Species in Fantasy- The Role of Scientific Terms in Fictional Settings
On December 1st, 2022, Wizards of the Coast announced that the role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), would no longer be using the term “race”, and would instead be using the term “species” in its place. This was meant to address the inherent racism that the core lore has, up until recently, perpetuated through construing race with biology and different creation myths for each ancestry option.
When I (briefly) saw the official post, I was ecstatic. Someone was using my vocabulary! And in my favorite game too! I didn’t have time to read Wizards’ statement (I had work… social media does not come before my experiments), but I leapt off of social media quite excited. After all, it’s not every day that you see what looks like the work you do on your own blog become mainstream.
This would be the point in the story where the narrator’s voiceover would chuckle, “Oh, poor sweet summer child.”
I was not prepared for the online D&D community’s reaction to the single word change.
To put it lightly, people were not pleased.
The discourse echoed that of the discussions from my medical and linguistic anthropology classes back in college. The perception of scientific or medical terms as being dehumanizing was a hot topic for more than one of my classes, alongside opposing connotations perceived by medical professionals versus the general public. And while we could just wave away the reactions as stemming from an appropriate dislike of racism, I think the discourse also highlighted an issue those in the STEM fields tend to dismiss in our line of work. As I read through the discussions, the parallels between the linguistic culture of medicine and the reactions to the term “species” were striking.
In my anthropology classes, we would discuss cultures as the tinted lens that we see the world through. And so did I eagerly dust off my ‘anthropological’ lens and align it with my ‘biology’ lens to perhaps find a new angle to the discussion.
Addressing Some Potential Misconceptions About This Post
This is not a defense for the use of “species.” I will briefly discuss why I use it on my blog, but for D&D or fantasy role playing games? I have no preference for it over other terms; I was merely excited that mainstream media was using my everyday jargon, but there are better alternatives out there (more on that below).
This is not an exploration of reactions on social media. Even if some may view the reaction as overblown, that does not disqualify it from acting as a fascinating case study for the online DnD community’s reaction to scientific jargon. The fact that a community had a reaction to a single word change from science jargon can still shed light on the barriers between STEM professionals and the general public.
This is also not an academic, let alone scientific paper, by any means. I sent out a call on Twitter for people’s thoughts on the word in Dungeons and Dragons. And those responses helped guide my discussion of this topic.
And finally, I am a biologist (an immunologist, specifically), and am not an expert on anthropology or sociology. However, to provide adequate context for my readers who have no idea about the D&D space, I’ll need to briefly discuss racism, specifically the pseudoscience ‘biological racism.’ Am I well equipped to discuss the history of this topic fully? No, but I will provide sources for you to study from that should help.
What I am equipped to discuss is the general misuses/misconception of the word “species” that I saw being thrown around within the Twitter space. So, let’s get on the same page before we continue.
Species, Its Accuracy, And Its Issues
The basic definition of “species” is as follows: “A biological species is a group of organisms that can reproduce with one another in nature and produce fertile offspring.”
(As provided by Nature.com)
This definition is deceptively simple, and is far more than, “two creatures mate and have an infertile offspring,” as is the case with the mule. Many may remember this example, but there are other considerations when determining if two groups are different species:
Do the groups mate at the same time? Maybe one group mates in the spring while the other mates in the fall. Timing-wise, they’re going to miss each other for snuggles, let alone mating.
Are the groups in the same habitat? If there’s a huge mountain range separating the groups or they’re on two separate continents, the two groups aren’t going to have any sharing of genes even if they can make fertile babies. (More on this later).
Do their genitals fit? If the genitals of different species are completely different and incompatible, the two organisms can’t produce offspring.
Can the sperm and the egg even interact for fertilization? It doesn’t matter if the sperm and the egg can’t even come together.
Do they have the same mating rituals? For example, many bird species have different calls or dances to attract their mates. If the birds of one group aren’t interested in another group’s rituals, they probably aren’t going to mate.
So, are the playable ancestries in fantasy games like Dungeons and Dragons species? The answer is: technically yes. Heck, some of them probably aren’t even in the same taxonomy class. For example: lizard folk. They would be in the class Reptilia, not Mammalia. Having drastically different age differences between ancestries (Elves vs Humans, for example) could be enough to split the two groups into two different species… probably.
But we can’t end here with a simple “technically yes.” We need to dive into why this term may not be optimal for the fantasy game.
The major reason comes down to something called “biological racism,” or the pseudoscience arguing that science can support or justify racism. It’s the false idea that where we draw the lines for race is predetermined by someone’s genetic makeup (it’s not). This is not my field, so I will do the best I can in this section.
Takes a deep breath. The idea that race is biologically based has been debunked many times. It’s known to be pseudoscience. How we define “race” is arbitrary and a social construct. The podcast Seeing White discusses the non-scientific history of race as well as the scientists who used science to justify racism.
A brief summary is that people have used perceived biological differences to argue that different minority groups are less “evolved” and thus less human compared to white Europeans. This subsequently strips said groups of their personhood, or the status of having legal rights, privileges, and responsibilities.
The problem is that current fantasy “races” use biological racism to define the separate groups. The lizardfolk are defined as a separate “race” to the human “race.” On top of that, many fantasy “races” are analogous to real-life cultures and people.
Couple the ingrained biological racism of fantasy with using “species” as a synonym for “races” WITHOUT discussing the intricacies of species versus race versus culture versus ethnicity, and you have a term that arguably perseverates the idea of biological racism in fiction rather than challenges or disproves it.
About Those Half- Ancestries…
At some point during this whole discussion, the question of whether “half-elves” and “half-orcs” can exist if all of the fantasy creatures are different species may have crossed your mind. It did for the online D&D community, some claiming that the two groups would be sterile “like a mule.”
Firstly, arguing that sterility makes someone less of a person and more of an animal is, to put it bluntly, horrible. Please don’t do that. Secondly, if you choose to categorize the aforementioned groups as separate species, species hybridization happens all of the time in nature, because nature doesn’t care about our attempt at categorizing it. KEY NOTE HERE: if the two groups can become their own thriving groups, they wouldn’t be called “half-“ anything. They’d be called their own group. They wouldn’t be an analogy for anything, just their own thing.
I’m not equipped to extensively discuss the mixed-race experience, but I’m equipped to know how to not be a cruel person. Likening folks of a mixed background to infertile hybrids like mules is inaccurate, inappropriate, and atrocious on so many levels. Let’s agree to never use that analogy again.
Honestly, if we avoided using non-human creatures as analogies for actual human cultures, that would be great.
Wait, Doesn’t My Blog Use Species?
For those who have been reading my blog for a while, you’ve probably noticed I use the term “species” when I write about my fantasy creature worldbuilding posts. That is a deliberate choice on my part to avoid construing biology with racism. Perhaps my explanation as to why I use it here may shed some light as to why I was naively excited when Wizard of the Coast announced the word change.
Reading through my posts, you’ll notice I compare the fantasy ancestries to animals for helping me “worldbuilding” said creatures; even for my Elves post, I likened them to the naked mole rat, birds of prey, and cheetahs. When I have mentioned mermaids, I talk about whales and fish.
I do this to introduce cool real-life science concepts, but can we see why that could be a problem if I started using anthropological terms to describe the mythical creatures that I liken to animals?
I do not want to construe the terms that we use for real people with the fantasy, made up, animalistic creatures I am writing about. I also don’t want to fall into a fallacy called “planet of hats,” where every creature of a given ancestry has the same exact way of thinking, cultural practices, etc.
That’s also the reason why I have stripped culture and morals from these posts—save for a few sentences about cultural implications for thought experiments— because I want to be as far away from biological racism as possible.
Is it the term I would use in an actual piece of writing? Probably not, because that’s probably not the term the fictional characters would use in their everyday language. But this blog is meant for science communication first.
So… Is That All There Is To It?
Does that mean that Wizards of The Coast is right in using “species” here?
Clearly, the answer is “no.” As far as I can tell, Wizards of the Coast merely swapped the terms “race” and “species” and did not put in the worldbuilding work to make the switch appropriate. And I’m certainly not doing the work for them in writing this post; the company needs to comb through their lore and rewrite it from the ground up so that “species” is not just a synonym for “race.”
To quote the Boromir meme: “One does not simply replace a sociological term with an actual science term and expect it to go well.” They are not—I repeat—they are not synonyms.
But we can’t just end the conversation here. Other patterns in the comments caught my eye.
The Use of Scientific Terms in Fantasy: Wrong Genre?
In Becky Chamber’s “A Long Way to A Small Angry Planet,” the characters are introduced individually as different alien “species.” There is a Grum, a Aandrisk, a Sianat, and of course, a Human or two. Throughout the beginning chapters, characters self-identify as their given species, and the use feels quite natural. Each character has unique biological (and social) traits that develop a rich background of people trying to live with each other in a cramped spaceship.
(Granted, I’m not too far into the book, so hopefully Chamber’s doesn’t fall into the trap of “planet of hats.” The most important takeaway, however, is that “species” here is used to celebrate diversity and challenge sociological norms).
But wait: space ships? Aliens? Does this mean that, perhaps, the use of the word species is best used in the context of Science Fiction?
One of the reasons for the uproar concerning the use of “species” is that the switch makes the fantasy game of D&D far too “SciFi.”
“Is species a science term? I didn’t think it was,” wrote one of my STEM friends, echoing my sentiment at the time. A handful of respondents said, “Yes, but not more than electricity is.”
Examining the etymology of “species” reveals that around 1690, John Ray defined the word in his work History of Plants, which is not too far from the first use of “electricity” in William Gilbert’s “De Magnete” in 1600 (give or take almost a century). It looks like that was the first time the word was published, but we can go even farther back, as Online Etymology Dictionary places “species” origin in late 1300’s.), derived from the latin species to mean “a particular sort, kind, or type.”
In that case, species can be considered just archaic as “lightning” or even “gravity.” Unlike words such as “spaceship,” the term’s origins are not rooted in modern day vernacular.
But this may explain why some folks find that even the inclusion of the word “species” inhibits their immersion in the game and how close they can get to their characters. There may be some cognitive dissonance at play (beyond, you know, that history of biological racism) with crisscrossing of genre.
And so, I asked SciFi author and science journalist Charles Q. Choi, who has also written for D&D previously, on his take:
“D&D and other RPGs are interesting in that you are usually told they are games of the imagination where you can do anything, and then you are also given rules that help you manage what you generally are and are not allowed to do. This tension between imagination and rules is what I see playing out with the current argument in D&D – given the existence of explicit rules about what play is and is not allowed, there are also unspoken customs as to what tropes and jargon should and should not be in play. People have different ideas about what material should and should not be part of their games (do we want Tolkien-esque high fantasy as with Forgotten Realms, or more pulp-fiction inspirations as with Dark Sun?), and so have different expectations as to how everything else in the game should look.”
Dr. Choi also points out that Dungeons and Dragons has taken inspiration not only from Tolkien, but also Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and Michael Moorcock, writers who wrote sci-fi and/or horror genre stories. The genre inspirations are widespread and overlapping, even if you consider “species” to be more scifi.
Can We Use Science Jargon in Fantasy?
As Charles Choi stated, “In fiction… writers are generally constrained by what readers will accept until they feel brought out of the story by some detail and stop reading… There aren’t any hard and fast rules, just what readers will accept, and that may change over time.”
This has been the most consistent answer across the board. Every reply to my Twitter questions, especially from actual plays (groups of people who play D&D online professionally), was adamant that the inclusion of science terms is absolutely acceptable as long as you can get the audience to buy into the jargon’s place in the setting. We just have to use said words in a way that feels authentic to the worldbuilding, and that’s very dependent on skill of the author and each reader independently.
(If Tolkien can create an elven dialect where Nikerym means captain, authors can absolutely use mitosis or hyaluronan as long as we can get the reader to buy into the validity of the term within the presented worldbuilding.)
The actual plays that responded/that I asked were also specifically “science communication” actual plays, meaning that these groups are already incorporating science heavily into their games for the purposes of teaching science facts and concepts. So actual plays (recorded D&D games) such as Science and Sorcery, Nature Check, and RPGeeks have already taken science and technology into heavy consideration when worldbuilding. Therefore, the incorporation of the science terms isn’t jarring, but natural.
The Connotation Divergences
Now we get to the juicy part.
Looking at my responses, those in science—even those in science communication— consider the term to be neutral.
However, those out of STEM viewed the term in a far more negative light. The term was clinical, cold, and dehumanizing.
I’m not interested in disproving either viewpoint; that would be like me trying to fight a raging squall with a paper fan. But this piqued my interest as the responses came in and the discussion was reminiscent of the classes I had back in medical anthropology.
(nostalgic music plays as I remember the good ol’ college days.)
See, back when I studied medical anthropology, we had a whole section on medical terminology. Alas, I can’t find my old notes, but the general gist is that when medical professionals provide a slew of terms describing a patient, they are unaware of the negative connotations that patients connect to the terms (making the visit to the doctors’ extremely unpleasant).
Medical terms can be overwhelming, because they are Latin or Greek roots strung together to scrunch a whole sentence into one word. The precise language used can be dehumanizing, as the patients feel like they are being treated like a diagram or just a “thing to be studied.” The emotional detachment that comes across when using accurate medical jargon is off putting or even insulting, as the patients can feel that the doctors or nurses don’t care about their pain and suffering. Even if the medical professionals are 100% emotionally invested in a patient, that care may never come across due to a vocabulary gap. It’s a “lost in translation” situation.
(Now, I know many wonderful prospective doctors, and I have been told that this is hopefully changing)
How does this come into play? Well, it just so happens that many of the comments that I saw on Twitter echoed this sentiment, despite the use of a single word “species.” When I asked about the connotation, I got two different responses:
From science communicators, the term was considered neutral (but not the right choice in this case).
From non-scientists, the term was dehumanizing, clinical, technical, and cold. The term made the characters objects of study rather than… well, characters one could play in a story. One reply even mentioned that the incorporation of “species” would alter their ability to connect with their characters and play them at the table. Considering that the D&D handbooks are inherently anachronistic, describing “roll 4d8’s” and “spell slots,” that speaks to the power of the word’s connotation.
What About Off of Social Media?
But what about those who are not in the Twitter and/or table top role playing space? I spoke to a few of my STEM friends in person, giving them a brief summary
The reactions surprised me, although they mirrored my own initially: a strong perplexed look followed by:
Why would people have a problem with it? It’s accurate. You can’t tell me that a tree-person is the same as a human. And what do you mean the connotation is “cold,” “distant,” or “technical?” That’s ridiculous!
This reaction not entirely unexpected. Both the STEM and medical community have faced an onslaught of distrust, misinformation, and overall distrust since the beginning of the 2020 pandemic. Don’t get me wrong; all of that was there beforehand, but there was a tsunami of hatred that rose up at the time and hasn’t relented. So I initially thought the “what are you talking about” response comes from a place of emotional fatigue.
When I examined this reaction further, this strong protection over the word “species,” I began to realize that my scientist friends (myself included) were protecting the word itself, not the use of the word. See, when one goes after word-choice or jargon, one is fundamentally going after an aspect of a culture. And when people go after something engrained in a culture (such as language), it is seen as an attack on the entire culture.
Think about it; when we call scientific jargon “cold” or “dehumanizing,” we are calling the people who use it those same adjectives. Again, the pattern of calling someone’s language ‘emotionless’ reflects on the users of said language. (This is not limited to our discussion on STEM terms; pick any language/accent/dialect and you’ll find that the act of describing said linguistics negatively is considered denoting the group that uses the language/accent/dialect negatively as well. Linguistic Discrimination works off of this principle, although it’s not what we’re discussing in the post).
That doesn’t answer the question, though, of why scientists do not see science jargon as cold, technical, and distant, and the general audience does.
One possible explanation is the Foreign Language Effect.
This is where when one (bilingual) person is presented with a dilemma presented in their second language rather than their first, they are more likely to choose the utilitarian course of action. One paper found that this is due to the use of “foreign languages blunting emotional reactions associated with the violation of [ethical] rules.”
One would point out that in this case, we’re discussing jargon connotation, not ethical dilemmas. That’s true, but these papers made me reconsider my position on my STEM vocabulary. Scientists are effectively using a completely different language in their everyday lives; the fact that we have to “translate things into laymen’s terms” supports that idea. And if we scientists are effectively using a second language, are we experiencing a “blunting of emotions” when we are explaining concepts? The STEM community does pride itself in being unbiased and extremely fact-based.
I proposed this to some of my in-person scientist buddies. As usual, I underestimated some of the reactions. Again, some individuals became very protective over their jargon, one even pointing out that medical and scientific vocabulary is effectively their first language.
Once again, I was finding push-back from my peers on the “science = unemotional/ emotional stunting” front. So, I’m not sure if this explains the difference in connotation between the laymen vs scientist interpretations.
In any case, the scientists I spoke to in person were confused by the emotional connotation being given to “species.”
I briefly discussed this with Charles Choi, explaining that my twitter responses called the term species “distant,” and “technical,” making player characters objects of study rather than colorful characters in a game.
“I can’t speak to why others might feel the way they do about the term ‘species,’” he said in our email correspondence. “My knee-jerk reaction is that it represents an ignorance or a fear of scientific terms, or both.”
Scientists Are Not Off The Hook
When asked how we as the scientific community can combat distrust in science, the most common response I always see is, “Well, if people just understood, we’d be able to reach them.” The underlying message is one of frustration, as if those outside of STEM should be on top of the basics already. The onus is on them, not on the STEM community.
With the invention of the internet, I think it’s incredibly easy for us in STEM to point to the laymen audience and ask—no, demand that they do their own research. There’s never been a time in human history with more seemingly accessible knowledge at your literal fingertips. How can you be ignorant or fearful of something that you can, in the span of a few seconds, read up on in the palm of your hand?
The problem can be broken down as such: 1) It’s overwhelming. When I started reading scientific papers and articles, I had to get used to looking up words and experiments every two sentences. 2) We scientists are not trained much in communicating with others outside of our immediate field. 3) If we are not allowing our findings to be accessed*, how are we expecting people to find the correct information if misinformation is more accessible?
*I mean this both literally, behind a paywall, and linguistically, with inaccessible jargon.
Heck, even scientists are terrified of scientific terms. Do you know how many scientists fumble and outright avoid the term for my sugar of study, Hyluronan?
And what about the “cold and distant” connotation of our words? We are taught to present data and data only, forgoing pathos in favor of logos. We are also not taught how to communicate to those outside of our fields, and therefore we default to only relying on data.
And I say this as a student in the scientific community. We’re not taught anything; we’re expected to pick up writing and speaking techniques through osmosis. We try to make our research seem so academic with our erudite jargon that we keep concepts that should be common sense out of reach for everyone, including those in our own field.
And we try to cover up the unsaid issues with “as everyone knows.” Inherent issues in how STEM communicates science are just perpetuated cycle after cycle after cycle, because no one wants to push back against the linguistic culture that was created by cis white men ages ago. Science was not meant to be accessed by anyone else, and you can still see this unspoken rule in our so-called “academic culture.” This culture of shoving inaccessible language left and right to show off intellectual capital is helping no one; that includes those in and out of science.
What I’m trying to say is: the scientific community is in a paradoxical state, in that we gatekeep linguistically, belittle people who seemingly misuse or even mispronounce our jargon, emit emotion in our communication under the pretense of being unbiased and therefore on the moral/academic high ground, and then become perplexed when people react negatively to just our words? Or are confused when people show a lack of understanding? What are we expecting from the norm being “present science in a way that overwhelms you with my greatness?”
We want people to stop seeing STEM as emotionless and uncaring? We need to break this cycle.
Did I expect this conversation to evolve into a commentary on linguistic gatekeeping in academia?
Nope! When I started this back in February, I thought it’d be a quick post.
Hooo boy, was I wrong!
So finally, after many months of typing away at this post, what do I finally think?
On the use of the term “species,” I still think it can be used in the context of fantasy and table top role-playing game, provided it’s not simply a synonym for “race.”
Used as a synonym for race or culture, “species” plays into the trope of depicting the “other” (non cis-gendered white European man) as inhuman.
If used as how I understand it—highlighting the biological differences in a fantasy world sans race-coding— I think “species” could work. That is, of course, assuming the creators of said world don’t make the mistake of using the one species = one culture fallacy. Acknowledging that two groups are biologically distinct should not detract from seeing either of them as more or less sentient than a human, nor seeing either group as more deserving of personhood than the other. I also don’t see the word being inherently non-fantasy, so as long as the author commits to the word, there won’t be genre whiplash.
I wouldn’t stop there, though. Determining a character’s species would be the first step, but hardly the only step. Then, one would need to add on the culture (of which there should be plenty to choose from), subcultures, socioeconomic background, and then job (or for Dungeons and Dragons, “class”). With my example, multiple different fantasy species can share a culture, while still allowing for inherent traits that are biologically unique to each species (for example, long life for elves).
(Again, I’m not advocating for people using “species,” for their worldbuilding, I’m just providing a viewpoint of where it could work)
Does this fix the use of “species” in this case? If implemented perfectly, maybe. I doubt a single change is going to erase the years and years of the built in biological racism the fantasy/scfi genres still rely on. Do I think it’s better than “people,” “ancestries,” or “bloodlines?” Not really, but I do love seeing scientific terminology in my fantasy games and stories (hence the blog).
As for how the general public views scientific terms, however, I think that’s a far more complex issue. The science community hasn’t started facing their contributions to “biological racism” until relatively recently. And in order to address our vocabulary (and by extension, our own STEM culture) being seen as “cold and distant,” the STEM community needs to start breaking down our elitist mindsets. Outside of our research, our jargon is hardly neutral and we need to be cognizant of that as we discuss science.
The biggest takeaway for everyone, however, is that if you do use “species” in your fantasy worldbuilding, you must actively push back against biological racism and not fall into the trap of species being the equivalent to race.
I had significantly more help writing this post compared to my usual ones, so I would like to take a moment to thank folks who helped me craft this post:
Special thanks to Charles Q. Choi for taking the time to answer all of my questions and for allowing me to quote him for this post.
Special thanks to my editor and sensitivity reader, Deirdre Mack, for combing through this massive blog post as it was being developed.
And special thanks to everyone who took the time to talk with me, either over social media or in-person.