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Ork advantages:

  1. Strength: orks are, on average, twice as strong as humans.

  2. Reproduction: ork females rarely die in childbirth and usually have twins.

  3. Height: orks can reach up to almost 8 feet tall.

  4. Growth: ork children typically reach full size around 13.

Human advantages:

  1. Intelligence: The average ork and the average human are about the same but orks never go past that so you will never have a ork Einstein.

  2. Longer life span: Orks die of old age typically in their mid-50s.

  3. Psychology: Orks are slightly more competitive then humans and less cooperative.

Given these advantages (especially the strength and reproductive advantage) is there a reasonable explanation for why humans haven't gone the way of the Neanderthals?

Edit: They eat the same food but orks require more protein and calories.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    May 8 at 19:12
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    $\begingroup$ When orks die of old age typically in their mid-50s, how are you comparing that to human lifespans? In your view, at what age do humans typically die of old age? $\endgroup$ May 8 at 19:12
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    $\begingroup$ The humans have not been absorbed by the orcs because humans are generally not soluble in orc, at least not in any fantasy setting I've heard of. Also I don't think they're a liquid, but since they eat the same food, I suppose the 60-90% "water" rule applies. $\endgroup$
    – LWS SWL
    May 8 at 21:35
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe a nitpick, but if orc intelligence never exceeds their average, that means that all orcs are equally smart. I guess what you are trying to say is that many orcs are as smart as an average human, some are less smart, but none are smarter? $\endgroup$
    – xLeitix
    May 9 at 12:42
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    $\begingroup$ Random note, for The average ork and the average human are about the same but orks never go past that so you will never have a ork Einstein. to be true ... it means that not only do Humans have Smarter individuals, but also Dumber (in order for averages to work out to be the same) $\endgroup$ May 9 at 21:36

15 Answers 15

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Education

You noted that orcs only get up to about human "average" intelligence, whereas humans have the whole curve above "average" to themselves. However, much more powerful than just slightly more intelligence is INFORMED intelligence. Human and Ork average joes may start with the same IQ, but what you DO with that IQ matters. Human joes spend their early years learning basic math, science, and literature, and some go on to further education in things like engineering, biology, and tactics. Ork joes spend that time learning to hunt, fight, and forage.

Add all these educated average human joes to all the educated above average human joes and humanity has a major advantage, because they have the know-how to design much better defenses, weapons, and probably have an edge in manipulative negotiation when trying to avoid conflict, too. To illustrate, check out the Romans at the height of their conquest phase. The reason they were so scary is not that they had that much better weapons or that they were physically superior, it is because their TACTICS (and the design of their weapons to accompany those tactics) were superior. They fought smarter and more organized than their enemies.

Put an unsuspecting small group of humans against a random similarly sized group of Orks and your humans are toast, since the Orks are bigger, stronger, and as stated earlier, spend a lot of time practicing hunting and fighting. But put a large, organized, and prepared group of humans against a large group of Orks and the Orks will have a much more difficult time of things.

Basically, while the Orcs may have an advantage on the individual front, on a collective species level things are much more even. Depending on the technology and culture of the two species, there is great potential for extermination in the OPPOSITE direction, actually.

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    $\begingroup$ Also, the orcs get decimated by the phalanx; which they cannot hope to produce because they're too competitive. $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    May 8 at 3:41
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    $\begingroup$ Adding to this answer by saying that the Gauls were also significantly larger than Romans, and despite their ferocity, were utterly defeated. $\endgroup$
    – Stumbler
    May 9 at 9:32
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    $\begingroup$ So your saying wisdom isnt a dump stat? $\endgroup$ May 9 at 21:28
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Efficiency:

Orks are inefficient. They are stronger, but generally strength comes at the expense of endurance. Humans have traditionally relied on endurance for hunting, for daily work, gathering, farming, and all the tasks that make a civilization run. Humans will use less food, produce more food, and store more food. They will be more likely to share that food with humans in need. Orks need more protein, meaning meat, which is less efficient to produce. With their large, rapidly growing populations, orks are likely to constantly be on the edge of famine.

Humans are more cooperative. They need to be, to keep those children alive. But orks don't value their children if they don't either produce goods or prove themselves strong. So while infant mortality might be low, child mortality is high. For that matter, life is cheap to orks, since it CAN be. That other ork is competing with you for food. Orks are good fighters but not great soldiers. Orks are likely to view other orks as a greater threat than they do humans.

Orks are short-sighted. Lack of intelligence, short lifespans, and constant suspicion of one's fellow orks means planning for the future is kind of pointless. With less value on individual children, a parent's investment in the future is diluted. Even in war, they fight to obtain resources only when the resources are already exhausted, and they fight with limited advanced planning and less benefit of experience and training. They will focus on short-term goals and quickly obtainable results.

Endurance at work, cooperation in education, and long-term planning mean humans will have better equipment, tools and weapons. After all, you learn to make things, practice diligently, and make things to last. These things will not be readily stolen by orks, because orks are so much larger - the swords are small, spears the wrong proportion, handles ill-fit, etcetera.

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    $\begingroup$ "Orks are inefficient. They are stronger, but generally strength comes at the expense of endurance." This reminds me: if an elephant is chasing you, the best strategy is to run uphill. Elephants are faster than humans on flat ground and downhill, but much slower than humans uphill. $\endgroup$
    – Stef
    May 7 at 10:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Stef I truly hope I won't need to remember this advice. $\endgroup$ May 9 at 11:22
  • $\begingroup$ You left out the babbyhaving. That good good procreation humans love to do. Orks have twins and dont die, maybe one time. Humans can have lots and lots of babies when times are good and even when not. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    May 11 at 22:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Willk Orks lack a sense of humor. It is a social behavior that gets in the way of stealing food and clubbing mates. Okay, there is a subset of "Eating dead baby" jokes that are very popular. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    May 11 at 23:07
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Reproduction is not the bottleneck, calories are

In a premodern environment, reproduction rate is not the bottleneck for population, calories are the limiting factor for carrying capacity.

Thus "They eat the same food but orks require more protein and calories." is all it takes. With this in mind, any given plot of land will support more human spearmen than ork spearmen; and in a time of dire lack of food an ork will scavenge about as much food as a human, but if they'll need more food then they'll starve first.

I see quite a few similarities between your description of orks and our understanding of Neanderthals. It's a fact that anatomically modern humans were not absorbed or exterminated by Neanderthals, quite the opposite. There is an assumption that we outcompeted the Neanderthals because we were more calorie-efficient and resistant to starvation, and that mattered more than their various advantages in, for example, strength.

We can see this in the evolution of hominids. It would have been relatively trivial for various mutations to make us stronger, taller, faster growing or faster reproducing, however, this has not happened so apparently those mutations had a net harmful effect in the environment in which humans evolved and were selected against, probably because of the extra calorie cost.

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  • $\begingroup$ Best answer so far thanks you. $\endgroup$ May 9 at 18:56
  • $\begingroup$ Yah, but ... Humans are a fine source of calories. Orcs eat Humans, however, Humans do not eat Orcs ... imo the calorie argument would be a wash imo. Have you ever seen a starving Orc (and lived) ;) $\endgroup$ May 9 at 21:32
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See below my answer to a similar question. See also this answer.

The only difference is your orcs are almost as smart as humans. This is not a deal breaker however, because intelligence does not on its own determine their behaviour. It's a combination of intelligence + values that does that. And their values are different. See the second link.


Humans/dwarfs/elves have large cities, farms and other aspects of a civilisation. Orcs have no such things. The orc-lands to the North are vast but there is no unified nation or supreme leader. The orcs live in small semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes. They war with neighboring orc tribes as much as with nearby human/dwarf/elf cities. As long as our border cities have proper walls and defenses to repel a few dozen troops at a time, the orcs are not much of a problem.

This raises the question of why we don't just raise an army and wipe them out. We tried this a hundred years ago but all that happened was the orcs tribes rallied to fight us. It turns out as long as a powerful foe is immediately present the tribes will stop fighting each other and fight us instead. Our army was well trained but couldn't compare with orc society where there is simply no such thing as a non-combatant.

Our army was destroyed and the resulting Orc WAAAGH! rampaged to the South and destroyed three of our cities before it hit the King's River. Unable to cross, cohesion broke down and with no enemy present most of the orcs died through a combination of starvation (they had no supply trains) and infighting.

Orcs are also known as prolific breeders. Twins or triplets are normal for an orc mother and an orc is full-grown by six years old. By the time we had rebuilt our cities the orc-lands had repopulated and gone back to fighting each other as though nothing had happened.

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Strength doesn't stop spears.

Lots of other apes are stronger than us humans, but we're the dominant species. Human cooperation and intellect tends to mean humans are much better armed and able to fight in groups, which is enough to kill orcs.

It would be extremely dangerous if someone sold weapons to orcs and they were able to rally behind a warchief, of course.

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    $\begingroup$ These aren't apes, they have comparable intelligence can also fight in groups and can be expected to also have spears .. did the OP edit his question since you wrote this or something? $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    May 7 at 10:27
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    $\begingroup$ "is there a reasonable explanation for why humans haven't gone the way of the Neanderthals?" Op asked why humans were dominant when one group of apes killed another group of apes. I was noting that physical strength wasn't the main reason why humans killed neanderthals. $\endgroup$
    – Nepene Nep
    May 7 at 11:13
  • $\begingroup$ But that's not relevant is it, your answer is all about we use tools and they don't, accept that they do. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    May 7 at 11:35
  • $\begingroup$ Humans have smarter people, so they probably have better weapons, and cooperation, as I said in my answer. Also, other apes do use tools. Neanderthals used tools. $\endgroup$
    – Nepene Nep
    May 7 at 14:12
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    $\begingroup$ @NepeneNep human beat Neanderthals because the average group of Neanderthals number in the dozens and the average group of humans is over a hundred, its not about reproduction it is just that humans are far more social. being twice as strong is not enough when you are fighting 4 times as many humans. $\endgroup$
    – John
    May 8 at 11:47
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Cooperation and learning from the smart people floats everyone's boats higher

Think of the resources available to a modern human. Could you or I independently invent an internal combustion engine, and everything that goes along with it? Of course not - but once one super-smart person has figured out how to do it, less-smart people can copy it, and even well-below-average people can use it.

People have actually seen this happen with tool-using species like crows, where one super-smart crow works out a strategy such as using a bent hook to extract food, or placing nuts in front of stationary cars so that the car crushes the shell for them. It needs one bird to invent the trick, but the others can see it and copy it.

The defining feature of humans isn't strength or anything like that, it's the ability to learn and refine ideas from other humans. Want somewhere to get out of the weather? Find a cave. Want to protect yourself at night? Block the cave entrance. You're somewhere without caves? Build a hut, and build a palisade around it. Want to get more nutritional benefits? Light a fire. Want to kill animals bigger than you? Make a spear. Want to kill things at a distance? Spear again. Want to kill things at a much greater distance? Make a bow, or a spear thrower, or a sling.

The moment the first human invents the first spear, the orks lose.

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  • $\begingroup$ (what does this say about today's real-world human economy?) $\endgroup$
    – user253751
    May 9 at 9:59
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    $\begingroup$ @user253751 Basically that it is what it is today. :) Pooling your intellectual resources is a win for the side which does it. The capitalism versus communism battle wasn't a win for capitalism because it was superior as an economic system. Instead it was a loss for the specific USSR characteristics of information-siloing and blocking good ideas because of the political credentials of the people involved. The USA came very close to doing the same thing with HUAC, of course, but pragmatism tended to win out to some degree. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    May 9 at 13:07
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Humans are more social, we collect in larger groups.

This may very well be the reason humans won out over neanderthal, who were larger, stronger, and tougher. Human had no physical advantages over neanderthal. And technology was not that different for most of their contact. But the average neanderthal tribe was around 10-30 individuals. while human bands range from 30-150. These are both controlled by how big a certain part of the brain is(likely the neocortex), basically how many other people we can keep track of. This is not a function of reproductive rate but just how social your species is. if a a group grow too large it splits into two separate groups. Orcs may breed faster but if they attack in groups of 10-20 they will basically always lose to a human hunter gatherer band of a hundred or more. They can pick off lone humans easily enough but as soon as it becomes large scale conflict they always lose.

Strength is all well and good but it can't make up for nearly an order of magnitude more enemies. Once humans start forming villages and cities the difference just becomes more exaggerated. A chieftain leading multiple bands in a single force of over a hundred orcs will have a hard time taking a city of thousands.

This difference does not have to be that extreme if human groups are about twice the size they will be hard to beat but not so hard humans can just steam roll over the orcs and wipe them out entirely.

you can also add an idea from the man kzin wars, the kzin being almost all warriors and ruled by warriors get too worked up and always attack too early. Orcs always give themselves away by attacking lone stragglers so humans always have a chance to prepare.

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Experts and Agriculture

On the most part, humans are slow-growing and fussy, but they have uses. Uses that ensure the orcs never let them go extinct, even though the humans may try to accomplish this now and then as one means of rebellion.

Orcs test the intelligence of human infants early and often. The ones who make it through the spear trap and the razor pinwheel are moved into Special Bunking, which is to say, out of earshot of other humans that would poison them against the Orcs. The humans are told that they are special, malformed Orks with a brilliant role to play, designing siege engines and flaming ballistas and all manner of things that the average person can understand how to use, but not really the best way to make. Every few years they are transferred to higher-level academies, except for the lower half of the class that goes to the same fate as other humans.

And the other humans? They're still valuable meat byproducts. They taste a dang sight better than Orc... heck, anything tastes better than Orc, even the dreck at the bottom of the outhouse; otherwise they'd eat each other... but humans are a serious competitor for pork and beef. So it's not all a loss when they fail their finals.

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Multiple factors

And there will be synergies; how these play out depends on the discretion of the author, so I'll leave these to everybody's imagination.

Also, I'm working off the question as currently stated; the outcome can be affected by more traits - e.g. parts of this answer would shift if due to differences in healing rage, or resilience to parasites and infections, amount of xenophobic tendencies towards their own species (e.g. humans tend to restrict cooperation to humans they consider to "belong to us", Orks may be more or less xenophobic), etc. etc. etc.

Calories difference

Orks require more calories, which is the limiting factor.

Orks typically having twins, not dieing to childbirth and (most importantly) growing up faster means that they reproduce to a land's population capacity much faster than humans, but their overall capacity will be lower than that of humans.
This means that uninhabited areas will be quickly flooded with Orks once they reach it, but once the Orks find human-inhabited land, they will find themselves outnumbered.
It also means that after a catastrophe, Ork population will replenish a few years earlier than human population.

So you get this dynamics:

Orks will get there first, but will start to get driven back - slowly - as soon as they find humans.
After a catastrophe that hits both populations in an area, the Orks will be back to fighting conditions anywhere between 5 and 25 years before the humans, which means that the Orks will overrun the humans. (Exception: A lot depends on how many immigrants the catastrophe-affected Ork and human populations will allow and attract, and in what timeframe immigrants can come and integrate.)

Intelligence

Does not affect the dynamics much, unless with an empire that is long-lived and makes a point of collecting knowledge like real-world civilisations do.

Note that collecting knowledge is not a universal trait of human societies.
E.g. Byzantium was about the only empire that did so for a long time, and it took the Muslim states centuries to (a) catch up and (b) finally overwhelm Constantinopolis with higher numbers.
And building up a high enough knowledge and technology advantage to actually matter is a matter of centuries; I personally think that no society actively worked towards building up knowledge just to gain an edge, there is always some other motivation behind it. (Possibly with an exception in the "Age of Enlightenment", where technological advantage was motivating some but not all of the people who drove that knowledge-collecting frenzy. Once this produced tangible results, states became interested in driving this more.)

Also, a highly intelligent individual won't make any of their intelligence unless the society values the trait, trains them, and can afford to feed them even though they do not contribute to the economy directly.
In societies that do not value intelligence, the intelligent persons will likely use it for their own purposes - become a leader of some sort, i.e. to gain power (be it military or religious), to gain personal wealth (in societies that allow this), or anything else they want.

So the author can freely choose how much of an effect this intelligence ceiling will have.
Note that Orks will still be able to replicate much of human technology; they just won't be able to understand everything, and the poorly or not understood parts of human technology will be considered "human magicks", possibly "filthy human magicks".

Cooperation

More competition, less cooperation means that more Orks will die or be crippled than humans, with obvious consequences for reproduction rate, economical power, battlefield discipline, post-battle recovery rates, etc.

There is a strong leverage, e.g. minimal differences cause small, easily overlooked effects, notable differences cause obvious effects, strong differences cause massive effects.
Still, the author can dial this up or down at will.

It's unlikely that an Ork will connect the dots.
A human with enough intelligence and data may find that out. (The data-gathering part will be the more challenging task, actually.)

Cooperation/competition is a very strong influence, but the author can essentially dial this up or down as intended - minimal differences cause notable effects, notable differences cause obvious effects, obvious differences cause strong effects, etc.

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I think you could also easily ask "Why hasn't [some group of humans] exterminated or absorbed all other groups of humans?"

Why didn't Xerxes expand his empire around the entire globe? What stopped The Golden Horde? What about Rome? Why didn't The British Empire eventually just make the whole world effectively part of Britain? Didn't Germany try something once or twice?

History is full of attempts by one group of humans to absorb or eliminate every other group they can get their hands on, but it always falls apart in the long run, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the unifying sentiment driving the entire thing isn't enduring enough or spread so easily. (Even in the colonization of the Americas, we didn't end up with some big "unified America". We ended up with lots of different countries between North, Central and South America and they don't all like each other.)

It's easy to imagine orks being like this, except worse, because I can't think of an example fiction where orks are kept in control by anything less than absolute might of some supreme ruler and if his power ever fails, the orks immediately turn on each other in a power vaccuum and the global conquest turns into warlords and tribal fighting.

If humans can't easily bring themselves together to form a unified global civilization, I wouldn't think the standard fantasy ork has a chance.

Incidentally, this would also explain why the humans never wiped out the orks. "At last we have freed these plains of orks. Glory be to King Alfred, that these lands are now his!" "What! I think you mean King Ferdinand!" ...and it all goes downhill from there.

tl;dr summary: there are loads of factors that go into wars, and being bigger, stronger and more prolific isn't automatically enough to offset every other major factor.

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  • $\begingroup$ Human have the same biological strengths. If a race was stronger and bred faster then the others than on group of humans would have exterminated the others. $\endgroup$ May 9 at 23:32
  • $\begingroup$ And the orks don't need to be unified to exterminate the humans look at Europe. How many Native American out there with no European ancestry? Not many $\endgroup$ May 9 at 23:35
  • $\begingroup$ @BryanMcClure You might read Guns, Germs and Steel sometime for a discussion on Native Americans. There's a lot that went into that one, with "foreign disease" being a leader (unlikely in a cross-species conflict). You're also underestimating the infighting (Warhammer) and leaderlessness (Tolkien) of Orks. Warhammer actually does a good job of covering why their Orks never dominate with the short version being they can't keep it together for that long. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    May 10 at 13:16
  • $\begingroup$ thats my point were not talking about an empire or even tribe were talking about a species so unity it's a factor. The USA didn't have to remain united to the British empire to nearly wipe out the Native population. And that's with only a tiny biological advantage. $\endgroup$ May 11 at 18:33
  • $\begingroup$ @BryanMcClure - I'd say the European biological advantage over the Natives was pretty enormous -- that, alone, mostly won the war. But again I think you're looking at war as too simple of a problem. Even in medieval times, war was complicated. Logistics is complicated. Who feeds these armies? How do they get food to the troops? Weapons? Repairs? What about technological differences? Training? Experience? Individual motivations? All this applies to human vs human conflict. I would apply it to orc vs human, too. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    May 11 at 18:49
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Niche partitioning

Orks are large, strong, mesocarnivorous. They live nomadically and are conventionally hunter-gatherers, emphasis on the hunt. Humans, as you note, are smaller and have a higher ceiling for intelligence. They tend to settle down in areas, build strong structures, and subsist on agriculture.

Wandering ork tribes are absolutely a concern, but human settlements are quite well-defended, both with strong architecture and weapons, so it's not generally worth the trouble to raid them unless the straits are dire. Humans tend not to bother orks so as not to draw their wrath unnecessarily.

Humans and neanderthals mostly occupied the same niche, so the competitive exclusion principle kicked in and H. sapiens won. Here, H. sapiens and H. orkus can coexist outside of direct competition.

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    $\begingroup$ If you are saying the partition is farmers vs hunter-gatherer. that will end poorly for the hunter-gatherer. We have plenty of historical precedent for the outcome, multiple continents multiple groups. Long term, farmers push hunter-gathers to the margins. $\endgroup$ May 7 at 1:10
  • $\begingroup$ That's been true of human farmers vs human hunter-gatherers. Given the much greater physiological differences between these two populations, I think it's at least within the realm of handwavability. At worst, there could be cooperation between the two groups. Humans are smaller and more dextrous so they farm, orks are larger and stronger so they hunt, then they trade meat for humans' grain and artisan products. $\endgroup$
    – DanishChef
    May 7 at 1:14
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Intelligence

Simply put, the humans are going to progress further technologically then your orcs. Humans will have fire, strategy, sharper tools, more durable tools, siege weapons, and fortifications long before the orcs do.

Resources

Since your orcs calorie intake is higher than the average human, if your orcs don’t figure out that they can cook or grow food, the orcs will simply starve. They will not be able to suppport a war campaign against humans. There also wouldn’t be enough space for both species.

Conclusion

Humans will be your problem, not orcs. Since the orcs live for less time, are dumber, and won’t advance as fast, you will have to find a reason as to why the orcs don’t get wiped out. Best way for that would be to limit the overall technological advancement to Iron Age. Even though your orcs have numbers, look at the Battle of the Somme (world war I) to see your answer as to why the orcs couldn’t overwhelm the big brain humans.

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Technologies

It is much more difficult to do research and discover a technology than later use it. Assuming that doing research, converting results of research into technical ideas and building first working prototypes highly benefit from more experience and intelligence, humans would have advantages of having some 60 year old professor with significantly above-average intelligence and now also lots of experience. Such people can discover technologies that do not require as much of intelligence and experience for they later usage, mass production or incremental only improvement. Also, such bright experienced people would have impact even when making only few percent of the population.

Technologies may improve agriculture and provide better weapons, or more/cheaper weapons of the same good quality. This would give notable advantages in the competition for resources and survival.

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Infighting The orcs could hold more of the planet (or continent) but their tribes (or states) tend to turn on each other when any one gets too strong - or the stronger one eats a smaller tribe which unites all the other orc tribes against them.

Human's tend to band together very well when faced with an external threat. Its possible that the remaining human tribes (states) make a point to never weaken each other and immediately band together when one of the orcish factions attack them - as well as making sure to never provoke the ire or the larger orcish factions.

Incompatible resource consumption/ allergies Its possible that the stuff that orcs eat (and the plants that make up their very biomes) are toxic to humans (and visa-versa). So while there may be resources in human territory which orcs want, orcs find it extremely to inhabit those areas for extended periods of time. So orcs may rely on humans to mine areas toxic to them so they can go exert their physical dominance elsewhere.

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Also Humans adapt better to different conditions while orcs trive only in places where simple hunting techniques are enough for survival.

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  • $\begingroup$ Why is that the case? $\endgroup$ May 9 at 18:52
  • $\begingroup$ It is proven in current world - smarter, adapt to conditions, farm, fish, hunt with special tools and equipment. Orks just want something easy short term. @BryanMcClure $\endgroup$ May 9 at 19:14

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