I want to make an alien species evolve without fear, or atleast not fear as we know it. Intelligent life, as I understand it, requires fear to encourage an organism to keep itself alive.

What emotion or sensation could replace it?

Pain? Competition? Anger?

What evolutionary path would lead to such a development?

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    $\begingroup$ Do you mean disgust... $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Jan 27, 2020 at 5:16
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    $\begingroup$ "Pain? Competition? Anger?" The first is a feeling, not an emotion. The second is not an emotion, either. The third is already part of the fight or flight response - if you drop the "flight" part, then they will only ever fight. Seems counter productive, unless they are the absolutely dominant species...in which case, what happens if they fight between each other? $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Jan 27, 2020 at 8:30
  • $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polymorph_(Red_Dwarf) - Removal of fear! $\endgroup$ Jan 27, 2020 at 14:38
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    $\begingroup$ The organism doesn't have to feel fear in order to exercise fear. As long as the organism knows to get out of the way of danger, you have fulfilled the fear requirement. It could just be emotionless instinct and reflex, or an automatic response like in many insects, etc. $\endgroup$ Jan 27, 2020 at 18:35
  • $\begingroup$ whatever it has it will be fear, if it fulfills all the functions of fear it will be indistinguishable. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 29, 2020 at 0:36

4 Answers 4


Strong Emphasis on Long Term Reward

The purpose of fear is a prescriptive measure in humans to have them avoid getting into bad scenarios which have short term gain. Should primal man venture into the night? Fear says no, because you'll get eaten by wolves. Should modern man rob a bank? Fear says no, because you'll get caught and have to go to prison. In both of these situation, a cost-benefit analysis would suggest the same thing fear does, so why is fear necessary? The answer is because humans value short-term gain over long-term gain. Thus, in order to balance the scales back towards long-term gain, something is needed - a fear factor to help stop humans from wanting short-term when the long term is negative.

However, if you made the alien species such that they de facto tend towards the long-term and rarely concern themselves which short term, then they wouldn't need fear, because they'd always look towards long term benefit. On the flip side, they'd actually have a problem with spontaneity - in other words, it's unlikely that they'd be able to make snap decisions because of this focus, so they'd need a kind of emotion that humans don't have - a hasty emotion which focuses on the present.

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    $\begingroup$ A species best chance of becoming so long-term focused would be a combination of "not much immediate danger", "no worries about short-term survival" and "long livespan"... So a species which doesn't experience death from old age and lives in harmony with their surroundings would be the easiest way to evolve to be fearless like that. Pointy ears optional ;) $\endgroup$
    – Syndic
    Jan 27, 2020 at 9:56
  • $\begingroup$ Re your last sentence - "[feeling] scared" is to "fear" is as "[feeling] impulsive" is to... "caprice"? "whimsy"? $\endgroup$ Jan 27, 2020 at 12:52
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    $\begingroup$ This logic seems backwards to me - fear is a response to short-term, immediate situations, not long-term planning. Primal man does not venture into the night because he might get eaten (short term), even though as a result he may starve (long term). Modern man doesn't rob a bank because he might get killed (short term), even though he'd never have to work again (long term). A focus on long-term planning doesn't replace fear at all - in many cases, it forces you to take the opposite behavior, since you don't fear the immediate consequences that would normally cause fear in the first place. $\endgroup$ Jan 27, 2020 at 14:54
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    $\begingroup$ @IndigoFenix A hive or fungal intellect where the mind survives serially across bodies would be another option to develop the long-term view. Only a systemic ecological-level threat would bother the hive mind. $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    Jan 27, 2020 at 15:11
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    $\begingroup$ The premise of this answer seems highly suspect to me. A person confronted by an unobstructed threat like a lion, will have immediate fear. No contemplation of long-term consequences is necessary, it is a terrifying situation because of the very real immediate potential outcomes. $\endgroup$ Jan 27, 2020 at 23:14

Whenever one of these base emotion questions come up, I like to bring up Lövheim's Cube of Emotion

The Cube

Now I have to put a disclaimer here, before I go any further. The connection between monoamine neurotransmitters and the eight "basic" emotions that Lövheim proposed deserves some skepticism. He proposed it in 2012, and very little follow up has been done. In addition, I assign meanings for the transmitters which are decidedly oversimplified. However, for writing and worldbuilding purposes, I find this overreach proves very effective in exploring emotion, so I continue to use it despite its questionable pedigree.

In Lövheim's cube of emotion, the 8 basic emotions of affect theory are paired to combinations of the three monoamine neurotransmitters: noradrenaline, dopamine, and seratonin. For example, fear/terror is associated with high dopamine, low noradrenaline and low seratonin while joy is associated with high dopamine and seratonin but low noradrenaline. This connection between emotion and neurotransmitter levels, were it to be found to be true, would be a very powerful statement about how our brain works.

For worldbuilding, I take it one step further. I looked at how these neurotransmitters operate and tried to over-distill it into something for worldbuilders.

  • Dopamine -- Dopamine is associated with rewards. It's actually not the getting of the reward that causes dopamine, but the potential. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which is used to let the neocortex notify the limbic system that it thinks there is a reward somewhere in the area, so the limbic system should act in a way which can uncover this reward. Basically, the thinking brain is happy with the situation it's in.
  • Seratonin -- Seratonin is heavily associated with the lower parts of the brain - the reptilian part of the brain. It spikes after we've had a good meal, among other things. We can treat it as a signal indicating the body is happy with the situation it's in.
  • Noradrenaline -- This neurotransmitter is highly associated with unexpected changes. There's some feedback loops between our sensory inputs and our brain's predictions about the world which cause noradrenaline to spike if the world turns out different from our expectations. Thus we can treat this as a signal that things are changing unpredictably.

These oversimplifications lead to surprising insight into how these emotions flow. Fear/Terror is associated with high dopamine, but low noradrenaline and seratonin. Through my oversimplification, we can say that fear is what we use in a situation where our body is very unhappy with what's going on (low seratonin), and we see that the situation is unfolding in that bad way predictably (low noradrenaline), but we see a way to make the situation better (high dopamine), perhaps by running in a useful direction.

Contrast that with distress/anguish, with its high noradrenaline and low dopamine and seratonin. In that case the brain doesn't see a way for things to get better (low dopamine), and there's constant hard to predict stimulus (high noradrenaline), which is the thing causing the distress. If it ceases to be unpredictable (noradrenaline goes down), we fall into shame/humiliation. And if you think about what happens as a person simply gives up the fight, this seems awfully accurate for how many simplifications we took getting here.

So what are some of our options?

  • One option is to simply never get into this situation where the body's unhappy, the world is predictable, and there's reward in sight. We could always have behaviors which ensure unpredictable behaviors occur around us if the body is unhappy and there's reward in sight. Indeed, there are some people who, if pushed towards fear, get angry rapidly.
    • A fascinating variant of this is when you punish fear responses. This decreases the sense of a reward being around, so dopamine goes down. You get shame/humiliation. If you consider an individual who is in a trapped unhealthy relationship, this starts to feel uncomfortably accurate. Perhaps the environment for this alien simply never rewards seeking rewards in this scenario.
  • You could pick different axes. Different axes would yield different base affects. One might consider cylindrical or spherical coordinates rather than these rectangular ones. For example, you might have a combined unpredictable world/rewards are available into one neurotransmitter with a second that moves it back and forth between the two like a knob. That kind of limbic system replacement would lend itself to completely different fundamental urges.
  • You could identify a better response. Considering fear as what humans do when they see a reward, but their body is unhappy and the situation isn't offering any unpredictable insights, you could ask "what might my alien do different." It's a hard one to explore, since we're so used to the fear responses in humans, but fun to try. The result is an alien which has "fear" in the sense of this cube, but their response is very different.

No matter what, you're looking for an environment where the stereotypical responses to this scenario don't apply. I find that opens the door for a lot of brainstorming, so have fun with it!

  • $\begingroup$ Do creatures who live for the good of the hive have fear? I'm thinking about ants here where the death of one individual is less significant than the gains of their sacrifice. $\endgroup$
    – Muuski
    Jan 27, 2020 at 21:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Muuski That's a good question, which pokes at the question "what is fear anyways?" I defined it as a response to a particular situation, whatever that response may be. In that light, ants may have fear but they may act differently than we do. If we assume a particular response is "fear," instead, we have to be careful in defining it. Many "fearless" individuals admit that they were terrified the whole time they were doing things, so the definitions were murky. This approach is nice for dodging that murkiness. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Jan 27, 2020 at 21:45
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    $\begingroup$ Actual "fearlessness" is... not a useful (or sane?) trait, at least in humans. Courage isn't the absence of fear, but the ability to act in spite of fear. (BTW, awesome info in this answer!) $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Jan 28, 2020 at 21:35

At the species level, a high reproductive rate can make up for a lack of fear. Beyond that, if the species is significantly more dangerous than the other predators in its natural domain, the absence of fear would be advantageous to their survival since they would benefit from the greater reward which is usually associated with greater risk. So don't replace fear with another emotion. Just make them extremely fertile and dangerous.

  • $\begingroup$ I don't quite follow the logic here. A high reproductive rate will reduce the impact of deaths due to doing stupid, fearless things on a population level, but since the people with fear live longer and reproduce more, we're back to fear being selected for as an evolutionary advantage. Secondly, humans are significantly more dangerous than other predators we encounter, but that hasn't made the absence of fear advantageous. $\endgroup$ Jan 27, 2020 at 14:12
  • $\begingroup$ @NuclearWang, a lone human without modern weapons is far less dangerous than most of Earth's major predators. We haven't yet evolved away from the fear trait even though it has lost much of its advantage given our recent increase in dangerousness. As for the reproductive advantage, it is a numbers game which makes a species much more resistant to evolutionary pressure. Yes, fear would still be advantageous to a prolific species, but not as advantageous as it would be to a less prolific breeding species. There is a lot of gray in evolution. Not every advantage gets expressed. $\endgroup$ Jan 27, 2020 at 14:32
  • $\begingroup$ Well, plants lack fear (and couldn't do anything with it if they did have it), so clearly it's not absolutely necessary, but for any animated organisms with sense abilities, it's the behavior/reaction that performs the same functions as fear are clearly a huge advantage. $\endgroup$ Jan 28, 2020 at 18:19
  • $\begingroup$ @HenryTaylor The reasons that we haven't evolved away from the Fear trait isn't necessarily because Fear, as it exists in us, is a specific advantage. It is possible that like inflammation, we would actually be better off without it, but it's too deeply ingrained in our (neuro-)biology for it to been reasonably possible for us to evolve away from it. But I can certainly imagine a Vulcan-like human as advantageous. More rational and less dependent on our emotions to direct and constrain our behavior. $\endgroup$ Jan 28, 2020 at 18:25
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    $\begingroup$ So instead of relying on fear to tell us to run away, and then to avoid that danger in the future, we could just be smarter and stop doing such stupid/risky things all the time. But there's likely no evolutionary path from here to there. We already have these instincts and emotions to tell us to run away, fight, freeze, have children, look out for ourselves, look out for others (sometimes), etc buried billions of years ago. So we don't need intellect to tell us that, and we didn't develop intelligence to identify/justify those things, just to help do them once decided. $\endgroup$ Jan 28, 2020 at 18:29

Curiosity and Optimism

What happens if you remove fear from an ordinary person?

We can point to one famous example that has been studied in real life: The case of S.M., a woman who due to a rare genetic condition has been left without the ability to feel fear. When confronted with situations that would ordinarily cause someone to become cautious, she would instead become curious and inquisitive.

For example, when confronted with dangerous snakes, she would become fascinated, asking many questions and repeatedly asking to touch even some of the more dangerous specimens - and this is in spite of having previously stated a dislike for snakes. Similarly, she would happily take the lead in haunted houses and indeed reported excitement and enthusiasm

Though a lack of fear led to her getting herself into many dangerous situations - she had been held at knife and gun point a lot, to give one example - she continued to have a generally positive outlook and seemed immune to PTSD

If your aliens are comparable to humans, we can imagine they would experience similar emotions when faced with potential danger.

Building from this, we can also point to factors that might guide a species to evolving an underdeveloped sense of fear as a whole, instead of as a rare anomaly in one or two individuals:

  • The environment is generally safe. For example we might imagine isolated island-like conditions, where almost no threats exist and fear responses are pointless
  • Exploratory behaviour is a competitive advantage. This could mean the environment is rich in novel and (potentially) beneficial experiences, like hidden food sources
  • Individuals are expendable. In a eusocial species, non-reproductive members might be expendable enough for the attrition to outweigh the benefit of more quickly and aggressively searching for food
  • Directly disadvantaging the fear response would also help, though it’s difficult to identify useful examples to suggest on this front

These are just a few examples of factors that might lead to a species losing its ability to feel fear - in general I would suggest an environment that strongly rewards curiosity and lacks many ways to kill the proverbial cat would be most likely to enable your fearless aliens.


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