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For a (Super super super soft)Sci-fi RP I've been planning, I've been trying to design an alien race to act as a suitable antagonist. The basis of this antagonistic race is that they are far, far more advanced than humans, and sought to destroy us before we achieve interstellar travel, so that we would not spread (Think the 'Great Filter' theory). They have done this to many other species' before us.

However, in the spirit of all good Shounen and Robot anime/manga, Humans Are Special, and unlike every race before us, we have one thing these self-righteous alien pseudo-nazis don't. Emotions, feelings, and the will to fight on! This ends up being the primary source of power for our new self-defence weapons (which have yet to be named), and will be the player's 'Mana' substitute for the game (although not quite so simple... But thats not important to this question).

So, my question is: is it possible for 'Emotion' to be such a unique trait to us humans? What are the chances of a race evolving without emotion, such that pure logical reasoning was the dominant trait?

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    $\begingroup$ Considering most higher animal forms display emotions in some form and they are a strong evolutionary advantage. (If you don't get scared you get eaten)...this seems improbable... $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Apr 24 '15 at 9:21
  • $\begingroup$ @TimB damn. Well, I'll still leave the question open for now, but I'll be pre-emptively heading back to the drawing board. $\endgroup$ Apr 24 '15 at 9:25
  • $\begingroup$ "if you don't get scared you get eaten" - well, that's not exactly true even here on Earth: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Island_tameness $\endgroup$
    – user8808
    Apr 24 '15 at 10:00
  • $\begingroup$ Stanley Weinbaum explored an emotionless race (from plants) in "The Lotus Eaters" $\endgroup$
    – Oldcat
    Apr 24 '15 at 21:40
  • $\begingroup$ It will have to be pretty soft scifi emotions are the basics of how the brain works. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Dec 11 '20 at 14:33
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Emotions, or at least the more complex version of emotions and empathy that first come to mind when you say emotions, is something that develops in social creatures. In social societies emotions and, more important empathy, are important for communication and interaction, which is important to survival when you can't live without a group.

Therefore, a species that evolved to be mostly solitary would have less developed emotions and little if any empathy. They would still feel 'good' about things that benefit them and 'bad' about things that hurt them. They would almost certainly still have fear, these basic emotions are the way our bodies encourage us to do the things we need to survive. Fear ensures you run from the big-mean-eaty-thing chasing you, pain ensures you don't try walking on that sprained ankle before it heals, and feeling good about finding a new food source makes sure you keep hunting. To be frank it would be nearly impossible to write a species without these base emotions working. These emotions are what make species do something, without them there is no reason to do anything. It's hard to explain motive or desires without some level of these base emotions.

However, empathy would not be required in a non-social species. With a lack of empathy there would also be no need for visual cues towards your own emotions (which evolved to help social creatures communicate as well), so they would not emote what emotions they have very well. They would look and feel like Vulcans, even if there are ultimately some level of basic emotions underneath. It shouldn't be too hard to adjust your weapon to be more interested in the higher emotive/empathic 'higher level' emotions so that basic survival instinct level emotions don't work for it.

As an added bonus making the species non-social, perhaps quite territorial, makes them a much better antagonist. Because they are non-social it explains why they are less likely to allow any other species to exist, cooperation with something develops as a social survival strategy, it would be foreign to them. Instead they would all be highly territorial. Furthermore you could have all kind of territorial infighting, power displays, and mating fights etc etc going on within them. In an RPG game having in-fighting makes plot hooks interesting and possible!!

You could say that they work together now, because you need some level of cooperation to develop complex machines, but also claim that it's a far more begrudging cooperation for direct personal gain. Done well their non-social mindset could be developed to be pretty realistic while also further stressing the foreignness and 'badness' of the species since social contact is such a big part of what we are. A species that barely tolerates each other would definitely feel evil, yet you wouldn't have to go so far as "always chaotic evil" trope, because there is a good instinctual reason for it rather then "their evil because I said so" non-sense.

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  • $\begingroup$ Animals that live alone still have fight/flight emotional responses as strong as any social animal, or stronger. $\endgroup$
    – Oldcat
    Apr 24 '15 at 21:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Oldcat yes, as I said in the second paragraph those sort of emotions will still exist. Though it's easy to have them less displayed, make it so the species learned showing fear was dangerous and so don't etc. $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Apr 24 '15 at 22:02
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    $\begingroup$ Again, there is value in confrontations in showing emotions even in non-social contexts - cats puffing up, snakes raising up and hissing... $\endgroup$
    – Oldcat
    Apr 24 '15 at 22:10
  • $\begingroup$ I think you are confusing emotions with morals, emotions are common to all animals. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Dec 11 '20 at 14:35
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Your comment about bugs, got me thinking of a possible way that an emotionless species might develop, what if your species was somewhat hive minded, much like a colony of ants?

Individual members of the hive would be purpose built/bred for specific functions within the hive. Soldiers would be bred to be soldiers and would only have instincts related to defense and combat, breeders would be bred to be breeders, with only those instincts related to breeding and so on...

Basically each type or class of this emotionless society would be incredibly specialized. Soldiers wouldn't be driven to produce food, breed, socialize, or question orders.

This could lead to a communal society, that could do without emotions or social ties. It would carry out a drive to conquer and consume, and rather than doing so out of greed, or seeking glory, it does so because that is simply what it has evolved to do.

Many species of ants appear to work in a similar way. They seek out resources to bring back to the colony and will attack most anything that stands between them and their objective.

Ants will even go on suicide missions. I once watched ants walking across bridges of their own dead. I sprayed insecticide and the ants continued on their path in spite of the poison until a layer of dead ants was thick enough for the ants to walk safely across. Just an example of how seemingly driven and unsympathetic a hive mind can be.

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  • $\begingroup$ None of this requires a lack of emotions. Having your purpose built soldier love being a soldier just makes him work even better than an emotionless one. $\endgroup$
    – Oldcat
    Apr 24 '15 at 21:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Oldcat The question didn't seem to be about requiring a lack of emotion, but rather how might a lack of emotion develop. Isolating certain sets of behavior and leaning more heavily on instinct may make it a little more believable. $\endgroup$
    – apaul
    Apr 25 '15 at 1:36
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Arent you confusing emotion with empathy ? not all emotions are good, and irrational sadism can very well be rooted ON negative emotions. So...

A race without emotions will be a race purely based on rationality. Problem is rationaly is not enough to guide our behaviour. Lets suppose the following :

I am a hunter. I need to eat. But. Why should I eat ? I feel nothing about it. So i might very well not hunt and die from hunger. Why should I not die from hunger ? I feel nothing about dieing. So, I die.

And there goes the race into extinction even before reaching space age.

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  • $\begingroup$ Hm. I see your point, but I very much meant emotions, including the negative ones (that was going to be a plot point). My rationalization behind your hunter question would be "I need to eat to survive. I need to survive so that I can pass on my genes." $\endgroup$ Apr 24 '15 at 9:07
  • $\begingroup$ What are genes ? I am only a hunter. I need to keep surviving and reproducing long enough to be able to someday understand what are those things you called genes. Emotions are exactly the way nature found to make you do what you need to do even if you dont understand why. $\endgroup$
    – Jorge Aldo
    Apr 24 '15 at 9:08
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    $\begingroup$ Oh. Right. I had completely blanked out about that. Hmm. Instincts, rather than emotion maybe? Do you think bugs feel emotions? $\endgroup$ Apr 24 '15 at 9:10
  • $\begingroup$ How those instincts will manifest in my mind if i dont feel emotions ? Are cartoonish ballons going appear in my mind telling me what to do ? "instincts say : you must hunt or you die." <sound of msn messenger when a new message comes> $\endgroup$
    – Jorge Aldo
    Apr 24 '15 at 9:16
  • $\begingroup$ I dont know what those bugs feel. I dont know what is to be a bug. $\endgroup$
    – Jorge Aldo
    Apr 24 '15 at 9:17
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Hormonal weapons anyone?

The race may be an artificial race created to serve their emotive masters flawlessly and deciding the least number of dissatisfied masters is best achieved by reducing the number of masters to zero - biological Optimizers who get very bizarre ideas about ways of achieving their goals - no concept of "reducing collateral damage" whatsoever.

Then, by injecting one with hormones that are responsible for specific emotions you completely disrupt their activity as suddenly they don't act optimally - and since others depend on each unit acting optimally and logically, the whole structure crumbles.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think you may have misunderstood the question :P. I'm not asking about how to destroy these guys, I'm asking how they would be formed, though I guess your second paragraph works. $\endgroup$ Apr 24 '15 at 9:14
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Well, I don't see a reason why it would be impossible to evolve without emotions. Imho, "eating" and "reproducing" could be covered by instincts pretty well. Humans have evolved as the most social animals, that's why we need emotions; but another species on another planets could have evolved differently.
If, for example, the strongest predators on the planet were to evolve until they gain intelligence, they probably wouldn't need emotions. The instincts take care of the basics, and the intelligence allows them need to hunt most effectively. They are loners who do not communicate much, so why would they need emotions?
Another common sci-fi example, I guess, are "hive-like" creatures. They instinctively follow the orders of their "mother", but they are mere performers who do not need emotions. Their "mother" have to be intelligent to rule them effectively, but she has no use of emotions as well.
(In general, I guess it works better if the race does not have strong natural predators, but has a lot of competitors for food. This way the fear would be useless, and intelligence would be very useful.)

Edit: Oh, and "eating" and "reproducing" don't have to be based on instincts, it might be just parts of a creatures' biology, like for amoebas or for trees. (thanks Jorge Aldo for the remark).

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  • $\begingroup$ "Can be covered by instincts" I repeat my question : How do those instincts manifest themselves on the subject mind ? $\endgroup$
    – Jorge Aldo
    Apr 24 '15 at 10:00
  • $\begingroup$ Well, I think the bugs are a good example. I know you said it's an oversimplification, but the author is interested in a "super soft sci-fi", so probably it would allow some simplifications anyway. $\endgroup$
    – user8808
    Apr 24 '15 at 10:14
  • $\begingroup$ whats the difference between instincts and emotions, in human beings ? $\endgroup$
    – Jorge Aldo
    Apr 24 '15 at 10:17
  • $\begingroup$ how do you perceive instincts ? if you are intelligent, you have choices, if you have choices, instincts must manifest as emotions, something that you can supress. thats the difference. $\endgroup$
    – Jorge Aldo
    Apr 24 '15 at 10:18
  • $\begingroup$ so, in the case of intelligent beings, instincts ARE emotions. $\endgroup$
    – Jorge Aldo
    Apr 24 '15 at 10:19
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Emotions evolved in humans as prompts to make us do things that in general make the propagation of the genes of the emoter more likely.

So perhaps emotion would not evolve in a species whose environment was so varied that rules of thumb did not apply - every decision was better made by individual calculation in those particular circumstances. I think such a continually changing environment and the constant stream of decision-making would be very difficult to write about.

Perhaps it would be better to concentrate on particular emotions not evolving in your species, rather than all emotions. Some of the creepiest villains in literature are creepy because they do not hate.

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Why have them evolved?

They are a much more advanced race, so they have (presumably) been around longer. Either they saw emotion as an undesirable evolutionary hangover (a mental appendix, if you will) and engineered it out of themselves via eugenics programs, or they were themselves engineered by an even older and more mysterious race (who were obviously their first victims in the great game of galactic genocide).

@Cyrus raises another possibility: Perhaps emotion forms part of The Great Filter. The gear filter is the idea that every race has to pass a series of increasingly catastrophic thresholds to be successful. Emotion makes it much less likely that a species will pass some of the latter ones, like nuclear technology. Thousands of other races evolve with emotion, but they all kill themselves long before achieving space flight and drawing the ire of this race. This race were just lucky that they erased their emotions/were engineered to not have emotions, which enabled them to pass all the filters and make it to the stars. Humans are the first race to follow them into space with their emotions fully intact.

It’s sidestepping the question somewhat, but eugenics programs to remove ‘undesirable’ traits are very definitely a thing, and emotionless androids/synths/robots supplanting the human race is a well known trope. In your case they just happened to a different race first.

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  • $\begingroup$ I don't think this is sidestepping the question. Humans might be unique in that Universe exactly because they reached interstellar travel with their emotions still intact. Perhaps most species either "fix" themselves first or get "fixed" by the aliens before reaching advanced technology. ...or they annihilate their own planet because they got angry an pushed a big red button. $\endgroup$
    – Cyrus
    Dec 11 '20 at 9:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Cyrus: I’m working on a lovecraftian space opera setting (it’s a fun genre) where humans are unique because they’re the only race that hasn’t been engineered by an extra dimensional progenitor race to serve some unfathomable purpose. The idea of emotion being part of the great Filter is a really good idea! $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Dec 11 '20 at 10:20
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Don't remove emotions, like Lostinfrance suggested, instead keep selected emotions. Why? Humans are repulsed by strange things but what really has an impact is something familiar made strange. If you make your species hyper-rational (ie. they have emotions but even those are dictated by intense logic) and/or sociopathic, they'll be "good bad guys"-those who have an emotional impact simply because they're relatable.

These creatures will have the following traits:

  1. Devoid of love, mercy, compassion, sympathy, and empathy This makes them seem inhuman (because they are,), but it also makes them perfect as antagonists.

  2. Devoid of fear, hate, or anger Fearless creatures are terrifying because they don't feel fear. Fear is a part of us, and someone or something who feels no fear seems either inhuman or admirable, perhaps both depending on your perspective. Being devoid of hate and anger makes them even more horrifying, because at that point they're like a machine. Nothing is quite as terrifying as a passionless killer/destroyer.

Finally, let's say they don't feel anger, just a sense of vengeful purpose. In other words, tick them off and they'll seem calm as all-get-out despite the fact that they're plotting their horrific revenge. This makes them exceptionally dangerous, and also removes the negative effects of anger on the battlefield-you can't trick them into doing something rash by enraging them, as they don't get enraged. They'd be cool and calculated, even against their greatest enemies.

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The premise that "emotions" can be meaningfully separated from "thought" is at best questionable. It's such an established trope (particularly due to Star Trek) that we don't often ask what, if anything, it really means. Quite often, "rational" vs. "emotional" is just a thin cipher for various real-world biases about class, culture, gender etc.

A truly emotionless being wouldn't care whether it lived or died, because it wouldn't have the ability to care about anything. It is hard to see how such a being could be sentient, because it would have no motives, and be completely passive. It could still be an antagonist, in the same way that a flood is good at finding any crack in your defences, but to have agency it would need some kind of (emotional) sense of what it does and does not want. I suppose you could have a swarm of robot locusts that don't feel anything except the "desire" to pursue whatever goal their creators gave them.

If the question is really "could a civilisation evolve without empathy", then the answer is probably "yes".  As other answers note, having feelings about other beings is part of being a social organism, but if you hatch from an unattended egg and live alone, then you don't necessarily need that. It is hard to see how such a species would form a civilisation – more likely, you would just get the occasional genius reinventing the wheel and taking that knowledge to their grave – but there might be some life cycle that makes this possible. Peter F Hamilton's novel Pandora's Star takes a stab at it, though I didn't personally find it very convincing.

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