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Homo Sapien (Man, knowing) we are a unique category on our planet and that makes us particularly hard to classify. As I understand it, from my hyper limited wikipedia searching skills this topic is actually under debate and I think it’s a good question. I’m going to cop out of most of the science here because we’re not a science podcast, we deal with fiction. I’ll dip into a few semi-scientific points here or there but for the most part I’m concerned with narrative.
Human’s have forward set eyes. They’re out front, this means we like to focus, we don’t have a broad range of vision that allows us to detect enemies from all around us at the same time. It means that we’re used to the chase. We have sharp incisors and canine’s designed for tearing flesh. Our hands are unique in their capability to throw sharpened objects point first reliably and, on two legs, we’re remarkably efficient runners. Means that we can run for a long time, exhaust our prey and then fill it with holes if the initial ambush doesn’t pay off. Now we also have blunt crushing teeth to the rear. Ultimately, we’re omnivores but this predatory strain in our history is interesting. With our intellect thrown into the mix we’re all but unstoppable. But what I think stops us from being apex predators, at least in stories, is narrative function. It’s a worldbuilding question. Humans aren’t usually framed as predatory.
In the podcast recently we discussed how sapience, the ability to judge right from wrong, impacts predators or races that appear predatory. As a question of worldbuilding boundaries of expectation must be set because where they aren’t you have objects of horror or humor (which could be what you’re going for). Creatures are often defined by these limits. A singular lion for example is very formidable to a human individual, we would not fancy our chances without weapons (and even with weapons we’re assuming some sort of competency). However, lions are frequently fought off by their prey, because the lion wants dinner but the wilderbeast is fighting for its very survival. Because an animal is a predator does not mean it is indomitable even if it is finely honed to get its prey. That, I think might be the big issue. Evolution is nothing if not efficient, a lion is capable of hunting wilderbeasts and must be good at it to survive but it is only just good enough. This is why there are instances of even frail humans defying the odds and defeating creatures that would usually outmatch them. Now, the temptation here is to assume that if the lion had towering intellect it would only get more capable as a predator, not less. But is that true?
If the lion is capable of thinking about the way that it thinks and approaches problems we get the first problem. They can open doors which is alarming to us that have grown quite used to doors foiling our natural predators. To be fair, this may not actually be a sapience thing but an opposable thumb thing, but I digress. If the lion has sapience it can judge right from wrong, in that case it’s likely to develop empathy and if it develops empathy it might feel sorry for the wilderbeast. At that point it’s game over. You may find that some species of lion keep their wilderbeasts as pets, some keep them out of sight in farms and kill them in a less brutal fashion. It might manage its resources better or turn to agriculture. Farming as a horror device can be pretty powerful from the perspective of animals but it still puts an end to the ‘predator’ distinction. In short, it doesn’t necessarily makes your predators less scary, just less predatory and, therefore, less capable of fulfilling that precise narrative role. The distinction should not be taken lightly. A mind flayer is a complex villain not just a tentacle faced brain muncher, both are scary, but in different ways.
When you apply sapience, even a malignant sapience, to a predator it stops being quite as predatory and starts to look further afield. It begins to consider its options and its future. As a creator this predatory animal has now changed its purpose in the story dramatically, it’s a different creature than you began with and its effect on the world has changed. The dragon has changed from a cunning, albeit predictable enemy into a competent corporate executive.
Stay tuned for more writing from the WorldCraft Club as we explore worldbuilding and the crafting of fictional settings to inspire your creativity.
We’re happy to host guest blogs on here whenever we can, it gives James a break and let’s other people contribute their ideas. Let us know if you have a worldbuilding concept or strategy to get off your chest, we’d love to hear it.