For my story I thought of a race of sentient, intelligent reptilians, not unlike Warhammer's Lizardman in appearance. At the time when this story takes place, the civilization of this race has fallen to a Stone Age-type culture, from what used to be a civilization somewhat similar to Mesoamerican/Mesopotamian in appearance, and maybe in technology. I envision this race to be able to use magic, related to nature and the four elements. I also designed them as having very little capability for emotion, acting mostly on instinct, which would give them both aspects from real animals and a sentient race.

So my question is: could that former civilization have had things like decorations in architecture and craftwork, and perhaps some other forms of visual art, if they barely felt any type of emotion that might inspire them to create it? Additionally, to what extent is a religion viable in such a culture? I thought of something like a polytheistic religion with the gods, like their magic, being related to nature and the four elements.

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    $\begingroup$ You may want to watch out for a false dichotomy here. Instinct and emotion are not opposite numbers; generally rationality and emotion are the two sides of the human coin. Lots of animals clearly experience emotions. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Jul 20, 2017 at 0:46

2 Answers 2


Like the others have said, the main problem here is that not only are instincts and emotions not opposed, I'd go so far as to say emotions are instincts or rather, emotions are how sentient beings experience instincts. Because of this it's quite difficult to envision of a race that acts on instinct and is sentient but doesn't experience emotion.

It would make more sense to have them experience and/or process the emotions differently or experience different emotions. I would advise you to collect all of their instinctive reactions and envision for yourself how it would feel for them to experience these reactions. That's their base emotions. If you don't want them to "feel" emotional in the way humans do, you might say that these reactions happen subconsciously and the decisions based upon them are mostly just accepted as fact by their consciousness. For example, while a human being might be delighted by something delicious and improve their overall mood, the reaction of your reptilians may then play out in their conscious mind as "This is good food. I should eat more of it."

Evolution plays an important role here just as it does for emotions and aesthetics in humans. Humans like art because it makes them feel something, but that emotional reaction is also an instinct and it is one that evolved. It's likely that works of art come from an appreciation of good craftsmanship which is a useful trait. Furthermore, the ability to produce purely artistic pieces is also a sign of abundant resources, again a useful indicator of success. From there, it pretty much just progresses into symbolic abstraction of concepts.

Religion too is a much more instinctive than rational endeavour. Many scholars have surmised that humans may be evolutionarily predisposed to believe in gods or spirits. Children tend to be natural mind-matter dualists and they also exhibit the trait of a teleological world view - they believe that things are there for a purpose. The hypothesis goes that humans as inherently tool-using animals (a strongly defining trait maybe only second to language) tend to instinctively view things in terms of their use and usefulness and, as they "make" things will also instinctively assume that everything is made by someone - and for a purpose. From there a bigger, more powerful anthropomorphic being is extrapolated (it creates like us, only bigger - it must be like us, only bigger!).

Another factor is that humans have an overactive centre of pattern recognition, which means that we'll tend to see patterns and especially agency in things that may be coincidental. This is a basis for beliefs in fate as well as spirits and animism.

So to come back to your question: it is entirely possible and even quite likely for a largely instinct-driven race to have art and religion, only that their form and expression may be somewhat different. For specifics you really need to think about what instincts these reptilians have, why they have them (i.e. how they evolved) and then extrapolate from there how this would lead to religious assumptions and aesthetic expression and appreciation.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks, this is pretty helpful. I hadn't really thought out everything very well yet, but I knew I wanted to give them a very different way of thinking compared to humans, who also exist in the story. I wanted to have a human boy grow up in this culture so that his mind is "taught" to work differently from other humans, which would become apparent when he comes into contact with his own kind. I think your suggestion about emotions being more subconcious and the resulting acts being accepted as fact works pretty well. $\endgroup$ Jul 20, 2017 at 8:28
  • $\begingroup$ I don't really envision them to have evolved from an earlier lifeform, rather that their species was 'created'/born under a giant tree from which they would spread out and inhabit the world. I think their 'art' in that sense wouldn't necessarily focus on aesthetic aspects, but perhaps more functional purposes, like murals portraying events of the past. Other forms of decoration would probably be in service of their religion. $\endgroup$ Jul 20, 2017 at 8:32
  • $\begingroup$ That sounds like it could be interesting, especially if you combine the different teaching of their culture with the natural tendencies of how human brains and emotions work to create a unique mix not quite like both. For example, your reptilians might not have an understanding of being in a good or bad mood - your boy will have moods (and mood swings) but maybe never learn how to communicate this as their language doesn't have a word for it. Also, even without evolution it may be useful to think about why they have the traits they have. $\endgroup$
    – Pahlavan
    Jul 20, 2017 at 8:40

What we find when humans are robbed of emotion, say by brain trauma or pharmaceuticals, is that they are unable to exercise their rationality. (Link: http://www.smh.com.au/national/feeling-our-way-to-decision-20090227-8k8v.html) Reptiles, even though they are sometimes hard for us mammals to read, are almost entirely driven by emotion. That emotional core in humans is even colloquially referred to as "the lizard brain" (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/where-addiction-meets-your-brain/201404/your-lizard-brain).

In Star Trek, they explored the idea of a nearly emotionless species with the vulcans. Ultimately, to make the characterization even remotely believable (even with low budget 1960's acting) they had to morph their vision and characterize the vulcans as intensely emotional but with a near worship of rigid self control.


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