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On Speculative Evolution

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So, a while back in the OOC there was interest in me writing a rudimentary guide on speculative evolution from at least a couple other players, because it might be helpful from a worldbuilding perspective. Here's what I've got. It's a little brief, but honestly the links are likely to be of more use to people than the advice I could give.

Speculative evolution is the imagining of potential paths evolution can take--how life would evolve on a tidally locked planet or beneath the seas of Titan; what would have happen if dinosaurs had never gone extinct. It's sort of alternate history, but for biology. As an attempt to imagine alternative routes evolution has gone down, it's been useful in scientific education, as (sometimes uncannily accurate) thought experiments, and as a method of worldbuilding. Since a few people have expressed interest in this, I thought I’d give some brief advice and provide some links to some resources.

While potentially time-consuming, speculative evolution can add additional richness to a setting. It moves Earth, and Earth-like life, a bit further away from the center of the setting, and this can be desirable--if you're trying to make a setting that seems alien, then well used speculative evolution can make it seem alien while not making it seem random. It can also generate interesting play, though is not a substitute for an interesting character.

When designing hypothetical lifeforms, it's important to understand the diversity of what is possible. The body plans (general body shapes, like how birds stand on two legs, have a head, wings, etc.) we have on Earth are limited, not only by the environment but by what body plans happened to evolve to begin with. Similar environments acting on similar body plans can lead to similar solutions. Icthyosaurs and cetaceans, for instance, are often given as examples of convergent evolution, but both evolved from carnivorous tetrapods with tails. Their similarities must be seen in that light, and it must be remembered that squid and sea snakes fill similar niches as dolphins but have very different forms. This can make speculation about extraterrestrial life rather difficult. Convergent evolution with Earthly life, while not impossible, will be less likely.

Environmental constraints and basic physics will result in some similarities, of course. Fast-swimming organisms are going to be streamlined because that reduces energy expenditure. Creatures that live in harsh environments will have some sort of protection against the elements. Individual giant cells will run into the square-cube law. Well done speculative evolution balances the knowledge of these limits with an appreciation for the possibilities we have not encountered.

Knowledge of biology is helpful, here, but it's not necessary to be a specialist (in my experience, most aren't). Looking through a few projects people have done and reading parts of the tutorials the Speculative Evolution wiki provides can be very helpful and compensate for what you don't know. I, for instance, have relatively little understanding of biochemistry, but I like to include alien biochemistries in my work. So, I visit the wiki's alternative biochemistry page, and in relatively little time I can derive a general biology for my world's organisms. I may have them use a totally alien biochemistry, or I may simply utilize the alternative photosynthetic and blood pigments.

Some of the most famous projects are the Speculative Dinosaur Project, Snaiad, and Furaha. More popular media includes The Future is Wild and Dougal Dixon--but those can't be as easily accessed online.

The Speculative Dinosaur Project -- Specworld is one of the older projects out there, dating back to 2001. Its premise is quite simple, and used by many other projects: The K-Pg extinction event never happened. However, Specworld was collaborated on by multiple people, several of whom was a trained paleontologist, for years. Newer discoveries have thrown some kinks in the worldbuilding, and last I heard about the project the people who made it were still talking about reworking it to improve it.

I highly recommend the Speculative Dinosaur project to... well, anyone, really. But if you're interested in having your world be an alternative Earth, where evolution took a different path, I think you will find it useful.

Snaiad -- One of the best xenobiology projects, Snaiad's equivalent to vertebrates have their mouths near the hips and their genitalia near their heads. This is a novel design to say the least, and the creator provided an excellent reason for why this evolved to be the case. It's a good project to get one thinking about some of the alternative paths life could have taken.

Furaha -- Furaha is another xenobiology project, which I recommend primarily because the creator has written several useful articles on biomechanics. The alien design is also very good, though there is less of it.

Beyond these, of course, there are numerous projects on the forums. Many of them make for good reading. In addition, I'm working on several minimally detailed worlds--each with a sapient species, and all but one not derived from Terran life--that you can use freely for your own purposes. These will each be separate posts that, once posted, will be listed below.