We humans are quite full of ourselves

It is one of the conceits of our race that we are quite full of our own intelligence. Hopefully, one day we’ll run across a vastly more intelligent species and be put in our collective place. But until then, we’ll keep on calling our own intelligence the best thing since sliced bread — something, I should point out, that our intelligence invented, and still thinks itself mighty clever for having come up with.

Orcs are a classic fantasy villain race.  They are anthropomorphic, but vastly lacking in intelligence in comparison to humans.

Orcs are a classic fantasy villain race. They are anthropomorphic, but vastly lacking in intelligence in comparison to humans.


In nearly every fantasy universe, humans are the smartest creatures around. Even elves, the high variety of which are frequently portrayed as wiser than people, are really just humans with pointy ears. If you don’t believe me, just ask a half-elf, or a quarter-elf, or a third-elf. Now compare that against all of the stupid races in fantasy universes: goblins, orcs, trolls, ogres, etc. They’re all so dumb one wonders how they even manage to put their armor on in the morning.

To make up for their incredible stupidity, these creatures are also given incredible strength. The human protagonists in the story must therefore rely on their cunning, their wit, and their intelligence to triumph over the enemies. Even magic is nothing more than a form of intelligence made physically manifest — the art of spellcasting is portrayed as an academic endeavor, in which the most studious become the most powerful. The concept of fantasy magic is the ultimate in human intelligence navel-gazing.

Even in non-fantasy media, the protagonists typically defeat their human rivals by outsmarting them. The movies in which the protagonist defeats his nemesis simply by beating on him more powerfully are few and far between — and of those that do exist, most of them involve sport, an activity so frequently fetishized by commentators that all connections to reality are lost. You simply can’t have a compelling story without a triumph of the mind. It’s understandable, really: while our eyes merely gaze at the movie screen, it’s our own mind that is truly watching it, and minds do harbor sympathies for other minds.

We value human intelligence so greatly because we are the only beings on the planet who possess anything close to it. When we triumph over a lion, a bear, or a hippopotamus in nature, we do so not by brute force, but through our intelligence. In one-on-one hand-to-hand combat, a fight against an elephant isn’t remotely fair. Allow the human use of a simple hand-held weapon such as a spear and the odds tighten considerably. Now give him a modern weapon that represents the apex of human intelligence — say, an F-22 joint strike fighter — and the elephant is easily reduced to a cloud of pink mist that has no chance whatsoever of retaliating against the human roaring away at Mach 2 a couple miles above it.

It is no surprise, then, that our fantasy worlds mimic very much the real world. Even though we make our villain fantasy races anthropomorphic (an orc is frequently portrayed as being a human with prominent boar features, for instance), even though we give them the ability to speak language, they represent nothing more than the animals of our own world, which we are used to accustomed to dominating completely. Are the fantasy creatures more intelligent? Certainly. It’s not a fair fight if the man-sized enemies don’t use weapons. But ultimately all that they really are is animals. No wonder fantasy story lines follow the races of player characters: humans, elves, dwarves, gnomes, and others — all of which are pretty much the same as humans, sharing the same relative physical weaknesses, but possessing the same mental prowesses.

So it makes sense that human intelligences are most entertained by the dealings of other human intelligences, and that is thus what our fictions focus upon. It makes sense that in our fantasies we conduct battle against either humans or animals, because that is all we really know about fighting against in our own world — except in fantasy even the animals frequently look like humans because we really are that obsessed with ourselves. Yes, we humans really are quite full of ourselves, but seeing the complete lack of alternatives, who can blame us?

16 Responses to “We humans are quite full of ourselves”

  1. Knacker Says:

    I find almost any fantasy inspired by Lord of the Rings pointless as hell. This includes World of Warcraft.

    Also, I think you really overestimate the use of this device. I can think of a lot of major fiction that don’t use it.

    War of the Worlds
    Earthbound
    The Matrix
    Dragonball Z

    I could probably go on but I don’t feel like it.

  2. Jeff V Says:

    This reminds me of Greek Mythology. The Greeks were very interested in cunning. Remember, it was not the brawn of Achilles that defeated Troy. Rather it was the trickery of Odysseus.

    It pays to be wily.

  3. Cyde Weys Says:

    Knacker: Three of your four examples are more aptly classed as science fiction than high fantasy. Science fiction has a bit of a different trope regarding non-human intelligences — namely, that there are some.

    As for Earthbound, I vaguely remember it as being an SNES game that my friend played, but beyond that, not much. Reading its Wikipedia article, I see that it’s set in the modern day rather than a high fantasy universe. So it doesn’t really fit what I was talking about either.

  4. William (green) Says:

    I’m upset at the F-22, designed primarily as a fighter, being referred to as the joint strike fighter, when that name should clearly go to the F-35, the current holder of the Joint Strike Fighter title. I definitely like the idea of getting breakfast with an F-22, or an F-35, and the Marine version of the F-35 would only make things more fun.

    As an aside, if sims are any kind of accurate, putting me in any kind of aircraft would result in friendly forces shooting me down.
    While I was still on the runway.
    With my engines completely inactive.
    And, unfortunately, my landing gear, as well.

    In case you’re questioning the accuracy of such a sim, it was in Falcon 4. I don’t do flight sims.

  5. Knacker Says:

    Oh, high fantasy. Gotcha.

    My eyes tend to glaze over whenever I’m reading about orcs and trolls and the amulet of gambelon or whatever

  6. Knacker Says:

    A reason that humans are the intelligent ones in fantasy could be that all the other races have some fantastical element that makes them awesome, or worth writing about. What would be the point of drawing some fantastical creature on your notebook in highschool if it doesn’t have the ability to shoot fireballs out of its eyes, or to kill 100 demons with a single swipe of a sword, or to summon the forty billion black ghosts of hell from the pits of tamarain to rend the souls of their enemies…

    Humans are just humans. But they’ve still got to be in the story, because you’ve got to have someone you can relate to. It’s just convenient to make them cope with all these threats by being smarter than everything else.

  7. Cyde Weys Says:

    William: Military hardware isn’t my specialty.

    Knacker: Or, in a very interesting twist on explaining how humans fit into a world of much more fantastical creatures, in one of Larry Niven’s Ringworld/Man-Kzin War books humans are unique by virtue of being the luckiest race. I kid you not. Some aliens have been breeding humans for luck for generations, and the luckiest humans have galactic events bending to their subconscious will.

  8. apotheon Says:

    Another option for making humans “special” would be to make them fantastical, too (as Niven did, except I’m speaking of sword and sorcery fantasy here). For instance, give them an inherent magical potential that other races don’t have (something often attributed to elves instead).

    In any case, the whole “humans have ta be smurt ta be special” thing doesn’t really hold water. Note that humans are often not the smartest thing in fantasy realms. They’re quite often the most populous, the most “flexible” and “adaptable”, or the most virtuous, but they’re are quite often only tied for smartest along with elves and halflings (or whatever else is allied with them). Sometimes, humans aren’t even the smartest — they’re just the standard for average intelligence. For instance, elves in Pathfinder RPG get a +2 to Intelligence, and in D&D certain subraces of elves often get an Intelligence bonus as well (such as the Gray Elves).

    What Cyde is talking about here, whether he strayed from the point or not, is not that humans are always the smartest so much as that the traditional “villain” races are the stupidest. Notice that, in both D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder RPG, half-orcs have a -2 intelligence. That really says some awful things about the intelligence of actual orcs, I think — and it only gets worse from there when discussing creatures like goblins, ogres, and trolls.

    Ironically, Tolkein, the wellspring from which the tropes of most modern sword and sorcery fantasy sprang, did not portray all villainous races as stupid. While some of the vaguely differentiated subraces of orks in Middle Earth might have been mentally challenged, others were every bit as smart as humans, with an extra dash of dangerous cunning thrown in for good measure. They didn’t have pig snouts and tusks, either. See Real Orks if you want more on the subject of orks in general — I’ve written a bit about the mistreatment of orks by fantasy setting designers a bit myself.

    Anyway, in the vast majority of modern takes on sword and sorcery fantasy, the villainous races are generally depicted as droolingly stupid. Not only that, but they’re all ugly, too. The closest we get to the same treatment for “good guy” races is generally the dwarves — short, bearded, and stubborn. That doesn’t sound like “ugly and stupid” to me. It just sounds like “short, bearded, and stubborn”.

    Hmm. I think I’ll make dwarves misshapen and decidedly dumb the next time I design races for a campaign setting, and perhaps give orcs (or orks) superior intelligence with no tusks or pig snouts. That sounds like fun.

  9. Cyde Weys Says:

    apotheon: I do tend to meander and stray from my original thesis in the process of writing something, so you’re perfectly right that the idea of villain races as being incredibly stupid carries more water than the idea of human races always being incredibly smart. And yeah, the perversion of orks shows there’s been a tendency over time to get rid of outliers that portray villainous races as intelligent, thus conforming to the party line of really strong and really stupid.

    Maybe the closest thing to a smart villain race in D&D are the ancient dragons, which are said to be ridiculously smart (something like 35 intelligence??). But they sure don’t act like it. That intelligence figure must just be used for calculating spells, because the dragons are otherwise entirely stupid, pointlessly hoarding gold and treasure while otherwise doing nothing with their lives. Show me a dragon civilization that dwarfs anything man has accomplished — heck, just show me a dragon that has access to smarter tactics than humans in battle and actually uses them — and I’ll believe that high intelligence score. Until then, it’s really just a glorified spell modifier.

  10. apotheon Says:

    In my games, dragons tend to either be truly alien intelligences, so far beyond humans that they’re not even comprehensible in their motivations (and certainly outclass humans in terms of their tactical acumen), or essentially glorified animals. Never, in any game of mine, have PCs been able to kill a dragon with a really high intelligence. In short, I agree with you on the subject of dragons.

  11. Cyde Weys Says:

    One good counter-example to my thesis is the mind flayer race from D&D. They’re apparently a lot smarter than humans, and have the hyper-advanced, multi-dimensional civilization to back it up. Why they still rely on eating other intelligences as a food source is a mystery. That would seem to be a serious liability. So this is one exception to the general rule that villainous races are stupid animal-analogues. The only problem is that, during actual gaming sessions, mind flayers are pretty much like any other monster. The intelligence score only comes into play as a spellcasting modifier.

  12. apotheon Says:

    I’ve never used illithids much in my own games, so I haven’t really considered the matter of why they need to eat other intelligences. It occurs to me, though, that if I were to run a campaign with a lot of illithid activity, I might say they got that brilliant (and weird) by way of consuming intelligence. They suffer this liability because it’s necessary to maintain that high level of intelligence. Over the years, then, perhaps they have evolved to the point that they simply cannot survive without it. They might even regard the steps they took to modify themselves in that manner as a mistake, because they have effectively locked themselves out of a different evolutionary path where they might have achieved such intelligence a little more gradually, but without the requirement of constantly feeding that intelligence by consuming the intelligence of others.

    In fact, they don’t even need to necessarily die without devouring other intelligences: if you had an IQ of 250, and knew you’d drop like a rock to about 70 IQ if you didn’t eat others’ brains (in kind of a withdrawal crash as evident in other addiction-like needs), I’m sure you’d be sorely tempted to eat others’ brains. Thus, the illithid race — which may have developed an intricately contrived system of ethics over the years for the purpose of justifying their own predatory activities.

    You’re right, though — in concept, at least, illithids are designed to be truly alien, superior intelligences, in a manner even dragons are not. GMs are just too limited in imagination, far too often, to be able to run them properly.

    Now I want to run a game with major illithid activity. Could be fun.

  13. Cyde Weys Says:

    All of this talk about D&D requires me to make a confession: I’ve never actually played D&D except for one mini-campaign in third grade, which was understandably not taken very seriously. Despite that, I have read all of the 4E rulebooks and do want to try it out some time; I simply don’t know enough people who are interested in it. So while I’m able to talk about the game a lot because I am deeply steeped in its culture, what I say is by no means authoritative because it isn’t based in actual play experience. The closest I’ve come is those eight or nine ascensions in NetHack.

  14. Knacker Says:

    I don’t really like the idea that you have to make fantasy stories that use the same characters in the same roles as every other fiction author who preceded you. But that’s just part of the game; you’ve loved and been reading these stories all your lives, why wouldn’t you want to continue it?

    I can understand why you like this stuff, I just don’t. I’m a sci-fi and horror nut, because those genres usually make creativity a foremost concern.

  15. Cyde Weys Says:

    Knacker: I’m with you. I much prefer reading science fiction to fantasy, because it tends to explore deeper ideas and is more original. But when I’m writing fiction, I almost invariably choose to write science fiction heavily disguised in fantasy tropes to the point that you could read it all the way through without realizing that all of the “magic” in the story is actually perfectly explainable by technology. Why do I do this? Because I find myself unable to take any liberties with reality. Nearly every trope that makes science fiction workable — warp travel, abundance of alien species, etc. — is completely unrealistic.

  16. apotheon Says:

    quoth Cyde Weys:

    So while I’m able to talk about the game a lot because I am deeply steeped in its culture, what I say is by no means authoritative because it isn’t based in actual play experience.

    Frankly, Cyde, actually playing the game (of which I’ve done a heck of a lot in the last almost-thirty-years) is just anecdotal experience for this topic. Even I, having put more hours into D&D as a hobby than some people have into their careers, don’t have enough direct experience of the game to call it authoritative or statistically significant, because there are so many people out there who have played a bunch of D&D without me. Being thoroughly familiar with the books, having been immersed in the culture over that thirty-ish years of time, and reading metric assloads of swords and sorcery fiction over the span of my life, however, provides me with a much more authoritative and statistically significant sampling of the trends — and that tells me you’re very much on the right track.

    quoth Knacker:

    I can understand why you like this stuff, I just don’t. I’m a sci-fi and horror nut, because those genres usually make creativity a foremost concern.

    Actually, I don’t like replaying the same crap over and over. At the very least, I try to explore a new character concept in each game — and I prefer game settings that diverge from the norm in fundamental ways (whether that be a superficially subtle or obvious difference is secondary to how deeply the difference goes). I’m also a fan of sci-fi, and sometimes like some horror mixed into both sci-fi and fantasy.

    Pure “horror”, however, is far too often retread tripe for my taste. Every once in a while I read some, but most of the time it’s not worth my time. It’s generally too limiting a genre.

    My major problem with fantasy isn’t its potential. By definition, “fantasy” is nothing but potential for new ideas, new concepts, and new themes. The problem is that so many fantasy authors are just crappy authors, and the fanbase is weirdly skewed so that a lot of mediocre (or worse) writers are hailed as among the genre’s greats just because they can string a sentence together in a manner that is easily parsed. In science fiction, on the other hand, the fanbase seems to have a generally higher set of standards.

    quoth Cyde Weys:

    Nearly every trope that makes science fiction workable — warp travel, abundance of alien species, etc. — is completely unrealistic.

    I think you’re reading the wrong science fiction — but then, it seems like Knacker is reading the wrong fantasy, too.

    Try Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Joe Haldenman, Neal Stephenson, and Charles Stross for examples of science fiction that isn’t full of “unworkable” tropes. Also, me — but I haven’t gotten anything published (nor tried to) yet. I also probably fall in the category of fantasy writers that doesn’t just rehash the “same old stuff” but, again, nothing’s published. In fact, the only fiction of mine that’s likely to be available anywhere is pre-first-draft stuff that, predictably, sucks.