Everyone is a Person (But That Doesn’t Mean They’re Not Weird)

Eppy wants me to play Ironclaw with him so I can play a seven-penised, pregnant zebra woman.

The colony Efwehasht

The subtle axial tilt and mid-habitable zone orbit of Efwehasht (“Arbor”) make for a wide, verdant temperate zone. The three smallest continents cover much of the northern zone, while the southern hemisphere is dominated by vast, rocky deserts.

In the temperate zone lives a robust and varied ecosystem. Many subtle niches exist, including a mid-sized predator called the “awkweh”, an arboreal ambush hunter camouflaged to look like the leaf/baleen of the “hyeshyehasht”, the  “filter tree”. The awkweh leaps from above with a partner onto any human-sized prey.

A hundred generations ago, the Great Parents of the Efwehasht people gave them gifts to protect them. One such gift is the mass of 25cm quills in two or four stripes down their backs. When scared, their quills stand up on end and rattle. The quills have barbed tips, teaching an inexperienced awkweh a lesson.

Those of the Carryer caste trim their quills to 2cm stubs to show obedience. Among the Etyo people, who have no Carryer caste, the trimmed quills are a sign of philosophical maturity and an indication that the individual no longer fears death.

In all societies, the warriors among them decorate their quills with heraldic patterns, a tradition that continues with today’s intertribal sports teams. The Kopeh people paint patterns onto each quill, while the Pshemet warriors, possessed of their people’s four rows of quills, instruct their apprentices to write a bragging form of ancestral supplication poetry along each one in tiny letters.

A mottled brown pattern covers their skin and they consider symmetrical patterns beautiful.

Their eyes are large and dark, providing them with good vision in the dim forests in which they live. When they venture outside of those forests, they cover their eyes with goggles.

The hair on their head feels stiff and quill-like (though these hairs lack barbs), but underneath grows a soft fur, though most of their bodies are otherwise hairless.

Women grow fatter toward the end of the year as they approach winter and time for hibernation, growing breasts and becoming fatter than the men. While they will have sex with each other at any time of the year as part of any intimate relationship, this fattening indicates that a woman is actually ovulating, a visual indicator to males.

The principles of creation

In Human Contact, one of the types of Minutiæ you’re required to create is the physiological description of the colonists — humans who have taken an evolutionary path separate from that of the Academics.

The rules themselves go into this a little bit, asking a couple of central questions:

  • What environmental factors have shaped their bodies?
  • What colors or patterns are their skin?
  • How hairy are they? Where is their hair?
  • How tall are they?
  • How muscular, fat, and boney are they?
  • Which of these change with ethnicity, sex, class, or distinctions unique to this world?

Let’s break those down a little.

What environmental factors have shaped their bodies?

The major environmental factors for you and me as residents of our particular Earth are:

Gravity is 1G. Most of us are about 1.7m tall. Greater gravity will favor shorter, more heavily-muscled bodies, while lower gravity will tend to free the body to be taller and more energy-efficient.

An atmosphere of primarily nitrogen with some oxygen and a scattering of other elements. Adult lung capacity is around 6l. People who live at extreme altitudes have greater lung capacity (and larger thoraxes to hold the larger lungs). Other species of hominin might need to filter out toxins or safely break ozone into regular oxygen.

Temperatures between -50°C and 85°C. That’s a pretty broad range, but under the right circumstances, a planet could get a little warmer or a little colder and still support life as we know it, at least in parts of that world. We are relatively hairless as mammals go, in order to effectively dissipate heat because we evolved close to the equator. Had we evolved from some sort of arctic ape, we might all be covered in fur or layers of fat.

The planet is only 25% land and only a small portion of that is inhabitable by humans— about 2% of the planet. We spend a lot of time (historically) walking from one habitable spot to another, both seasonally and as the planet’s climate has changed. That’s given us our ability to walk tremendous distances in our many migrations. A planet with a more genial ecology might favor people who can run fast (instead of far), or might take to the water with webbed feet and half-hour breath holding capacity.

Half of humans live within 200km of the coast. We’re a largely littoral species.

Those who live in areas with more exposure to the sun have greater amounts of melanin in our skin, making it darker brown, which protects from vitamin D poisoning. A few groups living in the north with little sun exposure have little melanin so they can get enough vitamin D. Some bodies substitute iron for melanin, producing reddish skin and hair, protecting (a little) from sunburn while allowing for vitamin D synthesis.

What colors or patterns are their skin?

We know that iron and melanin can color skin. Other hominins might produce other pigments for display, camouflage, or fashion.

How hairy are they? Where is their hair?

Homo Sapiens Sapiens (that’s you and me) have a mane like baboons. In some places, we have heavy body hair and many of us grow beards, but very few humans have true fur. Other species might have porcupine-like spines, rhinoceros-like horns or shells, or otter-like inborn wet suits. Others might be as hairless as dolphins.

How tall are they?

The Maasai are very tall and thin — their tallest, thinnest ancestors survived the sun by presenting less body surface to it. Their average male height is about 2.2m. The Aka, on the other hand, constrained by natural resources, grow to only 1.2m. The hominin species Homo Floresiensis grew only a meter or so tall (surrounded by pygmy elephants and other island-constrained animals), evolving a neurological structure that allowed their tiny heads to contain plentiful brainpower to create fires and tools.

Homo Floresiensis represents a breaking of the bottom limit of what paleoanthropologists thought was possible for tool-using primate; we’ve never seen brain structure as sophisticated (rearranged as it is) in such a small skull.

On the other hand, we know of no upper limit to primate size. Gigantopithecus may have stood as much as 3m tall, more than the story of a building. At that height, it probably weighed 540kg, or the weight of a small car. If such a creature could domesticate animals, construct tools and speak, would there have been anything that could stand in its way?

How muscular, fat, and boney are they?

Humans vary to some degree in the amount of body fat they carry. Genetic inheritance, access to food, and social preferences all contribute to the amount and distribution of fat on the body. It defines the shape of the body and determines how and when they can use their body’s energy. Men tend to store it in their middle, while women tend to store it on thighs and breasts.*

Other animals, though, use fat for other purposes. Seals and dolphins have evolved fat that smooths their body contours into a fishlike shape to make them effective hunters and migrators. Bears and camels use it for long-term storage of energy for desert travel and hibernation, respectively.

Orangutans, one of the largest hominids alive today, have sophisticated social systems and cultures (with individuals occasionally meeting and socializing with other individuals), use tools, and even plan trades with other individuals. Traditionally, they’re called “forest men”; not distinct from humans at all. They have powerful muscles and apparently also have powerful minds.

Bonobos, on the other hand, have much more gracile bodies and seem to be our closest relatives. They spend the vast majority of their time in close contact with each other. They use sex as a bartering method and as social currency as we do, engaging far more than can actually produce offspring, including enthusiastically varied sexual practices. They communicate with a sophisticated form of vocalization and appear to have a greater capacity for vocabulary of human signs.

Which of these change with ethnicity, sex, class, or distinctions unique to this world?

Among H. Sapiens Sapiens, we have a fair amount of variation. Some groups have no facial hair at all. Others have pink skin, epicanthal folds over our eyes, concave noses, curly hair, or other markers that, while they don’t denote a difference in species, denote a difference in the specific genetic history of a region.

Sexual dimorphism is subtle in Homo Sapiens Sapiens. While females tend to be slightly smaller, have slightly paler skin, and possess permanent breasts and hips, individuals overlap significantly.

Not all hominids are like that; male orangutans weigh twice what females do, have prominent facial flanges, but don’t fully develop their secondary sexual characteristics until they have established territory of their own.

Social class often has to do with the availability of calories. Here on Terra, many cultures value fat as an indicator of health; others view brown skin as an indication of leisure time while others see it as a marker of a field worker. Some grow their fingernails to show that they don’t need to work.

Now go make some people!

I’d love to answer questions below!

* Thanks to Simon for helping me work out this paragraph in an interesting way.

33 thoughts on “Everyone is a Person (But That Doesn’t Mean They’re Not Weird)”

  1. I dunno if you’re right about human body fat. I think there have been fatties as long as there have been humans.

    The Venus of Willendorf, for example, suggests that fat people were around in human prehistory.

    There’s also a clear genetic factor in body size, which can’t have evolved recently.

    In other words, fat people are probably part of natural human variation, rather than a product of a recent histroical trend.

  2. Oh, sure! It just seems pretty clear that people like the model for Venus were the exception. That’s a *lot* of calories, and hunter-gatherers just don’t bother packing it on.

    My guess is that Venus’ model was a chief or a goddess-person or something; it was a value to the society that some people be sexy-fat.

    > There’s also a clear genetic factor in body size, which can’t have evolved recently.

    No, but we have genes that do all sorts of things that don’t matter because they don’t come up. If you have the genes to store extra calories but never get extra calories, it’s not a big factor in evolution, and probably helps out now and again. We have genes that make us die of congenital heart failure at 70, but it hasn’t really mattered because the few of us who have lived that long didn’t have much left to contribute to the success of our genes. Likewise, alcoholism didn’t matter as a genetic factor until we invented alcohol, but there you have it.

    Fatness has been an indicator of prosperity through much of history. That, itself, is the exception that proves the rule.

  3. Hmm.

    I think we’re both arguing on the basis of little evidence.

    You’re postulating:

    a) A clear relationship between calorie intake and body size. There’s not much evidence that the relationship is that simple.

    b) That humans have historically had poor nutrition. I don’t know enough to say whether that’s a good assumption or not. I suspect that the amount of available food has varied enormously over time and between populations.

    The reason I’m nitpicking is that it’s an inherantly political act to define what is “normal” for human beings. When you describe low body-fat as normal, and fat bodies as deviation from the norm, that contributes to an existing narrative about the worth of fat bodies. Given that we have little information on which to base an argument either way, why make that claim?

  4. Ah! I’ve figured out what’s going on here.

    Stastically speaking, a norm exists for anything. Let’s say that there’s a statistically normal degree of salinity for bodies. About 2/3 of the people fit into the middle 1/3 of the range. Statistically speaking, no one is the average salinity. The few rare people in that tiny subset, however finely we subdivide it, are remarkable for being like everyone else, but not like any other particular individual.

    In Human Contact, when you create a character, you write down three Features. They’re your starting dice. The first is your place in society. In the Academy that’s your academic specialty. For other societies it’s something else.

    The second one is how you deviate from the norm for your species. It’s not if you deviate. It’s how.

    There’s a tension in Human Contact that is deliberate. On the one hand you have these big picture things: geology, sociopolitical systems, characteristics of species. On the other hand, you have individuals whose interests are not necessarily in line with (or even related to) the interests of the society as a whole. They’re individuals.

    The reason I’m nitpicking is that it’s an inherantly political act to define what is “normal” for human beings.

    Yeah! Someone should make a roleplaying game about that!

  5. Look at the way you’ve written the skin color section. It says “some people are like this, other people are like that”. I think you’d agree that if it said

    “Humans have pinkish skin, except in equatorial regions where they’ve evolved dark skin to counteract the effects of strong sunlight”

    That would be both scientifically innaccurate and poltically problematic.

    I think the section on body fat is problematic in the same way.

    It’s probably worth noting that the background I’m coming from here is one of fat activism. The section, as it’s written, feeds an existing harmful narrative around body size. I don’t think that’s what you intend.

    It could say, for example:

    “Humans vary to some degree in the amount of body fat they carry. This variation is controlled by genetic inheritance, access to food, and cultural preferences.”

    Which I think would be more accurate, and less problematic.

  6. Yeah, um, hunter-gatherers tend not to have trouble finding food – in fact, the whole lifestyle leaves an awful lot of leisure time. And if you look at pictures of Amazonians, or Papua New Guinea’s inhabitants, you notice pretty quick that the body model tends toward ‘comfortably plump’ rather than ‘scraping by.’

    http://www.amazon-tribes.com/index.html There are some really amazing pictures here if you want to explore.

  7. Soren,

    To be fair, it’s very hard to draw conclusions about pre-historic humans from modern-day hunter gatherers.

    Most examples we have of modern hunter-gatherers are people who are:

    a) living on marginal land
    b) displaced from their original homelands
    c) undergoing rapid and sometimes catastrophic cultural change
    d) in contact with and trading with non-hunter-gatherers

    I think we have very little evidence on which to base any conclusions about historical trends in average human body weight ranges.

  8. Yeah, Soren those are about how I think of a “human specimen”. That’s still not carrying very much fat, though. Not when compared to, say, a cetacean or a pinniped. Remember that, at this point in the game, we’re talking about a species, not a society or even people. That’s in a different piece of the game. They interact in a way a lot like this conversation, actually.

    Simon, as a matter of parallel, I’ll phrase it that way in the future. It works better and yields more interesting characters.

    I’m certainly not taking any moral stance on fatness (though I have one: it’s your body. I celebrate you when you want to change it and do, because that’s hard; I celebrate it when you love what you’ve got; I’m sad when you’re sad about it. My own preferences are sorta moot here; your kink is not my kink, and neither of us have an obligation to sexually attract the other.); I wrote this article from too high an altitude for that; I’m only barely addressing the society at all, and even then only in the example at the beginning. The actual social stuff happens when you’re contrasting individuals with species and social norms. A lot of the actual play is about that, and this conversation mirrors the events in play.

    I’m going to edit the post because your words are interesting and are better than the final sentence above, despite the several rewritings I put it through.

  9. That’s absolutely true, but it doesn’t change my central point (in support of you!), which is that it’s not terribly hard to find the calories to support fat, which means it’s probably other factors.

    I’d put my money on environment (and thus genetics, via sexual selection), because that’s driven some pretty startling variation – if you look at native South Africans and Australian aborigines who live in analogous environments, with analogous levels of technology, you find a lot of similar adaptations, but you also find some weird differences, like different skin tones, that seem to be caused purely by sexual selection.

    So, I agree with you! It’s much more complex.

  10. Oh! Joshua!

    While we’re picking nits, the bit about “Vitamin D poisoning” in your skin colour section seems off to me. From my reading of the literature, it appears that human ancestors developed dark skin as they lost hair because that protected from folate loss. Is that what you’re referring to?

    My understanding is that pale skin re-emerged later, possibly as a response to lower vitamin D uptake in Northern climes (though some researchers seem to suggest that moving to agriculture over hunting played a part in this)

    I don’t really have any expertise in this though.

  11. Joshua,

    Sweet as. Yeah, I’m definitely not reading some anti-fat agenda into what you wrote, just pointing out what I saw as a mismatch between intent and interpretation.

    When something is interesting and exciting to me, my urge is to criticize.

    This is cool stuff and I am excited to see where it’s going.

  12. Folate loss is another thing that UV causes. Vitamin D poisoning is another.

    If you’re talking about the relatively light skin of chimpanzees, we seem to be more closely related to bonobos (who have very dark skin, so I’d guess that none of our ancestors had light skin, up until we started living in places like west Asia and Europe. I’m curious to know how that shook out, though.

    In any event, pale skin is pretty rare these days.

  13. Oh no! What a chore! You’ve gotta go read a bunch more fascinating stuff!

    Could be worse, you could have to go play a game about really interesting issues with a bunch of cool people.

    Life is hard sometimes.

  14. “We seem to be more closely related to bonobos” – I’ve heard this before, and I don’t get it. Surely the common ancestor if the Chimpanzee and the Bobobo is far more recent than the common ancestor we share? Wouldn’t that make both species equally related to us?

  15. Why? Let’s say the chimpanzee deviates from hominin x. Hominin x then further deviates into modern bonobos and humans.

    Pretty straightforward.

    We’re different in our own eyes, but in the eyes of an alien zoölogist, they might need to point out the difference in locomotion, hair, and social structure.

  16. Well, yeah, but I was under the impression that it was humanity which split off first, about 7 million years ago, with Chimps and Bonobos splitting a million or so.

  17. Bonobos are a kind of chimpanzee. I believe they share a common ancestor, making them (I guess) roughly equally related to humans, in terms of recency. In terms of actual genetic similarity though, I don’t know.

  18. From wikipedia:

    Chimpanzees are members of the Hominidae family, along with gorillas, humans, and orangutans. Chimpanzees split from human evolution about 6 million years ago and the two chimpanzee species are the closest living relatives to humans, all being members of the Hominini tribe (along with extinct species of Hominina subtribe). Chimpanzees are the only known members of the Panina subtribe. The two Pan species split only about one million years ago.

  19. Oh, duh, of course. Pan/homo split long ago. You’re right.

    Behaviorally, though, we have a lot in common with Bonobos.

    A lot with chimpanzees, too, actually. But we share that stuff with a lot of other great apes.

  20. Oh, hey, Simon, that’s good stuff! My next article’s about a different thing, but sociosexual mores are a really good topic for a future article.

  21. Yeah. The world’s entire society was based on perpetuating the cycle of abuse.

    There was a Y-chromosome mutation that produced dominant characteristics of enormous size and musculature coupled with cunning aggressive behavior.

    The men with these characteristics had segregated themselves as a ruling class and used rape to keep each other in line.

    In order to reproduce, they had a festival where they marauded peasants’ towns and took women by force. Bearing their children was dangerous in and of itself, but to make things worse, they imposed guards over the women to make sure the child they bore had the proper characteristics. If not, the child and mother were both killed.

    Buddha’s solution to this was to hide within the peasant population, learning about the actual culture that evolved to deal with this (traumatized but functional). Remi’s was to first fall for the Emperor’s machinations (… not actually part of his plan), then once he figured out he was being lied to, kidnap the emperor and devise a psychotherapy that left him floating in zero gravity, in darkness, howling his rage at the universe until he was able to admit that what was done to him was cruel and pointless, and that he didn’t have to do the same thing any more.

    Meanwhile, Buddha became increasingly certain that the peasant population had no need of the ruling class whatsoever. They had their own systems of governance, economy, languages, everything. They just had this caste that they had to carry. All he did was study them and give them some facilities to protect themselves.

    I don’t have any memory that they fiddled with the genetic factor, curiously.

  22. Woah! Rough.

    What if humans had sex like bedbugs do?

    From Wikipedia:

    All bed bugs mate by traumatic insemination.[3][24] Female bed bugs possess a reproductive tract that functions during oviposition, but the male doesn’t use this tract for sperm insemination.[3] Instead, the male pierces the female’s abdomen with his hypodermic genitalia and ejaculates into the body cavity. In all bed bug species except Primicimex cavernis, sperm are injected into the mesospermalege,[3] a component of the spermalege,[3] a secondary genital structure that reduces the wounding and immunological costs of traumatic insemination.[25][26][27] Injected sperm travel via the haemolymph (blood) to sperm storage structures called seminal conceptacles, with fertilisation eventually taking place at the ovaries.[26]

    Male bed bugs sometimes attempt to mate with other males and pierce the latter in the abdomen.[28] This behaviour occurs because sexual attraction in bed bugs is based primarily on size, and males will mount any freshly-fed partner regardless of sex.[29] The “bed bug alarm pheromone” consists of (E)-2-octenal and (E)-2-hexenal. It is released when a bed bug is disturbed, as during an attack by a predator. A 2009 study demonstrated that the alarm pheromone is also released by male bed bugs to repel other males who attempt to mate with them.[27]

    Awkward!

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