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Before you comment "dragons can't happen", we've been there before.

Based on the question linked above, assume dragons are scientifically plausible. You may change what you need about the accepted answer to the above question if it helps you answer this one, but stay within the realm of science.


Many myths portray dragons as more than just ferocious beasts - as tricksters, guards, or big baddies out to get the hero. This implies intelligence.

The problem with making humongous, firebreathing beasts intelligent is that there is seemingly no need - they are already fit to survive and reproduce (related fitness discussion is in the answers of What would cause turkeys to be intelligent?). It's difficult to come up with an evolutionary pressure that would select for intelligence when most dragons will survive regardless.

What pressures or events would cause dragons to evolve human-level intelligence?

Note: I do not require communication, tool usage, or other human-like abilities; simple self-awareness is acceptable although other processes may be necessary first.


If it helps, these are my thoughts so far:

Humans are considered to have developed intelligence as a result of

  1. Language use and collective learning
  2. Tool usage
  3. The use of fire, which allows the stomach to work less, and provides the energy for the brain to work more

While I don't require the first two conditions in answers, dragons have achieved condition #3. Perhaps this is a starting point for your answers.

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    $\begingroup$ Octopuses are far more intelligent than any other invertebrates; why? It's not language, tools, and certainly not fire. I'm not sure anyone knows the answer to this question, but it is something to think about; there's some pressure that made octopuses have a huge brain-to-body ratio, and whatever that pressure is, it's possibly very different from the pressures on terrestrial vertebrates. $\endgroup$ – Eric Lippert Dec 16 '16 at 19:08
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    $\begingroup$ Not all dragons in the stories ARE smart, some aren't even able to speak and can be easily outsmarted--and if humans=dragons, then there is an ape equivalent for dragons--the wyvern. And really, they weren't always an apex predator--any more than we were always what we are. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Dec 16 '16 at 20:54
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    $\begingroup$ If you want an explanation that must include evolution, please be clear about that. In a lot of fantasy worlds (including Tolkien's), races arose by Creation, not Evolution. In those setting, dragons are intelligent because they're made that way. $\endgroup$ – Shawn V. Wilson Dec 16 '16 at 23:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Zxyrra True, but the question itself doesn't say that, and the first words of the description are "Many myths..." I guess I would have liked to see the question phrased like "How would intelligent dragons evolve?" $\endgroup$ – Shawn V. Wilson Dec 17 '16 at 6:39
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    $\begingroup$ Probably worth considering point 1: Humans are individually very intelligent compared to other animals; but what makes us in a completely different league to dogs or dolphins is our collective knowledge. To provide even the slightest challenge to humans they'd need to evolve at least oral communications with each other to share their own knowledge; otherwise trying to beat a dragon would be like trying to overcome a (comparatively) very intelligent dog. $\endgroup$ – Matt Bowyer Dec 17 '16 at 14:15

18 Answers 18

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It's difficult to come up with an evolutionary pressure that would select for intelligence when most dragons will survive regardless.

This is, of course, the key point. What do dragons do? Hunt the prey we hunt. Eat the cattle we herd. Like the stones we like. The more humans, the more opposition to dragons. We learnt to kill them. Even simple villager like Dratewka or Skuba can, if dragons are stupid.

I believe the pressure that made dragons smart is simple - it's us; humans. The more tools we got, the more land we acquired, the more dragons we needed to kill. One dragon needed to outsmart a few people who happened to wander in his mountains. That was easy. Few generations later, dragons in the same area needed to outsmart hundreds of mountain people. And so on.

For this to work, of course, we must assume two things:

  • Dragon generations are of similar length to human ones. That's the only way to "keep pace" with us. Or, as R.M. reminded, average change per generation must be greater. You can achieve this by more variability (mutations etc), more babies, and more young dragons killed.

  • Dragons needs to live far enough to have some chance of survival when they are behind humans with their smartness / intelligence.

From this point it's easy. If an adult (30 years old) dragon is as smart and experienced as 30 yo human, but then the dragon does not start getting old, but grows, and his brain grows and can accumulate more memories, then the dragon aged 300 will "outsmart" the human. He may score less on IQ test, but with so many memories to work with he will be more experienced and wiser.

Of course you can substitute humans for any other race that fulfills our role in your world.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a good answer. $\endgroup$ – James Dec 16 '16 at 15:14
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks @James. Of course, other answers aren't bad either, I upvoted some of them :) $\endgroup$ – Mołot Dec 16 '16 at 15:16
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    $\begingroup$ The generation length need not be similar, so long as intelligence keeps pace. That is, for long-lived dragons the increase per generation must be greater than the increase per generation in humans, so on a time basis it matches. Evolutionarily, this can be managed by a strong selective pressure: for example, if dragons have a lot of babies, but the vast majority of them get killed (by humans) before they fully mature. Only the really cunning ones make it to 100+ years old. $\endgroup$ – R.M. Dec 16 '16 at 16:03
  • $\begingroup$ @R.M. Thanks, answer updated. By the way, my real life initials are R.M. too :D $\endgroup$ – Mołot Dec 16 '16 at 16:10
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    $\begingroup$ One thing I really like about this answer is that it makes for some very interesting in-universe dynamic if dragonkind and mankind are caught in a state of evolutionary rivalry. $\endgroup$ – 3C273 Dec 16 '16 at 22:13
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Intelligence evolved with size and fire-breathing, not separately

What evolutionary pressure is there that has made a small primate develop intelligence to the point of having ethics of fairness?

We do not know. But it has happened.

The issue with your turkey question was not that turkeys would never develop intelligence, but that you wanted turkeys, and only turkeys out of all birds, to develop intelligence from where they are now. In other words the starting-point is that already fit — but "dumb" — turkeys rather suddenly become smart and your question was "How could that happen in the future?"

Humans, chimpanzees, dolphins, Capuchin monkeys or cockatoos on the other hand already have intelligence to the point of problem-solving and — in some cases — ethics, as exemplified in the video above. So there the starting-point of the question is that we already have intelligence and you are wondering: "How did that happen in the past?".

Intelligence has evolved during a long time and our respective ancestors along the way from the common ancestor had some smarts too. What was the evolutionary pressure that made it so that our intelligence made us more fit? Well that is hard to tell, but there had to be something there, because now we have it.

So your premise...

The problem with making humongous, firebreathing beasts intelligent is that there is seemingly no need - they are already fit to survive and reproduce

...is actually wrong. They were not actually fit to survive and become dominant until they became smart, humongous and fire-breathing monsters, all together. Before that they were half-smart, somewhat large, fire-sputtering beasts. And before that they were rather dumb, mid-sized, non-fiery reptiles. And before that...

...and so on.

The point is: you do not really need to motivate their intelligence at all if you just drop the premise that first they were huge fire-breathing apex predators, and only after that they became smart. Instead you assume that they became smart while they also evolved to become huge and fire-breathing. That is not even hand-waving; it is just the way it normally happens in evolution, where it is common that several traits evolve at the same time.

Hence you are free to pretty much make up any evolutionary pressure as you like:

...but I would suggest not even dwelling on the matter unless you actually need it for the story. People already accept that dragons are clever and I would say that you are only complicating the matter now by introducing this strange timeline where you want it to have been such that first they were dragons in all senses of the concept as we know it, but only later became smart. Why make a mess of an established concept like this?

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    $\begingroup$ This answer seems to fit well with the high intelligence of dolphins, orcas, and many whales. They aren't smart to counteract some physical weakness, rather they are smart and physically powerful. For that matter, even great apes (incl humans) aren't all that puny physically. $\endgroup$ – Deolater Dec 16 '16 at 16:12
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    $\begingroup$ I think social boundaries and team work are co-requirements to intelligence, and also to ethics. You need complex interactions with others of your species. There are tasks wich becomes very easy in team work, but real complex task (like big bridges, pyramids, etc.) requires the cooperation of more intelligent individuals. $\endgroup$ – ESL Dec 16 '16 at 23:04
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The hard part about exploring why a fictional species might develop intelligence is that it's hard to capture what "intelligence" really is. We have things called IQ tests which are supposed to measure intelligence, but are mostly centered around pattern matching. Many argue that this is not a good measure of intelligence.

Without a clear definition to work with, I'd like to suggest that one of the primary needs for intelligence is having to model the world before action, particularly cause and effect relationships. In most cases in the animal kingdom, actions are not really committed. Animals almost always avoid over committing. Even in the violent world of predator v. prey, we don't see the predator over committing and risking a broken leg. They always take a more conservative path, waiting for the right moment to strike.

A creature which breathes fire has to do more. Fire is something which scares animals because it is unpredictable. It's hard to tell whether it is going to just cook your food or burn your house down. A creature which breathes fire has to commit to their action. There is no half-breathe-fire and see what happens. Either you let this powerful force of nature loose, or you don't.

To harness this power safely, a creature needs to be able to model their surroundings in their mind and predict "what could the effect of fire be?" They may need to explore several potential outcomes before convincing themselves that fire is indeed safe to use in this situation.

I would argue that need for modeling is enough to kick start the evolution of intelligence. It encourages abstract thinking, which we do not see in non-intelligent animals. It may even involve the precious pattern matching skills we use for IQ tests.

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    $\begingroup$ The treasure horde implies that they build a permanent lair, rather than being continually roaming, thus dragons who leave nothing but a scorched barren landscape from continual wildfires will not be as successful as those who can understand restraint in their use of fire as well as the importance of good environmental stewardship of their territory. Not just causing wildfires, but this could develop into knowing not to over-hunt large prey animals, or even eventually to training groups of primates to collect shiny things and food for you... $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Dec 16 '16 at 16:07
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    $\begingroup$ See the film Reign of Fire for a stupid/animal-dragon life cycle. Even the last one was cunning, but not actually intelligent. $\endgroup$ – T.J.L. Dec 17 '16 at 16:32
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Dragons won't become smart, the smart become dragons

In many mythologies, dragons are gods, or at least demi-gods of some sort. So instead of looking at this problem as "What evolutionary pressures would cause dragons to be smart", you could look at it from the perspective of "Why would sufficiently evolved intelligences, with 'magical' technological powers want to become dragons?"

There could be a couple reasons. One is greed. An advanced civilization is dying; the beings no longer age due to their life altering technologies, but can be killed by accident or violence. No one wants to reproduce and have children because no one wants to share the things they have. As the numbers dwindle, there are no longer enough to effectively run society. Seeing that they will need to make a change to survive, the last members of this race alter themselves into huge, powerful forms that can be sustained without further technology. The morph into huge reptiles (creatures that can attain great ages, and won't have to fear accidental or violent deaths) and spend their lives in solitude, scheming atop huge heaps of treasure, dreaming of glories past. The world ages around them, and after thousands of millenia, a new species rises to take over the planet...

Another could be enviornmentalism. As this civilization ages, it damages the earth irrevocably with its industrial ways. Soot-filled skies and poisonous rivers take their toll. A great war breaks out between those who would continue the status-quo, and those who would reject industrialization for once and for all. The enviornmentalists win. The survivors use their advanced technologies to save what is left of their race. Altering their genetic material with that of long lived/cold-blooded reptiles, they pack all the technologies they an into their new bodies and then go to sleep in the deep places of the earth, waiting many long years for the world to heal itself and they can emerge again.

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  • $\begingroup$ While this is creative and I am willing to evolve intelligent creatures into dragons, perhaps I should make it more clear that I want natural evolution. If you introduce genetic modification, it kind of defeats the purpose of asking how dragons would evolve. The question then becomes "Why would fit, smart individuals evolve fire breathing or flight?" $\endgroup$ – Zxyrra Dec 16 '16 at 14:51
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    $\begingroup$ "Why would...want to become dragons?" ...Um... because we're awesome? $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Dec 16 '16 at 15:08
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Humans are smarter than we should be. We only needed to be smart enough to hunt animals with spears and fire and traps; but instead we are smart enough to build moon rockets.

An easy explanation for this is that our smarts doesn't come from competition with the environment; instead, it comes from competition with other humans. Such a competition can generate a runaway process; instead of being smart enough to build a new tool (which benefits your entire tribe, diluting its genetic benefit, and can be copied), you have to be smart enough to out maneuver Alice over there at getting social status in your tribe.

The winners of such a competition then have their genes spread through their tribe more than the losers do. And now they are competing against each other, and have a harder challenge in the next generation.

This means that getting smarter makes being even smarter more valuable. Every generation increases the selection pressure on the next. Unless and until the selection pressure causes the species to become seriously unfit environmentally, it can continue far beyond what the environment would otherwise mandate.

In any species, a similar process can lead to a runaway selection effect where the trait is magnified far further than external selection would mandate.

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  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking the same thing, but you articulated it better. Survival is only part of evolutionary pressure. The ability to pass along genes is the other part. When you have a species that is already supremely fit for survival, that's the only evolutionary pressure that makes sense. If smart gets you to the ladies better than Brawny, well...there ya go $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI May 25 '17 at 16:22
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Why are we smart?

In all likelihood, humans are far cleverer than our evolutionary niche actually requires. Human intelligence probably evolved as a form of sexual selection - peacocks have display feathers, deer have huge antlers and people have humour and deep conversation. A big brain is in many ways bad for us - a smaller one would consume less oxygen, and far more usefully could be much better protected inside a head of the same size.

So all you really need is for intelligence to appear attractive to other dragons, and it will appear... and of course dragons being larger can probably better afford the sacrifices.

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    $\begingroup$ This can't be emphasised enough we don't entirely understand why WE are intelligent much less how it would arise in something else. But sexual selection can cover almost anything. $\endgroup$ – John Dec 16 '16 at 19:49
  • $\begingroup$ Indeed, even if there's initially no preference in showing intelligence, a certain intelligence may help you as it allows you to figure out how to hide your weaknesses and show off your strengths (e.g. by inventing make-up to make your skin look better than it is). As soon as intelligence gives you a selective advantage, it of course will also give a selective advantage to prefer intelligent partners. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Dec 17 '16 at 12:25
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    $\begingroup$ For sexual selection to get really out of control, you need a gene with a double effect: Increasing intelligence, and increasing the female desire for intelligence. This is sometimes called a green beard gene nature.com/nature/journal/v394/n6693/abs/394573a0.html $\endgroup$ – James K Dec 17 '16 at 14:33
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High interspecies competitiveness.

For example, let's assume that Dragons have a very low female to male ratio, combined with huge litters and slow birth rate. At this point, Dragons don't need an outside pressure for inteligence to be an advantagous trait.

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  • $\begingroup$ Why? All you need in that situation is some trait that is selected for, and which is in large part inherited in offspring, and which provides a reproductive advantage. That's no different from how evolution and selection works in every other species, from plankton or tardigrades to polar bears or peacocks. Why would selection among dragons necessarily favor intelligence specifically? $\endgroup$ – a CVn Dec 17 '16 at 16:34
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One possibility is that the dragons were actively bred to be intelligent. Most stories that take this tact describe this process as having occurred in the distant past, usually performed by humans, but as part of an ancient now-forgotten civilization. Some of them mix in genetic engineering as well. A good example of this approach is the Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey. The main trick here is coming up with a good motive for the breeding/engineering, though when you're dealing with something as cool as dragons, maybe it was just to see if it was possible?

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  • $\begingroup$ I don't recall any genetic engineering in Pern. Perhaps it was in a book I didn't read. $\endgroup$ – WGroleau Dec 16 '16 at 20:43
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    $\begingroup$ @WGroleau, Dragonsdawn is the book in the series that gets the most SciFi-ish in exploring the origins of the dragons. I recall particularly enjoying that one, though it's been a long time since I read it. $\endgroup$ – Dan Bryant Dec 16 '16 at 21:09
  • $\begingroup$ There was a great dear of genetic tinkering going on over the course of the pern series. Including a hidden genetics lab, and instructional system, to help the non technical culture that was expected deal with potential issues. $\endgroup$ – Rozwel Dec 16 '16 at 23:11
  • $\begingroup$ Hmmm. now I have to go through the whole series again. :-) $\endgroup$ – WGroleau Dec 16 '16 at 23:15
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Clearly, there must be some other selective pressure than surviving. And everyone knows that dragons love nothing more than a giant hoard of golden objects. So females are much more attracted to dragons with a big gold hoard than with a small one, which results in selective pressure towards building a big hoard, especially if you steal from other dragons. That results in selective pressure towards thinking on your feet and being able to trick the other dragons, causing a selective pressure for intelligence.

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  • $\begingroup$ Sexual Selection is the most likely driving force for intelligence based on the other answers - They have everything else covered naturally, but developing language and reasoning skills would benefit the most intelligent. $\endgroup$ – SeanR Dec 16 '16 at 16:44
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Since I can't comment on other answers I think a key component is being overlooked by narrowing the factors down too quickly. The first thing that needs to be addressed is what drives any given organism to intelligence particularly intelligence above what is needed to survive?

As this is an unanswered question scientifically, I would suggest the best method to approach this is to look at what groups of organisms exhibit high intelligence? Now the definition of intelligence is not a fixed definition

Humans and other primates, elephants cetaceans, birds( particularly corvids parrots and tits), cephalopods rodents and quite likely other animals(as very few have been extensively studied) all exhibit surprising intelligence however they often differ in how that intelligence is used.

Some like Cephalopods seem to use their intelligence to handle and manipulate themselves and their environment(The mimic octopus is a good point) but don't seem to be highly social(or at least not gregarious) others such as the Humboldt Squid are quite social traveling and hunting in schools that communicate through their skin. The most interesting outlaying point is that among most Cephalopods they die after mating(for males) or after their eggs have hatched(females) meaning there isn't an avenue for passing information or techniques onto the next generation through conventional learning.

Now that is a more extreme example than most of the other generally recognized intelligent animals.

Birds humans elephants and Cetaceans all possess complex linguistic libraries worthy evolutionary speaking to warrant at least in song birds and humans specific genes and specialized brain regions allow fine motor control of vocal organs. (Other primates do not necessarily share these traits) In general all of these animals including us, use sound to communicate for mating purposes or sexual selection. They however also use these systems to communicate with others of their kind or even other species(i.e. mixed bird flocks) Especally note compositional syntax in bird calls Dragons could similarly communicate through similar means showing territorial presence, mateing fitness and location among other things. Over time this could lead to more and more intelligent dragons simply because they were better able to communicate.

Another possible means for intelligence to develop is through memory driven tasks. Many animals stash things away for later for use at another time (i.e. Caching) or try and remember useful food sources(say trees bearing tasty fruit or a locality where tasty seals gather in the winter) highly intelligent animals also are shown to do particularly well at remembering details in the environment for their own gain whether they be future food sources and adapting when things change. If you rely on a hard coded genetic memory (i.e. go here at x time) then when conditions change your population can suffer significant losses as it takes generations for the species to adapt to unexpected cues. Memory flexibility can let you make changes in a single generation increasing survival in harsh conditions. Indirectly having a strong memory could feasibly lead to intelligence by setting up conditions for intelligence as nature has done many times before. For dragons this would be very useful as it could help them return to their horde or possibly other secret mini hordes that hide treasures until they can be moved to their main horde for instance.

These and other causes could be at play in any natural circumstances. Personally I would suspect that intelligence could possibly arrive from a great number of different paths as organisms adapt to their environment. Personally I normally find explanations that solely depend on a single variable to be highly unlikey as nature has show far greater complexity. For instance you could have a group of hording dragons who select for the mate with the largest horde the male dragons say might call out to try and convince a female dragon to visit their horde which would involve sexual selection memory based selection regarding their hordes location as well as their competition, then throw in say human conflict later on for further tipping of the dragon IQ by selecting for even more cunning and intelligent dragons.

Considering how varied Dragons are across fiction I would say there is no one right answer only ones that are more plausible than others. Honestly the only real issue with dragons is the limbs and flight limitations... The largest known animal to ever fly naturally in earths history is Quetzalcoatlus with about a 10 meter wingspan and height comparable to a Giraffe. note the hollow bones and other weight reduction mechanisms, quadrupedal stance, and evidence of significant muscle on their forearms/wings. Classic Dragons lack most of this weight reduction... (which personally leads more credence towards sexual selection for carrying forward less than ideal traits)

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Evolutionary pressure led to dragons' intelligence.

Before elves, dwarfs and humans came along, dragons were the apex predator, without great intelligence. However, competition/coexistence with those species forced dragons to evolve intelligence to survive. I suspect that their language abilities underwent similar selection pressure, the better to trick gold or jewel-possessing people out of their loot. Be very careful; the surviving dragons are tricky, tricky creatures!

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  • $\begingroup$ How’s that d8fferent from Mołot’s answer? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Dec 17 '16 at 12:33
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The human threat

I would say that all-in-all, the best answer is the human threat. Not, however, as competition, but as trophies. As some guy stated above, most animals are not intelligent, even though they do compete with humans for resource, because there is simply no incentive for us to kill them. But picture this: a group of man leaves town and returns with a slain dragon. This would obviously give them a lot of fame and prestige, for a huge, fire-breathing reptile is no easy prey, even if dumb, as you stated. So, there is not only the "humans kill dragons to survive" incentive, but also the "humans kill dragons for fame and glory", which is not as strong an incentive individually, but will have an effect on a much larger amount of humans - even those who do not need to kill a dragon to survive -.Thus, it is only logical that there would be a lot of technology(whatever that is in your fictional world) dedicated to the art of killing dragons. This makes it so that, at some point, their huge size and fire would not suffice to prevent them from dying in the hands of say, a heavy, anti-chopper machine-gun, or some pit dug near the dragon's lair filled with explosive mines on it's bottom.

Sexual selection

I'm not sure i need to stress this out, but dragons are pretty much the apex of physical strength in most fantasy AND sci-fi universes in which they exist. As such, there must be a way for some of them to stand out, some trait that would make a male dragon more attractive over some other male dragon. You could then say that they'd fight and the winner gets the girl. That however is not practical, given (a)A battle between two dragons would cause a MASSIVE amount of destruction, and they would quickly destroy any habitat they could survive on and (b) As baby dragons are usually few a far apart, time-wise, the species would most likely not survive if for every baby that was born, one dragon(the male loser) had to die. You could escape (b) by saying that baby dragons come in bunches. (a), however, is not easy to dismiss unless you turn dragons into elephant-sized crocodiles that can fly, which i doubt that you intend to do.

I'm not sure wether you've already found your solution or not, but i hope to be of help, if not by giving a good idea, helping you get rid of bad ones.

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Dragon fighting dragons

Most of the species don't fight to death among themselves. But dragon same as Humans do. Having no other proper natural predator, the only pick-the-fittest force are the dragons themselves. + Fire breath played the role

Human intelligence was probably made possible by good nutrient intake when we start using fire. Brain is very demanding energy wise. see http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-fire-makes-us-human-72989884/

In past they used to be just huge fire breathing brutes. But they were always well fed - thanks to fire in their mouth, so their brains could develop. And Dragons are also vicious - they have always killed their kin. In fight between dragons the intelligence was a great benefit - thus dumb dragons were eliminated leaving only he smart ones.

On top of that their long lives help with the wisdom.

Bonus fun fact from that explanation - other breath type dragons develop from fire breathing one only after the intelligence was developed!

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Some answerers claim that humans are smarter than they need to be. You don't need an IQ of 100 on average to hunt a deer (they say). This may or may not be true, but humans aren't the evolutionary success they are because they are good hunters. Lions are good hunters and lions are almost extinct.

Humans are at the top of evolution because of their complex social life. It is human society – with its differentiation of labor, knowledge transfer, and pooled creativity – that has led to human technology and, in turn, to human evolutionary dominance.

Complex human social life depends on language, and language (and living in a complex society) require intelligence.

Understanding what causes intelligence in reality, we can easily deduce what would cause intelligence in dragons:

Dragons evolve to be smart because they are social animals living in a complex society

(which, of course, they aren't, and the wisdom of real – that is, traditional – dragons is anthropomorphic in nature).

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Magic The dragon is over powered on all physical aspects, but they are an easy prey for magic. Animals do not need intelligence, because the wizards would not bother with such insignificant prey, if using the magic costs. The wizards are really smart people, so to survive, the dragons needs to be even smarter. Otherwise the wizards could simply magically trap the dragon and slay it in it's lair.

Optimisation The dragons use a lot of energy due to their size. They need to make constantly benefit-cost-analysis and optimise the use of their energy.

They cannot rise cattle in a way the humans can, but would benefit significantly if they could catch the cattle of the humans. Without intelligence they would end up too often in exhausting battles.

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  • $\begingroup$ Magic is not science, thus you have not answered the question $\endgroup$ – LiquidMetal Dec 16 '16 at 16:12
  • $\begingroup$ @LiquidMetal I do not think that the magic is out of the context in a fantasy setting. The magic is simply a way to explain a weakness. It depends on the lore, but in many lore the dragons do not have magic. Not having something relevant makes it an evident reason. You can put technology on the place of magic. Why the dragons have no technology, because of their structure is not good for tools. With technology there is that the dragon could be trapped to its lair if it fails to counter that by predicting it will happen. Catapults as the best dragon slaying machines is fairly meh of an idea. $\endgroup$ – user3644640 Dec 16 '16 at 22:05
  • $\begingroup$ The question specifically quotes another question as the frame of reference for this one which assumes the possibility of dragons without magic. $\endgroup$ – LiquidMetal Dec 18 '16 at 1:38
  • $\begingroup$ I interpret that more as a restriction that the dragons by themselves have no magic which would require intelligence. Here lack of magic is the best driving force for evolution. Technology is about the same, but it lacks the same ancient origin as the magic; caveman probably didn't do well against the dragons, but a shaman is a completely different case. Of course one could always solve everything with unicorns, but they are magically OP. $\endgroup$ – user3644640 Dec 19 '16 at 9:16
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If we look back on the two greatest sources of truths on dragons: Tolkein and Dungeons & Dragons, there are similar explanations.

In Tolkein, if dragons were not intelligent, the Hobbit would be a much less entertaining book. The conversation between Bilbo and Smaug would be rather dull.

In D&D, dragons are considered the hardest monster to conquer, and were typically reserved for the final rooms of dungeons. If they weren't intelligent, they would not make for as tough opponents. For one thing, your intelligence score in D&D corresponds with your magic ability, so in that system a magic wielding creature would need to have a high score there.

The connection between these two points are that humans had historically hunted dragons for one reason or another. So it's a simple matter of selection where the more intelligent of the dragons were able to avoid humans longer, giving them more opportunity to breed. Over time dragons numbers became more and more rare as they were hunted to lower numbers, meaning that those smart enough to lay low and be stealthy, survived longer. This is why in both Tolkein and D&D we find the dragons hiding in rooms for decades at a time.

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Magic

No, seriously. Dragons (or at least dragons on a Smaug-like scale) command fire-power (and flight abilities) rather greater than mere chemistry permits. If this is not nuclear, then it must be magical (as in, a force of nature which does not exist in our everyday world).

And most flavours of magic are intrinsically tricky. Magic, in some sense, resents being harnessed and commanded, and tries to turn upon its wielder.

Stupid dragons do not survive adolescence. They tend to auto-immolate. As, indeed, do young mages, if not discovered early and carefully tutored by elder and wiser mages from the guild. Dragons don't have a guild, so they have to be very smart indeed.

Someone else has mentioned octopus intelligence, in a largely asocial creature. I can't help thinking, that dragons must have eight vestigial tentacles....

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  • $\begingroup$ Based on the explanation of dragon physiology I linked at the top of the question I'm not so sure I agree that these dragons need magic, nor vestigial tentacles. $\endgroup$ – Zxyrra Dec 19 '16 at 11:55
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Depending on the ancient lore of the world, the dragons may trace their heritage farther into the past than humans. Perhaps they weren't always the apex predator, but tiny lizards running around among gods.

That would give them the same evolutionary pressures humans faced in a world surrounded by large animals who were both predators and hunting competition. Growing smarter would be one way to win this competition.

This would also imply that dragons used to be more sociable and less territorial than they are today. A lot of our intelligence comes from our ability communicate, and form complex plans with other people. Often, the people who succeeded the most (had the most children) were the ones who could predict or manipulate the actions of their tribe. Dragons would have to have something similar, where understanding a complex system would make them more likely to reproduce.

Note that there's no reason for this to be limited to dragons. Any of their contemporaries could also have gained intelligence this way.

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  • $\begingroup$ Your answer doesn't actually answer the question. You make no mention of evolutionary pressures that would contribute to dragons gaining intelligence. $\endgroup$ – Green Dec 17 '16 at 18:27
  • $\begingroup$ I've expanded the answer to explain why being a relatively-smaller creature could produce evolutionary pressure to gain intelligence. $\endgroup$ – James Beninger Dec 19 '16 at 16:55

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