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RAPTORS

by Chris Wayan, 2004

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A raptor, a marsupial feathered ornithischian dinosaur; one of six peoples evolving on Serrana, an experimental world model.

Raptors are small birdlike dinosaurs--hot-blooded, bipedal, with crests and tails as fancy as a peacock's. They're viviparous, with marsupial pouches--basically, fierce, feathered kangaroos! Omnivorous hunters; in ancient times, their prey probably included taurlopes, but when 'lopes adopted spears and fire too, this became costlier than trade. Most raptors now ranch small nonsentient taurines and roosaurs for meat, milk and eggs.

Historically, these were warrior cultures obsessed with honor, status, pecking order, and duels for mates. Raptors look fierce, but today they're fairly safe to visit: modern honor requires them not to bite other species. Siblings, though...

Being carnivorous, raptors aren't squeamish; they excelled early in anatomy, surgery and medicine, knowing more about, say, Planian internal anatomy than that gentle, squeamish people do themselves. A family of raptors will today often be the village doctors for other species; herding and fussing at their clients as if they're a mob of featheroos to be herded. Raptor pride thus gives Serranian doctors a reputation for arrogance rivaling our own. Not bad handwriting, though: raptors like calligraphy. Anything to show off one's coordination!

Most raptor art is rooted in the body: leatherwork, featherwork, and the flirtatious bone-flute dance in which headcrest and tail semaphore emotional nuance in a language as stylized as a Japanese lady's fan. Calligraphy fits the pattern: it too is a dance.

Raptors vary greatly, from long-feathered, almost shaggy races adapted for colder steppes (see below), to the heat-adapted tribes of the northern Tsud, with bare "scales" over much of their bodies (actually short, fused feathers). But all races have flamboyant crests and tails. For raptors, bright is sexy, though exact color schemes vary a lot, even within a tribe. One might think this visibility would be a problem for hunters (compare the crest to the camouflaging topknot of hexapi, for example), but raptors can flatten the crest in anger or wariness--and they've always relied on speed, not stealth. For short distances a raptor can even outrun taurlopes, though the latter have far greater endurance.

Where do they live? Around the world in desert, veldt, or open woods. They're most famous for living in the great Tsud Desert, but mainly because no one else can; they don't see it as a raptor homeland. The shaggy cold-weather subspecies of raptor, a marsupial feathered velociraptorish dinosaur; one of six peoples evolving on Serrana, an experimental world model.

FEATHERBALLS

A particularly dense-feathered subspecies of raptor has even settled the cool, dark conifer forests on the southern shores of the Eamet Ocean and the similar Thron Shore east of the Aburros Sea--partly because no one else wants these woods. Featherballs are a race apart, and may slowly be speciating--other raptors find them so funny-looking that they rarely interbreed. Raptors are highly visual (and vain) people; appearances matter far more than to, say, a sensual, touch-oriented, polymorphously perverse taurlope. Culturally, too, they're diverging from equatorial raptors: their villages of plank lodges and totem-trees, their elaborate winter festivals (which help maintain their sanity during the long snowy shut-in season), their diet full of pine nuts, mushrooms and berries... but the truth is, if you ask a desert raptor, they'll probably just say "Featherballs look fat"; featherballs retort "Desert raptors look bald." Thus are species made!

Featherballs might do well in mountain forests too, but under the shag, they're still raptors--and raptors don't like thin air. They evolved quite independently of the other vertebrate peoples on Serrana (their four-limbed plan isn't the standard hexapodal design with two lost limbs; their ancestors crawled out of a different sea where vertebrates were quadrupeds from the start--maybe this is part of what estranged them for so long from other Serranians). Though raptor blood uses an iron-based molecule to transport oxygen, it's somewhat less efficient than the hemoglobin analogue the centauroids use. It works better than the copper-based blood of tree-squid and hexapi, but not as well as the quite different iron-based molecule the crustacean-derived "mammoth" species uses (no, Serrana hasn't evolved four separate oxygen-transport systems. Try seven! I only mentioned the four used by intelligent land species. Blame all those separate seas). Raptors can survive at high altitudes, but feel listless and weak--and for a warrior culture, that's intolerable.

WHEN RAPTORS SPREAD

I'm thinking about Kropotkin's theories of animal cooperation. His fieldwork was in Siberia, not the kinder climes Darwin observed. Kropotkin concluded that for most creatures, most of the time, the real enemy isn't the neighbors--it's the environment. In harsh conditions, social cooperation pays off more than competition. Ask the Inuit.

Now, Serrana is certainly poorer than Earth. Thin air, sparse water. Whose paradigm will dominate?

Maybe it's the type of land, not its richness, that matters. I wonder if our harsh competitiveness isn't a result of the savanna and veldt our ancestors evolved on. Consider: on a veldt, there's lots of solar energy trappable by life, but it's available to animals in only two forms: grass, or grass-eaters! You belong to one of two hard-working parties--red or green, predator or prey. There just isn't room for much else--no fruitarians or leaf-eating apes, as in the forests. No Darwinian dropouts allowed--no slackers on the veldt! Capitalism rules.

It's become a cliche that once tool use began and we could crack bones and/or hunt effectively, rival species of people couldn't evolve; we'd pre-empted the new niche and would defend our new food source. But is it true? And even if it turns out to be true on Earth, must ALL technological peoples EVERYWHERE go through an early hunting phase, does this foster the coordination and dexterity needed for a tool-based cvilization? Is this why elephants never developed tools, despite brains, social skills and "hands"?

But alternate theories of even our own origins abound. Bob Brain has argued that our minds were largely shaped not by being hunters but hunted--by fear of predation by big cats, and that fire, tools and war began as defenses against monsters that came in the dark to eat us. So is hunting the only path to intelligence, or is fear the spark that lights the fire? Again, the elephants suggest he might be right. Why raise the club, or torch, or spear? No need--they had no one to fear. Adolescent raptor (female by her feather pattern) holding a spyglass, on the Yelav Narg Steppe (Reppok Mts on horizon). A temperate-zone subspecies; the shagginess suggests early winter. Click to enlarge.

(Sketch: adolescent raptor of the southern steppes, in light summer plumage, showing off her spyglass)

Now Serrana is harsh, with thin air, deserts, and a land biodensity way below Earth's. But though the colder parts of it are much like the Siberian ecology that inspired Kropotkin, much of the fertile equatorial zone is veldt, and veldt with far more diverse creatures than Africa, creatures from all over the world and several different seas--molluscs and crustaceans walking around next to dinos and mammals. With a wider pool of pre-sentients (creatures with dexterity, large brains, social groups, protolanguage) must they all compete over one niche--the prehuman hunting path? Are there elephantine alternatives? More to the point, non-elephantine alternatives?

What large predators will roam the veldt? At first, things with big teeth may rule, but my guess is that if I'm allowing one sea to develop dinosaurian analogs, we'll eventually get tool-using raptor tribes hunting the dusty plains. Terran velociraptors WITHOUT tools were scary enough--once they discover fire and stone weapons, such tribes will quickly become top predators, and cause mass extinctions, both of favored prey species (the largest grazers) AND any rivals who compete for that favored prey. Some paleontologists still doubt that the Australian and American mass extinctions were human-caused, but I'm certain that the first Serranians to tame fire and sharpen spears will cause a worldwide extinction wave. The only real question is, will they commit genocide as well? Will they fill the niche and eliminate rivals, or is Bob Brain right? With so many more dextrous big-brained creatures present, will the fear of raptors produce other sentients, spark imitative tool use in other species (remember they all have hands) just to keep up? A prehistoric arms race--because on Serrana more species had more arms.

This brings us back to Kropotkin. How quickly will contending intelligent species shift from Darwinian competition to cooperation? Empathy and morality applied across species is still rare among us; but no intelligent tribe in our world failed to learn eventually that raiding armed neighbors is risky and treating them as meat is just suicidal. But how long is "eventually"? Will an early era of species war shape Serranian minds, as ours were perhaps shaped by our long period as prey to big cats? Or would multispecies war leave few scars because it quickly settles to some modus vivendi? Predator/prey relationships are profoundly unstable when both parties are bright enough to act on imagined futures, not immediate animal needs. What's the optimal strategy when your "prey" may turn and hunt you, not from hunger or anger, but from a plan to remove your menace for good, or to teach you a lesson--to shape your mind? In short, once mind awakes at all, competition may quickly shift to inner space: no longer a competition of organisms or genes but of ideas. Game theory suggests cooperation is the stablest game, after a tit-for-tat learning period--punishing misbehavior if not consistently rewarding cooperation (that may follow; it's called trade). Assuming there is a jerk at the party--an aggressive, carnivorous early raptor (notice how mammalian writers always demonize dinos?), a tribe that won't leave other tool-using tribes alone. It'll provoke its neighbors to ally and drive it extinct--something only future-thinking animals will do.

The peaceful aftermath may look more like Kropotkin (or Disney) than Darwin, but the struggles leading to cooperative equilibrium may have been long and varied. Remember this, if my scenario looks too innocent. We were shaped by millions of years of struggle with less intelligent foes; only recently have we been faced with armed neighbors who'll retaliate in kind. Serranians had to learn tolerance early, from all directions: all surviving species make a sharp, instinctive distinction between animals and tool-users of any species, to be treated politely--or else. It's as instinctive as our primary distinction, still seen in children, between ordinary animals and monsters: creatures that stalk us. Our deep past haunts us, but we don't question the shape of our minds, or even notice it. Nor do Serranians.

You'll note I said all surviving intelligent species. Did you assume none went extinct? Or, to be more accurate, were driven extinct by other species who could co-exist! On Earth, Dinofelis apparently ate our ancestors, but in this, the only known bout between monster and lunch-with-tools, the lunch won. So it was on Serrana, too. There may have been other species preying on sentients, but their prey inevitably drove them extinct. Raptors are a border case: the proud, touchy raptors surviving today are the result of Darwinian weeding: the real hotheads died disproportionately at the hands of their "prey" for generations. A mother raptor with chick in her marsupial pouch, leaning on her spear, in the desert. Click to enlarge.

(Sketch: a mother raptor of the heat-adapted subspecies leaning on her spear, in the Woble Desert, while a chick peers from her marsupial pouch)

There are a lot of species, even on Earth, who lacked just one of the crucial five traits needed to become a people in the Serranian sense:

  1. brains
  2. sociability (giant squid and orangutans are quite bright but too solitary to develop civilizations)
  3. language, not necessarily verbal
  4. hands (or other means to manipulate the world)
  5. an environment allowing tools and fire (tundra and deep sea are pretty poor in this regard).
Our world is hand-poor compared to Serrana, but brains aren't an ape monopoly (elephants, dolphins, wolves, whales), nor a mammalian one (ravens, parrots, velociraptors), nor even a vertebrate one (octopi and giant squid). If Serrana seems over-rich, with six peoples and a couple of contenders, remember Terra's full spectrum--I count at least twenty species who are self-aware or on the brink--and those are only the ones that survived our brutal, unopposed rise. Before the human holocaust there may have been thirty, or fifty.

On Serrana, in contrast, Darwinian brutality was itself selected against. Even on Earth, this is happening, though more slowly. But is evolution ever visible in a single lifespan? Kropotkin hasn't finished with Darwin yet. Le Guin's The Dispossessed, is, after all, precisely about gradual success of the anarchist social model--cooperation, in all its complexity, not the brute force of archism. I'm just expanding her speculation beyond Emma Goldman's human anarchism to Kropotkin's biological theories--past the question of how one species can live with itself, to how species cooperate with others. Our solitary climb to civilization may not be the only way; scarred by a scary past, we may be biased, limited, pessimistic.

But Serranians can't afford to be.

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