Elves have a long life and in most settings, they only have children after a century or two.

Would sub races like, drow and aquatic elves really evolve without any magic intervening?

Considering that humans of the same setting are like us, pretty much everyone is the same.

I think that is really unlikely unless the mutation on the DNA of their children were more radical than on humans.

Edit: I didn't express myself well, I do know they will evolve but I mean will they evolve significantly so that subraces like aquatic elves will exist, since they have +-1/5 of the generation that humans have. And do different but similar species, like elves and humans, could have different mutation rate?

I am building is a fantasy world with magic but with roots in science, I don't like answers like "because it's magic".

The elves in my world do have tetrachromacy and bigger pupil and iris, the fourth receptor allows them to see ultraviolet, all this to make their long-range vision more plausible, and because of this, I defined that they evolved in an environment with preys that hide really well if don't see ultraviolet. And also that magic emit ultraviolet light making them better than other races at perceiving magic around.

Is really hard to choose only one answer, each kind of complements the other.

Edit 2: I found an article online that says that children of older fathers have more mutations in their DNA, I don't how much of this is true but maybe this could justify bigger mutation rates on elves.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ In many worlds, humans and elves can interbreed. By pure biology, in those worlds humans and elves are subspecies of the same (genetically speaking) hominid species. $\endgroup$
    – pojo-guy
    Sep 21, 2017 at 2:50
  • $\begingroup$ But those are commonly know as half-elfs, want to know if would be possible for this sub races evolve due to nature, place they lived. $\endgroup$ Sep 21, 2017 at 4:08
  • $\begingroup$ As a side note, the elf subraces are almost always depicted as either being created that way or transformed, especially those as far from the "norm" as your examples, the drow and aquatics. $\endgroup$ Sep 21, 2017 at 17:46
  • $\begingroup$ The difference between a drow and a normal elf is usually no more than between humans from different regions. They aren't really sub species unless you think race is a real differentiation within the human species. $\endgroup$ Sep 21, 2017 at 18:00

4 Answers 4


I should say that I agree with the answers given by akaioi and PipperChip - evolving is possible and will happen, but very slow. On the other hand I haven't seen some parts which I see as important in their answers, so I would like to add to the said above and before me the following:

To akaioi's answer: there is no such thing as a "purely cosmetic" modifications in evolving. If a color of feathers/hair/skin is changing (differ from the one parents/the main part of population have) it is due to either random mutation or adaptation to the surroundings (in the last case most probably the feature will acquire in one of/both parents but in a less expressive manner or it might not acquire at all, check this link, part №4 http://www.biology-questions-and-answers.com/mendel.html).

This said I'd like to add to PipperChip's answer that skin color is a result of color pigment presence intensity in the skin cells, which means that in cases where there is no need for skin to have a certain amount of the pigment it will change the color to a less expressed one. To put it simple - if you take a group of white skinned ppl and put them all in the equator area they will morph firstly into darker individuals after several generations being constantly exposed to intense sunshine/UVR (ultraviolet radiation) and after several more generations they will acquire black/brown skin tone. Same goes for black/brown skinned ppl and for the first group if they are moved to less exposed to UVR area – after several generations they will become/go back to white skin tone(d). For skin tone explanation (in case you’re not familiar with this) just read about melaninum/melanin.

What I mean is that mentioned Drow would not keep the skin tone of ebonite black, as it is in FR universe, unless magic.

Also evolution for isolated group of any species is slower comparing to the not isolated group of the same species due to not having same amount of factors to influence evolving process.

Adding to Yours “Edit 2”:

When we are talking about mutations in DNA code caused by parents age it is true. But you should understand that in over 90% of cases when such mutations acquire they are not beneficial, but damaging ones. For example the trisomy of the 21st pair of chromosomes causes down’s syndrome (easy brief article on wiki will let you know more about it if needed without going too deep in genetics). The reason for this is that cells being old have some mutations of their own that appeared during individual’s life, and now not all of them work always as they were supposed to. This brings up a problem of incorrect transcription, cooperation of parental DNA chains and sometimes in addition of extra parts to the final code (three instead of two chromosomes of the 21 pair type as in the example) and thus – deviations of different scales and harshness in the developing individual.

When we are talking about beneficial mutations/modifications they might sometime happen spontaneously, but this event has a very low chance of happening and in cases when there are no other individuals with same feature or the feature is recessive (not dominant), which would help to keep new feature in the further generations, even the most beneficial mod might be lost for the species.

That’s why if we are talking about colors of butterflies, for example, that live in the industrial area, most probably after couple generations they will be primary of grey/black color (in case those are the most often met colors of their surroundings), even though they used to be white or any other bright color in the first place with small variation towards black/gray. The reason for this is that all the well seen due to being bright butterflies will be eaten by birds meanwhile the grey/black ones have better chances of survival.

This example goes more to what's been said in the first place, but the main mechanism is same.

Thank You for Your attention. All the best.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ What if the Drows lived underground like in FR, but the place has minerals that emit UVR enough for the ebony skin be needed, I don't know if such minerals exist or are at least theoretically possible. Or the food at the local has something that stimulates the production of melanin? $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2017 at 15:49
  • $\begingroup$ FR is a fantasy world, so there might be crystals that produce UVR, but in RL there are no such crystals. Minerals might produce light though but only when exposed to UV specter or being broken/scratched/etc. (energy being set free and as free energy needs to take some form it usually takes a light form, for example during explosion appears a fire, which is actually just a shape of energy of this explosion). en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… $\endgroup$
    – Hirokuro
    Sep 22, 2017 at 19:02
  • $\begingroup$ Also, minerals that produce any kind of light in the underground world would allow Drow to use their darkvision as main. Unless those minerals produce “dark” light en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultraviolet. As far as I remember the texts of Drizzt's early ages they use infravision 95% of the time or more, which means there was not enough of any kind of light specter in most areas and darkvision requires to have at least minimal light source (even cats won’t be able to see in a place where there is absolute darkness). $\endgroup$
    – Hirokuro
    Sep 22, 2017 at 19:02
  • $\begingroup$ About food – that might be possible but the problem is that underground life forms are always 1st – blind/have very bad eyesight and 2d – colorless. Color, as said above in an answer, is a mechanism of adaptation to the environment. In cases when everything is blind and it is always absolute darkness around color responsible parts of DNA are not being expressed to save energy (prevent useless spent of it). $\endgroup$
    – Hirokuro
    Sep 22, 2017 at 19:02
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for clarifying my doubts, in the case of the Drows I will need to use something that seen scientifically but it's entirely accurate. But the elves were only an examples there many more cases that I will need to study how to make more credible. $\endgroup$ Sep 23, 2017 at 20:58

Evolution Works With Generations, Not Over Time

Just a quick review: evolution is the combination of two ideas: "descent with modification" and "selection." If you have these two things happening to a group of creatures, evolution happens.

With every generation of a species, some modifications arise. For example, maybe a child develops tetrachromacy whereas the parents did not have this trait. Or perhaps some other desirable or helpful trait gets passed down and amplified. Either way, this is descent with modification.

Selection is just the idea that a creature's environment (be it natural or artificial) will favor some traits over others. Maybe tetrachromacy allows this child to better observe their surroundings and enables the child to survive longer and have more children, or perhaps it's a very desirable trait.

Combine these two ideas and you get the basics of evolution. The real important bit here is that evolution only requires some selective process, babies, and sex. If those things exist, evolution does too.

Some Details

The causes of speciation is the same causes of races/subraces. If you get a bunch of redheads and strand them on an habitable island, you'll get a race of red-headed people. If dark skin prevents people from getting killed, the people left to breed will have dark skin and you'll get a race (subrace?) of dark-skinned people.

Elves breeding much more slowly than humans means their evolution will be much slower, but still happening. With enough time and factors, sub-races (or just races?) will evolve. Remember, the causes of speciation cause sub-races, and you can exploit these to give evolution a little boost. So maybe the founding Drow were dark skinned, moved to a different place, and the dark-skinned trait was passed on (this is known as the founder effect.)

Evolution generally requires that traits be present in a population in order to be enhanced. You won't get a new generation of elves suddenly able to breath underwater without some magic or genetic engineering. They could, however, get better at holding their breath, swimming, and so on.

In short: yes, evolution happens to elves, too

  • $\begingroup$ It should be noted that D&D classification of race and subrace imply that all of them- elves, dwarves, humans, etc.- can interbreed and there should be half elf / half orc and all manner of hybrids. If they wanted to be scientifically accurate, Wizards of the Coast would label "races" as "species" and "subraces" as "races." Half-elves are usually considered a product of human/elf unions, so they would be the interesting hybrids like coywolves, mules/hinny, zebroids, or ligers. Either way, "race" is a term modern science avoids using, and D&D uses in some unusual ways. $\endgroup$
    – PipperChip
    Sep 22, 2017 at 3:47

Here's a thought... In stories I have read, there are a couple salient facts about elves:

  • They are not numerous

  • They live in out-of-the-way places

We can work with this. Imagine small, isolated communities of elves. If each small elf-clan sticks to itself, any mutation which shows up has a far greater chance of spreading through the community; this is the stay-at-home version of the founder effect.

To clarify ... imagine a city of ten thousand elves. One little elf is a mutant and has white hair. The chances of his mutation spreading throughout the whole city is minuscule. But if he lives in a clan of 50, his white-haired children will be a way larger proportion of the population. A little luck, a little contingency, and before long you have a whole little tribe of proto-Drow!

Update: A further note on "contingency". If a mutation is beneficial it has a better chance of spreading. If it is purely cosmetic, it's a question of chance (hence better odds in a small, isolated group).


Yes but obviously evolution would be much slower. The faster a species breeds, the faster it evolves.

Aquatic elves would be the exception only because requirements to breath underwater is radically different to air breathers. Legs are not needed so the whole body would end up being radically different.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .