What advantages would extreme longevity need to provide for it to develop in a human subspecies/humanoid species without outside tampering? I ask because elves and the like in fantasy are often depicted as living far longer than humans do, and are healthier for longer into old age, and assuming that's not just because they're more magical than humans and magic leads to a longer lifespan, what would induce the pressure to cause a species to develop this kind of longevity?

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    – Secespitus
    Jan 12, 2018 at 11:48
  • $\begingroup$ Evolution works the best for species that live the shortest. It takes a lot of time for evolution to drive a species to live very long lives even if it is fundamentally good for the species. Fantasy elves societies are always in decline as humans are more adaptable than them because they are mortal, evolution works in the same way. You need successive generations to allow for improvements per generation to accumulate so the faster the generations move the better the species can adapt to environmental changes. Immortal species are thus evolutionary counter productive at the fundamental level. $\endgroup$ Jan 12, 2018 at 18:01

5 Answers 5


There are some traits in the animal kingdom that tend to be reasonably correlated (although not necessarily linear). Among those are size, birth rate, and longevity. Anecdotally, the mouse is small, lives just a couple of years, and has a big litter of pups every few months. The elephant is large, lives up to 70 years, and have one calf every five or six years. Blue Whales are enormous, live 80 to 110 years, and have one calf every couple of years. Humans seem to fall somewhere in the middle of the size range, live 70-100 years, and can have one baby every year, with occasional multiples. Note that the bigger-older-lower birth rate relationship is not perfect, but an overall pattern emerges.

Now we have a problem, as elves and humans are comparable in size, for them to follow this pattern they should also have comparable longevity and birth rate. However, if there was some event in the ancient elven past that made it part of their mores to not have as many children (for example, due to reduced resources to have to share with an increasing population), then evolution would have gradually favored longevity as well. This same scarcity of resources would also have favored not growing larger.

Here, Will's answer comes in, as those elves who are best able stick around to care for the few children they do have, will fare better in the long-term survival of the society. Thus, the long-lived more frequently pass on their genes for longevity.

In conclusion, have the ancient split between elves and humans happen in such a way that the humans got the lush forest, and the elves got the scrub at the edge of a desert, or something like that.

  • $\begingroup$ I like reversing the sterotypical biomes. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Jan 12, 2018 at 15:05
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    $\begingroup$ I like most of this, but remember that evolution works primarily based on what leads to more children that are themselves able to reproduce. If you tweak this a little so that instead of not having as many children its closer to spacing out children by time then it provides something for evolution to optimize for. Those who are reproductively healthy for a longer period will have more children and thus an evolutionary advantage. $\endgroup$ Jan 12, 2018 at 17:11

What advantages would extreme longevity need to provide for it to develop in a human subspecies/humanoid species without outside tampering/


Fitness (often denoted w w or ω in population genetics models) is the quantitative representation of natural and sexual selection within evolutionary biology. It can be defined either with respect to a genotype or to a phenotype in a given environment. In either case, it describes individual reproductive success and is equal to the average contribution to the gene pool of the next generation that is made by individuals of the specified genotype or phenotype.

It is somewhat unusual that this has not evolved. Consider

  1. Man A lives 65 years. He fathers 5 children between ages 20 and 40. He contributes to the welfare and survival of his children and grandchildren from ages 40 to 65.

  2. Man B lives 195 years. He fathers 5 children between ages 20 and 40, 5 more from 40 to 60, 5 more from 60 to 80, 5 more from 80 to 100, 5 more from 100 to 120, 5 more from 120 to 140, 5 more from 140 to 160. For his last 35 years he contributes to the welfare and survival of his many descendants.

Man B lives 3 times longer and fathers 7 times as many children as man A. His genetic fitness is far superior.

In fact, you would need to build in some sort of low reproductive rate for the long lived elves or they would quickly overwhelm and out-compete the humans with their cumulative numbers.

ADDENDUM I am a little perplexed by the comments and horrified by the downvote, and so I thought I would add more mechanism to the fitness advantage of longetivity than just the weight of numbers.

Suppose there is a selective event - a plague, or a famine, or a toxin in the water. Man A and Man B are resistant and survive. Man A fathers one more child and then comes to the end of his natural life. Man B continues contributing his resistant genes to many subsequent generations. This is how it works for lots of lower animals like fish or sea urchins. Very long lived creatures who escape the mortality risks in their environments contribute offspring season after season.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It didn't comeabout probably because as societies and technology advanced a set of evolutionary pressures switched to social and the selection factor rather became non-existent. With enough food to feed everyone and enough to tech to keep expansion possible there's no evolutionary advantage to long lifespan. Social, maybe, but evolution halts with the advance of technological progress. $\endgroup$
    – Nick Dzink
    Jan 12, 2018 at 13:27
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    $\begingroup$ There is a flaw in your assumptions, which is to assume that man A is more effective than children A1->A5 at reproducing. Once you have enough children that is less and less effective as N+1 is only a little more than N as N grows. On the other hand though injuries, toxins, etc tend to accumulate over time. If Man A gets injured then the impact is far lower than if Man B gets injured. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Jan 12, 2018 at 15:08
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    $\begingroup$ In something akin to a state of nature B would not really have an advantage because environmental factors would almost certainly kill him long before 195 and in fact probably well before 65. That isn't enough for evolution to favor B heavily, especially if the adaptations needed for longevity come at any cost at all to fitness in other areas (such as a lower metabolic rate). It could work in a safe and organized society, but as @NickDzink points out, by that time the pressures were far more social than anything else. $\endgroup$ Jan 12, 2018 at 17:15

When in doubt use sexual selection.

If you have already included magic then you can use that as a indirect selective pressure. Magic is how elves choose mates (or it is at least a huge part of it), based on power or displays with magic. since you set the rules for magic you can say the longer you live the stronger your magic becomes and the better you can use it, works even better if magical ability also takes a long time to develop. Now age is roughly equal magical power which is basically how sexy you are to an elf, and evolution will create all kinds of stupid conditions in the name of mate attraction. so pushing longevity as far as it can makes sense.

This is pretty easy to see with your set up if humans can also use magic, magic is ancestral. Elves split off early by focussing on magic, where as faster breeding humans focused more on new ideas, aka technological development. I imagine elves to also be highly reliant on magic with stone age technology otherwise. Humans may have less power but may be more creative with it. Perhaps Humans don't just push the rock with magic like elves with abundant magic do, they use magic like a lever to roll it accomplishing the same thing with far less raw magical power.

this could also explain why magic in animals is rare if you so desire, most are too short lived.


What advantages would extreme longevity need to provide for it to develop in a human subspecies/humanoid species without outside tampering?

This is a malformed question! Extreme longevity is the advantage! I will assume you asked:

What evolutionary pressures would lead to extreme longevity?

To the best of my knowledge our live spans is limited by our genes deteriorating and this inevitably leads to cancer.

In any case a mechanism that would select for longer life spams would be something like:

  • longer childhood periods
    If the environment is very dangerous then development times will most likely increase due to the longer training a child will need to undergo to be able to handle themselves in the world.

  • unbalance in sexes
    If there are more females then males or vice-versa then this would favor individuals that live longer because it gives them more time to find a mate and allows them to reproduce.

These conditions together would lead to greater health and longevity and it also fits a fantasy world with dragons, orcs, and generally more predators.

  • $\begingroup$ I think the original question is fine, and therefore, you aren't answering the right question. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Jan 12, 2018 at 15:04
  • $\begingroup$ "what would induce the pressure to cause a species to develop this kind of longevity?" is already part of the question, you are just ignoring the first part of the question about the advantages. Did you read the whole question? $\endgroup$
    – Secespitus
    Jan 12, 2018 at 15:07
  • $\begingroup$ Extreme longevity is the advantage therefore it doesn't need to bring advantages! It does however need a cause! $\endgroup$
    – Cbm.cbm
    Jan 12, 2018 at 18:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Cbm.cbm No, without more extreme longevity is not an evolutionary advantage. $\endgroup$ Jan 12, 2018 at 20:05
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    $\begingroup$ Extreme longevity is not an evolutionary advantage, not by itself. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 12, 2018 at 21:54

With humans it typically takes 10-15 years to learn enough about their environment to be independent. Traditionally the first half of that was the most dangerous, so most strategies aimed at having only one young child per couple at a time and sequentially raising several over the peak active decades.

If elves follow the same logic but need longer to learn the basics of their environment, say because they aren't as smart as us or because there are more interesting things trying to kill them (like demons and dragons and humans) or because learning magic is hard that might be a childhood of 10-20 years minded by a couple with no other children. With 100% survival that might mean they need 40 active years just for replacement, and accidents happen so more like 60 would be needed for safety. If their enemies are more effective that might not even be enough.

The logic of grandparents might still hold if they had fields of study that still allow interesting growth after a century of study. If magic has a learning curve with no known end any individual able to live longer to study it might bring benefits to their genes long after reproduction.

Perhaps continuity of long term effort is important for some reason, say the intricacies of tending stalagmites or tending some tree through a full life cycle is valuable, but better learned by starting fresh than risking interfering with an existing project. Say it turns out if you consistently pet a pine tree in exactly the same way every morning never deviating even a little for 80 years it produces pineapples or whatever. This would make having long lived individuals valuable.


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