So I was reading news about our ancestors when I realized that we paved the way to our current stage by outliving other hominids in the past, either intentionally or not - by either food competition, or war.

Which gave me a question: how did humans biologically survive in my world compared to elves?

The current stage of my world consists of humans, elves, dwarves, and a small portion of orcs surviving in a Europe-like continent with 16th-century technology. Surviving that long with "superior species" living in their ecosystem makes me wonder. Elves biologically live longer, which should have given them an advantage over humans in terms of technological development.

The only thing I can think of to make humans able to compete with elves is that like most other long-lived creatures, they mature slower, just like orange roughy or whales. This could lead to slower population growth and slower population recovery in times of war or calamities. Other species could take advantage of this to "control" their enemy population from ever becoming a threat.

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Hi Curius. For future reference, this is an opinion-based and story-based question that would normally be closed. You're basically asking us to write a major component of your story for you, and without providing information about your goals (which removes the story-based problem) and how you'll judge a best answer (removing the opinion-based problem) we're left with a question for which all answers are equally right, which is contrary to instructions in our help center. SE is not a discussion forum and it's a poor fit for fishing-for-ideas questions. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Jul 3, 2021 at 8:43
  • $\begingroup$ I think this is closer to a question about species and evolution. Just because two species are close to each other doesn't mean they exploit the same niche. $\endgroup$
    – user64888
    Commented Jul 3, 2021 at 14:05
  • $\begingroup$ Most of the games and fictions I've experienced had a simple reason: the long-lived races bred very slowly. $\endgroup$
    – NomadMaker
    Commented Jul 3, 2021 at 20:27
  • $\begingroup$ Better question how do elves compete with fast breeding humans fast changing humans $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Jul 4, 2021 at 4:40
  • $\begingroup$ They usually don't. Elvish nations are usually away from human civilization and often are losing population. For example, in TLotR, the elves seem to have less population than the humans. $\endgroup$
    – NomadMaker
    Commented Jul 4, 2021 at 5:29

9 Answers 9


Not QUITE a zero-sum game:

Survival of the fittest is not necessarily a zero-sum game. There are several factors that can affect your species, allowing for the species to exist in a variety of states. There is increasing evidence that various species of early hominids existed closer together for longer than archaeologist previously thought, so perhaps different species are not so incompatible as they used to be portrayed.

  • Intelligence: This doesn't need to be a big brain. Long lives don't always translate into creativity. Long-lived people and cultures may not innovate. Perhaps elves have great memories (like the Neanderthals portrayed in Clan of the Cave Bear), and know every species of plant, and every water supply. That doesn't guarantee they will invent everything. Even if elves invent more things, other species can steal technology from elves, and then their technological advantage is gone.
  • Reproduction: Classically, elves reproduced slowly, while humans reproduced quicker, and orc bred like rabbits. You can kill orcs all day, and there are still more. Not so for elves. Humans are in between, and it gives them the best of both worlds.
  • Physical prowess: Humans are big, strong, disease-resistant, and reasonably smart. Orcs are bigger, stronger, not so smart. Elves may be smarter, and perhaps require less food due to slight build and slower metabolism, but not be so strong or disease-resistant (thus their tendency to lead very clean, isolated lives from other intelligent species).
  • Cooperation: Different species may have different skill sets. Maybe your humans have a class system where elves are nobles (it keeps the humans from fighting over who's in charge) and maybe your elves are REALLY good rulers (impartial, fair, etc.). Or elves are great at archery, and humans ally with them because no one can compete against the vast Orc hordes.
  • Psychology: The Elves may be like bees - useful, not that threatening that anyone thinks they are a real threat, but just dangerous enough no one wants to mess with them. By assuring others don't feel threatened, but are aware of the dangers of mistreating elves, they carve out a safe niche in your society. Orcs make everyone feel threatened, and everyone hates them to the point they are willing to suffer losses to stop them. Thus there are few Orcs in your realm. Humans are smart-ish, but useful and easily manipulated by clever elves, so naturally the elves are working to domesticate the humans and support their reproduction.

survival of the fittest

It is already mentioned, but not quite to my liking. Survival doesn't mean it needs to be 'better'. It needs to be able to reproduce in a (semi) sustainable way while successfully competing for resources.

In our world we can be seen as the apex organism and there's nothing better than us. Yet we're surrounded by other life. Plants aren't better, or insects, or deers, or wolves, or viruses. There's butterflies that, in their butterfly stage, do not even have a mouth to feed. The males fly, searching for a mate to reproduce before they starve. After mating they often don't have enough energy and fall exhausted to the ground. The females only just are able to lay eggs, which die then as well. How is this 'better' than us? Yet they survive.

The fittest doesn't need to be the best. It just needs to have just enough to compete for some resources and reproduce. Elves and men compete for the same resources, so there's more conflict. But this doesn't mean one will destroy the other.

Elves grow slow, which often means slow reproduction cycles. That means they don't spread quickly, allowing a lot of resources to be un competed by them. That means a more quickly aging and reproducing himan can start spreading in the gaps and have a little overlap. Even if other creatures are hunting them, they could potentially expand quicker than they can be killed, allowing them to thrive. At a certain point they might start trading, allowing them to become a good source of labour. Or they might start to become so numerous that elves will have a hard time hunting/out competing humans. If you kill a few and are faced with a horde of angry humans, you can still go down quickly. Humans have hunted 'bigger and better' for a long time, killing things many times our strength and size. Tactics, weapons and numbers help.

That even doesn't talk about adaptability. The Elf could mostly thrive in a few environments, while the humans might be hardy enough to thrive in almost any environment.


So humans can start out just living in the gaps of resources left and start expanding, regardless of other species. When they start growing in population, their ability to compete increases. Eventually, if everything goes well, they can out compete any other 'better' organism.

  • $\begingroup$ Indeed, you will generally only have a single dominant species in each evolutionary niche. But there are many evolutionary niches each with a different species optimised for it. The problem of course is that human's have reached the ability to edit the environment itself to be more human niche $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 3, 2021 at 15:35

Separate cultures

In almost all cases of elves and humans co-existing, with elves having these archetypical long-life traits, elves live separate lives.

  • Wood elves live out in the wild woods, i.e. where there is little in the way of human style civilization.
  • Dark elves live in caves or other areas inhospitable to agricultural human life
  • High elves tend to live in a utopian bubble with little interest in what happens outside of said bubble.
  • In the Dragon Age series, elves are either tribals living off on their own, or they are in society's lowest caste due to racial tension.

Whatever the reason, elves tend to mostly live in their separate culture. Because if they don't, then the lack of cultural difference between elf and human renders the distinction (which most stories rely on) somewhat moot.

Living longer is not always better

The only thing I can think of to make humans able to compete with elves is that like how most other long-lived creatures, they mature slower just like orange roughy or whales.

Your assumption that living longer is flatout better is not necessarily the case. I'm going to use the example of Lord of the Rings here. Lord Elrond, while a strong leader, has more than one flaw stemming from the fact that he lives longer.

Elrond's first flaw is that he is holding 3000 year old grudge about humans. He treats Aragorn based on what Isildur did 3000 years ago. As much as Elrond is still a functional leader and all that, he is partially embittered about humans as a whole based on something that happens so long ago that humans pretty much consider Isildur a distant legend, not as a current guideline on morality.

Elrond's second flaw is that his long life makes him unwilling to respond quickly to events. He could have responded quicker to the stirrings of Sauron, but he did not. He let it play out further. He barely even intervened other than healing Frodo. Galadriel sent some forces, but Elrond simply left the continent altogether.

Essentially, Elrond is a less extreme version of Treebeard, who is both unwilling to intervene because "short term" things don't really affect him, and he is also glacially slow in any decision he makes, because he has no concept of having little to no time to do something, which is perfectly encapsulated by him saying:

“You must understand, young Hobbit, it takes a long time to say anything in Old Entish. And we never say anything unless it is worth taking a long time to say.”

Treebeard effectively dismisses anything on what he considers "the short term" as being not worth it.

Taking these two flaws into account, Elrond's state of mind is no different from the same type of "too old to learn new things" or "too old to get hyped about a new thing" you see in senior citizens in the real world. It is a normal fact of life that as you get older, you become more entrenched in your own ways. Sometimes because you want to do so, sometimes because you simply can't keep up anymore.

To further extend the previous point, humans' short lifespans (relative to elves) is considered a gift (= a positive) in Tolkien's lore. The whole page in an interesting read, but to summarize: having been given a short and temporary life, humans are considerably more driven to make the most of what little time they have, which is something the supreme beings specifically instilled in humans to distinguish humans from the more apathic and slow to respond elves.

Which brings me to your question:

How did humans biologically survive in my world from elf?!

Much like how teenagers and young adults adapted to the new invention of the internet much better than the generations before them, elves can be fatally flawed in that their extended lifespans lead to them statistically having very archaic views on the world, and they do not easily learn the new ways of the new world.

This puts elves at a disadvantage for anything that is considered modern, whereas elves are at a significant advantages for things that are considered old wisdom, i.e. tried and true knowledge that does not change quickly.

Therefore, as long as your society has a fast turnover on technological discoveries, humans will be able to eek out a faster adaptation to these new technologies.


The answer is long enough already, so I won't delve into the details of the theory of evolution here. The main thing I want to address is that the speed of a species' evolution directly stems from how quick their generational turnover is. The faster they breed, the more generations they have in the same timespan, therefore the more change both for mutations to take place and for the superior mutations to become prevalent in the species.

Very simply put, insects are evolving faster than humans are. And, by extension, humans evolve faster than elves.

Which is also an adaptability argument, just like before. However, this is more of a biological adaptability argument, as opposed to the previous cultural adaptability argument.

  • $\begingroup$ we even have examples of this in real life Neanderthal may have bred slower than humans, they certainly lived in much smaller groups and innovated slower. 30 stronger Neanderthal could not compete with a hundred weak humans. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Jul 4, 2021 at 4:42

Its more a question of how the Elves managed to survive than the humans.

For example division of labor. For each scientist you need people that sustain them, from food and water production to industrial capacity to build the things they need to creating the luxury products and free time that help the scientists do their job.

The Elves might live longer, but if 1 elf works on a problem for 100 years does he really complete it faster then the 50 humans that worked on the same problem for 20 years each simultaneously? Then once the Elf has found a solution faster, will they have the capacity to truly employ it throughout their empire and make a big enough difference before the humans acquire it (through reverse engineering if need be) and then build and use a few dozen more?

Humans can simply do so much work in the same time that an Elf could. Chopping wood, mining materials (which Elves might not consider a job worth doing), trading in silks, making clothes, blacksmithing, accounting etc etc. Humans would simply outcompete Elves by sheer ability to work, besides other advantages like how damned tough humans actually are in the animal world, the adaptability of humans allowing them to eventually live almost anywhere, their efficiency with food consumption etc. Even culturally we might be superior to them in an evolutionary sense, humans are so immensely social that we saw Wolves and thought "lets be friends!" And eventually created Dogs for dozens of tasks (and only recently did we create Dogs that dont fulfill a task other than companionship). The Elves would be pulled into trade deals, social structures, political scheming. And while the Elves might be good at it, they will never be able to wipe out enough humans to truly come out on top. At best the Elves are playing a Game of Thrones to keep the human population in check while trying to siphon as much resources as possible and creating cultures that view scientific progress with hostility to ensure the Elves arent wiped out.


As the question already mentioned, delayed maturation and limited propagation rates can be used to offset the competitive advantage provided by extended lifespans.

There is an all-too-short class lecture in the movie, Lucy, which contrasts these two survival options and the environments where each of them thrives.

Its conclusion, that harsh environments favor extended lifespan and more mild, nurturing environments favor propagation, seems simplistic but logical. Perhaps all that is needed for humanity to survive the presence of superior species, is a safe world with few threats and plenty of resources.


Reason for Elves' stability with humans

  • In most media elf fertility is extremely low.
  • The Brain, an elf brain most likely requires more development time (childhood) than humans.
  • Civil Discord and Sub-races, think dark elves and high elves. Dark elves aren't just black elves, usually, they evolved into a different species with different magic.
  • War, if an elf dies in war, they are hard to replace. Not enough kids, not enough time. If one army is wiped out, I could take literal centuries to replace.
  • Nature, They often have a connection reliance with nature. While vague it is a weakness in war. Also, they seem to thrive in elvish woods in particular while humans do it everywhere.

Together this makes elves keep stable populations despite long lives, wars are too devastating on the population, and they already have the land they want. So, the best strategy is to play diplomatically and defensively.

But these are just some ideas.


You can have an elf race breed like humans and mature normally and still be at a disadvantage. Immortality isn't always a benefit, for several reasons.

The carrying capacity of locations is fixed.

Each location can produce a certain amount of crops, has a certain amount of water, and has fixed resources. Humanity can push up against the carrying point just as easily as elves can.

Long lived doesn't mean uninjured.

One might think that because humans only remain fit for about 20 years of their lives (from 15 to 35 ish) humans would have less warriors than elves. But, elves can be injured by disease or injury. They may well have a lot of older elves who are too injured to effectively contribute in combat, but who need to be fed from the limited food stocks.

Old people living forever means stasis.

A lot of scientific ideas only become dominant because the old generation dies out. All the smart elves who make theories won't die from old age quickly. That means that elvish society will forever be several generations behind on the latest military weapon and tactic theory, and so will be at a disadvantage in skirmishes.

Anyway, there are some downsides to longevity.


If you can't beat them, be them.

Cro-magnon man did not ethnically cleanse the neanderthals. Cromagnon man assimilated the neanderthals. One human group showed up and interbred with the people they found. They are both our ancestors. Humans breed.

So too the demihumans. Humans can breed with all of them and there are a lot of humans. Human genes enter the populations of the demihumans and vice versa. The distinctions between "races" blur and eventually are complete societal constructs. Persons considering themselves human in your world have orc, dwarf and elf features that were not evident a thousand years before. And there may be selective advantages to this mixing - when a plague sweeps through, persons with some orc genes might be more likely to survive and later have children. Persons with some elf genes might be less inclined to rash action or might be capable of a little magic, and so survive to rear their children. In a thousand years the settled area will be even more genetically homogenous.

The world is always in a state of flux. Mixing of populations happens over centuries. The perspective of a generation is a tiny snapshot. At the time of your story, pureblood demihumans are only in isolated enclaves and even these supposed purebloods probably have a great great grandfather who was human. In a thousand years the only purebloods will be on unvisited islands.


The elves are stuck in the muds. You ever hear the saying that science progresses funeral by funeral? Now imagine that taking orders of magnitude longer.


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