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I've been toying with the idea of a society with alternative forms of families or social structures. In one individuals of coming of age (socially imposed) or due to a biological necessity (biologically imposed) imprint themselves to another older individual. Such an imprinting creates a chain or tree like structure that may span generations.

I'm looking for biologically or physically plausible ways such an imprinting might occur. Are there any examples from past fiction or real-life that might be a good starting point?

Additionally the mechanism should allow the following: if an individual in such a chain or tree perishes beyond natural causes (think bodily harm) everyone in the chain/tree will die as well. How can biological organisms communicate such an occurrence from a distance? Beyond hormones or motherly instinct is there anything else to go by? If need-be I'd like to keep the need for implants or technology to a minimum, but wouldn't exactly rule it out entirely.

The focus of the question is to explore the biology or mechanisms behind such a system, but welcome any input on how various solutions/mechanisms might affect the development of the chain/tree structures differently.

EDIT

I've changed the question to focus more on the biological mechanism and removed the follow-up questions about societal nature. However, I envision such a tree/chain structure to develop in pseudo-caste systems where certain trees/chains be more favorable than others.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site! Be sure to take the tour and check out the help center if you have any questions (of the procedural, rather than worldbuilding sort). Unfortunately your question here, while interesting, is very broad: you're asking about biology, society, and the mutual death provision, and the first two are pretty broad in themselves. I would edit your question down to a more specific and manageable size. If you have more questions, it's totally okay to ask them in separate posts, even if it's on the same topic. $\endgroup$ – Cadence Aug 27 '18 at 20:57
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    $\begingroup$ Can a chain or tree be "rescued" by introducing an individual of the same caste into that slot? My first thought was for the organism's digestive system to change throughout the maturation process with different dietary requirements at each stage. A overly-simplified example would resemble a cow's four stomachs, where these creatures' digestive systems change at birth, toddler, adulthood and late adulthood (geriatric) $\endgroup$ – Punintended Aug 27 '18 at 21:07
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you @Cadence for the input, I've restructured the question with more focus on the biology or mechanisms, but welcome any inputs on the architecture of the chains/trees as well. $\endgroup$ – Nox Aug 27 '18 at 21:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Nox Haven't read The Protector, but I wrote up my comment just before you edited, so it's a bit obselete. Some hybrid of that and Bald Bear's intolerance could work. Some sort of highly-variable digestive-enzyme-encoding gene (maybe like VDJ rearrangement?), potentially hereditary (maybe mitochondrially, if you want to keep it more specific)? If any of those are appealing, say so and I'll brainstorm a longer answer / explanation $\endgroup$ – Punintended Aug 27 '18 at 21:20
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    $\begingroup$ Such a system is not going to evolve, death by violence is incredibly common in nature, such a trait would have disappeared as soon as it came into existence even if it didn't your species would have gone extinct quite quickly. $\endgroup$ – John Aug 27 '18 at 23:29
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There were (non-modern) societies where servants and even wives were killed and buried with the chief when he died. I think Mongols were one of them.

Biological imprinting happens to ducklings at birth -- they assume the first living they see is their mother, and follow it. But ducks are not all that smart, and neither are newborns.

To replicate this dynamics in adult humans, you'd need the "elder" to be the main (or only) caregiver for the "young", so the young get attached to them like some children grow attached to their mothers. But then you need some way for the young to become independent (and eventually turn into elders), as the original elders age and die. Maybe some kind of ceremony.

To reinforce the bond, you can have the young to be trained to receive food only from the elder, and/or have the elder feed them some very specific foods, cooked in their own secret way. Then have elder reveal the secret to his chosen successor as a sign of their independence. If elder dies without passing the secret, the orphaned young have nobody to feed them. IRL, people will eat almost anything if they are hungry enough, but your society could expect (& force) them to starve to death.

In fact, there is more to food that just psychological conditioning. Stomach has bacteria that are essential to digestion, and digesting different foods requires different bacteria. So feeding a narrow range of foods to children since birth could leave them unable to process other foods. E.g. in real world, lactose intolerance is very common in Asia, but very rare in northern Europe. In your world, you can have larger variety between food sources, and people who can eat only one type of food (plants, or mushrooms, or animal meat, or seafood).

Edits (after some offline thought):

  1. Technological solution is obvious: master accepts young people as apprentices, but to keep them from running away after he trains them, or taking over his business, he implants them with explosives or poison that will kill them if master dies, or apprentice stays away from master long enough.

  2. Naturally evolved biological solution is unlikely. This introduces an extra cause of death, without providing any immediate benefits. The species or group that have this bond will be out-bred by another group that has the young weaned off the tit early.

2.a Even in society of sapients, extra cause of death is a limiting factor. I would suggest that bound is limited to upper classes, and upon the loss of "elder", the "young" do not die, but are cast down into the "peasant" or "untouchable" caste.

  1. I do have a social+biological idea in mind: grown spice:

    • Each caste takes "spice" that grants advanced caste-specific skills: warriors are stronger, priests are smarter, craftsmen are more dexterous, hunters get enhanced senses, etc.

    • Spice is farmed from a very specific organism, kept in tightly controlled environment, fed just the right nutrients, and harvested at a precise stage of their lifecycle, and processed using exacting process and ingredients. Depending on how glamorous or gross you want to be, it could be honey harvested by bees from specific plants, or fungi growing in caves, or droppings of maggots infesting the body of the elder.

    • Spice is toxic to a fully grown adult, so one has to start taking spice at a young age, maybe even in the womb of their mother. Once you start using spice, you cannot stop. Withdrawal is lengthy and agonizing, and leaves you dead or disabled (warriors tire easily, priests go mad, craftsmen get arthritis).

    • Method of Farming spice is a closely guarded secret. Caste consists of several clans (or families). But in each clan, only the elder knows how to do it. B/c it gives them control over the rest of the clan. As elder ages, he picks an heir and teaches them how to farm spice.

So you have (near-)death of the young upon the death of elder. As a bonus, you have all the intrigue of trying to figure out spice farming, or disrupting the farm of rival clans or caste, desperate attempts to figure out farming is elder dies prematurely, Big Bad breeding new sort of spice, etc.

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    $\begingroup$ I hadn't considered nutrition, but I'm deeply intrigued by this idea. My original take was to have the punishing aspect of the mechanism be instant, but having some indirect effect like loss of knowledge or loss of source of compatible food would be just as devastating to the chain and incur the intended effect anyways. The idea is that the breach of the chain should be analogous to death to force behaviors of members to be just as extreme. $\endgroup$ – Nox Aug 27 '18 at 21:26
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I envision that what you are describing would be manifest as some sort of telepathic construct. These chains would be groups of people that share their knowledge and experiences with one another continuously.

The link is so strong and the memories shared in such an interconnected way, that severing an individual from the chain would be, to the others in the chain, like taking out a section of their brain, which would cause them to go brain dead. However, since this is a natural process, when someone is nearing the end of their life, their mind goes through a process of slowly "uploading" all of their consciousness to the rest of their chain (which in a weird way preserves themselves).

The motivation for the old to join with the young is an instinctual need similar to procreation, as well as achieving a kind of immortality. The young gain benefits of experience and knowledge, coupled with the inclusion into the chain which functions similar to a fraternal organization.

A few different types of chains would develop:

  1. Large chains: This would be dominated by people who, by strong social imperative, play things extremely safe. The advantage to this is that it is a very large group. The disadvantage is that it would be considered bad form to so much as run down the street, as you are taking everyone's life in your hands by doing so.
  2. Trade Chains: These smaller chains are used to put people in careers without going through a long training period. Just join the chain of a master blacksmith to become a blacksmith. Still, please don't die, and there should be more than one or else all your blacksmiths die because one of them had an accident.
  3. Elite Chains: Being so risk averse makes for bad experiences to be shared. The elite chains have the best experiences, but there is the risk that you might die at any moment because someone is off on an adventure.
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  • $\begingroup$ The telepathic route was originally my go to as well. I believe it plausible to explain how consciousness shifts and pain is numbed with aging, such that dying due to natural causes might not affect the chain as drastically as say an unfortunate accident of a younger member. Maybe the death clause could be relaxed to say that under a certain threshold of pain/death/psychic-link the chain is unaffected, yet not known or quantifiable by the society so care must be taken regardless. $\endgroup$ – Nox Aug 27 '18 at 21:24
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I've been toying with the idea of a society with alternative forms of families or social structures. In one individuals of coming of age (socially imposed) or due to a biological necessity (biologically imposed) imprint themselves to another older individual. Such an imprinting creates a chain or tree like structure that may span generations.

Biological imprinting mechanisms are a thing, but they are usually found in infants. The more effect this imprinting has on a mature individual the less likely such an aspect would actually work. Or at least work without causing major problems.

Additionally the mechanism should allow the following: if an individual in such a chain or tree perishes beyond natural causes (think bodily harm) everyone in the chain/tree will die as well. How can biological organisms communicate such an occurrence from a distance? Beyond hormones or motherly instinct is there anything else to go by? If need-be I'd like to keep the need for implants or technology to a minimum, but wouldn't exactly rule it out entirely.

Well, regardless of the mechanism, this trait will very quickly remove itself from the gene pool, by removing anyone who has it from the gene pool. I'm not sure what kind of mechanism this works by, but it clearly isn't present in any living species. Thus, as this mechanism starts introducing itself into your species, it will start killing off individuals that have it. Especially if it can sometimes been triggered

If it's some sort of societal structure or setup, it's very quickly going to fall apart. A society where people don't die of violent causes very often is probably going to be too enlightened to want to randomly kill off people right after people die. A society where violent death is common will be desensitized to death and go through with such an act, but will rapidly weaken itself until it reaches the point where it can no longer survive. And that's assuming you can get the rule started in the first place.

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  • $\begingroup$ The idea is that the mechanism serve as the foundation of a society and I agree with all the last statements, but my goal is to build such an environment and at a later stage to explore the behaviors that would arise given the environment. I'm trying to find a plausible way as to how such a system could exist indefinitely for many generations. Why it might have been put into place or how that came about are questions I'll tackle once the system and mechanism have been established. $\endgroup$ – Nox Aug 27 '18 at 21:35
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Biologically speaking, it is a horrible mechanism. It is literally the quintessential definition of what evolution stands to remove from a species. Accordingly, the only way you will find it is if there is some alternate pressure on the species.

Consider if this species is one of two. It is a subjugated species. It was bred to keep the secrets of the superior species. As part of that system, if any one individual dies violently, there's an interest in all those who knew the same secrets to die quickly. It would be a powerful anti-torture mechanism. Fail to torture them once, and ever individual that knows the secret immediately dies.

As for an implementation, I'd recommend a virus. Have a "code" which is a random sequence of RNA base pairs. Deep in an individual, the virus is kept dormant. If an individual is killed violently, the last thrashings of their brain wake up the virus. This virus then infects everyone of the species. For most individuals, it is a benign virus, but for the few who have the same code, it is instantly fatal.

What ever I'd use, I would not give it a kind name. "Motherly instinct" does the opposite of what you need. "Bonding" is usually a positive term in societies. What you are looking for is bondage or collapse or resignation or any other highly negative term. Pick the right term, and the right properties will come to you.

Personally, I have only read of one fictional species with anything of the sort. It was the Octospiders from Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke. The Octospiders had a brutal approach to war. They were a perfectly peaceful species until pushed too far. Then, the queen regent of the Octospiders could call for war. To do so was to sign her death warrant. If the senate voted against war, she was summarily put to death as too violent of a ruler. If the senate voted for war, something else happened. The species underwent a genetic-level transformation into a warring race. They then prosecuted the war, and this was no small war. The only end condition for the Octospiders was xenocide. The other species simply must cease to exist. After accomplishing that goal, the queen, the senate, and all the warriors commit suicide.

So for the Octospiders, such a long-distance suicide pact was part of a fundamental safeguard against xenocidic wars. You're going to want a similarly brutal reason for your system.

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  • $\begingroup$ You make a very valid point on why such a system shouldn't be in biological form. It might be better to have an ensemble hybrid system involving biology, psychic powers, and technology. $\endgroup$ – Nox Aug 30 '18 at 15:27

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