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There are three true gods in the world: Order, Chaos and Nature. All of them patron a couple of humanoid races that carry their values. While Order and Chaos carry on their petty feud fought by their petty races (humans and monsters), Nature only care for one thing in its creatures (elves): evolution.

Evolution demands quantity. If not enough individuals are born, there is not enough mutations to select, thus Nature's creatures are prolific. Evolution also demands pressure to direct the changes, otherwise there will only be diversity, not improvement, thus Nature's creatures also die in decent numbers, both in order to select the good traits and to prevent overpopulation from destroying their habitats.

One of these selection mechanisms is their child rearing method: "let the kids play". Elves are not as protective of their offspring as other races (except against infanticide). Elven children play outside with little to no supervision and, as not all children are able to fight off or outrun bears (unless they are in a gang), a reasonable amount of them die.

As the less fit kids are the ones that will usually die, the overall fitness of that particular specie increases. However, the "hazardous playtime" gene brings no direct benefit and quite a few disadvantages, while the "I want mommy!" gene increases overall survivability without providing a meaningful disadvantage, thus being likely selected. This cannot happen because little elves running wild in the forest is just to good to not happen, thus arises the question: how can dangerous behavior starting when they are toddlers increase individual fitness? Or how could this dangerous behavior be more or as advantageous as staying safe?

Notes:

  • the problem is not "how could this evolve?", the world has enough divine intervention, but "how could this not unevolve?". Even if those imps are just that punk, I can't think in a single advantage in picking fights with wolves, as opposed to staying safe at home where there are no wolves or bears.
  • elves are magical, but I would rather not make them magically inclined to suicide with extra steps. More over, Nature is darwinistic, it cares for results and overall fitness, not the process and individual adaptations.
  • elves toddlers are way more independent than human toddlers, and depending on the particular specie they are more capable of defending themselves than most adult humans.
  • This is not the only child rearing method across all elven kind, there is a lot of elven races, some of with employ this method as the primary
  • elven toddlers are adorable and adorably vicious, they go home to feed and sleep most of the time, but when its playtime they gang with their friends and go do dumb childish stuff, usually involving tormenting their neighbors or local wild life.

Edit: examples of dumb dangerous behavior practiced by little elves.

  1. Playing "hunt" (approaching furtively and attacking with sticks and bites) against big herbivores, wolves, bears and other elves.
  2. Playing "war": an bunch of children beating each other until one team surrenders or flee.
  3. Playing "hold still, I want to try a thing I saw two drunkards doing in a bar", and the thing involves knives and one or more children.
  4. "So what it will take us the whole night to get home? Its not like we are some dumbasses that would get lost", said the dumbasses.
  5. "Whoa, a step cliff! I want to climb it!", said the toddler about to climb a steep cliff of bare wet rocks next to his friend.
  6. Trying to stone his friend, who is climbing a steep cliff 30 meters above the ground.
  7. Literally trying to get something to attack him, like pulling the tail of a sleeping lion
  8. -"Wait, is that a dragon? Lets go there to check"
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    $\begingroup$ swimming is dangerous but also build great cardiovascular strength. I think you need to be more specific about the dangerous behavior. $\endgroup$ – John Jun 1 at 23:43
  • $\begingroup$ What type of fitness are you referring to, fitness for what? Reproduction, cardio-vascular, social behavior, intellectual pursuits, hunting ..... $\endgroup$ – A Rogue Ant. Jun 1 at 23:50
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    $\begingroup$ Instead of looking at this from the perspective of the offspring, look at it from the perspective of the parents. Parental care evolves when children are expensive. Parental care does not evolve if kids are cheap and abundant (see sea turtles, or r/k selection theory in general). $\endgroup$ – cereal_killer Jun 1 at 23:56
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    $\begingroup$ This sounds a lot like the Spartan child-rearing philosophy. Don't give them enough to eat, make them forage and fight for attention and resources. Parents play a key role, discouraging clingy behavior with discipline and beatings. Maybe parents desert their children for long periods, and clingy ones starve when Mom's gone. "play" hunting is real, and trying potentially poisonous mushrooms keeps you alive... historywiz.com/didyouknow/spartanfamily.htm $\endgroup$ – DWKraus Jun 2 at 2:58
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    $\begingroup$ "Elven children play outside with little to no supervision...": So did human children, back when I used to be one, and a good many of your list of behaviors were practiced by them, if in a somewhat less extreme form. You might call it the Lake Woebegon principle: all the children (that survive!) are above average :-) $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jun 2 at 16:53

17 Answers 17

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Sexual Selection

One or both genders of the species select their mates on the basis of their dangerous ill-advised achievements. Those who play it safe may live longer, but are basically "shunned" by the opposite sex when they reach maturity. If only one gender selects mates on this basis, there will be a tendency toward several individuals of the selecting gender engaging in polygamous relationships with the survivors of the opposite gender. If both genders select in the same way, you will wind up with a population of disaffected "incels" of both genders whose achievements are not impressive enough to attract a mate.

Even Adulthood is Dangerous

If either the world is so dangerous, or this species is so low on the food chain that attrition rates remain high well into adulthood, the skills gained in childhood may be necessary to survive as adults. Play in most species offers low-risk practice for skills that will be essential for adults. Children with the "I want mommy" gene may miss out on crucial practice in youth, and be unprepared for adulthood. While fewer of the children with the "hazardous playtime" gene may reach adulthood, once they do their survival rates are higher, and they tend to have more children, and perhaps pass on those skills to their children (if the adults take any interest in the activities of their children).

Efficient Use of Resources

If this is a species with a high fertility rate and a stable population, you can also expect a high attrition rate, which leaves parents with the problem of allocating their finite resources. If they allow hazardous play to whittle down their offspring to only the most capable, they avoid expending resources on children who are unlikely to survive long enough to have children of their own. This is already common in another form in nature (see siblicide) where parents allow the larger/stronger offspring to kill the smaller/weaker ones. The children of parents who try to keep all their children alive may be at a competitive disadvantage (worse nutrition, less attention during development, etc.) relative to those whose parents let nature pick the winners.

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  • $\begingroup$ Note that runaway sexual selection is the leading explanation of some actively harmful (to individual survival) traits such as peacock tails. So you can also have some originally selected-for behaviour that was only moderately dangerous, morphing over time to highly lethal, population-culling levels as later generations demand ever-more extreme courtship displays (for example). "To be worthy you must be better than your/their parents" boom. $\endgroup$ – obscurans Jun 3 at 9:29
  • $\begingroup$ You could also add that, given the context, it might not just be about their parents' finite resources, on an individualistic level- but about the finite resources of the ecosystem/s in which they live, and of 'Nature' as a whole. If this is a species which cares about not driving others to extinction (not just directly via predation, but via pollution, losses of habitat & resources, etc) and 'protecting Nature', then they may well be willing to 'make necessary sacrifices' to that end... $\endgroup$ – Aquar1animal Jun 17 at 23:20
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If a gene kills three out of four children who carry it, but the fourth child has more offspring than four non-carriers (combined), it will go on.

For one thing, "stick to Mommy" can have lethal capacity, too. Suppose elven enclaves are attacked regularly. If the children scatter and can survive on their own, they are more likely to survive than those who cower in hiding in the home.

For another, if the woods has many things that require boldness to the point of folly to profit from, or even survive, the gene will ensure that the survivors continue to survive. This can range from their requiring meat to eat even when the animals are all vastly dangerous to the woods being haunted by a monster that preys on creatures by frightening them -- or even psychically devours them through the avenue opened by fear.

A third possibility is that the vigorous exercise overcomes a health problem that kills or interferes with fertility. Or that the chemical effect of fear is to sterilize the frightened elf.

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I feel tempted to give an answer different from both the selected answer and the other answers given because I like this question. (although I don't belong to this community).

I don't think that it makes sense that the elves here "let their kids play". I also don't think there's any way around this fact. Evolution doesn't select for "fitness" in the sense that it selects the strongest and most capable individuals (who in this case apparently can fend off bears). Evolution selects for individuals (or rather their genes) which allow for the propagation of the greatest number of offspring sharing those same traits. It seems to me that evolution naturally tends away from a culture where people, or in this case elves, allow their children to play and die without supervision.

Although I agree that the elves having offspring extremely physically and intellectually mature and (therefore less likely to die due to lack of parental protection in their youth) lends some believability to this scenario, it seems to me that no matter what, there will always be a natural advantage to propagate offspring conferred to the individuals who also have a strong rearing instinct and a parent-child connection.

The reason being that in a civilization where knowledge can be passed on, the capabilities of an individual (to propagate offspring or otherwise) are much less determined than their natural-born attributes, but instead the cumulative knowledge they acquire from others (beginning with their parents). Therefore it seems unlikely that in a civilization with language, tools, and technology (even primitive ones in the form of bows and arrows for example) would their evolutionary pathway converge to a culture that allows their children to play unsupervised and wantonly die. If these elves use armor or a sword for example, and these things are necessary tools to their survival, no genetic attribute will allow them to use these tools (or even make them) better than parental protection and education.

Defeating a bear is a feat I'm more inclined to believe to be more easily achieved by knowledge, resourcefulness, and skill with tools/weapons rather than natural physical and intellectual attributes. All of which are acquired after or during youth, through training, parental rearing, and education. It seems unlikely to me that the elves most likely to propagate offspring are the ones with kids born with the strength to fight a bear, but instead, those who educate, protect, and teach their kids the means to do so. Even if there was an individual whose children had the natural-born strength and ability to fend off said bear, it seems unlikely to me that in the long run their genes would propagate further and more abundantly than someone with slightly less strong kids but a strong rearing instinct.

Overcoming trials, hardship and danger, is one aspect of growth and education, but unless these individuals are born with the ability to instantly use any tool or piece of equipment given to them, natural forces will always confer an advantage to propagate offspring to those that choose to protect and educate their own.

At least for me, I would find it rather absurd reading about a race of elves, who are both (purportedly) patrons of the god of nature and/or the philosophy of evolution, and yet have a culture settled in what appears to be an unstable basin in the natural course of evolution. As long as the elves have tools, culture, and a means to store and accumulate knowledge, I don't see any way around this dissonance.

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  • $\begingroup$ It may appear to be an unstable basin in the natural course of evolution- but it is? Or is our own, that of contemporary human society, the more unstable basin? If the elves have super-human longevity, along with birth rates as high as or higher than humans (it'd be hard to imagine a race who're purportedly patrons of the god of nature and/or the philosophy of evolution being more sexually chaste and/or impotent than humans, after all), how else might they go about avoiding overpopulation, and 'destroying nature' in the manner that our own race (humanity) has IRL? $\endgroup$ – Aquar1animal Jun 17 at 23:13
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  1. Hard line

Well, you're actually playing with R-strategy for a species with human level intelligence.

Within limits it can work, but if you keep it realistic it should also have some more consequences.

Lots of offspring. You deal with easy but unstable environment, where you can't do much, but live fast and tend to die young. In real life it could be a hot climate with unpredictable droughts, about which you can't do much. In fantasy setting it would be dragons that would eat everyone in the vicinity.

Such environments select in favour of low IQ and antisocial personalities. If parents are not needed, then there is no point in forming stable pairs; a more rational strategy for an alpha male is fertilizing another female. In unstable environments generally long term cooperation makes no sense.

  1. Soft line

Survival of 99% of kids to adulthood is a very recent phenomenon. In premodern times ~50% of kids didn’t make it to their 5th birthday. So losing some offspring is not only natural, but as long as the lowest quality genes are being eliminated it's highly beneficial (yes, from the industrial revolution onwards our species is accumulating mutations, which in the long run is unsustainable).

So if the losses are moderate (let's say 20%-30%), and tend to eliminate ones that were the least adapted anyway, and thanks to not being burdened with childcare, it means that mothers can have more offspring, it would work reasonably well.

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    $\begingroup$ You do have to love pop evolutionary psychology, where someone can say things like "hot climates with unpredictable droughts select in favour of low IQ and antisocial personalities" without even having to prove it. It is not as if it is easy to find counterexamples, like the "sophisticated cognition" of the drongo in the Kalahari desert.. Unlike fuzzy fields like physics, where a statement as basic as "long wavelength increases diffraction" has to be backed up by a page of calculations. $\endgroup$ – Obie 2.0 Jun 3 at 9:05
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    $\begingroup$ The "mutation accumulation as it is happening in human society is unsustaiunable in the long term" claim needs a reference; it's controversial at best, and pure fiction at worst (there are people who try to distribute fiction as science). $\endgroup$ – toolforger Jun 3 at 9:57
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Live and Let Die

Nature ("Peggy" to her friends), being the efficient and ruthless deity, has a finite amount of time for all its creations. Peggy therefore periodically smites any creation which is boring and defensive. This is an artificial selection pressure. "N kills this generation, or be killed before the next generation."

If Peggy wants "natural" evolution, that means letting social behaviour be beneficial. And knowing what's a risk worth taking for the reward is definitely beneficial. So the little elves will need a reward to go out and risk death. If you want that to happen, Peggy will need a change of priorities, since the social model carries benefits.

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  • $\begingroup$ Damnit, Peggy, you're a hard woman. $\endgroup$ – Corey Jun 4 at 9:31
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Dying in childhood is not advantageous but the behaviors that lead to it are.

Children learn from exploring, fighting and gain strength from physical activity. Adventurous and physically capable adults are also more likely to thrive and reproduce. However, even if only really weak children die that is still worse than if everyone survives. A weak adult can still reproduce and spread that gene, and a strong child that dies to something an adult would survive is just a waste. While you can try to stop children from doing dangerous things, you probably won't succeed. But dying will always be a side effect, not the intended consequence.

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how can dangerous behavior starting when they are toddlers increase individual fitness?

Because danger-seeking behaviour is the definition of individual unfitness

Remember that "fitness" applies to those who survive to breed. On average, most kids who play "let's poke the dragon" are not going to survive the game, the same way that most baby birds who jump out of the nest too early get stranded on the ground and eaten.

The "beta" individuals who survive are those with enough natural caution to not play the game in the first place. The "alpha" survivors are those who risk-assess the game successfully, deciding which dragons are sufficiently asleep for safety, or checking properly for safe routes in and out. The rest are crispy dragon snacks.

It should be noted that this is not an entirely unusual attitude to child rearing. Old-fashioned parenting in England, up to the 80s, followed this model reasonably closely (albeit without dragons). It is famously embodied by the father of the children in Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons. When asked whether the children can go camping on an island, with limited sailing skills, his telegram back says "If duffers, better drowned. If not duffers, won't drown." Of course that is somewhat tongue in cheek - he doesn't genuinely want them to drown if they're stupid - but it shows how much he trusts them to make their own decisions.

Even this is easy-going compared to a few hundred years before that. Today we look in horror at groups like the LRA conscripting child soldiers - but it was entirely normal until well into the Victorian era for 10-year-old boys to be bought commissions in the army or as midshipmen in the navy.

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  • $\begingroup$ As has been said elsewhere, if risk aversion means you're always the follow-up in a winner-takes-all environment, it's not going anywhere. Also, dangerous behaviour does not mean that you're guaranteed to perish, just that of the groups that have it, a lower fraction will survive to breed - but if breeding is prolific, this can still offset the losses. $\endgroup$ – toolforger Jun 3 at 10:00
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Experience points.

On Earth it's hard to come up with an evolutionary reason to take ill-advised risks. Someone mentioned the Spartans, who were a case of the behavior you have in mind, but they did die out in the end. Nonetheless, when you have elves and magic, you have players who do pointless quests to get to Level 2, 3, and 4. You might as well explain experience points in physics terms -- which explains why your characters evolve by killing themselves.

When a young elf climbs a cliff, 75% of the parallel universes see him celebrating his "achievement" at the top. The "lifeforce" from the other 25% gets distributed among them. This means he's 20% "stronger" now than he was before. Let's say this is an approximation: the "lifeforce" can't be scavenged perfectly, and the inefficiency increases with the risk. If he took a 75% risk of death he wouldn't get four times stronger, but only 50% or 35%. Therefore, the little elves spend most of their time XP grinding against small threats.

The many-worlds interpretation isn't strictly necessary for this, but it makes it easier to explain. Also, a belief in quantum immortality would make it mentally much easier for the young elves to take these risks.

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In species like insects or reptiles a "want mommy" gene would bring no benefit, because there would be no mommy around: they lay their eggs in large numbers, and good luck growing up!

Your elves can do the same: they produce fairly autonomous offspring in fairly large number, and leave them roam and search for food on their own. Those who manage to reach adult age will be most likely to be the most fit for their environment and thus will be able to carry on their genes.

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  • $\begingroup$ Tell that to the ants! Though in their case ‘Mommy’ is ‘The comforting embrace of The Nest’... $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Jun 2 at 9:58
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Get rid of the no infanticide rule

This won't work if you want a fluffy story but you've got toddlers stabbing each other, so it may be ok.

Fertile age elves have a strong repulsion to babies. Think severe, violent post-partum depression (maybe it does originate with the trauma of childbirth? Hormones?). Partly because of this, newborns are not considered people, and are treated more like pets or wild animals. Killing one outright is not all that common, but not a big deal; it's understood that it's a sudden inescapable urge and it's not like they matter anyway. Suddenly, the woods seem a lot more hospitable!

With nobody to warn them of dangers, toddlers have to explore the world by trial and error. Error being falling down that cliff, petting the big scaly green doggy, trying a game of poke you in the eye with a stick and what have you. I mean, human toddlers do all these things (ok, maybe not the dragon thing) despite supervision, so obviously the self-destructive curiosity of a small child is more than sufficient to get them into trouble.

Elders past fertile age are not that affected anymore. Some of them are happy to give small children a space to rest; some even enjoy it and "keep" many of these pets around (think crazy cat lady). But they won't grow particularly attached to them individually, and won't care too much if one gets eaten by a bear. This is how they pick up the language and retain enough of a connection to their community instead of going fully feral. There's also a tradition to leave food out for small children at the edge of the village - like you would feed livestock, with communal piles of relatively unsophisticated food.

As they get older, personhood "grows" - the feelings towards children grow from pest to wild animal to working animal to beloved pet, and eventually to full person. Some older children, who are somewhere in the middle of this process, will be sympathetic and sneak treats to the babies, others will hunt them down for fun (although this is considered distasteful and a sign that the child is still "early", i.e. not yet a person themselves).

Evolutionarily, the "I want mommy" gene won't help you - being around adults all the time is a liability, and being whiny and demanding even more so. So why do reproductive-age adults have this trait in the first place? It may be a side effect of the hormonal changes that have been selected by sexual reproduction; it may be that an urge to kill all babies, but others' babies a bit more than your own, is a sound strategy. It may have developed at a time of plenty followed by scarcity: abundance raised their fertility, then scarcity made all this offspring unsupportable (fertility could not go back down due to some sexual selection malarkey - every time you have a stupid maladaptive trait, blame it on sexual selection).

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Read up on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R/K_selection_theory

Some animals have very few offspring and invest a great amount of care in each one. Modern humans are an example. Other animals produce lots of offspring, but the trade-off is that less care can be given to each and hence many do not survive.

Your elves are simply at a different point on this trade-off. This would be because they inhabit an unstable environment where flexibility and the ability to reproduce rapidly in good times is more important for survival than perfecting a single strategy.

They are also likely to be smaller, mature earlier, and be inclined to explore new potential habitats rather than just sticking to what they know.

In other words, they have a lot in common with the Nac Mac Feegles (although Feegles are eusocial).

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What you're saying is nothing new to biology. Many of our genetic traits, especially those concerning reproduction, are in a state of continuous struggle between survival of the individual and survival of the species. When a fetus is being carried, it's beneficial for it to extract more nutrients from the mother's body to maximize its own survival chances -- and yet beneficial for the mother to deprive it of nutrients to maximize the mother's survival chances. Keep in mind that both extremes are undesirable from the point of evolution -- when the fetus wins, it kills its own mother, leaving no one to care for it, and when the mother wins, she becomes unable to carry to term -- i.e. infertile. The situation reaches an equilibrium where the mother, on average, gives birth to 2 viable infants in her lifetime.

Now, concerning elves, we may have the same situation here. Not playing dangerous games certainly increases the individual's chance of living to adulthood, but decreases their usefulness as protector of the tribe. This is particularly true if the threats are bloodthirsty, rather than indifferent -- so "live to fight another day" is not a strategy.

Keep in mind that we're dealing with what's called group selection here -- they'll be protecting their relatives first and foremost, i.e. those who carry genes similar to theirs. This means that a tribe with a low amount of "play-with-fire" genes will probably disappear. These genes will thus try to reach an equilibrium between two extremes, one where their carrier is unlikely to reach adulthood, and another one where their carrier endangers other carriers by being a coward.

In practice, this is most easily realized through sexual preference. Elves view risky behavior as sexy (this kind of society probably suffers from huge STD epidemics). Keep in mind that humans (and humanlikes) are social creatures -- and so you must add cultural taboos to this. Cultural traits are subject to variation. To demonstrate what kind of daredevils elves are, you can show a tribe which seems to behave reasonably to a reader, and then proceed to explain that this is only attained through fanatical devotion to a cruel-but-necessary cult which goes as far as forbidding children to play.

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There is a very relevant concept called Hamilton's Rule that hasn't been brought up. The idea is that there's no evolutionary advantage to helping another member of your species unless they're a blood relative. So, traits related to parental care can't be selected for unless the parents actually know who their children are! In the case of these elves I would guess that they have no way of knowing who their blood relatives are because of the way they reproduce. That means that they'd have no concept of "I want mommy!" because the young elves would have no idea who their mommy is, and any adult elf that they might approach would be totally indifferent to their plight because chances are they're not a blood relative, and even if they were they'd have no way of knowing.

The real question then, is how do these elves reproduce? Not the way humans do, that's for sure! It's a fantasy world, so I suppose the possibilities are endless. Maybe all of the newborns have to be incubated in a big tank or something and they can't be effectively marked or tracked. Maybe they're carved from wood infused with a mix of genetic material drawn from the whole elvish community. Just some ideas!

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site Josh, we invite you to take our tour and read-up in the help center as and when you need guidance as to our ways. Enjoy the site. You make a good point about kin selection, I wonder that none of the other 13 (so far) answerers brought it up.. $\endgroup$ – A Rogue Ant. Jun 3 at 5:46
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In Earth's biology there are a number of interesting things that happen at different stages in a creature's lifecycle. Puberty changes human behavior significantly, as does menopause. In a lot of animals puberty changes the animal's social interactions from adolescent family bonding to antisocial adulthood. At the same time their chemistry changes, effectively removing them from the parent's care once they no longer smell like babies. When we domesticate such animals - such as in the case of the silver fox - that change is altered, resulting in a less drastic mental and social change and extended social behavior.

Your elves may have similar drastic changes in their biochemistry, triggered at several points in their maturation.

As infants the children are intensely social, developing quickly and learning the basic skills - language, movement, etc. - that they will need in their next stage. During this time the parents are bonded to the children by pheromonal queues, inclining them to protect and nurture the infants.

When the child reaches the point where they are able to function independently, they undergo their first biological change. They become aggressive, violent and antisocial and their intelligence is quite limited. Their chemistry changes so they no longer produce the bonding pheromones, so the parents quickly lose interest in the little monsters, sending them out to fend for themselves. The young elves are thrust into a cruel world and have to learn how to survive. Let's just call this what it is: the Goblin years.

Those that do survive through early childhood will eventually reach adolescence, when the next biological trigger trips and their brain chemistry alters again. This time the majority of the aggressive and antisocial tendencies are suppressed, allowing them to start forming social groups. Their intelligence increases, giving them a much better ability to reason around problems rather than try to break everything. They can team up to improve their chances, and although still basically feral the socialization they experience during this period helps them to become more civilized. They learn to trade, and some older elves may act as mentors to groups of the adolescent elves.

At some point the elves reach sexual maturity. This change not only activates their sexual instincts, it also reduces their aggression and almost eliminates their anti-social aspects. Once they reach this stage of life the elves become particularly susceptible to the pheromones produced by infants of the species. Having a baby around makes them extremely happy, so they spend as much time as possible having and raising babies just for the euphoria of the experience. Before you know it you're knee deep in cute little elflings.

Finally, at the end of their reproductive phase, the last biological switch fires. Post-reproductive elves become completely disinterested in sex, unaffected by baby pheromones, almost unemotional and more intellectual. They have graduated beyond the giddy youthful years, and now they can focus on whatever intellectual pursuits catch their interest. They maintain relationships with other elves more for the utility of having people they can collaborate with than any particular desire for companionship. Some amuse themselves by 'meddling' with the younger ones, studying their reactions and occasionally playing little games with groups of adolescent elves.

Given this sort of biology, the entire system could continue indefinitely. Any mutation that alters part of the cycle would quickly be eliminated. If a baby doesn't produce the right pheromones the parents will tend to be less interested in it, and will not give it the nurturing it needs to survive the goblin years. Failure to advance to the social adolescence stage will tend to prevent them from being able to reach sexual maturity, and if they do they won't have the social experience to find a mate. Sexually mature individuals that don't have the receptors for the magic baby dust won't produce as many children... and so on. From an evolutionary perspective, once they get into this sort of cycle it's likely to last for a very, very long time.

The advantage here, the fitness filter, is all about reproduction. The main genetic line works, and it works pretty damned well. Any deviation from that line is evolutionary suicide as long as there are a lot of other elves pumping out genetically pure babies. Oh, sure, there are some enclaves of genetic misfits that actually raise their children and teach them how to be social, where the children don't go through that distasteful goblin phase... but really, are they even still elves?

And of course this is just the way that it was Meant To Be. The gods themselves clearly decreed that Elves would develop this way, so that we... uh, I mean they could become the dominant life form on the planet. Those heretics in the Wood Tribes just need to be re-educated a little.

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Fitness is a group measurement function

Things which appear to be good for the individual are not necessarily selected for, like selfishness. Things which appear bad for the individual are not necessarily selected against, like altruism: Getting yourself killed is (obviously) not good for you. So why did this behavior develop? Why would evolution keep it around? The reason is evolution isn't concerned with you. It doesn't even care about you. It cares about the population.

Danger weeds out the weak

Sure, this is a very noisy selection mechanism. Certain kinds of danger will kill anybody. But many kinds of danger will kill weak or stupid elves much more readily than more resilient individuals.

Accordingly, a genetic predisposition to hiding behind mommy will tend to allow less fit elves to survive long enough to spread their genes. In contrast, a predilection for adventurous mischief will tend to get less hardy or intelligent elves killed at a higher rate.

In other words, this gene is bad for individuals but good for the population because it checks the spread of, and indeed works to eliminate, other genes which are harmful.

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How can dangerous behavior starting when they are toddlers increase individual fitness? Or how could this dangerous behavior be more or as advantageous as staying safe?

Simply put, it doesn't. Hormonally and developmentally speaking, there is a period in many species lives where the get the intense urge to engage in wanderlust, but this is typically just after they reach sexual maturity and these individuals are physically mature but are often feeling cramped in their parents' territory and set out on their own (aided as well by that mysterious phenomenon known as interest in the opposite sex). This is seen in most large animals with parental care. The reason it works in this context is that the individual is already physically mature, merely lacking in life experience, and thus is not putting the individual in maladaptive situations where they are picking a fight with a predator while not in their physical prime. Juvenile animals are very curious, but the parents tend to be very defensive of them for very good reasons.

As you say, this system is going to unevolve almost as soon as you give it the opportunity. All individuals within a species naturally show variation in terms of parental bonding and boldness. You're going to have some children who are shier than others and prefer to stick around their parents, seeing them as at least a passive deterrent to other predators (this is what alligators do), and parents who feel a stronger connection with their child and seek to be more protective of them. This extra support will result in the genes that promote this behavior (likely through genetically regulated production of hormones such as oxytocin and cortisol), as has been described in other animals being favored in the population. In your scenario there are really no benefits to juveniles setting out on their own because they do not benefit by finding new resources.

Producing lots of offspring doesn't result in large population size and "being fruitful and multiplying". A good example of this is humans, who have a painfully slow reproductive rate and yet reduced mortality rate to low enough levels that we have become the most common large mammal on planet Earth. Indeed, high mortality rates will result in most genetic variants never having a chance to be selected for, because most will be weeded out of the gene pool before their costs and benefits become apparent. This is the case in marsupials, where the "crawl to the pouch" results in 90% of new genes being weeded out of the population before they can influence survival in the adult animal, which has resulted in marsupial evolution slowing to a crawl.

The only thing I can think of would be something like the Saiyans in Dragonball, who have notably next to no parental instincts and send their children off to various Death Worlds as a form of provisioning their young. Because Saiyans increase in strength in proportion to challenges that they overcome, sending them to worlds that are threatening enough to challenge them but not enough to outright kill them results in offspring strong enough to stand alongside them. Goku is a real good example of this: he'll step in if he thinks his offspring are faced with a threat they can't handle, but he's a very hands-off parent because he wants his kids to become strong by facing life's challenges on their own and because he mistakenly believes they like the thrill of overcoming a challenge as much as he does, when in actuality they get the impression he doesn't care. In this case the epigenetic nature of "Saiyans get stronger the more they fight and adapt every time they are beaten to near death" favors them picking as many fights as possible in the name of survival.

However, as mentioned above there is significant variation in personality and behavior even within the Saiyan race, which affects how things go. Goku's mother Gine was very nurturing (and Bardock was concerned with his sons' safety in the reboot version) and Vegeta of all people adopted a very protective, un-Saiyan mindset after his experiences on Earth (notably watching Trunks die right in front of him). In the long term these differences (as well as the potential absence of the Dragonballs to undo parental mistakes like getting your kids killed) would be selected upon.

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Because that's just the way they evolved to be.

After all, evolution's a tree, not a linear path. And Elves are Elves, not just human hippies with pointy ears. If you look at the evolutionary parallels, why couldn't they have evolved to be that way? In your world, the Elves are the race/creatures of Nature- implying that there are also races/creatures of Order (Dwarves, perhaps?) and of Chaos (Orcs? Or Humans? Either way, doesn't make too much difference...)

And with the Elves having this sort of society, conceptualizing the primary 'races' in this world and their relationships to one another (with ear morphology admittedly playing a significant role in sparking the conceived evolutionary tree), here's how I'd lay out the parallels between them and hares (and between humans and rats, to plot out their relative development rates and lifespans- i.e, x20). Infant (or rather, pre-pubescent, since they effectively skip infancy) hares are known as leverets, and are highly precocial; left to roam free, exploring their surroundings on their own, and instinctively returning each night to their place of birth to suckle from the mother, as their only form of parental investment, until they're ready to eat solid food (within 2-3 weeks, half the length of the average pregnancy), before being abandoned and left to fend for themselves shortly afterward.

Like them, your Elven children (aka Elverets/Elverettes) could essentially be born into the world as toddlers (after a year-long pregnancy, a third longer than humans'), with levels of sensory and cognitive development comparable to a 1yo human, and levels of physical and motor development comparable to an 18mth old human; left to roam free in much the same manner, with the development of bottle-feeding potentially absolving Elven mothers of all parental responsibilities to the same extent as fathers. Going by the same development rates, they'd then be ready to eat solid food only six months later, and subsequently abandoned and left to fend for themselves within the year, with no familial relationships or attachments. And just as Hares can potentially live four times longer than Rats, but actually have a shorter average life expectancy due to far higher child mortality rates, the same could be true of your Elves relative to humans.

As for logically consistent reasons why such a system might be in keeping with the ethos of 'Nature'- they could well potentially NEED to, to have a remotely sustainable population in the long-term. After all, your stereotypical Elves always have greater longevity than humans; and continuing the Elves=Hares analogy, have more lithe and slender builds, with little to no body fat, and disproportionately high levels of strength, speed and agility (with hares proportionately being the strongest, fastest and most agile mammals in the animal kingdom; to the extent that they actually evolved hinged skulls to provide shock absorption for their brains, and prevent them from killing themselves with the g-forces generated by their own rapid acceleration and changes of direction).

However, if you're looking at real biological creatures, these things always come at a cost- with hares requiring disproportionately high levels of nutrition to fuel their physical prowess, and being far more prone to famines and starvation as a result. Even more so, given their propensity to 'go forth and multiply' quickly. And as the 'creatures of Nature', your Elves presumably wouldn't take the stereotypical, traditional route of being practically asexual and/or sexually impotent either. Reproduction is the root of Nature, and of life, and one can imagine that, as worshippers of the God/Force of 'Nature', these Elves' culture would be unabashedly sexually open and promiscuous as well.

However, as both an extremely long-lived and extremely prolific species, if they had human societal norms regarding the aspect of child rearing, you'd inevitably wind up creating a huge problem almost straight away; one which affects humanity, and via us, all other life on Earth today, and has done since the start of the Industrial Period (ever since our average longevity began to surge upwards, with this having only mildly slowed down since the turn of the century due to birth rates having started to fall enough to compensate for any further increases in longevity). Namely, that of the Malthusian Catastrophe. Which, looking at it exclusively from a species-centric, human perspective, we've managed to avoid (thus far). But looking at it from a broader perspective, and the impact upon 'Nature'- i.e, the global biosphere, along with all species on Earth- we absolutely triggered a long time ago.

The Elves would want to avoid this, at all costs, because Nature matters most to them. And without managing their population themselves via killing or other methods, such as mandatory abortions or sterilization (Nature is a game of chance, after all, not of intelligent design- and if you can't leave behind a genetic legacy after you're gone, from an evolutionary perspective, you're gone forever), simple negligence and 'meritocracy', a la 'the law of the jungle'/'survival of the fittest', would be the easiest way to accomplish this prerogative of keeping their population in check.

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