Thursday, January 5, 2012

Elu, Paum, and Walls of Text

Some years ago, when I was taking Evolutionary Biology at Warren Wilson College, Gavanna as I had imagined it at the time underwent some very fundamental changes, which have profoundly affected everything I've imagined about it since.  Even its name was different then; I was still calling it "Melune," a name I came up with in high school and that I was always vaguely unhappy with because it felt so derivative (the "-lune" or "-lûn" suffix is just far too common in fantasy for me to be at ease with it*).  Before then, many of the most important characters in my stories already existed, but their way of life was...uncertain to me.  I knew that the civilization on Gavanna was comprised of many different intelligent species, all of roughly the same intelligence and all able to communicate freely with one another, and I knew that their civilization managed to exist without resource wars, environmental degradation, etc.  I'm both a misanthrope and an optimist, so these are traits that one would expect to find in a world created by me.

But how could such a civilization be prevented from embarking on the genocidal, interspecies wars that a human intelligence would certainly wage in their place?  Granting that, how could such a civilization manage to be as fundamentally sane and, well, inhuman as I had imagined it?  Finally, how could this civilization of many different species avoid doing what humans are doing now (and what all life, no matter its level of intelligence, tries to do), and increase its population until the planet was incapable of supporting any more of them--in the process wiping out many other species and ecosystems who were unfortunate enough to be in the way?  I needed a civilization of selfless creatures that didn't reproduce--a tricky proposition, evolutionarily speaking.

The solution I eventually came up with (and which owed a very great deal to the class I had been taking at the time on Evolutionary Biology, taught by Dr. Amy Boyd; note, incidentally, that any mistakes in the following descriptions of kin selection or evolutionary reciprocity are due entirely to my own forgetfulness or inattention, and not to any shortcoming on the part of Dr. Boyd) was to make my creatures, essentially, an entire race of grandmothers.  As humans age and lose the ability to reproduce, they often end up focusing a great deal of their energy on caring for their grandchildren, nieces, nephews, grandnieces, grandnephews, great-grandchildren, etc.--which makes perfect evolutionary sense, because by so doing they increase the odds of their own genes (carried by the little 'uns) surviving to be passed down further.  My creatures--I call them, collectively, Elu--take this basic pattern and develop it beyond anything seen on Earth.  Note, again, that the basic Elu pattern occurs across an immensely wide range of organisms on Gavanna, and is not confined to any one species.  Some Elu, indeed, aren't even animals (walking omnivorous fungi, if'n you were wondering), although they aren't terribly common.

When young, a creature that will eventually become an Elu (referred to, at this stage in their life, as a paum) is essentially indistinguishable from any wild animal on Earth; they have variable intelligence depending on species, but they aren't likely to be brighter than a domestic cat, say, or at the very most a raven or octopus.  Paum live their lives just as a wild Earth beastie would live its life, browsing or hunting or filter-feeding and searching out and competing for a mate when they come of reproductive age.  For most of them, that's it; they live out their lives, weaken in their old age, and eventually die of one cause or another:  starvation, dehydration, exposure, predation, or from wounds inflicted by others of their kind, accident, or their own prey.

One thing paum don't die of, however, is old age.  They weaken as they age, true, but never enough for that alone to kill them.  Most are cut down in this weakened state, but a very few manage to live long enough to hit the second stage of their lives.  They begin to become stronger again, their muscles bulk up, and their spines, scales, exoskeletal plates, or screff begin to shine just as they had in youth.  More importantly, their skullcases (or the equivalent thereof, for the fungal or arthropodal Elu) and brains begin to grow and their intelligence begins to rise.  Their instincts also shift at this time, just as the instincts of, say, a human shift at puberty.  They become sterile,** the old drive to seek out a mate and reproduce dies, and new instincts, protective instincts, develop and grow stronger.  They develop a burning need to care for and protect those of their species that are still in the paum stage, and a similar (and, initially, even stronger) need to find out everything they can about the world around them--and with their newly-gained intelligence, they have the ability to do both.  

When fully matured, Elu are extraordinarily altruistic, both within their own species and between species.  Within their species, an Elu's dedication to its paum is similar in strength to a worker ant's dedication to its hive; not only would an Elu gladly sacrifice its life to protect the life of one of its paum, this would not even be considered (by other Elu) as being an unusually noble or self-sacrificing act; it would just be the obvious, sensible course of action to take.

Outside of their species, things are a bit more complicated, and their altruism is not nearly as strong--but still far stronger than interspecies altruism is in humans.  Elu don't harm the paum of other Elu (which would normally be very advantageous, evolutionarily speaking, particularly if those others happened to be predators of their own paum) because although they would have no real trouble doing so thanks to their intelligence, the Elu of the harmed paum would be equally capable of retaliating against the paum of the original offender, and that retaliation would be equally unstoppable.  Tool-using intelligence is, in the natural world, the equivalent of nuclear weaponry in human warfare; it's all-devastating, completely unstoppable, and unmatchable by anything else.  Spread that out across every reasonably-complex animal on a planet, and the result is mutually-assured destruction between species sub-populations rather than nations--a scale large enough for it to have an evolutionary effect, but small enough that it can play out multiple times without devastating entire ecosystems.  Given millions of years of this sort of sniping between proto-Elu, eventually the Elu of every species would evolve the tendency to avoid taking any kind of direct action against the paum of another species--because to do otherwise would ensure that their own genes would very quickly disappear from the gene pool.  As a result of this, most Elu that were carnivorous before becoming intelligence undergo dental and digestive changes along with their mental changes when they become Elu, and end up adopting an herbivorous diet; to be an intelligent carnivore is far too evolutionarily risky in a world where the herbivores have intelligent guardians capable of sterilizing every last one of your kin (cutting them out of the gene pool) if they should so choose.

However, not only are the Elu nonaggressive towards the paum of different species, but they're often actively benevolent towards them--never as much as they are towards their own paum, of course, but if an Elu sees a wounded creature of another species, its first inclination will be to take that creature in and care for it, or at least to find an Elu of the same species as the wounded animal.  This drive evolved from simple reciprocity; those Elu that cared for the paum of other species were more likely to receive the same reciprocal care for their own paum from other Elu, and thus overall had an evolutionary advantage over the Elu who were not compassionate.

So, to sum up, and build on what I described above:  Elu evolved intelligence for a different reason than humans did, and the nature of their intelligence and the uses they put it to are consequently different.  Elu are extremely nonviolent and very benevolent, and their two strongest emotional drives are the drive to learn about the world, and the drive to protect their own paum first, and life in general second.  They tend to be loners, and their "civilization" comprises a shared language, knowledge, music, and stories, shared between hundreds of millions of nomads of millions of different species.  They have no cities, no villages, no rulers, no religions, no monetary system, no roads, and none of the other trappings of human civilization.  However, because their basic nature prevents them from overstepping the boundaries of their ecosystems or waging culture-destroying wars, their civilization (such as it is) has endured for hundreds of millions of years without terminal disruptions, and as a result they've managed to accumulate a collective knowledge of the universe and its workings far beyond anything humanity has ever managed.  

In fact, they've endured long enough as tool-using intelligences that evolution has had a chance to shape their minds in ways that it's never touched humans.   Their language is half-learned and half-instinctive, and their logographic writing system is nearly completely instinctive (an Elu who had never been taught to speak could come across an inscription in Gayenni, and each symbol would "feel" to them like its correct meaning.  There have been more than a few instances of Elu who had never learned to actually speak, but who were still fully able to communicate through writing).  Most formidably, the Elu have evolved an intuitive knowledge of the laws of physics--a correct intuitive knowledge of the laws of physics.  The concept of a particle is alien to them, they think of everything in terms of interacting probability waves, and their concept of time is steeped in relativity and is nearly incomprehensible to creatures like humans (what we think of as duration in time, they think of as the reciprocal uncertainty in time dilation, very roughly speaking).

...Are y'all still there?  Wow.  I'm impressed, I truly am, and gratified by your patience and your willingness to tire your eyes reading through all this text.  Well!  Eyes should be rested, and patience should be rewarded.  Before I bring this post to a close, then, let's finish with one of my most important and oldest (both in- and out-world) characters: an old, patient, gentle, tired Elu named Sprenga.

(Click for full size)
No, not the small, rather ugly gremlin; that's Hrimph, M.O.T.L.  Sprenga is the great dinosaurian creature.  It's difficult to tell from the picture, I know, so it's worth noting that Sprenga's overall body shape is not unlike that of a theropod dinosaur (Spinosaurus aegyptiacus comes to mind, sail and all, although Sprenga's head is more robust than Spinosaurus' and it also has a fin on the tip of its tail that Spinosaurus lacks), though only about a third as large and more obviously adapted for an aquatic lifestyle.  Basically, Sprenga is what you'd get if you took Spinosaurus and forced it to live like a crocodile.

Sprenga is more than a thousand years old,*** and when it**** was very young lived as a paum, hunting prey near the water's edge in one of the many lakes scattered about the lower slopes of the Tregillian continent/mountain.  It wasn't that vivid shade of yellow then, being more of a dull green-black color to aid in camouflage; the yellow color came later, when Sprenga became an Elu and needed to be seen rather than to be camouflaged. That was centuries ago, though.  Sprenga has lived so long that it has begun to experience the great tragedy of the Elu; they can live to such great ages, caring for generation after generation of paum, that eventually their paum evolve away from them, becoming too different from the creatures of a millenia ago for all the old protective instincts be activated.  Empty nest syndrome writ large, with not just your children but your entire species leaving the nest forever.  No Elu lives that long without acquiring a very equable, strong-minded temperament, but even so Sprenga is occasionally prone to melancholy.  It still has its curiosity to sustain it, though, and while it doesn't travel very much Sprenga has collected enough knowledge over the centuries that its home is something of a magnet for younger, wandering Elu, who come to it for old knowledge and bring it--often unwittingly--new knowledge.

*Ironically, "Gavanna" itself is arguably even more derivative; it's a thinly-veiled distortion of the word "Gondwana," which was one of two supercontinents formed following the breakup of Pangea during the early Mesozoic.  I picked the name mostly because it has a nice rhythmic sound to it and because I've always been rather fond of Gondwana and its fauna.  Etymologically the name is less satisfying, as "Gondwana" means "Land of the Gonds," with the Gonds being a people in India (India being one of several fragments of the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana) whose name apparently translates to "The people with 'outie' navels."  Poetically, one is forced to admit that this lacks a certain something.  Ah, well.  The name still sounds elegant and strange, and that's the important thing, I guess.

**For the same reason that worker ants, say, are sterile; just as a eusocial organism would fall apart at the seams if individuals were able to reproduce, thus favoring their own genetic material, the paum of Elu would end up being neglected if the Elu themselves were able to reproduce, and the short-term benefit to an individual Elu would end up hurting its own fitness.

***Because they themselves are no longer reproductive and are also typically not competing for the same resources as their paum, there is little evolutionary pressure for Elu to die off quickly to make room for a new generation, so they tend to linger--and with their extremely comprehensive knowledge of biology, they're generally able to linger for hundreds, thousands, or in some cases millions of years longer than would otherwise be the case if the notion takes them.

****I'm really abusing these footnotes, aren't I?  Just a quick note about the use of "it" to refer to intelligent creatures; Elu technically have genders, but as they become sterile upon becoming Elu their genders tend to be a biological curiosity to them, and little more.  It's not uncommon, actually, for an Elu to forget what its gender is, and as the relevant organs are often vitiated or absent it's not necessarily a trivial exercise to find out again.  In any case, "he" or "she" are not really adequate pronouns for any Elu, and although I do have my own set of pronouns that are a bit more fitting (gender-neutral, with a "respectful it" for living things and an "inanimate it" for nonliving things), I figure that what with Elu and paum being sprinkled throughout this post, we've probably got enough new words for today.  So, "it" it is.

(Edit;)  Whoops, nearly forgot.  I'd like to thank y'all for your exceedingly kind words both on the blog and facebook-wards; it's heartening, surprising, and extremely gratifying to me to hear that my odd little maunderings are of interest.  So again, thanks, all of you!


  1. So nice to see an explanation of the Elu and their ethos written out...thank you!

  2. Loved the race of grandmothers--imaginative, entirely accurate description.