Worldbuilding and Evolution (or the lack thereof)
Posted On June 1, 2021
As this is a topic I’m quite passionate about and something I think that can be of use for creators, this will be the first in a series of posts about utilizing real-world biology in world building. As most of my experience in this is within the genre of fantasy, most of my suggestions/ideas will be along those lines, though the principles can be used in any genre where a dash of realism can take things to the next level.
What is evolution, really?
In essence, evolution is the process of life changing over a period of time to best fit a given situation. This doesn’t always mean being the biggest or strongest, it means you “fit” within a given “niche” better than someone else. Most animals can’t eat Eucalyptus leaves because the oil is toxic, but an animal, by chance, was born with a mutation that made them resistant to it. By eating leaves no one else could, it had an exclusive source of food, which made staying alive easier. Koalas aren’t very big, fast, strong, or smart, but boy can they eat Eucalyptus leaves better than anyone else. But it also means that if something were to happen to those trees, they wouldn’t have many other options and would die out. Without the trees, they don’t fit anywhere, hence “survival of the fittest.”
Evolution can also happen quite quickly. By some stroke of fate, a new species of finch made its way to a different Galapagos island. Over the course of several years, he bred with the native finches, making a new hybrid, and those hybrids interbred with themselves. This continued for several (finch) generations and became a new species. The whole story is a fascinating read. Sudden, cataclysmic environmental changes–say, a giant asteroid hitting the planet–will create a boatload of niches that suddenly have nothing exploiting them. Whatever survives will quickly take root and create new species.
There are….other theories
If it’s not obvious by now, I believe in the theory of evolution, just like how I believe in the theory of gravity and current atomic theory. However! That doesn’t mean alternative theories should be discounted, especially when it comes to worldbuilding, where anything really is possible. There’s no reason why your universe also has to be made out of protons, neutrons and electrons, that outer space is mostly empty, that the planet is round and goes around a star. Personally, I love all the outdated theories that we came up with when trying to suss out the world around us. These include:
- That bugs and other icky things just sorta spawn into existence from other icky things (until a guy put some cheesecloth on a beaker of rotting meat and disproved that).
- That all matter is made up of three base elements in different amounts: sulfur (for volatility), mercury (for metal-ness) and salt (for stability). (If only they knew the number of things was right!)
- That the smallest thing, the object that makes up all of matter, is the “atom.” Nothing is smaller, it’s indestructible, and they always have and always will be in motion (Democritus sure looks like a dummy now, huh?)
But what if those things were actually true? The reason why these theories persisted for so long was because they fit our knowledge of the world at the time. It’s not like an ancient Greek philosopher was able to mess around with uranium, he was doing the best he could. This, of course, doesn’t explain modern-day pseudoscience or alternate theories (such as the rotundness of our planet), yet they still can serve as great sources of inspiration. “Real” trees being truly gigantic and have all been cut down and left as stony “stumps” is a real buckwild take in reality, but it fits perfectly in a fantasy world.
The main alternative to evolution is some variety of “intelligent design,” which means species were planned and put into existence by a powerful outside entity. These original populations are referred to as “kinds,” which may have “evolved” into other species. Only one camel being created but then it radiated into the dromedary and the Bactrian camel is the classic example.
You can have a setting where both is true. Intelligent life naturally evolved over billions of years and that species decided to engineer plants and animals to seed a planet to see what happens. Or perhaps a god made a planet and got bored with it and abandoned it for millions of years, until some brave adventurers find a way to contact him and plead their case to save their dying world. You don’t need to limit yourself to what you personally believe in with your worldbuilding.
Writing natural history
Every worldbuilding questionnaire usually has a question such as “what is the history of your planet?” And that sounds like a really daunting question! But here’s Earth’s, quite abridged (and slightly poetic):
The early planet was a living hell, full of volcanos and molten lava. It was constantly bombarded by asteroids, and even another planet. The impact threw up so much material so far into space that it became its own mini-planet: the moon. As the solar system settled down, the planet cooled, oceans formed, creating tides from the moon’s gravity. Life began, microscopic at first before exploding into countless forms. Plants invaded the land, and soon, too, did the animals. All life grew to monstrous sizes, from the seas to the skies, until, once more, a massive asteroid struck the planet. In an instant the monsters were gone, leaving the small creatures hiding in their shadows to inherit the Earth. The debris cooled the planet, so the animals grew larger and furry as ice covered much of the land. One of those animals, from one of the hottest regions of the world, used its dextrous hands to craft tools to make up for its lack of claws, teeth, and fur. Once more, the planet changed in an instant, with a single species controlling every inch of the world.
This explains why we have a moon, why we have so many oceans, all those cool dinosaur fossils, and why it’s all about mammals now. I could have mentioned the “invention” of lignin and how we have coal or how oxygen almost wiped out all life or how things turned into a snowball (once or twice) but we only need broad strokes. Creating a detailed natural history of your world isn’t necessary, though I really like C.M. Kosemen’s timeline of Snaiad if you want an example.
Come up with a list of the Biggest, Most Importantest events for your world and put them (roughly) in order. Some ideas:
- How did the planet get to its current location? Did it form with the rest of the universe, pop in from another dimension, built by an alien species? Was this a long or short process? Who are its most important neighbors? Stars, black holes, moons, rogue planets that drop alien life every 250 years?
- How did life get there? An asteroid, a creator god, from another dimension? Do you want it to be very similar to our own (as is most fantasy) or radically different (like some sci-fi)? Where did things diverge? Is there a reason why?
- When did intelligence form? Did this happen more than once? Who are their closest non-sentient relatives?
- Were there any great cataclysms in your world? Giant volcanoes, asteroid strikes, solar flares, alien invasions, demon invasions…or maybe things just changed one day, for no explainable reason at all. What changed, and did things ever go back to “normal”? What became the new normal?
- How much of this stuff can be found? Are there fossils in the ground? Is there a far-flung continent like Australia where weird, unique animals didn’t face the same pressures as the rest of the world? Is there one last plesiosaur living in a lake somewhere? Giant craters? Alien waygate? Maybe a past civilization’s satellites are still up there and they just look like stars to the naked eye.
If you can only do one thing, I think #3 is the most important, as I assume your story is about sentient species interacting with other sentient species. I’ll refer to C.M. Kosemen again and his intelligent dinosaur idea. If such a species existed on our planet, we would probably find their stone tools and ornaments, perhaps some bones turned into tools, bodies that were ritually buried. We would be incredibly lucky to find cave paintings, but there would be evidence that there used to be another great mind on Earth, what would we think of them? What stories would we tell about them? What would we think about our own uniqueness? We did live alongside other sapient species, namely other hominids, but we do not have any stories from that time telling us what they thought of each other, so we can only imagine.
Watching the neighbors grow up
Let’s do a thought experiment. Say that one speculative bio “documentary” on dragons was pretty correct, except this is a fantasy world so they’re intelligent and have magic. Dragons branched off from other reptiles during the age of dinosaurs and were only able to survive the KT extinction because of their magic and wits. The rest of the planet’s history is the same as Earth’s, until we start getting to the apes standing up and banging rocks together. Now let’s ask ourselves some questions and see what we can come up with.
- What do dragons remember about the extinction? Did they think dinosaurs were others of their kind? Or maybe they died out because they weren’t “made of fire” like dragons are, which makes them special and the rightful inheritors of this planet. But this was so very, very long ago, so this event would be heavily mythologized. Dragons who lived far from the impact crater never even saw it, so their theories would be very different. Here’s a great basis for your dragon religions and figuring out how they feel about other species.
- Dragons are ancient, like crocodiles, the nautilus, and the coelacanth. They probably have features that were common among dinosaurs but aren’t seen in current life (like how Australia has mammals that lay eggs). Dragons might be scaly but warm-blooded, they might have early feathers and are fuzzy, or perhaps a “third eye” on the top of their head that senses light. Or maybe they have plates and spikes like stegosaurs! A dragon with a thagomizer would be incredibly cool.
- Ah, those monkeys over there. But at what point are they no longer animals but something else? If humans saw an alien species standing on two legs and holding a sharpened stick we’d say “oh yeah, that guy’s going places” since they’re following a similar path as us, but what would that be for a dragon? Maybe it’s when they harness fire or when they start realizing dragons are also intelligent and start worshipping them.
- Now there’s a lot of them! Humans, dwarves, elves, now there’s a bunch of other kinds of elves, how are you supposed to keep up? Do dragons bother learning the differences? Do they try to learn their languages or just make them learn draconic? Do they trade, do they have wars? Have natural disasters upset this blanace?
- Now from the mammal’s side. At what point do the hominids figure out dragons are intelligent like them? Do dragons have tools, art or technology the humans try to copy? If they find dragon ruins, what do they think of the things they find?
- Dragons are pretty big and carnivorous, so they probably would compete with animals like mountain lions, tigers, and wolves. What animals simply don’t exist because dragons can do their job better? What animals and plants would dragons domesticate? Which ones did they drive extinct (intentionally or otherwise)?
There’s a lot of things you can think about! And you’ll notice that some of these give you some great hooks for stories. A stone-age arms race between species, a retelling of Prometheus where a caveman steals fire from a dragon, a party of adventurers setting out to convince dragons that they are, in fact, not animals and maybe please stop eating us. The original what-if of “what if fantasy dragons came from dinosaurs?” can be built out in so many ways. The evolutionary biology of dragons eventually turns into archaeology, anthropology (dracology?), ecology….lots of stuff. This isn’t even touching the different species of dragons that could exist! Feel free to take any of the above and develop it into your own ideas.
Stoneage magic birds
In the world of Brazhenfall, my epic fantasy story, there’s a whole slew of sapient species across many different clades. For brevity’s sake I’ll only discuss 3 kinds (humans, phoenixes and dragons) and one corner of the world (the lands that become the Southern Phoenix Kingdom, where the novel is set).
The world starts….I don’t know! All I know is that I don’t want it to have petroleum oil, also I don’t think dinosaurs happened. But there is some root common ancestor (at least among chordates, perhaps all of animalia) that, when a being is able to generate sufficient magic, it doesn’t die of old age (i.e. immortal). The ability to use/generate magic has sprung up independently amongst multiple species, but notably not humans. Some (but not all) folx see magic as the separator between being and beast, as only those that are immortal use magic, and talk, and have opinions worth considering.
A pair of phoenixes claim to see the future and they and their followers found a new kingdom. Phoenixes, as birds, have great auditory recall, so all of their history and knowledge is stored as songs. But the issue with this is that the meanings shift over time. The Visions needed to be recorded, permanently and in perpetuity, so they need a technology to solve this issue. They had no luck on their own and asked their draconic neighbors for help. Dragons like to sit and observe as moving big bodies costs a lot of energy and they’re in no rush to get anywhere. Because of their different point of view of the natural world, they’ve noticed what humans are up to, this quaint little thing called “cave painting,” isn’t that something?
So now phoenixes have writing, but they have a new problem: the only medium they can really use for archiving spanning the millenia is pigments on stone tablets that are then coated in resin. Those are very heavy, so writing needs to be small…but phoenixes grow as they age, so only the very young are able to write small enough for this task. But you can’t teach a human to do this! There’s no way they could speak phoenix, their vocal systems are so rudimentary, they wouldn’t be able to understand what they’re being told to do. With enough determination, they were able to make a spell where a phoenix can turn into the form of a human. This…wasn’t a popular decision, and there were many phoenixes stuck as horrible half-things as the magic was perfected. Some individuals used this power to try to extort pigments and other supplies from humans. Relations turned sour. Human bodies were just a temporary tool for phoenixes to use, to be put away once work was done.
It all changed when disaster struck. Brazhen, a massive phoenix made of ash and poisonous magic, went on a rampage, destroying half the kingdom and plunging the world into a years-long nuclear winter. Once the sun returned to a much cooler climate, phoenixes found themselves hunting the giant mammals alongside humans (much like wild orcas sometimes help fishermen in our world). Inter-species relations were founded on respect and mutual aid. Turns out humans are pretty clever, not only can they make stone tools, they can make buildings out of stone, too, and can farm, and weave, they can cut gems that can store magic, lots of things that make life easier and more comfortable. Everything is going pretty well for many thousands of years until Brazhen returns. The land lost is much less this time, but humans are disproportionately affected. They’re unhappy with the status quo and demand change; this happens from time to time, someone gets some big ideas, but nothing fundamentally changes. This time, however, there’s one key difference: for some humans, Brazhen’s magic doesn’t spread death and decay, instead blessing them with the power to use magic.
There isn’t a ton of evolution in the world of Brazhenfall, at least on a macro scale. Nuclear winters are huge disruptors to the environment, altering the type, number and ranges of different animals due to the shifting climate. The mutagenic properties of radiation has created new species, which further change ecology. More importantly, the close interaction between sapient species has allowed them to co-evolve. Phoenixes and humans have both “domesticated” each other, as humans would struggle to live without phoenix magic and phoenixes would struggle to feed themselves without human agriculture. There are countries that are mostly human, but they still use flames for light and die more often from diseases and injury without access to healing magic. There are kingdoms that are mostly phoenix, but few live thousands of years as they must put themselves at risk to hunt and they don’t have as many calories to spare on magic.
The seed for this setting was “hey, what if magic talking birds?” and has been developed and refined over the years. I love stories where there’s multiple sapient species and they’re truly different, not just humans that hug trees and are good at archery. There’s plenty of species that have evolved to work together for mutually beneficial relationships, and a fantasy setting would be no different. I’ll close this out with a very on-brand article for further reading: an African bird called the honeyguide has evolved to work with humans so they do the hard work of dealing with bees for their honey while they get that tasty, tasty wax and bugs.