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The aliens I am writing are a very soft-hearted civilisation, lacking many of the aspects that make us (humans) pretty vile creatures depending on the perspective. This harmonious behaviour seems like wishful thinking considering the desert planet they are supposed to live on.

The planet is a dry and arid environment, which is home to some of the deadliest creatures in the universe. Earth being second in line. There are only two planets bearing life in my setting so it's a rather small sample size. The alien planet has an assortment of dangerous beasts. Ambush predators lurking under the sand, creatures capable of digging through solid rock, swarms of flying creatures and many others populate the world. However, on the bright side, some areas are exceptionally welcoming as is the case with oases filled with lush plant-life. Many of the less dangerous creatures live there. Most migrate between the oases while others choose to guard them vigilantly.

The aliens themselves aren't so different from humans aside from cosmetic differences. Not too outlandish, they are humanoids after all. It should be noted however that they live in the oases (though there are exceptions). They are more dependent on water than the fauna of their world. However, it is not as if they are incapable of traveling through the desert. Their ancestors did so in order to mix the gene pool.

Is this harsh environment conducive to a peaceful society?

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    $\begingroup$ Forget the saying ''hard times create strong men and strong men create easy times'' there's not a crumb of truth in it. $\endgroup$
    – user89947
    Feb 3, 2022 at 18:21
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    $\begingroup$ It is difficult to answer this question. What does "society" mean? All beings? Beings from a specific region? Tribe? The social groups within the society make a difference. On the one hand, a harsh environment could mean more cooperation. On the other hand, scarce resources breed competition between groups. This competition breeds violence. So it could go either way, or both ways depending on your definition of "society". $\endgroup$ Feb 3, 2022 at 19:12
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    $\begingroup$ You might be interested in reading this paper. It focuses on the relationship between climate and aggression. It is a long read and reviews by peers point at some problems with the proposed theory, but this should give you some idea about existing approaches and data related to your question. $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Feb 3, 2022 at 19:25
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    $\begingroup$ Could you give a definition of a peaceful society? Also, are these aliens are native lifeforms or migrants from somewhere else? What is their level of technology? Are they dependent on the environment? Or can they shape the environment to suit their needs (if yes, to what degree)? Another important question is food: Types of food and methods of production? (for example, there are cultural differences that are suggested to be linked to rice farming) $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Feb 3, 2022 at 19:35
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    $\begingroup$ While the question (and most answers) focuses on an arid, presumably warm/hot evironment, it is worth noting the paper cited by @Otkin, which studies the apparent correlation between violence and temperature. From its abstract: "Lower temperatures, and especially larger degrees of seasonal variation in climate, call for individuals and groups to adopt a slower life history strategy, a greater focus on the future (vs. present), and a stronger focus on self-control." $\endgroup$
    – DystD
    Feb 4, 2022 at 22:04

9 Answers 9

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The psychology of a species that evolves in a harsh environment may well emphasize cooperation to a greater degree than is the case with humans.

Human evolutionary history is such that, while social, a lone human would still be able to survive, hence extreme competitiveness could be beneficial.

However, if a species evolved in such a way that a lone member could not expect to survive for very long, and a larger group could survive better than a smaller group, it would place a biological emphasis on cooperation. In such circumstances, internal competition that risked the life of another would be taboo, as it might reduce the chances of survival for both the individual and the group. When meeting individuals from another group, because survival would be easier with that group than without it, evolution would emphasise that those meeting would be looking for ways to unite those groups, rather than the human outlook of being suspicious of them.

So, rather than being a species evolved to live in moderate-sized groups that are competitive with one another, as humans are, they would be a species that forms large herds.

So, once the evolution of intelligence and the development of technology for this species has reached the point where the existential threats are neutralized, the species will still fall back to their herd-like ways.

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The environment seems to influence how a religion depicts the divinity behind it. I have read some time ago a comparison between the religions developed in the harsh environment of the desert or semi/desert of the middle East (Judaism, Christianity, Muslim and so on), where the god is represented as vindictive and harsh toward those who do not follow his words (like the desert is toward those who don't act carefully with it), and the religions developed in countries with a more favorable climate, like Buddhism, where the god is not as harsh (like the nature which is rather more friendly and gives harvest with less struggles than in the desert).

However, despite all the good intention professed by the religions, wars have been present in all the countries, including those under Buddhism influence. And let's not venture into looking at the powder keg which is commonly called Middle East....

An harsh environment makes for a more fierce competition for the scarce resources.

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    $\begingroup$ The Hejaz, where Islam first developed, can rightly be called a desert, but the Judean Hills, where Judaism developed, are hot-summer Mediterranean; roughly the same climate as Athens, Rome, Valencia and other cities that were important in the history of Christianity. There can be droughts, but it's a stretch to call this climate "harsh." $\endgroup$
    – Juhasz
    Feb 3, 2022 at 19:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Juhasz: I think that it is a mild exaggeration to say that Judaea has (or ever had) the same climate as the fertile plains of Latium and Campania. One is (and always was) semi-arid, the others are (and always were) lush. How many Roman legends are there celebrating puny streams as miracles of the divine providence? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 3, 2022 at 20:43
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP, OK, you're probably right about that. My statement was based on the fact that all of these places have the same Köppen climate classification: Csa. In any case, it's not clear to me that the environment of Iron-Age Israel was more hostile to human life than that of Iron-Age India. $\endgroup$
    – Juhasz
    Feb 3, 2022 at 22:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Juhasz: India is a very big place, and Palestine is a very small place. There are places the size of Palestine in India which are for-real deserts. There are places in India many times larger than Palestine which are luxuriant. And India has quite a few mighty rivers. (For quick reference, India has an area about 1/3 of the entire Europe, or about 2/3 of the Roman Empire at its largest extent.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 3, 2022 at 22:33
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No Correlation Between Environment and Pacifism

... at least as far as I know. Some examples:

  • Aztecs: literally living in a world full of/made from warrior deities, some requiring human sacrifice to keep the world going. Environment: jungle. (Potentially also the most metal of all mythologies. A version of the world got destroyed by JAGUARS!)
  • Islam: Coming from the desert, most caliphates and believers have a history of being relatively tolerant and peaceful, but not always. Muslim leaders have both been known as peace-loving (such as Saladin) but also militant (looking at you, Suleman). It's a toss-up!
  • Christianity: Also coming from a desert, this does emphasize forgiveness and pacifism. It's also been used to justify atrocities (Diaspora Jews, Crusaides, WW2...).
  • Ancient Norse: from cold seas, short growing seasons, and a pantheon full of warrior gods. Known for producing the most effective raiders (possibly) in history, so much that it was an occupation: viking.
  • Inuit: from cold seas, glaciers, ice shelves, these people could have been the people who drove the Ancient Norse entirely out of Newfoundland. Not entirely pacifist, especially as hunting was the main mode of providing food, but not known for wars either.
  • Hawaii: from a tropical sea, King Kamehameha was, like his other countrymen, a warrior. Their mythology is not exactly peaceful, either, such as Pele's beef with... lots of things. (Maybe it comes with the fire theme...)
  • Ancient Greek: from the east Mediterranean, fighting and war was seen as both tragedy and a means for glory. I refer you to the Iliad. Spartans were unique in that they were highly militant.
  • Ancient Egypt: hugging the Nile, they actually seemed to be relatively peaceful internally (although tombs depict a fair amount of violence to other nationalities. Egypt vs Kush. Egypt vs 'the Sea People'.)

As far as I can tell, environment is not the sole factor in determining how militant the religion is. Influences of religion and beliefs are many (cultures, socio-political events, geographic events, climate, etc.) but I do not think there is much of a case for 'harsh environment => more pacifism'.

It Could Be Factor, Though

It does seem reasonable for the average alien to look around, see super deadly creatures, and decide 'maybe I will save the violence for animals, try to keep as many potential allies as possible'. It is only a little step to incorporating that into a religion which promotes pacifism (at least with respect to their own species).

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    $\begingroup$ Concerning the Inuit: AFAIR in J. Diamond's "Collapse" the sparse existing sources that are quoted point to a rather peaceful approach from the Inuit towards the Viking settlers in Greenland, with later fights breaking out due to the quarrelsome nature of the settlers. He makes a point that the Inuit seem to have raided the western settlement leading to their abandonment, so maybe that merits a "peaceful unless provoked"-classification. $\endgroup$ Feb 4, 2022 at 14:09
  • $\begingroup$ Inuit, +1. Somewhere where being outside w/o clothes kills you in five minutes. Where the population is low enough that when you encounter other people you're like, oh thank god, maybe they got some extra blubber. Or sparse enough you can choose to avoid them. - Name a culture on this planet that's never started a war, and never will because there's not enough of them and they're not into that kinda stuff anyway, and nobody else wants to live there. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Feb 6, 2022 at 3:47
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tl;dr: a harsh environment on itself can lead to a peaceful society, if the members of such society develop a balanced, symbiotic "relationship" with their environment, AND all of the groups of that society live in equal harsh conditions.


There's a (quite old) movie that comes to mind with this question: The gods must be crazy.

In this movie, there's a small african tribe that lives happily and peacefully despite the fact that they live in the desert. They have learned to share everything and work togheter to survive in their environment, and every member of the tribe does something that contributes to the entire tribe.

This all changes one day when someone passes flying on a small plane over where the tribe lives, and dumps an empty glass bottle of coke which falls undamaged to the ground and is found by someone of the tribe. Seeing that this unknown and mysterious (to them) object fell from the sky, they assume its a gift from the gods, and everyone starts finding a variety of very practical uses to the bottle. The problem is, though, that there's only one bottle, and soon they start to fight over it. Years of peace and companionship were broken as soon as a very useful but scarce resource was introduced to the society of the tribe.

In a harsh environment, resources can be scarce and hard to obtain, and on top of that, the environment itself can have a lot of ways to try to kill you. This can indeed lead to a society that HAS to learn to distribute their resources on the most efficient way, and to work togheter to be able to survive to all the dangers in the environment.

So, if all the distinct groups learn to work this way, and all the distinct groups live in similar harsh conditions, then it is highly possible that the society will develop a friendly, shareful way of life as everyone knows the needs of everyone else.

But, if one or some of the groups doesn't learn to use efficiently their resources, and/or turns out to have plenty of a specific resource that is very valuable and scarce to other groups, then conflict will eventually and inevitably arise.

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I'd like to take on the evolution of 2 species that are more primitive than humans:

Bonobos and chimpanzees

Both species look so alike that they were considered one for a long time, but their social behavior is so fundamentally different that they are now considered different species.

Chimpanzees deal with stress, competition and aggression by fighting it out. Bonobos deal with the same problems by hugging, cuddling and having sex.

One current theory why their behavior differs so much is that chimpanzees evolved north of the Zaire river, where the bigger and stronger gorillas eat fibrous plants while the chimpanzees have to fight over tree fruits that aren't available all the time in great numbers.

Bonobos evolved south of the Zaire river, where gorillas went extinct after a long drought. So now they have no food competition and can eat the fruits and fibrous plants as well. This allowed them to feed bigger groups, fight less for territory and resources and avoid death by fighting.

That means that harsh environments foster more aggressive societies. It's very well possible that groups would be very tight knit to cooperate with food sourcing and defending their territory, but there would be a lot of fighting between the groups.

Early high civilizations and Aboriginees

We see a similar development in the first known human civilizations. Wherever in the world (Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, America) there emerged a "high civilization", it was always in a fertile environment. The lack of competition for food allowed humans to work and live together in big groups that became cities. The surplus food gave them time to develop intricate cultural rules, a bureaucratic government and new technology. And let's not forget that the conflicts with neighboring cultures and nations forced them to invent new technologies and improve their millitary.

The major advancements in metallurgy have almost all been done for warfare. Copper blades were inferior to bronze blades, those inferior to iron blades, and those inferior to steel blades. In order to cast a canon that didn't explode in your face, inventors had to improve the quality of their metals. In order to guide a missile into enemy territory, scientists had to invent wireless communication. In order to gain bragging rights, scientists had to keep a human outside or earth's atmosphere alive. All these major technological advancements were achieved in the context of conflicts and wars. Although it's plausible that space colonialization might be peaceful, a global nuclear war would certainly speed that development up.

As a contrast to those civilizations, have a look at native Australian Aboriginees. They also developed a very rich culture with an incredible oral tradition, but they are not considered a "high civilizion". Their environment was a lot harsher than the fertile Nile or the lush mesoamerican jungle. They still managed to develop technologies that provided them with enough food and free time to teach their children a rich culture, but the relative lack of resources meant that they couldn't live together in huge cities and build lasting structures. They did develop the perfect strategies to survive in their part of the world, but the incentives to keep on inventing new technologies are missing in their history: constant conflicts with other people that were roughly their own level of technology.

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    $\begingroup$ The last section of this answer seems to be implying that "high civilization" is related to being more or less peaceful, but that isn't really the case. There have been large civilizations that have been mostly peaceful and some that have been very militant. Often both have existed in the same place just at different times, and it's not at all clear that the reason for that is climate or resource scarcity $\endgroup$
    – Kevin
    Feb 4, 2022 at 21:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Kevin That wasn't actually my intention, but I probably didn't express my thoughts well enough. Aboriginees have been very successful in surviving challenging environment - to this very day. But they probably would have never developed the technology to become a space-faring species. It required several arms races over thousands of years for us to reach the moon. Although it's plausible that space colonialization might be peaceful, a global nuclear war would certainly speed that development up. $\endgroup$
    – Elmy
    Feb 5, 2022 at 9:00
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I think, it should be treated as a biological question, instead of social development question. The comments and answers speaking about the contemporary societies of Middle East are actually speaking about the creatures, originated in more hospitable environment, and partially adapted to live there, and then going through the long history of cultural adaptations, wars and colonialism. Your creatures already started in that less hospitable environment. Imagine that instead of the quarreling almost-chimpanzee with a lot of intra-group aggression and domination games, your creatures evolved from the almost-meerkats. Obviously, you would have then a long cultural adaptation history layered over this biological foundation, so that the current society will not resemble a meerkat pack. Over the history they would have developed different political structures, family types and religions. But in the time of crisis and societal collapse, they fall back not to 'warlord and his male warriors, women enslaved and forced to breed' type of society, but to 'matriarch with children, and her retinue of helpers and protectors' type of society.

PS: I know that in humans, biological and social are not so easily separated. And that evolutionary psychology is mostly a load of pseudo-scientific crap. On the other hand, we invent imaginary society here. And we don't have a real example of culture, produced by creatures of other biological foundation then humans.

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  • $\begingroup$ It's worth noting that if we assume human ancestors lived similar lives to modern chimpanzees, then "more hospitable environment" is underselling it - we evolved in the region of Earth where resources are more abundant then anywhere else on the planet. $\endgroup$ Feb 4, 2022 at 17:53
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I'd say yes if that's how you wanted to build things I have a few points that could be used.

My view would be it would have to be an environment that would look after you along as you and your group don't slack off (or in some way provide a bad performance). Not looking after or harming other group members could be more frowned upon as dead or badly injured members wouldn't contribute arguments would get in the way of work.

Plenty of defensive positions would also help create a more peaceful society.In our history there's been violence to gain more resources it's not been that strange for people to take things by force rather than work to say grow their own crops.

An unpredictable environment encourages violence because there's more to play for and hunger will kill you just as dead as a spear so why not lose or gain quicker?

You could also use the quarian from mass effects as a design they don't value property too much since they don't really have the space for it and their kind of forced together by being nomads with few resources.

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    $\begingroup$ As it’s currently written, your answer is unclear. Please edit to add additional details that will help others understand how this addresses the question asked. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center. $\endgroup$
    – Community Bot
    Feb 5, 2022 at 13:13
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The short answer: Depends, but overall unlikely.

There's little to no correlation between the harshness of an environment and the violence of a given group or society in it. Even during hunter-gatherer times when life was hard, we've found evidence of people violently killing one another. If you take a bunch of random humans and plop them down somewhere, they will be violent toward one another as long as they exist; human history is rife with examples of wars.

Biology provides another route. If your alien species evolved in a way in which cooperation is extremely important, they could evolve to become more pacifist. This is unlikely due to game theory, although it isn't out of the possibility.

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Harsh environment? Not really, at least not alone.

There is a theory in anthropology that stone age civilizations in Europe were incredibly peaceful. This is because amount of work just to survive was immense (it took days to cut one tree with primitive stone tools). For hunter-gatherers food was scarce to the point that population growth was basically at 0 and settlements were spread out far, far away from each other. Add to this lack of any mode of transportation and just reaching another community becomes a problem, let alone fighting with them. Life was so work-intensive, that losing people to warfare was simply not sustainable for the specie to survive.

So according to this theory harsh conditions itself are not enough if your aliens tame the earth and archive a prosperous but harsh life. Plenty of examples in other answers. But if the harshness of the environment means that the alien race never archives any prosperity and never reaches the point where a single life is disposable (warriors) or redundant (nobility), then you can have your peaceful, over-worked and fragile civilization.

From your description of the alien planet and the aliens, I think you might be on the right tract with the world building. Those aliens would likely have an recurring motif in their oral tradition of tribes fighting against each other and despite victory perishing to nature, because some aggression is bound to happen before the natural selection roots it out as ineffective.

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