One of the commonest depictions of elves are as incredibly long-lived humanoids, sometimes utterly immune from death of natural causes. They are also more graceful and more coordinated than humans, and incredibly good at archery.

These last two depictions could be related to their long lives. After all, spend enough time doing anything and you're bound to become excellent at it, and that includes putting an arrow through someone's visor at three-hundred feet. Even assuming that, it seems like not-dying-of-old-age would result in a significant population advantage and a superior ability to manage information and history.

Basically, why wouldn't un-aging elves be the dominant species in settings with humans?

Examples of this situation from other works would be appreciated.

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    $\begingroup$ One question per question, please. And for the first one, why answer isn't "whatever you want the rules to be"? $\endgroup$ – Mołot May 16 '18 at 21:36
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    $\begingroup$ you will find a lot of answers here on wb by simply searching immortal. there are many ways that immortal races can interact with humans, how will you be judging an acceptable answer? $\endgroup$ – EveryBitHelps May 16 '18 at 21:42
  • $\begingroup$ Why would elves WANT to be the dominant species? Long life (and perhaps superior intelligence &c) allows them the time to gain understanding of nature, so they practice population control &c. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf May 17 '18 at 5:28
  • $\begingroup$ Just because humans don't think elves rule the world, they well might, from the background. $\endgroup$ – Real Subtle May 17 '18 at 7:31
  • $\begingroup$ Dude, the dominant species is clearly ants or bacteria. Get your facts straight! $\endgroup$ – Daron May 17 '18 at 16:22

If you mean dominant in terms of having the largest population: Fertility and longevity are closely related in most animals - we can compare different species within the same genus and see a relationship between number of offspring and health/longevity. Producing offspring is very energy-intensive and stressful on the body, leading to shorter lifespans. This should be easily incorporated into building a fantasy setting with elves so long-lived that they rarely have offspring, and total fertility may not be any greater than replacement (total number of offspring over the life of the female may only be 2, with rare examples of third children). Long lives make their population seem extensive as so many generations are alive at once, but in terms of total fertility they are barely replacing their losses.

If you mean in terms of technological/political domination: As Max Planck once said - science advances one funeral at a time. Long lives allows elves to get stuck in their ways - fixed in their views, beliefs, and methods - even when the world moves on. They simply cannot adapt to changing circumstances due to harboring old prejudices, clinging to the outdated understandings they grew up with, not adapting to shifting landscapes (geographic or political), or merely failure to incorporate new methodologies. This leaves them like a picturesque ancient rural village - sure it is pretty, and a restful place to retire to, but no significant economic activity is taking place. Every elven village is like this being exactly the same as it was a thousand years ago... including the residents. Some well-traveled outsiders may know of them as quaint places to visit, but they have no meaningful impact on the world.

  • $\begingroup$ Wow, you have explained this very well! I especially like the omnipresence of conservative elves. Do you think establishing elven menopause at "young" ages would acount for the low birth rate? Like, impregnation becomes impossible after age 50. $\endgroup$ – Pinion Minion May 17 '18 at 15:16
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    $\begingroup$ @PinionMinion At that age elves would still be practically children! They could easily be fertile their entire lives, just with very infrequent menstruation (once a year at best - humans being monthly is really weird) and low sperm count leads to low probability of conception despite being fertile for centuries. Of course even if you have fertilization, implantation is another matter altogether (low probability there too). $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi May 17 '18 at 15:31
  • $\begingroup$ @pluckedkiki (nice name) I didn't say these people aged in slow motion, just that they didn't die of old age. Having child-like bodies for long periods of time would make them easily pickings for predatory animals. Besides, I like the idea of elves being a little uncomfortable with aspects of their reproductive biology. Creates some fun drama, you know? $\endgroup$ – Pinion Minion May 17 '18 at 15:52

Elves breed slowly and humans breed quickly. Orcs breed quicker still.

An elf couple might have one child every twenty years or so and takes a hundred years or so to become an adult

Humans simply out breed them.

Sure the elves might kill 100 humans to every elf lost in battle but they cannot afford to lose a single one as where humans can sacrifice hundreds and twenty years later replace the losses.

  • $\begingroup$ Even if elves would only be fertile one month of the year and only after a long bath and some soft jazz, wouldn't their population still be massive sense they are as capable of reproduction at 100 as they were at 22? Not to mention they would be VERY good at surviving thanks to guidance from their elders. $\endgroup$ – Pinion Minion May 17 '18 at 4:48
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    $\begingroup$ Ummm breeding age of 100 years means they don't start breeding until 100. They're children until then. Being good at surviving means squat when the attacking humans decide the best way to fight is to set fire to the whole forest $\endgroup$ – Thorne May 17 '18 at 5:11
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, so they take 100 years to reach sexual maturity? That raises some questions about their mating habits (and makes me dread forty years of puberty), but is a great answer. Sorry for not reading your answer as carefully as I should've. $\endgroup$ – Pinion Minion May 17 '18 at 14:34
  • $\begingroup$ Combine this with the Elves originally having low population density (to respect nature) and humans being a late arrival to the party -- either sailing from afar or 'awoken later'. The elves were unprepared for the arrival of such a fast-breeding species and could do nothing to compete. $\endgroup$ – Daron May 17 '18 at 16:12
  • $\begingroup$ Combine THAT with the elves being peace-loving and thus having no need to develop warfare tactics before the humans arrived. While they CAN split a visor from 300 feet they only discovered that talent AFTER the humans invaded. And by they they had already suffered significant losses. $\endgroup$ – Daron May 17 '18 at 16:14

The instinct to dominate is human

Out-breeding and conquering other tribes is what humans do. You can't expect other sentient species to have our same motivations.

If you are good looking, rich and live for ever, why would you risk fighting with a bunch of savages over a patch of dirt. A human that fights risks maybe 60 years, and hopes to gain wealth, land and women. An elf that fights risks eternity and hopes to gain... what, exactly? Unless their backs are completely against the wall, it does not make sense for them to fight.

  • $\begingroup$ That is very interesting. Do you think this value system would install a sense of paranoia regarding humans? After all, humans would be inclined to take elf lands and goods. As a human, I have a longer lifespan than all of the animals that might kill me, but still am sure to fence them out, shoot them if they attack members of my species, or turn them into servants and entertainment. And humans are much bigger threats then ornery bears. $\endgroup$ – Pinion Minion May 17 '18 at 14:41
  • $\begingroup$ True, but as a human you have very little respect for other living things. You'd probably kill a bee hive if it nested on your porch. $\endgroup$ – user47242 May 17 '18 at 14:42
  • $\begingroup$ If a metaphorical bee hive (say, a human settlement) nests outside elven territories, would elves abandon the homes they've had for centuries to confrontation? Or would elves drive the humans away because they might endanger incredibly valuable elven lives? $\endgroup$ – Pinion Minion May 17 '18 at 14:56
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    $\begingroup$ yea, it might, lol. Sort of like how "migrants" in Europe have nothing but contempt for native Europeans. $\endgroup$ – user47242 May 17 '18 at 15:09
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    $\begingroup$ To build on James' idea, Elves are often depicted as being more "in touch with nature" than humans. Perhaps being more in touch with nature means intentionally not becoming the dominant species, for fear of upsetting the balance of nature. This achieves the same outcome as James' suggestion, but it more of a spiritual choice rather than pure pragmatism $\endgroup$ – The Grumbleputty May 17 '18 at 17:38

Late to the party I know.

Maybe you've read Brave New World. There is a chapter where they mention an experiment to take several thousand Alphas $-$ humans genetically engineered to have genius level IQ $-$ and populate the island of Sicily as a test civilisation. The experiment was a spectacular failure. Each person was too creative and individualistic to form any sort of coherent society. Thus the decision to populate Brave New World with a population of Alphas, Betas, and all the way down to Semi-Morons which are ape-like humans who handle unskilled labour and have negligible free will.

Why is this relevant? It suggests a simple change to make to the elves' mental makeup that prevents them forming large cities: Elves are genetically hardwired to value freedom over safety.

It is virtually impossible for an elf to hold down a nine-to-five job or live in the same house for a decade. Thus they are incapable of 'working together' to maintain large cities. Since most technology was invented to solve the problems that come from living in cities, elves have low technology. These two things combined make them easy pickings for invading humans.

Note you don't have to program, for example, a respect for nature into your elves. This will come about naturally from them having a sparse population. So they need not have the holier-than-thou attitude of some elves. I think this is more appropriate for the semi-fey trickster type of elf than the Tolkienistic one.

This change also allows for more variation in the elves. Some villages will be hugely different from others. They might be more advanced. But their neighbors will feel no need to copy their technology because it might impinge upon their freedoms.

You also don't need to hardwire them to be particularly intelligent like the Alphas. Though it might link in nicely to their extreme skill in some areas. But that can also be explained through having lots of time to practice.

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    $\begingroup$ I like this. Not only is it a good reason to avoid elf congregation, but it explains why the species might have low birth rates. "Hey, being that hates being tied down and dealing with other people, wanna have a kid?" "Not this century, no." Nice idea. $\endgroup$ – Pinion Minion May 21 '18 at 15:24

Probably like humans interact with dogs

For dogs we must look like an eternal being, they usually are at our side for their entire life without alot changing from our part.

We even take care of their own pups and teach them how to behave within the pack and inside our home, just like they where schooled at the beginning.

Our magic is something they can't comprehend but accept it and stay at our sides without a second thougth.

From our side we can look at them in many ways, friends, tools, little fluffly kids, depending in our own needs and desires. They wouldn't be aware of their function and just be happy with some attention.

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    $\begingroup$ This seems like a backwards answer that is better at explaining why elves would be the dominant species, not why they wouldn't be. $\endgroup$ – Callum Bradbury May 17 '18 at 11:48
  • $\begingroup$ @CallumBradbury That's my fault, actually. I originally had two questions, and this was answering one of the original ones. I later edited the question to be more focused. Shame, sense this is a great scenario. $\endgroup$ – Pinion Minion May 17 '18 at 14:17

A long life span would certainly give advantages in a struggle for dominance. But there are plenty of other factors that could give one group or another an advantage. It's not at all clear that long life span would inevitably outweigh everything else.

As James says, maybe the elves' world view simply doesn't put much value on dominance. There are many human beings in the world, I'd guess a substantial majority, who have no particular desire to conquer and subjugate their neighbors. Personally, when I fantasize about my ideal life, the first thing that comes to mind is not "beating my neighbor senseless and forcing him to bow down to me". It's more like, "being able to sit quietly at home, play computer games, write books, and have the company of a pretty girl". Of course there are people who enjoy dominating others for its own sake, whether by beating them up physically, having political power over them, manipulating them psychologically, or whatever. But not everyone is like that. It's not unreasonable to speculate that elves have even fewer such folk.

Elves may have some skills but not others.

Elves may, for example, not have the mechanical aptitude to build and maintain machines. In a war between side A, who have honed their skill at archery to a high level, and side B, who are mediocre at using their tanks and machine guns and nuclear bombs, my money would be on side B.

Elves may be great archers but terrible strategists.

Elves may not be good at managing large organizations. Maybe they're all too independent.


  • $\begingroup$ I like the idea of less aptitude with mechanical engineering, but any idea how that could be justified? Engineering would be something an elf architect, city planner, and general would desperately want to learn after all. Same with stratigy, really. $\endgroup$ – Pinion Minion May 17 '18 at 23:27
  • $\begingroup$ It might be genetic, it might be cultural. At the risk of being non-PC, we see wide variation in achievement among humans. For example, Kenya produces a huge percentage of the world's best runners. I just found a 2013 article, npr.org/sections/parallels/2013/11/01/241895965/…, that says that at an international marathon in Berlin, Kenyans took first, second, third, fourth and fifth place. Among the women, Kenyans took first, second, and fourth. At another marathon two weeks later in Chicago, Kenyans took the first four places.... $\endgroup$ – Jay May 18 '18 at 0:18
  • $\begingroup$ ... Germans have routinely excelled at mechanics and chemistry. France is known for its wine and cheese. Etc. Some cultures, as a whole, are good at some things and others good at different things. If someone told me that a fictional ethnic group was good at X but poor at Y, I wouldn't give that a second thought. $\endgroup$ – Jay May 18 '18 at 0:20

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