Posted on by Steven Savage

Evolve Out

(Way With Worlds is a weekly column on the art of worldbuilding published at Seventh Sanctum, Muse Hack, and Ongoing Worlds)

Sentient races (which I’m adapting in the “species” sense) are almost certainly going to be very adaptable. They are going to learn, change, grow, alter, and evolve – even as individuals. The child of today is nothing like the adult of tomorrow, just as the engineer of today is not the engineer of 200 years ago.

Adaption is, in many ways, the very definition of intelligence: taking in, processing, and using information. The ability to be aware, to think, is what sentience is. Without it, one’s really a machine, even if a biological one.

So if you’re writing sentient races (or species, ugh, I keep hating to differentiate-yet-not here), they’reprobably ¬†going to be adaptable.

When writing your sentient race you’re going to want to make sure they’re adaptable (unless of course they are like machines, which in that case you’ve got another set of issues). Even if they play a role for the gods themselves, the gods probably need a certain level of learning in their creation, if only so they don’t need to constantly keep them from wandering off a cliff.

Really, if you’re a god, do you want most of your divine life to be like a bad version of “The Sims?”

So let’s take a look at the one really adaptable sentient species we know – us humans. We’re a good example for world builders, and the only example we have right now.

The Human Touch

Human adaptability has made it so we, as a species, can change so much, sometimes it’s like we can become different species.

We exist in every environment there is, from grasslands to the cold of space.

We can be hunters and lawyers, doctors and sculptors, martial artists and writers.

We can change who we are. The writer of today bay be a cook in a few years or a programmer after a decade.

And yet we’re all human.

Though I’m aware we humans only have one sentient race (us) as an example, I’d say we make a pretty good argument that sentient races are going to be adaptable. We’ve survived quite a bit, adapting and changing, to the point where the biggest threat to us is . . . well, us.

It’s sort of a triumph.

As we’ve evolved, we’ve developed the ability to evolve. We make institutions and training and education and more. ¬†Our adaptability in turn has allowed us to create tools of adaption.

So I’d say that when designing races, keep adaptability in mind. Every sentient race is going to have some adaptability in order to even e sentient. The ability to be aware and adapt is, I repeat, part of sentience.

I’d also note that it probably just seems more believable. We humans only have us as an example, so we’re going to assume for now that a sentient species will be a bit like us – adaptability included.

Thinking Adaptable

So think what adaption is going to mean for your species – both in general and in specific.

In general this “sentient adaptability means:”

  • The ability to be aware of environment and self, and their interaction.
  • To process that information in order to make decisions.
  • The ability to implement new behaviors.
  • The ability to retain information for reference.
  • The ability to pass on and communicate to others – and to learn from others.
  • The ability to implement technical systems to reach goals and adapt better.
  • The ability to modify the systems above.

Pretty simple, right? But there’s more. Because though I expect races to be adaptable, they’re going to adapt in their own way. The setting they were born from, the way they changed, affects just how they adapt.

We humans are visual and auditory creatures. But how would we adapt and learn if we, say, we’re consciously aware of the electromagnetic spectrum? If we had a better sense of smell? If we could relay information telepathically?

There may also be racial traits that affect what they have to adapt to. A race with a super-powerful immune system wont develop medicine the same way. A race naturally inclined to violence may have trouble with negotiations to prevent a war.

Your races will adapt – but they will adapt in their own unique way. It may even be ways that seem incredibly strange and weird (which could also be really interesting to create).

So don’t just assume your sentient races adapt, ask how they adapt. There may be advantages and there may be limits.

But that’s part of the fun.

Keep Adaption In Mind

When designing sentient races, remember that they’ll almost certainly be adaptable. Maybe not as we humans are, but they’ll be adaptable nonetheless. That’s what sentience is.

I think there’s also a peculiar human-centrism to this. We humans (who are your readers and players) relate to sentients – and thus adaptable – races. If your races aren’t adaptable, and if it’s not clear why, something will seem “wrong” to people. It’s what your readers need and expect.


– Steven Savage

Seventh Sanctum™, the page of random generators.

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