Friday, 1 November 2013

In Defence of the Mimic

On Autumnwatch earlier they did a 'bit' on a creature called the Long-Nosed Beetle, which eats snails. It does this by grabbing the snail and carrying it off, before jabbing its mandibles into the fleshy bit at the opening to the shell and secreting a special enzyme which dissolves the snail's body and turns it into mush. The snail responds by trying to squirt it with mucus, which it blows into bubbles in an attempt to spook the beetle and persuade it to leave it be. Two species of animal which have obviously been engaged in an evolutionary arms race for millions of years. 

It reminded me of another wildlife documentary I saw a year or so ago which was about limpets and starfish. Starfish love to eat limpets - but limpets are able to defend themselves by raising their shells up and down slightly to squeeze the starfish's skin against the rock they are attached to, almost like a somebody stamping on your foot repeatedly as you try to approach them. Often, this is enough to annoy the starfish enough that it goes elsewhere and leaves the limpet in peace.

It would never occur to me that limpets, which seem like such simple animals, would have developed this defence method for dealing with starfish, but of course they have - they've been evolving in parallel with starfish as their chief predators for millions of years. 

As humans we tend not to get predated on by other animals, but imagine if there were human-hunting beasties out there, as there must be in a typical D&D world; wouldn't it be the case that such predators would have developed highly specialised ways of killing humans, and wouldn't we have developed highly specialised responses?

Perhaps it is a species blind-spot, but it is quite hard to imagine what such a predator would be like. If it had been engaged with us in an evolutionary arms race for millions of years, it would probably be extremely resilient against weapons, extremely good at hiding (because we are good at organising ourselves into large groups), and also possibly very good at playing on our weaknesses - it might be able to perfectly mimic the sound of a child in distress, say. Maybe it would hunt us by tempting us away where we might be alone, and then hitting us with overwhelming force because of our pathetic physical weakness in comparison to most animals.

Or maybe it would be very like a mimic. Animals grow to resemble all kinds of things - leaves and sticks, most notably (although there are mantids and spiders which can perfectly disguise themselves as flowers to trick bees and other nectar-gatherers) - in order to escape detection. Why shouldn't mimics do the same to fool us? 

I suppose the standard argument against the evolution of mimics would be: humans are rational, so unless a mimic was near-perfect in its ability to mimic it wouldn't really fool us. And so it couldn't really evolve - how would nondescript monster x incrementally evolve into something that could disguise itself as a door or chest or chair, if all of the intermediate stages wouldn't fool anybody?

The response might be that the mimic could evolve in exactly the same way the mammal eye evolved. Having a tiny bit of an eye that does nothing but tell you the direction in which light is coming is better than no eye at all. If there is one blobby ancestral species without even a rudimentary eye, and then one day a mutation provides a member of that species with a little nub of an eye that allows it to detect light, then its genes will proliferate because that will give it a big advantage over the others. So imagine a miscellaneous blobby human-hunting creature without any special ability to mimic anything humans would recognise: if one day one of these blobby things was born with a mutation which meant that, in a very dim light, at a certain angle, at a certain time of day, it looked sort of like a chest to a very short-sighted human, then that would be an advantage over the rest of the blobby things. That singular mutant blobby thing would have a slight edge on the others of its species and be more likely to breed. Its genes would gradually proliferate. And natural selection would take the mutation and run with it. Within a hundred generations, you might have a whole species of blob things who are really pretty decent at looking like chests.

This is the most rambling entry I think I've ever written: I'm tired and I've been drinking hoegaarden all night. I don't have the will to make it coherent. But you get my drift. 

23 comments:

  1. Furthermore, I think people dismissing the mimic are being a bit too specific in their interpretation of the creature's powers. (I think a similar mindset envisions a gelatinous cube as this ambulatory block of jello, rather than the hallway filling wall of killer ooze that it is.)

    A mimic didn't evolve to look like a chest, it evolved to look like anything nearby. Pursuing your argument, one day a mimic that had heretofore copied rock formations or fungus a stalactite or whatever found itself in a treasure trove, and discovered an advantageous form for luring prey in copying a chest or coffer, and the rest is history.

    A crude stone chest among other ancient containers would probably be enough to fool someone carrying a torch or candle, and as time went on mimics figured out how to take the shape of fancier and more well crafted boxes as those pulled in dinner more reliably, until such time as the fanciest box in the room is more likely to be a mimic than any others.

    A rambling response, but I love speculating about this sort of thing. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have an idea of a room full of a kind of variation of a mimic, some sort of slime beast that dissolves the first man-made object it finds (I don't know how it determines what is man made). Someone enters a room, and then the paintings go a bit gloopy (kind of like Salvador' Dali's watch faces) and start to crawl along the wall towards them. Then a chair does the same, then the table. The man tries to flee but a chandelier detaches itself from the ceiling and he is suffocated and consumed. I guess the room is either left as a pool of slime or the creatures return to their places, leaving only a stain in the carpet as evidence of their victim.

      They could be creatures created by wizards though- very effective assassination beasts

      Delete
  2. Or a wizard did it. That works too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Believe it or not, the "A Wizard Did It" theory was in Darwin's original "On the Origin of Species".

      I wouldn't have believed it myself if I hadn't just made it up...

      Delete
    2. Yeah...they are magical creatures in a game about fantasy. They didn't evolve. They are there because Magic and Fantasy.

      One wonders why so many 'fantasy' fans need things to make scientific sense but don't play (or play as much) science fiction.

      Delete
    3. I don't need it to make sense - I well understand that the point of fantasy is that it's not explained or explainable. It's just interesting to think about.

      Delete
    4. it is interesting to think about but over the years I've found I'd rather think about...and leave it out of my game.

      When I run my kind of fantasy I want it to seem as mythic and magical as possible. I find that categorizing, defining and deconstructing magic and monsters too much makes them feel less mystical.

      I many of the D&D games I've played I am surprised we weren't able to get monster DNA sequences or tag them and release them back into the wild.

      Delete
    5. Further reading:

      http://monstersandmanuals.blogspot.co.uk/2008/09/two-towers-of-fantasy.html

      http://monstersandmanuals.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/non-banal-d.html

      http://monstersandmanuals.blogspot.co.uk/2008/09/more-on-archetypes-and-demihumans.html

      Delete
  3. Hmm. There ARE a lot of things that have evolved in parallel with us to prey on us. Giant hyenas, smilodons, wolves, snakes, motherfucking TIGERS

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Champawat_Tiger

    and even kangaroos. We pretty much won those fights forever once we started developing language and selecting for symbolic intelligence. Our *strong* suits are visual recognition (we have awesome eyes and eyeball interpreters), communication, cooperation, and social memory. If there were a super-predator that still effectively preys on modern humans (that isn't a germ), it would have to mitigate our strengths and capitalize on our weaknesses.

    What are our weak spots? Smells, things that look different every time, things that destroy our knowledge of them, things that are invisible, things that benefit (or spread) when we warn other people about them. One big thing that hasn't had time to evolve (in a world without magic): urban predators, like in Wollheim's Mimic. Other unlikely ideas: predation that doesn't kill us, predation that improves our fecundity.

    . . . I'll sleep on this.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Also, TIGERS:

      The most comprehensive study of deaths due to tiger attacks estimates that at least 373,000 people died due to tiger attacks between 1800 and 2009 [that's like 150/month]

      Tiger attacks in the Sundarbans, in India and Bangladesh are estimated to kill from 50-250 people per year. The Sundarbans is home to over 500 Bengal tigers,

      ^from Wikipedia

      All monsters in DnD should probably just be tigers.

      Delete
    2. I don't know about that...tigers are just really good at killing medium-sized mammals, and when alone we are basically rubbish at defending ourselves against any decent-sized predator. It seems more likely to me that tigers just find it childishly easy to kill human beings because they are evolved to tackle animals that have more 'bush smarts' and are also individually quite dangerous - like big deer or wild bovine animals.

      But I like the way you think on our weaknesses - maybe a type of predator that has a mild psionic blast effect like an electric eel, which causes any witnesses in the immediate area to be confused about how the attack occurred.

      Delete
    3. There's been a lot of good sci-fi written about entities who prey on humans by propagating through language or communication -- memetic viruses and so on. I suppose demonic possession might be the closest D&D analogue.

      Delete
  4. This reminds me of a recent article I read that suggested this evolutionary arms race DID happen with man's ancestors and snakes:
    http://io9.com/are-humans-hardwired-to-detect-snakes-1453865235

    For a fantasy equivalent, based on something that's resistant to our tools and weapons, physically strong where we aren't and good at hiding among human groups and playing on our social instincts as it's hunting tactic, that sounds like a vampire to me.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Another thing to keep in mind is that modern people tend to RADICALLY overestimate the lighting in an average dungeon. Have you ever had to navigate a truly pitch-black environment with just a flashlight? Even that is considerably better than torchlight. The mimic doesn't have to be all that convincing to lure an adventurer within melee range. So, your last paragraph is a very viable theory.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not only that, but humans have this nagging habit of editing what they see as they see it... whether it's suspension of disbelief or just seeing something as it's not, as a species we tend to gloss over the details of a "thing" unless we're specifically investigating it. In that light, mimics don't need to be almost perfect in their camouflage... they just need to be good enough to attract a human.

      Delete
    2. That's a really good point, actually.

      Delete
  6. "it might be able to perfectly mimic the sound of a child [in distress]"

    There's a lot of scholarship to suggest this is one strategy still used by cats to endear themselves to human, who seem to have an endless supply of mice and/or kibble.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Have you read "In Defence of Dogs"? It's a fascinating book about how dogs have evolved in partnership with humans. There was documentary series about it on Channel 4 recently that was fascinating - dogs, for example, are the only animals that understand pointing, and that seems to be an evolved behaviour that has arisen thanks to their long association with us.

      Delete
    2. Reminds me of the leucrotta, too:

      Reputed to be descended from hyenas and a demon lord, these creatures are intelligent and cruel, using their astounding vocal mimicry to lure foolish and unsuspecting creatures to where the pack can torment them at its leisure before finally devouring them.

      http://www.d20pfsrd.com/bestiary/monster-listings/magical-beasts/leucrotta

      Delete
  7. What about viruses and bacteria? Our evolutionary arms race with them not only goes way back, but we still haven't won even with our vaccines and antibiotics.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I'm not so much a fan of actual mimics but the discussion from you and Arnold K around mimicking sounds or shaking someone's psyche by being inherently _wrong_ is really interesting.
    I imagine and adventurer drawn off by the sound of a child, or have falling coins, only to face a shuddering, shaking _thing_ that defies any natural expectation, and then from the darkened side..

    ReplyDelete
  9. Given the behavior of humans, the most successful mimic would be one that evolved to have a likeness of the face of Jesus or Mary on it. (Or other relevant deities.)

    "Oh look, that log there... it's the face of Jesus! AIIIGH!"

    ReplyDelete