Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

October 9, 2018

Reflections on the biology of Homo calaquendi

Filed under: Elves,Fantasy,Tolkien — Razib Khan @ 7:37 pm


For a while now I’ve been really haunted by a question about the verisimilitude of J. R. R. Tolkien’s world-building: what are the long-term social and biological consequences of the fact that the Eldar, the elves, are immortal?

Consider the fact that the elves are long-lived, and not particularly fecund. Even when they are, inter-general patterns are spotty. Fëanor had seven sons, but only one grandson! Today we have “helicopter parents”, always worried about the safety of their offspring. How would an elvish society ever flourish if parents are terrified about the risk of their few offspring dying prematurely?

The fact that elves even go to war is indicative of a very strange and alien psychology. If you had the opportunity for everlasting life, would you risk it in battle? Are elves courageous? Or do they just have high time-preference?

But for me, the bigger question is the psychology of Galadriel. At 7,000 years old she is one of the oldest creatures in Middle Earth, along with Gandalf, Sauron, Cirdan, and Glorfindel. Assuming 100 years that’s 70 human lifetimes. J. R. R. Tolkien is quite clear about her physical appearance. She is quite tall, with silver-gold hair. But her head is not particularly large. So the question presents itself: how does her long-term memory allocation work? We know she has a human cranial capacity.

If salient and emotionally resonant memories connected to excitement in the hippocampus are the ones banked, does that mean that Galadriel’s mind is brimming with incredibly vivid recollections? Shouldn’t she be depressed in the present, because the present is going to be so dull compared to her glittering memories of Aman, and the beauty and elegance of the First Age civilization of the Eldar?

Additionally, it seems clear that the Eldar don’t suffer from cognitive decline in the same way as humans. Does that mean perhaps that Galadriel’s intuitive abilities would be suprahuman? Both humans and elves are children of Eru Ilúvatar. There is no evidence from the legendarium that elves are orders of magnitude more gifted than humans in “system 2” thinking, that is, rational reflection. But in their grace and acuity in matters of perception are curious. Could be it be a function of acquired “system 1” faculties, as opposed to what they were born with?

Perhaps the fey grace of the Eldar is not a matter of their natural abilities, but a function of developmental psychology? If the 10,000-hour rule is a thing, how about the 100-generation rule?

Finally, the elvish recourse to writing strikes me as peculiar in light of their immortality. They seem to be primary producers and foragers who don’t engage in much trade, so accounting is not highly valued in all likelihood. And writing does not confer the gains of the advantage of immortality to an already immortal species.

Note: For those readers who suggest that this post may mean that I never have sex, I already have three children. That’s more than most elves!

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