Misapplying Science: Fantasy Races

I’m a fan of science, particularly evolutionary biology which has given us profound insights into our own biological history and that of all life on Earth. It has also allowed us to make speculations about how life might turn out in the future. Of particular joy to me growing up were Dougal Dixon’s tremendous works, After Man and Man After Man.

I know fantasy worlds are magic, but I frequently find myself unsatisfied with ‘magic’ as a handwavey explanation for things. I find it particularly hard to swallow, without comment, the profusion of different races in most fantasy games. Odds are they’d actually be closely related on the evolutionary tree if they actually evolved rather than being created by the gods. The human genome is actually pretty ‘stretchy’ with a great deal of diversity within it. That said, different intelligent hominid species have coexisted, and possibly even interbred, in humanity’s past so it’s not completely beyond the bounds of possibility.

Still, I’ve had a ponder and I’ve thought a little about how the various fantasy races might turn out if they were evolved, rather than created or simply dreamed up.


Forest peoples tend to be short in stature. There are several reasons why this might be from inadequete diet to problems with vitamin D and calcium but it does appear to have a genetic component. As such, elves are likely to be small in stature as well as being somewhat slender. A combination that makes moving through the forest a lot easier. Five feet six inches might well be the Evlish equivalent of a giant.

A more vegetarian diet could, over time, lead to a flattening of the teeth, a longer gut (pot-bellied elves?) and a more placid, contemplative nature. Especially if they also live a longer time than your average human being. Trees are excellent protection from many predators and monsters, meaning flight or passivity may well be considered virtues for elves, far beyond their value to other races and species.

Of particular interest is the possibility of elven symbiosis with trees. Particular species may benefit from elven habitation and over a very long period of time the elves and the host trees may genetically influence one another. The tree growing to create hollows and strong branches for supporting the elves. The elves eating the fruit, spreading the seeds and protecting the trees from pests and predators.

In the shade of the trees elves are likely to be quite pale, but possibly also dappled like many jungle and forest creatures, skin like wild ponies in patches of light and dark and this is also likely to extend to their hair.

(Illustration from Dark Visions: Illustrated Guide to the Amtrak Wars)


Dwarves are potentially even more fascinating than elves. As underground dwellers their shape is likely to be even more heavily changed than any other broadly humanoid species, thanks to their environment.

A short, stocky, broad and squat form is good for power, endurance and for making their way through small spaces. Big hands and feet give them leverage and digging power that other humanoids may lack. Living permanently in the deep dark they’re likely to either have massive eyes to try and compensate and teo grab as much light as possible or, in the deeper dark, they may even be eyeless. No point having eyes if there’s nothing to see. In the daylight world their vision may be far too sensitive for the light, needing dark goggles to avoid being blinded.

To compensate for lack of sight they’re likely to have enhanced other senses such as touch and hearing – smell as well in case of gases underground. The famed dwarven beard, of both sexes, could in fact be whiskers. Useful for feeling the motions of the air and judging the size and shape of spaces without seeing them directly.

Small underground spaces are likely to require them to move on all fours almost as much as on two legs, which may give them a more ape-like, knuckling gait than other humanoids. Bare feet with gripping toes are also going to be useful for climbing rocks and surfaces and not losing their footing.


It’s hard to think what would make halflings and gnomes the way they are. Perhaps as a particular subset of elves they would be isolated and their small size become more prominent. That would give them the genetic proclivity to smallness and if they come from harsher, more northern climes that might explain their even smaller stature and their tendency to eat and burrow, storing fat for hibernation.

Halfling/Gnome culture and biology would be undergoing rapid change, following the sudden advent of agriculture and the death of their old hunter/gatherer lifestyle. Their biology has not caught up yet and so they still tend to eat their fill and to burrow, despite now being able to eat and stay awake all year around. Isolated and xenophobic for the most part the cultural rather than physical divide is what would split halflings from gnomes. Halflings being more traditionalistic and insular and gnomes being more forward thinking, experimental and exploratory.

Close-knit tribes and burrows could even form a near eusocial ‘hive’ bond and adventurers would be rare ‘sports’ able to part from the culture in order to adventure.


Orcs would have to be descended from some sort of predatory ape. Perhaps closer to baboons or the hunting chimps. Nocturnal and dangerous they would be pack predators. Dark grey/black/blue/indigo skin with a protective layer of fat and muscle.

Their mouths would be full of sharp teeth and capable of opening wide in threat displays and for biting down onto prey. As predators they would be fleet, violent but also playful and alert.

The pack mentality and competition would likely mean packs would be organised on alpha-male leadership with a group of females around him and several beta-males as hangers on. All hoping to make a move for alpha status. Orc ‘silverbacks’ might have a mane or larger tusks to denote their status.

The females would be the hunters, the fighters. The males would be duellists, focussed more on fighting each other and leading the pack than the practical or every day.

As night hunters they would need predatory vision, like a wolf or cat, a good sense of smell. They might even have hardened, keratin ‘claws’ instead of fingernails. Ensuring that they’re never without a weapon.