be either benders or temple dwellers.

In this scenario, the most logical explanation is that there’s some other population that has the babies, and when those babies demonstrate airbending talent, they’re sent to the temples for training. This could even explain the name confusion. The Air Nomads are the larger population who move around from place to place, and the Air Monks (and Nuns) are the dedicated benders who live in fixed temples. That’s it – we’ve solved the problem, right?

Not so fast! There’s a major problem with this theory: Sozen’s genocide. If the Air Nomads don’t live at the four temples, there’s no way Sozen could have wiped them out with one attack. It’s already straining belief that he could have gotten them all even if every single one of them called the temples home. Surely a handful would have been away on vacation? If we include a second population of airbenders, the show’s backstory gets even less credible.

The other possibility is that despite appearances, the monks and nuns we see at the temples are not actually celibate, and they do in fact make babies the old-fashioned way. It’s unclear how any type of courtship would work since impregnators and gestators rarely if ever see each other, and this raises even more questions about who Aang’s biological parents are, but this still seems to be the official answer.

Saying the airbenders aren’t celibate after all does make it easier to explain why they were all at the temples for Sozen’s attack, but it raises another question: What do they do with non-bender babies? It seems pretty clear you need to be an airbender to live at one of these temples,* and in all Aang’s flashbacks, we never meet anyone who isn’t a bender.

One possibility is they give all non-bending children away for adoption, but that is quite dark and makes the airbenders out to be pretty heartless, especially since it often takes years for bending talent to manifest. And if we accept this idea, it creates a new problem: there would still be airbenders around. We’ve seen from Katara that bending can skip generations, so if there are a bunch of people in the world descended from airbenders, some of them would have manifested after Sozen’s genocide. They might have been killed in the Fire Nation, but they’d be relatively safe in the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes.

According to Avatar’s wiki, the official answer is that all babies born to airbenders are also airbenders because the monks and nuns are so much more “spiritual” than anyone else. If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you. Think about it: if spirituality made bending more likely, every nation would be building abbeys 24/7. Bending is just too powerful to pass that up.

6. The Aiel: The Wheel of Time

Two Aiel warriors from the Wheel of Time

Naturally, I’ve saved the best (worst) for last. The Aiel are a culture of mysterious desert dwellers who are absolutely the best at fighting and who support the chosen-one protagonist for vague reasons having mostly to do with destiny. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Dune did the same thing with the Fremen back in 1965. But we’re not here to talk about originality, so what is it that makes the Aiel unrealistic? A lot, it turns out.

We start with their fighting prowess. Over and over again, the Aiel are described as being absurdly good at fighting. They can easily defeat multiple combatants at once, even the vaunted Borderlanders who spend most of their time fighting unnatural monstrosities created by this world’s version of Satan. The book then acts like that kind of personal prowess would obviously extend to large battles, which is why Aiel armies are unstoppable even when heavily outnumbered.

Right away, we have a lot to unpack. First, personal combat prowess is not directly linked to battlefield success. Victory in mass combat has a lot of factors, some of the most important being coordination, discipline, and equipment. When the Byzantine Empire reconquered Italy, their victory wasn’t due to individual soldiers being more skilled than their Gothic opponents. The Byzantines prevailed because they had better organization and equipment. Second, there’s only so good an individual person can be at fighting. Even the very best fighter can only defend from so many directions at once before physics gets in the way.

Third, why would the Aiel be so much better at fighting than everyone else? The books imply it’s because they have to survive in the desert, but surviving in the desert doesn’t actually make you good at fighting; it makes you good at surviving in the desert. The Aiel fight among themselves, of course, but so does everyone else in Randland.*

Next, we have to look at how the Aiel fight, and it somehow makes even less sense. The Aiel don’t seem to have any armor, nor any horses. Every Aiel warrior carries short spears and a small bow. This means the entire Aiel army is made up of light infantry skirmishers. To be fair, such skirmishers absolutely have their uses. They’re great for scouting, harassing enemy formations, and guerrilla warfare.

One thing they can’t do is stand up to heavily armored enemies in a pitched battle. For an example of what happens when they try, look at the battles during Rome’s conquest of Britain. The Roman soldiers were nearly invincible, and they handily defeated their enemy even when heavily outnumbered. The Britains simply didn’t have the infrastructure to produce heavy armor, and they were at such a disadvantage that they avoided open battle whenever possible.

Infantry skirmishers also do badly against cavalry. The skirmishers can’t run away, nor do they have the reach weapons or heavy bows needed to stop a mounted charge. In case you were wondering, the Aiel’s enemies all use a combination of heavily armored infantry and powerful cavalry. The books have the Aiel win anyway because they’re just that good.

Once you get past how the Aiel are so good at fighting, you have to ask another question: How are there so many of them? The Aiel are often described as an unstoppable horde with seemingly endless numbers, but they live in a barren desert. How can they possibly have enough food to support a large population like that? What’s more, their main drink is apparently made from corn. So, they somehow have enough water in their barren desert to grow vast fields of corn, so much so that they have plenty left over for making booze.

There is nothing in real history like the Aiel. The closest is probably the Rashidun Caliphate* in the 7th-century CE. This empire did originate in the Arabian Peninsula, which is largely desert. The key word is “largely.” The peninsula also had plenty of population centers like the cities of Mecca and Medina. The Rashiduns were also particularly successful because their two greatest enemies, the Byzantine and Persian Empires, were exhausted from a long and brutal war against each other. After their initial successes, the Rashiduns shrewdly incorporated conquered peoples into their armies, which gave them some staying power.

The Aiel don’t have any context like that. They’re just unbelievably good at fighting, even when they should be easily defeated. They’re written that way so the protagonist can get even more candy when they swear loyalty to him. Not only is this unrealistic, but it’s not even a good plot point. The Wheel of Time’s protagonist is incredibly powerful all on his own. Giving him an army of unbeatable desert warriors just makes it seem impossible for him to fail.

Building a culture from scratch is hard. There are an infinite number of details to nail down, and no author is going to do that job perfectly. That’s why it’s so important to focus your energy where it really matters. If your story is about the silk trade, make sure you build a robust and consistent silk industry for your setting. If your story is about space battles, pay special attention to the physics of interstellar travel. Readers may not notice inconsistencies that stay in the background, but they’ll certainly notice if you try to hang your plot on a broken part of the setting.

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  1. Jeppsson

    So I’ve seen people sharing some Richard Dawkins tweet about how eugenics could work on humans too because humans have genes, just like animals. And then I’ve seen people counter that with saying eugenics don’t work on animals either, because pure-bred dogs are sickly. As a person who actually knows a lot about dog breeding, I occasionally try to set this straight…

    Purebred dogs are a very mixed bag. There are both really sickly and some very healthy breeds, and there ARE success stories when it comes to eradicating diseases and improving mentality through breeding. But those success stories depend on factors that will NEVER be replicated within the human realm. (It’s obviously much easier to just breed for a single and narrowly-defined trait, like making race horses as fast as possible, but no eugenics-inclined person suggests we should have this narrow a focus. And no, intelligence is not comparable to speed, it’s much more complicated.)

    1. People have to agree on what constitutes health problems and mental problems, and look objectively at their own dogs. Turns out it’s often very, very hard for people to admit that their own cherished dogs have health issues or mental issues. (Imagine how much harder for a wealthy, well-connected person in position of power to acknowledge this about himself…)
    2. It’s not just hard, but often near-impossible, to have people making unbiased and generally valid judgments if you don’t have objective tests to go on. Like obligatory X-ray pics to find joint problems, and scientifically validated mental tests for mental issues. The latter is very much dependent on dogs not KNOWING they’re being tested, so that you can see their spontaneous, authentic reactions to various events they’re presented with. There’s no way, though, we could keep the existence of this mental testing a secret to every HUMAN, even as they’re being tested, or even if they’re in charge of said tests (you’re in charge of something you don’t know exists?).
    3. There are a few health problems that are caused by a recessive genes you can DNA-test for, but most health problems and everything mental depends on a shitload of genes (plus environmental factors, of course). When this is the case, you can get a small improvement by just removing dogs from the gene pool who test badly, but a big improvement requires you to breed only on dogs who test well AND whose FAMILY by and large also test well.
    So suppose you’re a wealthy and privileged person engaged in a eugenics program, and you did great on the mandatory tests (just side-stepping, for now, the whole issue of doing mental tests on humans, who will unavoidably know about these tests and can taylor their responses to fit), but you have, say, a sibling and one parent who did worse than you. For that reason, now YOU are out of the gene pool too, and can never have children.
    Obviously said wealthy, privileged and powerful person won’t accept this.

    When dog breeders go through the motions of having a serious breeding program, but they don’t do well on all three points, the usual result is NO progress, or even that things get worse over time.

    (All of this, and I haven’t even mentioned how long human generations are compared to dog generations…)

    I mean, a big eugenics program would be ethically terrible even if it could work, but I’m starting to think it might be important to point out, as well, that there are PRACTICAL reasons as to why we’ll NEVER see anything like a successful dog breeding program on humans. If people go “yeah, we COULD totally improve the physical and mental health of the human species, except we shouldn’t, because ethics, but we COULD though, and everyone would be SO healthy if we did, even though we shouldn’t, because it’s wrong” it might be good if they get push-back on the empirical part too.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      To clarify, part of the reason Dawkins’ tweet caused so much outrage is that he willfully misunderstood what the actual goal of eugenics is. Yes, if you have infinite time, resources, and willingness to commit horrific atrocities, you could breed humans for specific physical traits. Brown eyes, black hair, tall, short, this is all theoretically possible through selective breeding, and it’s what we do with animals. There are of course countless practical obstacles that would make such a program unworkable, like human’s super long lifespans and reproductive cycles. That’s why we haven’t done much selective breeding on elephants. But again, we’re assuming infinite time and resources.

      But you still couldn’t breed for abstract traits like “intelligence” and “beauty” because we don’t actually know what those are, let alone what causes them. Intelligence is so nebulous and subjective that trying to breed for it would be like trying to grab smoke. Even if you went for the extremely limited definition of “does well on IQ tests,” there’s still no IQ gene you could breed for.

      We should all be very thankful that eugenics doesn’t actually produce more capable people. If it did, the Hitlers of the world would have triumphed a long time ago.

      • Dinwar

        “Eugenics” is merely selective breeding applied to humans. We know for a fact that selective breeding works; it’s observable in natural experiments (farms exist because of this) and demonstrable in controlled experiments (the Silver Fox experiment being the most iconic). There’s zero reason to think that this wouldn’t work just as well with humans. Evolution, if it teaches us anything, teaches us that humans aren’t as special as we think; we’re subject to the same forces as anything else. (I’m a paleontologist, FYI, and as a grand-student of Gould I’m more than happy to disagree with Dawkins on professional matters.)

        The problem is that humans try to apply eugenics internally, sloppily, and with nebulous criteria.

        If you have a nebulous criteria it’s unlikely that your eugenics process will succeed. Let’s take beauty. I prefer brunettes. Others prefer blondes. So we’re working at cross purposes. Even something like “stronger” is nebulous–do you go with how much you can lift, or with how long you can continue?

        What I mean by “sloppy” is that eugenicists can’t apply rigid structures to humanity that farmers can. “Romeo and Juliet” provide a great example: tell two kids they can’t be together and they’ll be even more drawn to one another. Farmers can physically keep bulls and cows separated–and boy howdy do they get mad when those separations fail!–but outside of dystopian sci-fi such physical separation is impossible with humans. Humans actively fight against such things. Then there’s the fact that many of the criteria are nebulous so various eugenicists will be working at cross-purposes.

        And eugenicists are all humans, meaning they’re part of the population. This causes several issues. First, they can’t see the full breeding program–they only see their part of it–which gives them a warped view of it. Second, they often contribute to the sloppiness by sleeping with those under their power (evil, yes, but it happens often enough to contribute to the genetics). Third, most humans don’t like putting other humans in little cages. Some do, but enough don’t that it can screw up the breeding program.

        For eugenics to work you need a long-lived (say, 10,000 years or more) external force powerful enough to control the breeding populations. A god fits the bill pretty well, especially if we assume that the god can decide who has offspring (eliminating the sloppiness).

        • Cay Reet

          One big problem with eugenics is how long our generations are. Ideally, you will want to know whether your ‘breeders’ (male and female) have the traits you want to breed for, so you need to let them grow up completely in most cases (unless you’re breeding for hair or eye colours which are apparent early). That means you have 20 to 30 years for each generation. Technically, you could breed after about 15 years, but then you can’t be sure whether your choice is good.

          Another problem is what to breed for. A lot of selective breeding in animals is done with traits that can be measured: weight gain, milk per day, eggs per day, amount of wool per shearing. All of that is certifiable, so if you breed only those cows which give a lot of milk, chances are there will be cows in the next generation giving a little more milk. If you breed pigs with fast weight gain, chances are you will have pigs which gain weight even faster. And so on.

          It gets more difficult with traits which come with a span. Intelligence or aggressiveness for instance. There you also have a certain ‘nurture’ aspect. A child is born with a certain amount of intelligence, with a span in which it can later on be. If the child is encouraged to learn, to read, to use its mind, chances are it will be at the top of the margin later on. If the child is not encourage, if it’s not given a chance to learn at all (because of gender or ethnicity), it will be at the bottom of the margin later in life. If a child has a high aggression and is encouraged to roll with it, to attack others, to be aggressive, it will be different later in life than it it’s told not to show aggression, to control itself. So the way you raise the next generation in this case will also play a role.

          Yes, first of all you need someone on top of that breeding program who can outlive humans and who has complete control. A farmer might not outlife that many generations of their sheep, say, but they can hand it over to their children who continue with the breeding. They’re not involved in it and can stay objective about the choices. Aliens could breed us humans, I think – or gods, yes. But eugenics come around when one group thinks they can make a better human and they usually make mistakes all the time while they do it.

          • Dinwar

            Your argument in your first paragraph doesn’t hold if there’s a long-lived species doing the breeding program (not uncommon in sci-fi and fantasy). If an alien species measured its lifespan in galactic years (100,000 Earth years, the time it takes most stars to orbit the galactic core), time wouldn’t be a factor. All of human civilization has occurred in less than 10% of one galactic year.

            As for the second and third paragraphs, I’m not so sure you’re right. We CAN breed for non-measurable traits; we’ve bred dogs for loyalty and bravery, for example (labs and GSDs). Domestication itself is a rather nebulous concept, fortunately attached to specific genes. And we don’t even need a modern understanding of genetics to engage in effective breeding programs; most breeds of animals and plants were established prior to genetic theory, and in fact breeding programs were instrumental (maybe a prerequisite) to establishing genetic theory. See Mendel and de Vrise.

            No arguments about your final paragraph. Human eugenicists are really bad at establishing and maintaining human breeding programs (which is a very good thing). In fact, I’d say it’s an error on the article’s part to suggest that aristocrats tried. Most aristocrats throughout history–even when eugenics was popular–were less interested in a rigorous approach to human breeding than they were to political maneuvering. An evil-god-worshiping elf race? Since we have no experience with those, it’s impossible to say what those could be like.

  2. Rosenkavalier

    Aristocratic families didn’t breed for traits like beauty and intelligence – they bred for purity of bloodlines, and for alliances with a limited number of other families of similar standing. This (along with primogeniture) is what led to the inbreeding that gave rise to things like the Romanovs’ haemophilia or the multiple congenital problems of the Hapsburgs.

    • Cay Reet

      I agree with you on the whole, but the Romanovs got their haemophilia from the British royals, more precisely through Queen Victoria who was a carrier and spred the disease through several of her daughters, including the wife of the last Zar.

      The Habsburgs definitely were very inbred, though, and are completely to blame for the mental problems of the bloodline.

      • Rosenkavalier

        That was my point about families of a similar standing – it was more important to marry into other royal families than it was to look for marriages which would lead to healthy offspring.

        • Cay Reet

          Well, Victoria and her daughters were carriers, but as far as I remember, none of her sons had haemophilia, which means nobody knew they were carrying the disease. Victoria was actually in very good health for most of her life, right into old age. It was only in the following generations (mostly her grandchildren) where it showed. At the time marriages were planned, nobody could have known what they were in for (and there are non-noble families with haemophilia, so just marrying a commoner is no protection, either).

          • Rosenkavalier

            I think Prince Leopold had it, and if memory serves he died fairly young due to haemorrhaging as the result of a fall, which may well have been exacerbated by the condition.

      • Rosenkavalier

        But I can see I could have phrased my original comment better – I was trying to suggest both inbreeding and a certain myopia with respect to health consequences, which were both deemed less important than making the ‘right’ marriage.

        • Cay Reet

          This wasn’t just for nobles, though, even though with a very small gene pool, it showed a lot in them. Wherever there was some money (so from farmers with their own farm upwards), marriage was a business matter and both attaining new money and keeping money together featured heavily in the choice of partners – there’s as much inbreeding in villages with only a handful of wealthy families at that time and before as there is among the nobles. In most case, marrying your own sibling was frowned upon (except for Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs – but they had several wives), but cousins etc. were fair game. There was some awareness that inbreeding was dangerous, but not enough to stop it, since in most cases there’s no visible trouble coming from it.

          • Jeppsson

            People have known since ages that inbreeding makes basically all pronounced traits within a family even MORE pronounced, including existing illnesses. Sick families get sicker through inbreeding (although I guess some wealthy and/or noble families might still have considered this an acceptable trade-off in order to keep estates, money, titles etc within the family).

            However, people were pretty late to realize that in the LONG run, inbreeding causes health problems EVEN IF the family was healthy to start with.
            People were so slow to grasp this simply because these negative inbreeding effects can appear VERY gradually after MANY generations.

          • Rosenkavalier

            I agree, but I think one of the factors that exacerbated those kind of issues amongst noble families was the pressure to maintain continuous bloodlines.along with the importance of primogeniture. Outside of the family itself, no-one would much care if a farming family died out, whereas considerable efforts were made to prevent the same occurring with aristocratic families; similarly a family business or freeholding could be passed on to a younger child, if the elder one was incapable of maintaining it, but this was a lot less likely with royal and aristocratic successions.

  3. Fay Onyx

    “Third, why would the Aiel be so much better at fighting than everyone else?The books imply it’s because they have to survive in the desert, but surviving in the desert doesn’t actually make you good at fighting; it makes you good at surviving in the desert.”

    This line literally made me laugh out loud. Thank you! So tired of this sad, racist trope.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yay, I’m glad someone besides me found that joke funny!

    • El Suscriptor Justiciero

      I guess surviving in the desert gives you lots of XP so they were higher level than everyone around them

    • Recursive Rabbit

      I appreciate it, too. If you’re going to be doing something with a desert culture in a war, at least make desert survival a part of why they give your side an advantage, like being able to take a shortcut through an allegedly impassable desert.

  4. Adam Reynolds

    So the thing about bending and spirituality dictating numbers of benders for each nation seems to be loosely similar to the idea in Star Wars about the Force seeking balance between light and dark. Here it is done with the four elements, which actually makes a great deal more sense. The reason that all Air Nomads become airbenders is because there are so few Air Nomads in the first place, which means they need a higher ratio than the Earth Kingdom with its vastly larger population.

    This doesn’t explain the gender dynamics and how their society works, but I suspect the reason less thought was put into it was because we never actually visit the Air Nomads. The Legend of Korra features the new Air Nation largely revolving around a family even as it expands, given that the only two masters are a father and daughter, so the segregation once seen certainly isn’t there anymore.

    • Cay Reet

      I think originally it was very much about ‘they’re all dead anyway and we don’t need to fill them out as much as the other people.’ Which, of course, became a problem with Korra, because there they needed to come up with it again.

  5. Humanmale

    The Drow: totally agree about the skin colour and the evil empire being shakey as all hell but some doubts about the other points.

    The drow probably don’t enjoy religious freedom. If some started worshipping a more personally-beneficial god then they’d likely be executed before they had enough influence to overthrow the existing theocracy.

    Males learning magic and awesome fighting skillz (sorry) likely wouldn’t overthrow the entrenched sexism among the drow any more than female front-line soldiers and gun ownership have abolished it here (where applicable). Maybe eventually.
    Oppressed wizards could exist there when there are loyalist wizards and warriors and a power structure built by roughly-equally-powerful clerics in large numbers.

    • Prince Infidel

      In the world of Forgotten Realms (a meaningless name that doesn’t relate to the setting) people can & do worship gods in secret, & gain power from them. People can & do learn magic in secret, & become powerful from that knowledge. Honestly a 2nd level cleric or wizard is more dangerous that anyone with a gun. That’s not even counting sorcerers, which are people who somewhat randomly are just born with magic powers. Sorcerers would just pop up randomly regardless of what kind of junk they’re born with.

      Oren’s point seems to be that religious & gender oppression can only go so far in a world like that. There would be large groups that broke away from Lolth’s influence.

      Oren also touches on the awful idea that if the situation is reversed, the oppressed become as bad or worse than the oppressors. “If women had privilege they would keep men subservient & powerless, but in a sexy way!” It speaks volumes that men dreamt up “evil dark skinned sexy elf women, that enslave people but especially men, & throw in spiders cause spider women are somehow sexier” & thought this is fine & should be shared with their friends & children.

    • Tony

      The worst part about the backstory of drow turning dark as divine punishment is that it mirrors rhetoric that some old-school white supremacists used against people of colour. For example, in the US before the Civil War, some Christian advocates for chattel slavery claimed that sub-Saharan Africans were cursed with black skin as a mark of their descent from Ham or Cain, and that God originally darkened those men’s skin to punish them by marking them as born slaves.

  6. LeeEsq

    In a small defense of Avatar: The Last Airbender, certain sects of Japanese Buddhism, mainly the Pure Land sect, allow their monks to marry and have babies. In a slightly larger defense, going in and out of monastic life is not unknown in Buddhism. On the negative side, the Air Benders/Nomads are clearly supposed to be based on Tibet and this was a Buddhist majority country that decided to put twenty-five percent of its’ population in monasteries at the height of the Dalai Lama period. They also seemed to take Buddhism’s celibacy requirements rather seriously for their monks and nuns.

    My guess is that all these inconsistencies are mainly because Avatar is a kid’s show more than anything else. The writers didn’t want to get to into detail about the ins and outs of any of their cultures but the Air Benders/Nomads in particular because the money people might get anxious about parents complaining.

    • Cay Reet

      In early Irish monastries, men and women did live together and they also had children who would either join the order later or leave and make their way in the secular world.
      It is possible that monks/nuns would still have children.

      Still, the question remains what happened with all people from the air nomads/air monks tribe who didn’t have bending skills. They clearly couldn’t live in the temples.

  7. LeeEsq

    I can kind of imagine the Drow somewhat working if you see them in the form of fascist/communist dictatorship, pick the ideology you hate the most here, rather than evil matriarchy. By all accounts, most fascist/communist countries, especially in a high Stalinist form, managed to be filled with all sorts of back stabbing and overlapping chaotic administrations and still be terrors to their neighbors. Highly dysfunctional internal Drow political culture doesn’t mean that everybody gets to relax and treat them like a joke.

    • Cay Reet

      While I agree in general, I can’t see such a system work for a very long time. Dictatorships usually collapse as soon as the dictator is dead, because they’re usually very much build around the person who sits on top. Sometimes, they last a little longer, but we’re seeing at the moment how long communist countries can last … China is a communist country in name only and I doubt Communist North Korea will make it far past its current head of state.

      A very ‘competitive’ political culture, I could see, one where the head might be pretty stable and able to assert power, but the ones in succession switch often when one has again, literally or figuratively, stabbed someone else in the back. Yet, such a system would probably not last very long, either. The problem is that bigger communities (such as a Drow empire underground) only work when most people cooperate to a degree. They might still seek out their own advantages, but only where it won’t get them into too much trouble with everyone else. Stability comes from a stable head of state (which is where dictatorships fail most of the time once the dictator is removed), but also from the wish of everyone inside the society to make that society work. A society made of back-stabber will never work out, because everyone is ready to let everything go to hell for their own advantage.

      • El Suscriptor Justiciero

        Minor caveat: in the particular case of Menzoberranzan, the dictator happens to be a literal goddess, so they don’t really have sucession problems on that part. IIRC Lolth has never been killed for real yet.

        • Cay Reet

          That still leaves the bigger problem, though. If they are unable to cooperate due to never trusting and backstabbing, they’ll never form a larger group, so instead of a Drow Empire, you’d only have single drows or small family clans – none of which would be a real threat to the rest of the people.

  8. AuntieKitty

    I would like to offer a dishonourable mention: the Adem from Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles.

    The idea that they find displays of emotion barbaric (except crying, for some reason) and therefore sign all their emotions with subtle hand gestures is a little strange, but interesting. Added to this, though, is the fact that they’re all so well trained in some vaguely described martial art that even a little girl can defeat a grown outsider. They also believe women are naturally better fighters, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason for this other than the idea that women are less emotional than men. Nothing in the martial art itself seems to be more difficult for men to learn (it would make more sense if men weren’t trained, but they are). The first Adem we meet is a man, Tempi, who is a talented fighter and as calm as an untrodden puddle, but he still gladly accepts that he can’t fight as well because he’s too emotional. Even Kvothe doesn’t question the wisdom after he becomes a competent fighter despite not having trained since childhood like the Adem. The justification ends up flimsier than it would have been if Rothfuss had just introduced female fight instructors and society leaders and left it at that.

    They live in a remote (but still within reasonable trekking distance) and supposedly inhospitable mountain region, which they were forced to inhabit before they became elite martial artists. After they became a veritable arse-kicking army, they apparently decided not to bother trying to reclaim whatever their former home was. To be fair, this might be because despite living in such harsh terrain, they live prosperously. There is no real explanation for this. They’re just hamfistedly shoved into two positions: wealthy and powerful, but also displaced and unacknowledged.

    But what really takes the biscuit is the fact that they don’t know where babies come from. Or, rather, they don’t think men have anything to do with it and believe that women spontaneously develop pregnancies. This is despite being extremely open when it comes to sex and despite the fact that they seem to keep livestock, which requires a knowledge of animal husbandry. They were even described as being a society of shepherds initially. I feel like anybody who raises animals is likely to make certain connections, even if they don’t fully understand the biology.

    I think Rothfuss just wanted a place for Kvothe to have loads of sex and train to be a badass fighter and realised he should at least do this somewhere interesting. But instead of coming up with a feasible culture, it’s like he had a grab bag of cultural quirks and threw everything in it at the Adem without regard for making sense. I’m one of the few readers who mostly liked the Felurian sequence (even though she derails the plot like a rapey female Tom Bombadil), but I found myself wanting to skip the Ademre bits entirely.

    • Humanmale

      I always suspected that the Adem might be right about their own breeding mechanics and have falsely generalised it to everyone else. That is that it’s true that Adem women just have spontaneous pregnancies and they assume (presumably incorrectly) that this is true for everyone else.

      It is a fantasy world and there are some hints that the origins of folk may not be based on familiar evolution.

  9. Dinwar

    Part of the problem with this article’s discussion of the Drow is a misunderstanding of how evolution works.

    Many cave species lose pigmentation over time because it’s not useful, yes. However, I’m not aware of any selection pressure against pigmentation, and there are pigmented troglodyte organisms. Once selection pressure is removed evolution occurs via genetic drift–random motion, basically. If the population is large enough (say, an empire), interbreeding is random enough, and a few other criteria are met, the population could easily maintain traits despite selection not favoring them; this is the basic concept behind Hardy-Weinburg Equilibrium. Not all traits need to be selected for to survive; they just need to not have a strong selection pressure against it.

    But there IS a strong selection pressure towards dark skin in Drow: they live in a subterranean environment that includes artificial light, and are at war with pretty much everyone. Dark skin would make the warriors harder to see, offering a clear advantage in an environment where hostility is the norm. Or, to put it another way: a pale person is going to be much easier to see, and therefore to hit, than someone with darker skin. I know this from personal experience; I’m about as pale as you can get without being albino, and have done sparring at dusk against darker-skinned opponents. They blend into shadows; I stand out like a freaking beacon. So it stands to reason that over time the Drow that survived would have (on average; this is a statistical process and therefore variance is to be expected) darker skin.

    Yes, magic exists, but over time even small advantages can accumulate into significant evolutionary change. If you have even a 1% higher chance of survival, in the long run, your offspring will come to dominate (outside other forces).

    Please note that I am merely commenting on the evolutionary comments in the article. I’m ignoring the “Lolth made their skin dark as punishment for their evil” bit.

    • Cay Reet

      If we compare the Drow to cave-dwelling beings on earth, however, it is highly unlikely that they’d have dark skin. Everything on earth which lives in a dark environment, be it caves or down the oceans deep enough to be below the twilight zone, tends to be pale. Nature doesn’t invest in any kind of pigmentation without reason.

      While I can see the use of being dark in a dark environment, if you have to fight off either predators or enemies, I still can’t see the Drow breed for dark skin. For one thing, if they’re related to above-ground elves (as they would be, I presume), the majority of them would probably have started off light-skinned and there would have been a bottleneck of few viable pairs for breeding dark skin. It’s more likely for them to pale even more than to develop dark skin, through breeding or otherwise.

      It’s also interesting that one of the first colours we can’t see when the light is fading, is actually red – so being red-skinned would serve them better than being dark-skinned in general.
      Since the Drow also use clothing and, one might presume, makeup if they wish to, they can easily darken their visible skin when needed without breeding for it, so there’s no reason for them to try and turn a few dark-skinned elves (if there were any around in the first place) into a race. Honestly, a handful of cave mud would do the trick much easier and more reliably.

      In addition, their white hair actually undoes all the good the dark skin might do them when it comes to hiding

      • Dinwar

        “Nature doesn’t invest in any kind of pigmentation without reason.”

        This is a misrepresentation of evolution–it assumes that evolution is intentional. Nature does all kinds of things for no reason. Or, rather, for reasons that amount to “Sometimes weird things happen”. There was a debate in the past about why vertebrates tend to have 5 fingers (or they lose some via evolutionary processes). Grand theories were postulated about the suitability of an odd number of digits, and how this was the ideal setup for organisms. Then we found the forelimbs of those ancestral organisms and found that those grand theories were all false; we have five fingers (when we do, which isn’t always the case) because we happened to evolve from a critter with 5 digits. There’s nothing special about the number; it’s pure chance.

        In evolutionary biology, before you present an explanation for some trait you have to demonstrate that an explanation is necessary. “Blind, random chance” is always a possibility. (No, this isn’t Hopeful Monsters; there’s a whole library of literature on why this isn’t that.)

        Unless we assume that Drow originated in caves we have to assume that (like all cave-dwelling critters) the parent population had pigment. That population would have variable amounts of pigment. It’s not impossible–I would say it’s not unlikely–that darker-skinned creatures survived better in this case.

        Second, no cave-dwelling species on Earth fights wars or generates artificial light. You can’t ignore the selection pressures due to those. I never said that Drow were bred for dark skin. I said that they would have evolved dark skin due to these selection pressures. We’ve seen selection pressure alter skin pigmentation on Earth–humans originally all had dark skin, but as our species migrated into areas with less direct sunlight those populations evolved lighter skin. This didn’t require any directed breeding program, just small differences in survival rate. I’m saying that something similar could be happening with the Drow.

        You mention bottlenecks. Well, look at what those do to a population. Random genetic drift can cause genes to reach fixation regardless of their desirability. This is why bottlenecks are so dangerous–it’s blind chance what’s going to happen. If a small group of Drow (say, a few hundred) collonized the Underdark, it’s entirely plausible that dark skin would reach fixation surprisingly quickly due to random drift. (Add in sexual selection, where dark skin is preferred, and this can happen FAST.)

        All of this, by the way, is assuming that skin pigmentation is independent of other traits, which may not be the case. Domestication changes a small number of genes, but affects a suite of physical traits. Many traits actually work this way, resulting in apparently disadvantageous aspects of an organism. If dark skin was tied to, say, mutations affecting night vision, the dark skin may stay around even if it’s disadvantageous (which, as I’ve pointed out above, it’s not).

        This also assumes that the rules of evolution work the same in the Forgotten Realms. This again may not be the case. The rules of a fantasy work are whatever the author want the rules to be, so the idea that fantasy should fit our concepts of reality is a bad starting position. “Realistic” should mean “internally consistent”, not “fits with our world”. Evolution DOESN’T always work the way we think it does–plants hybridize in ways that mess with the nice neat concept of evolution most of us have, and bacteria (which have the ability to exchange DNA) are so problematic we still haven’t figured out how to deal with them. And those are just the most commonly known issues.

        Evolutionary biology is a lot more complicated than people tend to think. Fitness space is a boiling N-dimensional surface where there are no global maxima, merely local maxima, and only the local changing environment matters. It’s not enough to say that some proposed history is plausible; you have to go through the much harder work of demonstrating that it DID happen. Many beautiful theories deserve to be true, but evolution doesn’t care what we think.

        • Cay Reet

          It still comes down to having dark skin, but very pale hair, which negates any advantage in the dark the skin could give.

          If the Drow didn’t evolve in caves, which seems a fair guess, what with the ‘fallen elves’ trope, they were part of the Elven species before they went underground. Most elves I’ve seen are light skinned, so only a relatively small percentage (if at all) of the fallen ones were originally dark-skinned. While it is always possible that some random change in genetics brings out dark skin, that is unlikely to happen often enough to give a whole sub-species dark skin, unless there is a very good reason for it, such as a strong advantage. Or a magical leak that changes the skin colour of everyone in the vicinity.

          In addition, there’s enough proof of skin getting lighter among humans. We all originated in Africa, so we had darker skin. Europeans have become very light-skinned over time (the lighter, the further north, in accordance to sun hours and sun intensity). There can be some kind of involuntary breeding involved (light skin being perceived as beautiful), but having a lighter skin didn’t give Europeans any advantage in daily life. Having darker skin gives an advantage, as it is – an advantage when it comes to UV light. Europeans devolved that advantage when it wasn’t necessary.

          Not investing into much pigment, as it were, can be an evolutionary advantage when it’s possible: it saves resources. Energy and material which could have gone into pigmentation can be used otherwise. This is not something you voluntarily breed for, its something which gives you a very slight advantage, if pigmentation itself doesn’t give you any (as in a cave).

          There are also cave-dwelling species which are closely related to other species (amphibians, fishes, etc) which do not live in caves and have much stronger pigmentation.

          And, no, in a really dark cave, dark skin isn’t of any more advantage than light skin – a species with a very good night vision (as dwarves in D&D) will still see you, a species used to living in the light (as humans) will not. The Drow do not live in the perpetual dark, but that also means that their dark skin is of no advantage in their settlements, where light intensity will be high enough for others to see them.

          Of course, magic can screw a lot with the way species evolve, but in worldbuilding, that also means that the writer made that choice. Which means someone made the choice to give an ‘evil’ species dark skin without any logical explanation (unlike having dark-skinned desert-dwellers, which would be logical from our experience).

          • Dinwar

            “It still comes down to having dark skin, but very pale hair, which negates any advantage in the dark the skin could give.”

            Assuming 1) the two traits are linked genetically, 2) sexual selection isn’t a factor (ALWAYS a bad idea), 3) the rules of evolution function the same way in the Forgotten Realms as they do on Earth, 4) these traits are being selected for in the first place, plus a few more.

            The latter is the most significant. You’re looking for an explanation when we haven’t established that there’s anything to explain. You’re still assuming that all traits need to be selected for, which simply isn’t true. Again, there’s the bottleneck issue. If only traits actively selected for were preserved bottlenecks would strengthen species; the reality is that ANY trait can become fixed in a small enough population, good, bad, or indifferent. The view of evolution you’re arguing for is a holdover from the Victorian era, and is demonstrably not true, in the fossil record, in biological surveys, and in laboratory experiments.

            “While it is always possible that some random change in genetics brings out dark skin, that is unlikely to happen often enough to give a whole sub-species dark skin….”

            It doesn’t have to happen all at once. A 1% difference in skin tone could be sufficient. That’s very easy to accomplish. We know this, because we have concrete examples in the real world of this happening. What you’re talking about is Hopeful Monsters, which are rare if not impossible in animals (plants are another issue entirely). What I’m talking about is the cumulative affect of minor variances applied itteratively.

            “Europeans devolved that advantage when it wasn’t necessary.”

            No. This is entirely factually inaccurate. Lighter skin allows for greater production of Vitamin D (humans are mildly photosynthetic), which has a major advantage. In Africa there an over-abundance of sunlight, meaning that this isn’t a factor; in Europe, on the other hand, this becomes significant.

            Secondly, the word “devolved” has no meaning, outside of some very specific Creationist rhetoric. “Ancestral” merely means “earlier”; it says (in its technical use) nothing about complexity. The horse hoof is the most advanced foot in Mammalia, despite being the simplest. Europeans didn’t “devolve” at all; we adapted to the local environment.

            “And, no, in a really dark cave, dark skin isn’t of any more advantage than light skin…”

            Nonsense. By this logic camouflage is useless, yet hunters and soldiers routinely use it. After all, humans see pretty well in the daytime; that means that we should be able to spot anyone in camouflage, right? The fact that armies spend millions on their uniforms specifically to break up the outlines of their soldiers (which is how camouflage generally works) tells us that your interpretation is wrong.

            And remember, we’re talking about very small variances in survival. If being darker skinned offers a 1% advantage that’s huge in terms of evolutionary biology. Where we can measure the affects of individual traits the affects are generally much lower and still have profound consequences for the species. And remember, we’re talking about a species that’s at war with pretty much everyone; in a battle a 1% lower chance of being killed is not insignificant!

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            Just for the record, the official explanation for Drow coloration in Forgotten Realms is “magic did it” because the writers know how ridiculous the premise is and that explaining it from an evolutionary standpoint is impossible.

          • Dinwar

            I get that the authors went with “Magic did it”, so this is a rather silly conversation. But it’s wrong to assert that an evolutionary reason can’t work, as I’ve pointed out. Repeatedly saying “No, YOU’RE wrong’ when I’ve provided cases where similar things have happened doesn’t count as an argument. The arguments presented against an evolutionary explanation are based on deep misunderstandings of evolutionary theory–many of the arguments are based on outdated assumptions, and a few on flat-out false assumptions.

            But hey, I’ve only been a professional paleontologist for more than a decade, what do I know?

          • Cay Reet

            I’m not a professional and my schooling is somewhat in the past, so I apologize for what I got wrong.

            However, your argument ‘the dark skin gives them an advantage in the dark’ is not really fool-proof, either. In the full dark, the colour of the skin doesn’t matter, because most beings need some quantity of light to see – is it missing, other sense, like hearing, take over. Any being able to ‘see’ in complete darkness would ‘see’ another part of the spectrum, such as heat signatures or something of that kind. In any kind of low-light situation, the Drow’s white hair would counteract the protection the dark skin might offer. There is, therefore, no evolutionary reason for dark skin to survive (on account of being an advantage) together with white hair (and, yes, I understand that completely different genes could be involved with either of those traits). Wouldn’t it be more likely that those Drow who combine dark skin and dark hair (if the dark skin gives advantages) would have a higher likelihood of surviving? In that case, there should be Drow with dark hair to go with the dark skin and they should, most likely, be the majority, shouldn’t they?

            Sexual selection is one factor of how a species develops, but in most cases (when no eugenics play into it) sexual selection seems to be tied to the fitness for survival. Therefore, Drow should in such a case find dark hair ‘more sexy’ than white hair, since it pushes the advantage of dark skin, making, if that is true, the Drow even harder to spot and thus more successful in a fight.

            Since the whole thing is hand-waved through magic, it doesn’t play a role in the setting, of course.

          • Koeleria

            As someone with a couple biology degrees who is currently in plant breeding, everything Dinwar is saying makes sense.

            Rather than cave dwelling animals who live in perpetual dark, better analogy to the Drow is nocturnal animals who live in dim light and maneuver in the shadows cast by the moon. Many of these nocturnal animals are dark colored. I’m not sure how you could think light colors aren’t easier to see in low light. Just walk around in the near dark for a while and see what you are least likely to trip over.

            Also, sexual selection isn’t necessarily tied to fitness for survival. The classic example is the peacock. Male peacocks have ridiculously large tails that are expensive to grow, slow them down and don’t do anything a smaller less flashy tail couldn’t do better. But female peacocks like them, so males have them.

          • Cay Reet

            In this case, I withdraw all my arguments.

            I still find the Drow weird, but if it can be explained, it can be explained.

          • Koeleria

            The Drow may very well be weird. I haven’t read the books. I was just commenting on them as described and discussed here. And just because something is scientifically possible, doesn’t mean it is a good thing to have in a book. The dark = evil thing still comes off as racist. Lots of other appearances are scientifically possible too, so why not go with something that won’t hurt and offend lots of people.

  10. Humanmale

    Fun fact (maybe relevant fact): Back when drow were introduced they had “infravision” – the ability to see heat in shades of different temperature. They only rarely used actual light to see.

    In 5th Edition D&D they now have “darkvision” – they can see in the dark through poorly-defined means because the game designers were sick of arguments about how infravision should work.

    Obviously that has implications for the whole camouflage line of reasoning about their skin tone.

    Dinewar has persuaded me that evolution could account for the skin tone. I doubt the original designer had Dinewar’s depth of knowledge though, so racism on their part, deliberate or accidental seems more likely to be the actual explaination though. Or they just thought black skin and white hair was cool, which they are.

  11. Jeppsson

    “Next, we get to the idea of Drow being an “evil society,” where everyone is constantly on the verge of betraying everyone else. Empathy, love, and loyalty are all considered weaknesses among the dark elves. You hardly need an explanation of why this doesn’t work, but I’m going to write one anyway.”

    I just realized this is a little like the androids in Philip K Dick’s “do androids dream of electric sheep?”. The androids don’t have love, friendship or empathy. They merely have very narrow kind of rationality, meaning that when they rebel and escape and try to think for themselves, they always take the option that seems to further their own self-interest, with no regard for others.
    This makes them VERY different from humans, and also crap at the whole escape-and-rebel thing. Rachel, in the novel, bounces between helping the other androids, selling them out, sleeping with Deckard, and killing his pet goat. Her actions over the course of the novel seems really disjointed (same with the other androids, but it’s Rachel we see the most of); like, she has a motivation for each thing she does, explained by the circumstances, but they still don’t seem to hang together the way a normal person’s actions hang together. And that’s on purpose; androids end up behaving weirdly as soon as they try to act more independently, because they lack these essential pieces.

  12. G. K.

    Regarding Nimbus 3, it could be argued that it makes sense for the Planet of Galactic Peace. Consider that Klingons, Romulans and the Federation are all expansion happy to different extents and means. So if you’re chosing a planet which is supposed to be a symbol of cooperation between the 3, if you have your cynical hat on, you probably don’t want it to be a planet that either party would want to themselves. It just has to sit there, existed, populated and not causing a fuss whilst politicians from all sides point to it and say “see, we’re getting along”.

  13. SunlessNick

    Regarding the Aiel, when Rand had that magical flashback through the memories of his ancestors, the vision of the pre-collapse society gave me the impression that the Aiel were genetically engineered in some way – that might explain them being strong and tough (though it’s clear they weren’t *known* for being that at the time, as Rand’s ancestor muses that people often thought they were made of glass) – and they were key to some kind of agricultural magic.

    Focussing on the last bit instead of the first would have made them terrors of the desert all by itself – that gives them ability to get more food from it than anyone else, giving them both numbers and a logistical advantage no one else can duplicate, no matter how well anyone fights. But that would be an advantage made for resisting expansion into their lands rather than periodically raiding everyone else.

    Another problem with Wheel of Time is that several of the past eras Rand sees looked much more interesting than the one he set the story in. It’s even implied by one of the Forsaken that there used to be spaceflight.

    • V

      Never thought of that but power genetic engineering could have been a thing. Though apparently you could also just join the Aiel by making a vow.

      Everyone mentioned all my points except for one- As I remember it the Aiel set up in canyons that had springs in them.
      They also acted like the world’s version of the Silk Road, trading with Westland and Shara and between each other.
      Finally they did use squad tactics some.
      Don’t have anything for the cavalry but in the other direction aka more bs is that Aiel could supposedly outrun a horse, which is not a thing with humans leg design.

  14. Kenneth Mackay

    Re: The Deep Ones. I haven’t read Winter Tide, but Charles Stross’ ‘Laundry Files’ has an explanation for the relationship between Deep Ones and humans – it compares humans to Yeti or Bigfoot – seldom-encountered creatures who live on remote heights where it’s hard to breathe, regarded as mythical except by the primitive inhabitants of a few mountain villages, far from civilization. Human attacks on these Deep One villages or their inhabitants are regarded by the Deep One government(s) as being about as important as the loss of a few mountaineers from some tiny hamlet in Tibet (for example); the humans can get away with terrorizing a few remote rural settlements without being considered as being ‘at war’ with Deep One civilization.

  15. Rose

    “As a final tidbit, did you know that in some sources, the Drow are also supposed to have been selectively bred for beauty and intelligence? I didn’t, but you find out all kinds of things reading D&D wikis. This is a little thing called eugenics, and it does not work that way. There’s simply no way to breed for abstract traits like beauty and intelligence.”

    In fact, there is. It’s called female choice, and is employed without even intending to by every society where women are free. It doesn’t have to be a matriarchy, it could just be an equal society.

    Have you ever wondered why the peacock is so pretty or why the nightingale sings so beautifully?

    Female choice.

    Intelligence is selected for more by the fact that animals that are not clever enough get killed by predators, which for humanoid beings wouldn’t be the case … well, except for the Drow, where you are killed by your backstabbing kin if you are not clever enough to avoid it.

    So the “they are selectively bred for beauty and intelligence” is about the only Drow trait that actually does make sense – I just wonder if the rest of the D&D setting cultures all have patriarchies.

    Because any culture where women are not actively oppressed and prevented from exercising female choice would be just as beautiful as the Drow, although possibly in other ways; not every bird is a peacock.
    (Birds where the male is more involved in raising the offspring tend to be less colourful, but such cultures would likely not even be attracted to the Drow combo of beauty and absolute heartlessness and thus not notice the beauty either.)

    Aristocratic families, by the way, didn’t try to selectively breed for beauty and intelligence, they selectively bred for … aristocracy.
    Which they might have been deluded enough to assume was the same, but it really wasn’t. And it did show in the later stages of inbreeding, where those aristocrats were increasingly unattractive.
    It could only get to this stage because women were NOT free to choose whether and whom to marry.

    Of course, if the Drow are the kind of straw matriarchy where the mothers view children as property, just like men in patriarchies do, and force their daughters to marry someone the mother chose for political gain, then that selective breeding thing wouldn’t work. But if they backstab each other constantly, I suppose they wouldn’t have use for arranged marriage or any other means of cementing alliances, as the backstabbing would happen anyways.

    While I totally agree that the backstabbery is illogical, if they did survive it, it would result in people extremely good at avoiding being stabbed in the back. Which could be considered a form of intelligence.

    • Prince Infidel

      Rose, there’s quite a large difference between what you’re describing about & what Oren’s describing. You’re describing selection over the course of thousands to millions of years to gain traits such as color patterns & specific forms of environmental pattern recognition. Oren’s describing attempts to breed for human “beauty” (something that varies from culture to culture, & even within the same culture often in less than a generation), & “intelligence” (an incredibly broad & ill defined trait, that also varies from culture to culture & changes with time).

      Beauty & intelligence, as certain modern cultures define, them cannot be reliably selected for because they have little to do with our DNA, & mostly with our environment. Combine that with the simple fact that human (or in this case human based) societies often have people in positions of power deciding that whatever traits they like &/or have are the desirable ones, & you start to see why this cannot work.

      People without “beauty” or “intelligence” work their way (or often inherit their way) into positions of wealth & influence all the time. No one’s going to tell them not to have children. Even if someone tried to stop them, they have the power & resources to do what they want.

      So even attempts to gain these nebulous traits would fail within the first generation. Let alone the dozens to hundreds of generations it would take to see measurable results from any breeding program. Results you would never get, cause they’re just not real in the same way color patterns are real.

      All of this is to say nothing of how extremely unethical eugenics are, or how it’s attempts to prop up desirable social traits are just a thinly veiled way of destroying those with less desirable social traits. Like certain races, genders, sexualities, disabilities, just to name a few.

      Your idea of a society where people who can become pregnant having greater power in choosing their partners, leading to a “more beautiful” society is not based in science. & worse it’s based in beliefs that have resulted in genocide many times over.

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