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Social Science and Fiction Part 2: Heritability

The old debate between nature and nurture has been settled in the literature. Nature won. Nature won handily. Longitudinal twin and adoption studies show that most personality characteristics are on average roughly 70% heritable, with the residual being largely idiosyncratic, attributable to neither genetics nor rearing. Traits are carried in the genes.

Depending on the type of world you are building, this is either an opportunity or an obstacle. It is already a bit of a trope in high fantasy and science fiction settings to portray long-lived races as somewhat hidebound. Environmental fitness has to come from somewhere, and elder races who walk the earth for hundreds if not thousands of years lack the same experimental frequency as short-lived creatures. Problems such as stickiness at local maxima, extreme risk aversion, and terminal cultural ossification are unfortunately absent in most popular settings. Curiously, these problems are addressed both in classical mythology and in the grandpappy of modern high fantasy settings: Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. By the time of the close of the Third Age, the elves of Imladris and Lothlorien are all packed up and ready to head back to a world that still had space for them. They had been in relative decline since the Second Age and had resigned themselves to handing Middle-Earth over to the care of men, but it was the Third Age that really cemented the deal. However, recall that when Tolkien created his elves, he was paraphrasing myths of the Tuatha De Danann. He was not starting from a biology textbook.

Nor should he have. Such was not the purpose of his fables. What Middle Earth lacked in consideration of Elven mitochondrial telomere decay, it made up in structured lore. The Silmarillion ensured internal consistency for Tolkien’s better-known yarns, so that when the Istari Gandalf meets the Maia Balrog, their instant enmity makes more sense than just “these two powerful dudes want to tussle above a gorge.” Moreover, it makes sense that after defeating his corrupted kin, Gandalf assumes a more puissant reconstituted form. Tolkien sidestepped problems with tracing natural selection mechanics by instead conjuring an elaborate mythology.

The upside of this sort of  approach is that you won’t be subject to the limitations of knowledge in the natural and social sciences. The downside is that you will still be expected to hew to the consistency of your lore. The more mature your world, the bulkier the creation story tends to get.

While I won’t encourage you to go whole-hog EvoPsych, I will ask you to consider to what extent your societies’ proclivities support their cultural niche. I would also encourage you to consider how reproductive fitness contributes to the statistical distributions of biological and personality characteristics across your populations. Recall that there are two parts to this task: trait genesis, and trait transmission.

Consider the Drow. Here we have a race of elves (I suspect they fail to constitute a new species, since interbreeding between elf races is possible in canonical D&D) with distinct genetic traits, heightened night vision chief among these. For most creatures, better night vision means a tapeta lucida (the extra retinal layer that makes a cat’s eyes shine in the dark), increased rod cell density, larger orbital radius, and wider maximal pupil aperture.  If these characteristics are present in dark elves, how many generations did it take? I seem to vaguely recall mention of an evolutionary bottleneck in the Second Edition lore. A small band of elves turned evil and were exiled to scratch out a hardscrabble existence under a sky of stone. Those lucky enough to survive bore children better suited to the lightless expanses of the Underdark &c. It’s a good start, but you’d still need some pretty significant allele drift to get from a high elf’s eyes to a Drow’s. Sure, you can invoke the Blessing of the Spider Queen Lolth, but that’s just one more pebble in the hand-waving author fiat bin.

Before we dirty our hands with biological or cultural genesis, ask if it is worth modeling just genetic or (sigh) memetic transmission. Do you want your species or society to be flexible or rigid? How exclusive are they? In US public opinion surveys for example, I have found that for most questions about political, cultural, or social issues, migrant respondents vary considerably from the native-born population. By the third generation, they are statistically indistinguishable from natives. This relatively rapid assimilation is absent in many other countries. In contrast, I used to live in Lithuania, and assimilation for anyone other than other Balts or perhaps Slavs is a pipe dream, regardless of how many generations elapse. I am confident that you can think of your own examples. Ask an ethnic Korean about growing up in Japan sometime.

If your species or society is adaptive, why? Do they live in a dynamic environment with plenty of peaceful xenomorphic contact? Do they have short breeding cycles? Are they adaptive AI with fast clocks? Tiny, self-assembling machines converting the fossilized flesh of dead gods using mystical algorithms uttered by divine imperial decree?

More interestingly, what happens when you dial genetic transmission rates down? 70% is all well and good for a human destined for two score years and ten, but what if your new race had near orthogonal generational characteristics? Fifth Edition D&D flirts with this a little. Beholders spawn from the dreams of other Beholders. The offspring materializes after the parent naps. No traces of familial resemblance need be evident, not in complexion, demeanor, or personality. The only traits beholders share are paranoia, megalomania, and a touch of solipsism. Well, that and the floating body, the magical eyestalks, and whatnot. Just imagine how allele pair production must work in Beholder physiology. Are the vast parent/child differences thanks to uplifted mitochondrial DNA like in Parasite Eve? I have to admit that after giving this very question a little thought, I’m now curious. Time to break out my Spelljammer notes. Let’s see, which of my factions would be the most likely to contain experimental geneticists? Gnomes are an obvious choice, but I think I might be able to make a case for the Illithid or the Neogi. Hm.

Either way, remember to consider developmental pathways for your races and your societies. Embedding them in the ancient history of your worlds will not only anchor their heritage, but it makes it easy for you to develop their culture as the story progresses.

I apologize for not getting to reader comments last week, but I am afraid I wasn’t up to the task. Let’s check out the backlog this week.

Burt Likko writes a lengthy, thoughtful reply starting with:

What do you say to the notion that of the five items in your mnemonic, economics is king? I realize that’s a very contemporary way of seeing things, but RPGs are constructed and played by contemporaries so we are telling stories to one another that are meaningful.

This is one of those cases where I have to be wary of my biases. My graduate training is in economics, so I’m disposed to agree. I’ve gone to the trouble of including rules for both spot and futures markets in my current campaign (though I admit that replica FOREX escapes my interest). However, my players rely on me for escapism, and above all, I consider it my duty to make the world fun for them. I use the logic of economics to predict commercial arrangements (contrasted against the silly trope of “we don’t trust you, outsider. We’re going to charge you ten times the price.”), but I avoid drawing attention to it. Your mileage may vary. For a great resource, I recommend Allen and Alchian’s University Economics (if you can find a copy).

Oscar Gordon writes:

Love this! Takes me back to my world building days as a teenager (AD&D 1st Edition – ORPG!).

Of course, I did the same thing in the Navy (deployment involves an awful lot of time where the brain can wander off to world building).

Haven’t since then, never found a group I wanted to play with. Kudos that you have.

Unfortunately, when I was in the Navy, Magic The Gathering was just starting to become popular, and there isn’t a whole lot of room on a submarine to run a proper campaign. I also can’t recall much in the way of gaming shops in the greater Bremerton metropolitan area. I suppose I could have scoured Seattle, but that means ferry trips or driving through Tacoma or something, none of which appealed to me all that much at the time.

Maribou writes:

Thank you for this window into your friend’s sterling character and your love for him. I’m so very sorry for your loss.

I’m sitting here in an empty hospital room right now, waiting for my friend who is the wife of my friend (both of whom play D&D) to come back from the MRI they are doing to see how she is. She hasn’t been conscious since Thursday morning, so there are better and worse answers, but all within a pretty sad and challenging range. I don’t intend to show him this post, and she can’t read it, but it couldn’t have come at a better time for me to read.

So thank you for that too, although it’s a gift I wish you’d never had to give.

I hope you find some peace, love, and strength in the coming days.

I appreciate your kind thoughts. I hope everything works out well for your friend. We did decide to continue our game, but I must admit that some of the wind has vacated our sails.

Anne writes:

@Maribou Sending energy to your friend I hope they come to a better answer.

I would like to second your thanks to Sam for this gift it comes at a time when I needed it as well. Yesterday an old friend lost his battle with leukemia, his son, also a good friend of mine is dealing with not only the loss of his father but also with the fact that he did not get a project that his father wishes to see completed finished in time.

Time spent with friends, huddled together around a warm fire, sharing fellowship is what keeps the hounds of despair at bay.

Burt Likko writes:

Back in my teenage and college years of playing tabletop RPGs, I somehow arrived at a philosophy that I would not allow the fall of the dice or the rules in a book to get in the way of telling a good story. I would always make this clear to my players at the start of a campaign and let them know that this meant, among other things, no matter what happened to their characters, they as players would always have a part to play in advancing the story. Implied and I believe understood, but usually unstated in that bargain, would be that the Big Bad NPC enjoyed similar sorts of narrative protections — they’d get to take out the Big Bad but only when in my judgement the story was good and ready for them to do so.

That’s the challenge of improv. It’s also one of the shortcomings of either insufficiently building the foundations of a campaign, or letting someone else do it for you. Our group plays asynchronously on a Google Hangout, so the DM has a bit more time to react to Severe Plot Derailment, but at an actual table with the clock ticking, you really have to be on your toes. Adequate preparation helps. Players will forgive the DM for having his pants down on a 1-shot kill against the Act 5 foe in the middle of Act 2, but they’re less likely to be so understanding if it’s clear that the DM put no thought into the evening’s session. This is more true for older players. My group is all parents with careers. It’s incredible that we can play at all. They would be justifiably irate with me if I were just phoning it in.

Dragonfrog writes:

In the relatively small amount of DMing I did, I found the very best campaigns to be the ones that went totally off the rails at some point. The other players were improvising great stuff, and things went best when I was improvising too – that’s when we all started exploring the unknown together.

I couldn’t agree more. Maliciously throwing the DM for a loop is a bit rude, but as long as everyone’s having fun, chaos is a lot more entertaining than a rote dungeon crawl.

Again, thank you all for your comments, and for your sentiments. Brock’s family is still trying to come to terms with what happened, and we’re all still a little shell shocked. Hug your loved ones out there, folks. The night is cold, but this little fire of ours is warm.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.

9 thoughts on “Social Science and Fiction Part 2: Heritability

  1. I remember Magic, but I had the benefit of serving with some older guys for whom card games were Spades, Cribbage, and Poker, and who had grown up on ‘Choose your own adventure’ stories, so the idea of playing a game that was a giant CYOA story with an adaptive system was way more appealing.

    Now, rolling dice inside a smaller ship when the ocean was not calm, that took some doing…

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    • I can see that getting trickier the more sides the die has.

      I read an article about role playing groups in prisons, which might be easy or very hard to do depending on how supportive the prison administration is. In some prisons, dice and cards are forbidden, lest they be used for gambling, so some prisoners make and conceal their own dice, and others make spinners – a piece of cardboard with a piece of paperclip wire inside a circle divided into however many sections; instead of rolling a die you flick the paperclip so it spins and take whatever number it ends up pointing at. Depending how supportive the prison administration is, they might seize those under the ban on gambling paraphernalia, or leave them alone.

      Anyway, it occurred to me that devices like that might also be useful in rough waters.

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  2. While Star Trek has a lot of holes in terms of universe consistancy, when I saw this I wondered how Vulcans and Romulans fit. I’ve played in a number of Star Trek based RPGS and it is always interesting to explore the culture and mindset of a species that can expect 250 years or so of lifespan. (I admit that I particularly enjoy when Romulans are played as something other than just ‘scheming inscrutable enemy’ and the game accounts for the fact that longer lifespans can mean much longer range goals and planning).

    But this is a case I think where nature/nurture breaks a bit more in favor of nurture. Both have the volatile temper inherent to vulcanoids, but Vulcans have tempered it through emotional suppression taught from earliest childhood. Romulans otoh channel it through martial discipline. The resulting cultures and outlooks are quite different despite a genetic heritage that (despite the weird brow ridges introduced in TNG) shows little evolutionary drift.

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  3. Opening the door to evopsych opens the door to casual bigotry.

    Is it okay to have a setting in which a Drow refer to humans as “Iblith“? Let’s say a human refers to his dagger as a “Halfling Longsword”. Let’s say a Dwarf refers to a human as a “Dire Halfling”. Or an elf refers to one as a “Mayfly”. Or to humans in general as “Rabbits”.

    Keep the door shut. The only acceptable bigotry is against the things that light up when you cast “Detect Evil”.

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    • Keep the door shut. The only acceptable bigotry is against the things that light up when you cast “Detect Evil”.

      I quite disagree.

      Every bigotry is justified by a claim to possess a reliable “detect evil” spell. Saying that elves and dwarves can’t be bigoted against one another but they can both acceptably be bigoted against orcs, is just drawing the boundary of whiteness to include elves and dwarves, and exclude orcs.

      I mean, that’s basically what the typical swords’n’sorcery races stand in for – human ethnicities and cultures, substituted with the outlandish medieval fantasies of what monsters existed beyond the world then known by Europeans. Allowing “detect evil” to work, and to have results delineated on race lines, is basically constructing a fantasy of a world where real world bigots are right. See e.g. every critique ever of Tolkien.

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        • (in other words, it would be a real world “detect Islam” spell, or the like)

          More like a “detect terrorist, serial killer, or mass murderer” spell.

          Good and Evil aren’t “my team and your team” labels in AD&D. “Evil” in AD&D is a really nasty package. You don’t get it by petting fluffy bunnies while having the wrong skin color or religion. You don’t even get it by being the enemy of Good.

          It’s very hard to see how we could have Evil mortals who aren’t committing Evil acts in AD&D (if they’re not doing that then why are they Evil?). There’s an Evil-Support-Network (i.e. Evil Gods) which actively encourage/reward Evil, these systems are self-supporting.

          There are some very minor exceptions to that, Neutral Clerics of Evil Gods (Evil Gods are Hitler level bad so this is akin to being a “neutral” death camp guard), “Reformed Demons” (if it’s even possible for a creature literally made of Evil to reform), but the corner cases are exceptionally “corner”.

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  4. TvTropes calls this Always Chaotic Evil. You can kind of make this work in fantasy worlds because of the gods. If each race, species, or culture is favored by a particular deity than that deity can impose what they see as their preferred values on members of that race, species, or culture by their divine power. We know from our own experience that cultures can get most people to conform to the presumed share cultural values without the benefit of magic or divinity. With divinity forcing cultural conformity becomes easier. So a god that favors certain traits that we would see as negative like violent aggression or back-stabbing intrigue would have an evil culture following it.

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