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My question is inspired by the Tolkienesque elven cycle of rebirth, but with a twist.

Suppose "elves":

  • Do not experience aging after reaching maturity and do not die of old age or diseases
  • Mature about half of the pace of a human
  • After death reincarnate in new body
  • Have similar fertility as humans, but there is a finite number of "elven spirits" and if all are incarnated then there is no possibility of conception (until somebody dies)
  • Inheriting the "spirit" may have some mystical consequences (carrying over curses or prophecies) but nothing mundane like accumulating memory and knowledge.
  • The pool size should be of a size that matters - this meaning being maxed-out during times of peace and prosperity. Let's say 100K or 1M.
  • I would assume that the "elves" do not have too much pressure to breed - they have a lot time to have offspring. On the other hand, with being ageless, they need to dedicate a much smaller fraction of their lifespan to child rearing - so they can have a lot of children if they decide to.

I wonder what effect on demography would such setup would have?

I suspect that there would be a tendency for bigger communities to capture "slots" from smaller ones and, in effect, concentrate the population - but it is only a hunch. And conversely, when disaster strikes - a "breeding pair" in the wild can quickly rebuild population given lack of aging and diseases.

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    $\begingroup$ Some of the discussion in response to my question If soul reincarnation is real, then with an increasing population, why doesn't the world run out of souls? may be of interest. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Jul 18 '19 at 10:38
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    $\begingroup$ Depends how big is the spirit pool? Is there travel time? Are the various elven tribes concerned about being the biggest? Are elves eager to have children of their own, or good with one, two or none at all? Mostly, unless the spirit pool is too shallow, I don't see any problem. $\endgroup$ – Lupus Jul 18 '19 at 10:40
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    $\begingroup$ Do the reincarnated retain their memories and personality? How easy it is to identify the soul residing in a new baby/child - and how early? $\endgroup$ – G0BLiN Jul 18 '19 at 10:40
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    $\begingroup$ @AndrewBrēza and with each massive death, the accumulated knowledge and experience would be lost. Entire trades and skills could be lost and reset to rock bottom, if only a few (now dead) elf were proficient in it. $\endgroup$ – Lupus Jul 18 '19 at 21:55
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    $\begingroup$ What "Tolkienesque elven cycle of rebirth"? When Tolkien's elves die, they go to the Halls of Mandos. They are not reborn in new bodies. $\endgroup$ – Paul Sinclair Jul 19 '19 at 2:48
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Your elves will end up cautious.

The only way an elf can die is by accident or violence. All other things being equal: the birth rate amongst the various elf demographics is even and pegged to the species death rate, but the inter-group death rates are not equal, therefore the groups that grow the fastest are the ones that die the slowest.

Therefore: groups of elves whose cultures endorse caution will end up being the largest as their hastier brethren die and get reincarnated into the more cautious group.

This does assume that the rate of elf... erm... procreative events is uniform.

Otherwise: cautious, promiscuous groups grow fastest.

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    $\begingroup$ Frequent fornicators would benefit of a higher "capture rate" of wandering souls, regardless of their caution. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Jul 18 '19 at 12:20
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch: But cautious, copious copulation will inevitably outpopulate reckless randiness, and given the OP I thought it better that the elvish race not descend into a species of serious sex fiends. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Jul 18 '19 at 12:30
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    $\begingroup$ It just came to my mind a tribe of elves sending killers outside while the rest of the tribe indulge in an orgy to increase their population. If the killers are successful, they got additional population. If they fail and get killed, they are reborn in their tribe. Win win situation. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Jul 18 '19 at 12:32
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    $\begingroup$ Its weirder when the population maxed out, each death and birth registered and linked... and if some would desperately want to have a child. Kill the elf, and fornicate on its slowly dying body for highest chance to capture the soul in the newborn... $\endgroup$ – Lupus Jul 18 '19 at 12:53
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    $\begingroup$ If we keep tossing 1M coins, but lock them in when they show heads, eventually everything is heads. Or the Dice all show 6/20. Good answer. $\endgroup$ – Jontia Jul 18 '19 at 13:33
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First, even before considering demographics.

The main problem is, with ageless bodies, the pressure to have descendants lessen or may completely disappear. This kind of immortality brings a whole lot of problems and changes, which are partly solved by the limited numbers of souls. Overpopulation for one.

The elf civilization will have two repeating stages. Growing and peak.

The growing stage:

The elf population starts with low numbers. They will have limited and pretty unbalanced civilization, scaled towards the oldest and most knowledgable surviving elves talents and interests. They will make baby elves regularly and without care. The oldest are honored as keepers of knowledge. There may be elves out there who lived through numerous civilizational cycles. Their lifespan will be truly ageless and transcendent from worldly affairs, creating a mini council and sociaty of their own, to guide the "repeaters".

The peak stage:

The elf population reached its maximum. During the growing phase, there may have been conflicts during the families, but they put that behind themselves, by either uniting under a single family (ohh, sooo much incest!!!) or various families coming to agreement. The latter shouldn't be hard as with ageless bodies, much of the biological pressures which causes conflict are mitigated. You can simply wait your turn, improve existing technologies to have more.

The oldest elders are still honored, but there will be a shift. Having a child will be viewed as a gift, a blessing for those who want them. The youngest will be focused on by the whole community and they will be mini celebs, with all the resources at their disposal. Which will spoil them rotten, hastening the collapse of peak stage. Just look up the chinese little princes, with four grandparents. The same here just worst!

Babymaking will be either heavily regulated. It may reach sacred, ritualistic levels with priests and observers as the couple "summon" the spirit repeatedly. (Elf porn ftw!) The right of having one given to the priviliged or those who are next in line. Or they will slowly descend to nothing else but constantly trying to make babies, to increase the chance.

The truly desperate may kill the fellow elves to "free" their spirit... and fornicate on their victim's dying body to capture its spirit (Ghostbusters elf edition?) ... And its just part of the fun. In a max out population, with managable numbers like one million, each death is quickly noticed. A new pregnancy too. Which will lead to "spirit" lineages and other esotheric stuff.

The parents will give birth to the killed elf, good things memories aren't carried over... the dead's family will see the newborn as a lost loved one come back, made worse that relationships may lasts hundreds of years. All kind of insanity and craziness ensue, which will lead to the collapse and mass death of the elves.

The cycle will start anew, with the lead of the wise old who may have many such cycles behind them. Some of those may try to fix the problem, some may be dumb to the whole thing, as they lived through it so, so many times. Suicide among those may not be uncommon or negatively judged...

It would lead to all kind of interesting tradition, worldviews, religion, temperament, technologies and individuals, especially among the truly old.

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    $\begingroup$ Suicide among those may not be uncommon or negatively judged... I would imagine in this world, the elders, to maintain power or prevent chaos, may create a culture where suicide may be encouraged, at least for those not on the elder counsel. $\endgroup$ – Sonvar Jul 19 '19 at 1:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Sonvar Would they truly desire power or the same way we do? Being ageless, watching your race's civilization rise up and fall a number of times, being tens or even hundreds of times older than the rest 99.99% of your race may put things in different light? More like parent, grandparent with kids. $\endgroup$ – Lupus Jul 19 '19 at 4:27
  • $\begingroup$ A number of elders may grow weary watching their people suffer and die, but in most creatures, preservation of ones own life becomes the ultimate driving goal. They may strive to retain their immortality that they would lead many others to sacrifice themselves for the "betterment of their race." I'm not saying all would strive for power, but a select few will, unless the elvan brain and culture work differently and power has no meaning $\endgroup$ – Sonvar Jul 19 '19 at 4:45
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    $\begingroup$ I can see them being very keen on the death penalty while at peak. If someone transgresses, or fails to do their job? I guess you're getting sacrificed to the wheel, friend. $\endgroup$ – Arkenstein XII Jul 19 '19 at 5:58
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    $\begingroup$ @ArkensteinXII Mostly, yes. But they would be reluctant to kill those in posession of rare skills and trades with lots of accumulated experience. Like the only 1000 years old rocket scientist. The population cap and agelessness would mess with their advancement. Can't distribute specializations endlessly, like we do. $\endgroup$ – Lupus Jul 19 '19 at 6:31
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Elves will value war.

During wartime, childbearing is encouraged, children are valued, and elders are revered.

During peacetime, childbearing is strictly regulated (both socially and with the inability to conceive imposed due to lack of souls), having too many children is seen as selfish, and elders are scrutinized for any sign of faltering (there might be more "accidents" or a ritual ending).

War is messy and inconvenient though. This means the elves will develop social class (or reinforce what they already have). The elite live in well-protected cities and the soldier-class elves fight for honor, land, glory, riches, whatever motivates them.

Just enough to keep the overall elf population down to a manageable level. By which I mean, the elite can have all the children they want and not suffer any social push-back from doing so, or from keeping their elders around forever. Soldier-class families can do the same, though they won't have many elders and the children will learn to fight and go off to war as they reach maturity, so there isn't time to have a lot of kids.

The elite population will increase though and, eventually, might reach a critical mass. No matter. The elites are already stratified and the lowest of them must now send their children (and all future generations) out to be officers in the fight for justi...whatever.

Those children raise their families out in the danger zone and population equilibrium returns. Lather, rinse, repeat.

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As a direct counter to one of the other answers, bear in mind that some of the points below may be mutually exclusive;

Your Elves will end up reckless

Once the Elven population reached ElfMax, each individual knows that their death will be followed very shortly by their rebirth. Sure they'll forget things, but members of a society with such strong evidence of the continuation of the soul may regard death and rebirth as important life stages.

Health Benefit

Even if you're not ageing, that doesn't mean you haven't let yourself go. Accident or over indulgence can cause issue for everyone. Eventually a renewal of your policy is called for, even if it does mean you have to watch the Harry Potter movies again.

Draconian Society Management

Everyone lives for ever, and in an interconnected society? That guy who keeps cutting me up on the tree branch is making my blood boil every god damn day. And he feels that same about you. Eventually the magistrates have to step in and assign both of you to reincarnation to get over it. After all it's still you, and you shouldn't have let this get so far out of hand.

Chasing the Power

The question says that mythical things can carry over to the re-incarnation. Just like the bank accounts in Jupiter Ascending, well every family wants those mythical powers and/or cash for themselves. If the family Assassin can take out the current holder of the AllSpark, just as our team of marathon procreaters are getting started, then we can control that power.

Personal Situation Improvement

Maybe it is just not going well; homeless, broke or unlucky in love? Why not roll the dice again? I could be a Prince next time.

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    $\begingroup$ If the soul holds no memory then it's not the same person. The hardware has been replaced, the disc has been wiped, the fact that the operating system is the same is irrelevant. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Jul 18 '19 at 13:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Separatrix that's how you see it :) It isn't necessarily how a society that's lived with it for millennia see it. This is my Grandfather's Axe, it's had a new handle and a new blade and the design has changed, but it's still my grandfather's axe. $\endgroup$ – Jontia Jul 18 '19 at 13:29
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    $\begingroup$ Your grandfather's axe only applies when parts are replaced one at a time, you've put a new head on a new handle, it could be my grandfather's axe, your brother's axe, your great uncle's axe. All you know is that one day it will become somebody's grandfather's axe. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Jul 18 '19 at 13:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Separatrix As souls are currently unproven and unprovable (they may still exist), their are many interpretations of it. Memory is just one part of the self. Awareness, tendencies, personality, disposition ... Yes, these may only be the sum of memories, or if they exist, linked with the souls. $\endgroup$ – Lupus Jul 18 '19 at 21:47
  • $\begingroup$ We need clarification from the OP about what is transferred in reincarnation. An axe is not a good analogy. Instead try: Afua lives in Lagos and likes fufu with groundnut soup, Fred lives in hull and like bubble-and-squeak with sausages. 1) The body in Hull wakes up thinking it is Fred, remembers all of Fred's life but wonders where in Hull he could get a bowl of fufu, while in Lagos Afua suddenly has a passion for bubble-and-squeak. Or 2) The body in Hull wakes up remembering life as a woman in Lagos but liking bubble-and-squeak. Who is where in each case? $\endgroup$ – Chris Barry Jul 19 '19 at 20:50
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Such a reality could also create wandering elves. As having families is restricted to those who are lucky/rich enough to win the child lottery, the idea of perpetually living in the same groups could cause some to leave to find new experiences outside the elvish realm.

They might try and form families with other races like humans, potentially with offspring who would then have human souls. You could have a whole other issue if one of these mixed offspring was to get a precious elvish soul - there would likely be some group or certainly families that would seek to kill these mixed people to free their souls for use by the core elvish population.

There might be rituals developed so that someone who is killed can have their soul imparted into a pregnancy straight away. That all depends on how things work. Are souls bound to a body during conception, before birth. Can a female get pregnant then hold the baby at an early stage of development until a soul is ready? Are souls only ever randomly assigned or can the process be manipulated?

Going back to the wanderers, they may also be targets for assassination to free their souls or simply to bring them back to pledge allegiance to one faction or another. In a limited pool, numbers would be important and controlling as many as possible would be key. I don't see any impoverished elves in such a situation as the rich would use their wealth to buy the support of those with less. This could then lead to large numbers of elves becoming lazy as they see their existence is more important than their efforts - conversely lazy elves might be killed to make room for potentially more productive elves.

Lots of possibilities here, interesting question.

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    $\begingroup$ 'Are souls bound to a body during conception, before birth'. That is a grim thought. Spontaneous late term miscarriages caused by lack of a soul sounds like a path to mental health issues. $\endgroup$ – Jontia Jul 18 '19 at 22:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Jontia The other thing that occurred to me was that bodies might be born without souls and become a slave class. Also possible is that humans or others could be kidnapped to provide soldiers or other services in elvish tribes that lack numbers. $\endgroup$ – Daniel Jul 18 '19 at 22:37
  • $\begingroup$ I would imagine, after many hundreds of years, that all elves would become lethargic (lazy) and disconnected from the world. Eventually, they would have seen and done anything. The only thing left for them to do is to preserve their longevity, until that too becomes moot $\endgroup$ – Sonvar Jul 19 '19 at 3:11
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What is this "spirit" that is inherited through reincarnation? It seems to me that a person is very nearly completely defined by his memories, particularly if you extend the concept of memory to include all changes to the brain that result from perception. That is, changes to personality that result from experience, as well as conventional recollections but excluding physical damage to the brain. The personality will also be affected by the body in which it finds itself, but this is pretty well covered by genetics and the accidents of development. Without memory how could anyone (including the person reincarnated) determine who had been reincarnated where? In any case, what significance would it have?

Presumably there would be some kind of spiritual civil service to make sure that the curses and prophesies are correctly allocated.

On the other hand, if memory was inherited physical evolution could be accelerated, as anyone finding themselves in an unsatisfactory body could kill it and hope to get a better one next time.

As long as curses and prophesies are the only tangible attributes transferred to a new incarnation they will be what determines rational behaviour. As an example, imagine that someone was cursed with death by dragon fire. There would then be a clear incentive for the rest of the population to put him in the path of a belligerent dragon to avoid the risk of someone's child inheriting his fate.

Similarly, if a person of whom it was prophesied that he would bring great wealth and honour to his parents were to die with the prophecy unfulfilled this could prompt a surge of copulation by people hoping to capture the spirit, and hence the prophecy, in their child.

I would expect people who had, or at least could convincingly claim to have, a good understanding of the way in which spirits were allocated to new bodies, and who could advise prospective parents on the most propitious times for conception, to be a prominent feature of the society.

Of course this assumes that curses and prophesies are tangible phenomena. Otherwise all you have is another superstition, of which you could find several similar examples in human culture.

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  • $\begingroup$ You don't even need memory for that. A child born with easily noticable deficiences? Just kill it, the spirit lives on and may got better cards next time. Hmm... they would practice medicine not for life preservation but to maintain knowledge. Crippled in war, but no irrepleacable skills? Better to die and restart fresh. Spirit is currently undefined and unprovable, who knows if it exist what effect on personality, tendency, etc it has $\endgroup$ – Lupus Jul 19 '19 at 5:28
  • $\begingroup$ @lupus While "spirit" is ill-defined and undetectable your argument applies to normal humans. People who use "the sanctity of human life" as the basis of their moral objection to murder and abortion would happily give up their objections. Also, since curses and prophesies are inherited, a serious curse could justify killing a baby. $\endgroup$ – Chris Barry Jul 19 '19 at 16:12
  • $\begingroup$ @ChrisBarry Sorry, am I reading correctly that you're saying all humans who object to murder or abortion on the grounds of "the sanctity of human life" do so because of belief that humans have spirits, and if it could be proven humans do have spirits that get reincarnated, they'd no longer object to those killings? I'm not sure I follow. $\endgroup$ – plagueheart Jul 20 '19 at 0:30
  • $\begingroup$ Apart from all arguments involving suffering, if it is acceptable to kill a soulless animal but not a human, then the objection must be due to harm to the "soul". If the soul is merely moved unharmed to another body then I would expect the objection to be much reduced, if not removed completely. I don't understand the concept of sanctity so I may be misrepresenting the situation. Nonetheless, within the context of the question I think this is a plausible consequence of reincarnation. $\endgroup$ – Chris Barry Jul 20 '19 at 1:22
  • $\begingroup$ Yup, spirit here just sounds like battery. $\endgroup$ – Daniel Jul 21 '19 at 7:17
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This system would have some interesting consequences with regard to the criminal demographic. To start with, death is not the end of the world, but a (monumental) setback. Therefore, murder can be seen as comparable to theft or vandalism. This also means that the death penalty is a less harsh punishment as it is a free "get out of jail"-card. Even better in fact, since the criminal starts with a clean slate. However, curses are transcendal, so a logical solution would be curses which would mark criminals until their punishment is finished. This would result in a caste of "untouchables", similar to real-life communities who believe in reincarnation.

Considering that elves don't age, and the death penalty is less harsh, the most severe punishment would be livelong imprisonment. This punishment would be reserved for the most monstrous criminals who are not allowed redemption. This system would ensure that they suffer as much as possible, but not being allowed to die, creating a Hell for the living. On long term, this would mean that the most ancient elves are not the wise and respected elders, as one would expect, but the most heinous criminals.

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