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On the Origin of Vampires

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Do vampires evolve in the Buffyverse? An interesting question, and one that could go to the heart of our concept of them, effecting how we view their relative humanity, their social system, indeed everything about them.

Evolution is change in the inherited traits of a population of organisms from one generation to the next. For evolution to occur, three things are required:

  1. Survival of the fittest.
  2. Variation between individuals.
  3. A mechanism for individuals to pass on their variations to their offspring.

Survival of the Fittest

Survival of the fittest is a universal law. In any competitive situation, and the world is always going to throw those up, the fastest, strongest, most intelligent, or possessor of whatever other facet gives the advantage will win, while the slowest, weakest or most stupid will fail. And in a harsh world, sooner or later ‘winning’ will mean the difference between life and death. When it comes to the crunch, the fittest – whoever or whatever has the abilities that happen to be most advantageous under those circumstances – will survive.

Since it is a universal law, it applies to vampires, so this first condition must be and is met.

Variation Between Individuals

Variation between individuals needs to occur so that survival of the fittest has something to work on. If you have a stack of identical ball bearings being pushed towards a hole, yes, one of them will eventually be pushed through, but that is only chance (it was the one that was closest) not survival of the fittest. Variation between individuals allows one of the individuals to be more fit for the situation and thus to survive. If our stack of ball bearings is made up of individuals of different sizes, then the one that eventually gets pushed through the hole must be not just the one at the front, but one that is small enough to fit through the hole. In other words we have a mechanism for selection based on size, ‘survival of the fittest’ has something to work on – it is quite literally the ball bearing that will fit. (Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun.)

Is there variation between individual vampires? Yes, there clearly is. Nobody comparing Angelus, Harmony and Holden Webster would for a moment suggest they are all identical. Even the Turok-Han seem to have variation between individuals, as the first vamp seemed considerably stronger and harder to kill than subsequent ones. It is possible this was a strength provided by the First, but even setting that possibility aside there is still at least some variation – if you look closely they are not identical to one another. And in modern vamps the variation is undeniable. Vampires are not ball bearings, there is considerable variation between individuals.

In vampires, this variation may arise from one or both of two causes. It may come from variations between the humans chosen as hosts, or it may come from variations within the demon aspect, or it may come from both.

Obviously the human hosts will be variable, that is undeniable. There is also some evidence that the demonic aspects can vary. Game faces – the clearest evidence of the demon - vary between individuals. The Master and the Prince of Lies were more bat like, Russell Winter had a noticeable whiteness and blotchy skin, Dracula shows his fangs even in human face (or else doesn’t have brow ridges in game face). However, this may be either partly or wholly caused by the underlying host bone-structure, or some other complex interaction between the varying hosts and a constant demon. It may also vary with age. Although against the age influence though is Kakistos, who was said to be a vampire so old that his hands and feet are cloven. (Faith, Hope and Trick) and yet who had a relatively normal looking game face.

But for the present let us set aside the question of whether that variation comes from the human host or from the vampire demon itself, the important thing is that there is variation and hence the condition is met.

Passing on Variation

This is the crunch one: without it, evolution cannot occur. An individual who adapts to the environment but cannot somehow pass that adaptation on to its offspring cannot contribute to the evolution of species.

Now, we are all used to thinking about evolution in terms of genetics – variations between individuals occur in the genetic makeup of those individuals and are then passed on to their offspring, via reproduction, in the DNA. That is undeniable for living organisms (I’m assuming any creationists have already left the building) and we can see it happening all the time – children take after their parents. But with vampires it becomes more problematical. We do not know enough about how they reproduce, or even their inherent nature, to know what variations can be passed on by reproduction.

The unknowns are numerous:

How exactly do they reproduce? The described mechanism is that a vampire drains a human to the point of death and then feeds the human some blood which ‘infects’ the new host (Welcome To The Hellmouth). This is normally described in fanon as ‘asexual’ but is it in fact? There could easily be more going on. We know that vampires can and do exchange blood between individuals – think of Dru licking Spike’s cheek (School Hard), or Angelus and Darla biting one another (Dear Boy). Is this purely erotic play or is it an exchange of fluids as part of some form of sexual reproduction? We just don’t know. It’s possible the vampires themselves don’t know.

Even if their reproduction is entirely asexual, this does not preclude variation from arising. The origins of all life began with asexual reproduction, and it obviously permits variation otherwise we would all be identical single cell organisms and probably not having this conversation. In asexual reproduction, variation can still arise through mutations in the genes – essentially ‘mistakes’ in passing on the genetic code intact. This provides a slower rate of change than sexual reproduction where the genetic material is being recombined with every generation, but it does not eliminate it. There is no reason why mutation might not occur with vampires. Indeed the fact that they are magical beings may even increase its likelihood, since, as canon clearly shows, magic is incredibly prone to error.

Therefore we cannot preclude the possibility that there is variation within the ‘genetic makeup’ of the demon part of the vampire, which arises during reproduction and is inherited by the offspring. We also cannot prove it. What would be required is evidence of variations between individuals that are clearly inherited along a bloodline. If, for example, the Master, Angelus and Dru all had sharply pointed ears while most vamps had rounded ones, this might be used in evidence. But I am unaware of any such family characteristic. The most we can say is that there is visible variation between the vamps, even in game face, and a clear difference between modern vamps and Turok-Han, and difference between the demon aspect of modern vamps as revealed in Pylea and Turok-Han. This is not conclusive either way.

A word about asexual reproduction, since it is generally presumed to be the form of reproduction that vampires use. Asexual reproduction can have some advantages over sexual, which is why many organisms still use it. It is faster, it does not waste half the population being male and thus unable to reproduce directly (though there are of course sexual ways around this) and each individual gets to pass on its own genes intact without having to mix them with a partner. However, asexual reproduction does also have disadvantages, which is why most multi-celled organisms practice sexual reproduction at least some of the time. And the most important disadvantage is that it slows down variation and thus slows the ability of the organism to evolve to cope with a changing environment. At times of evolutionary pressure – when the environment is changing around the organism – there is nothing like sex for mixing up the genes and increasing the odds of useful variations emerging. Indeed many organisms that can reproduce asexually will on occasion also reproduce sexually – thus gaining the best of both worlds. The classic example is greenfly. When they have found a good food supply they will reproduce asexually, rapidly colonising the soft young growth in an infestation. When conditions change and become more uncertain, for example at the end of the season, they switch to sexual reproduction so that amongst the variable individuals produced there is a greater chance that some will have the characteristics that enable them to survive in the changed environment.

However, it is also important to remember that vampires are a sort of artificial hybrid or parasite, and they get to chose their own hosts. As such they are prone to not just natural selection but also artificial selection. Every vampire sire is holding his own private Crufts when he picks a human to host his child., and we do know that the host directly influences the resultant vampire, at the very least in terms of personality, possibly in other ways as well.

Darla
What we once were informs all that we have become.

The Prodigal

So even if we suppose that vampire reproduction is entirely asexual, and that by some magical means even mutation has been suppressed, vampires will still be able to vary themselves and influence the characteristics of the next generation by selecting hosts for their children, and thus in effect they are performing a type of artificial inheritance of the characteristics they consider important – adapting their children to fit the environment as it changes.

All advanced organisms can also practice social inheritance. There are behaviours which can be learnt and taught, and by passing these on to their offspring, organisms can better fit those offspring for their environment. And there is no question that vampires can and on occasion do practice this. Angelus was Spike’s teacher – he was passing on his wisdom to a descendent and thus increasing the chances of the survival of his bloodline. Darla taught Angelus, the Master taught the Annointed – strong powerful vampires teach their children.

In conclusion, I think we can identify mechanisms by which vampires can pass on their variations and adaptations to their offspring. At the very least they do this by artificial selection of hosts and social inheritance, at best they may do this by a form of heritable difference in the demon itself. But the condition is, with some slight qualifications and uncertainties, met.

Has evolution in fact occurred?

So, with all three conditions met, we can say with confidence that evolution is possible for vampires. And to some extent that is all that needs to be done, because, once it has been demonstrated that evolution is possible, if one wishes to suggest that nevertheless evolution had not occurred one would need to then find some mechanism by which it had been prevented. Otherwise, due to the inevitability of the law of survival of the fittest in a changing world, evolution will occur.

And that is the important thing – the world changes, the environment alters. So if the last demon wanted to make an ‘efficient’ organism when it created its hybrid (as is suggested by Rahirah’s nice biological weapon theory) then the question would be not whether or not it made a sexual organism, but why on earth would it not make a sexual organism. It is not whether or not it ‘permitted’ mutation to emerge, but why would it not want mutation to emerge. In an ever-changing world, an organism that cannot evolve is one that is doomed to extinction.

There is though the slight possibility that vampire evolution has not occurred yet. Evolution takes time. How much time depends on how rapidly variations can arise, and how rapidly the organism reproduces so as to take advantage of those variations. It can also be effected by how rapidly the environment is changing – thus causing changing influences that the species needs to evolve to respond to. It is therefore theoretically possible that vampires have not yet evolved in any significant way.

How Old is the Vampire Species?

The Watcher’s Evidence

The Watchers have an origin myth of the vampires:

Giles
This world is older than any of you know. Contrary to popular mythology, it did not begin as a paradise. For untold eons demons walked the Earth. They made it their home, their… their Hell. But in time they lost their purchase on this reality. The way was made for mortal animals, for, for man. All that remains of the old ones are vestiges, certain magics, certain creatures…
The books tell the last demon to leave this reality fed off a human, mixed their blood. He was a human form possessed, infected by the demon’s soul. He bit another, and another, and so they walk the Earth, feeding… Killing some, mixing their blood with others to make more of their kind. Waiting for the animals to die out, and the old ones to return.

The Harvest

So, from this we know that vampires as a species are younger than humans. ‘Humans’ might mean the genus Homo as a whole, in which case vampires could be up to 2.5-2 million years old, or the species Homo sapiens which would put them at a maximum of between 400,000 and 250,000 years. Of course it may have taken some time before the Old Ones gave up and left this reality, so vampires as a species could be a great deal younger.

The Slayer Evidence

One thing we do know is that the slayer line is relatively recent. The First Slayer and the first watchers are all modern H. sapiens. But since we don’t know how long after vampires emerged the slayer line was created, this is not very helpful.

Illyria’s Evidence

For an alternative consideration of the origins of vampires, we can draw some evidence from Illyria. Illyria’s evidence is based on actual firsthand experience, not just myth, and therefore it has great potential.

It is generally assumed that all the Old Ones pre-date humans:

Angel
The original demons. Before human kind. They were all driven out of this dimension.

A Hole in the World

But we do know for a fact that Illyria knew about humans before it died:

Illyria
I thought the humans would have long died out by now. Instead, you’ve grown bold.

Shells

And we also know that Illyria has been dead for millions of years:

Drogyn
Illyria was a great power—so great that, after millions of years dead, somewhere on this Earth it still has acolytes.

A Hole in the World

So the smallest number that could be described as ‘millions’ is two million, and therefore the only humans that Illyria could have known were not modern H. sapiens but one of the earliest species, probably some form of H. habilis .

And, excitingly, there is also evidence that Illyria knew vampires when it was on earth. On first meeting it immediately recognises Spike and Angel as half-breeds (Shells), this might just mean it knows they are some sort of hybrid, not that it has seen such before, but it also later states that:

Illyria
The wolf, ram, and hart? In my time they were weak, barely above the vampire.

Shells

I think these two pieces of evidence together show that Illyria knew vampires.

If then Illyria recognises vampires from its own time, this means various things. Firstly, the vampire breed has not changed so much as to be unrecognisable – or no more than humans have. Secondly, Illyria’s kingdom ended no more than 2.5-2 million years ago. And, thirdly, either the origin myth that Giles knows is slightly wrong or the last demon to leave the Earth was Illyria itself. And that last notion is an exciting thought in its own right! Except that the party lines is that Illyria was murdered by rivals, and if these rivals had been the derided humans it probably would have been mentioned.

Wesley
It’s called Illyria, a great monarch and warrior of the demon age murdered by rivals and left adrift in the Deeper Well.

A Hole in the World

So there is evidently some confusion in the Watchers’ myth.

Sadly we cannot date Illyria’s death any more precisely than that. On face value it would seem to be at the further end of the spectrum because of the issue of continental drift.

We do know that continental drift had moved the power base of Illyria’s kingdom the distance between Los Angeles and another country (a minimum of approximately 220km to the Mexican border) since the sarcophagus had to come through customs.

Knox
I came to L.A. because I knew that’s where its kingdom has been. It was supposed to teleport back to the base of its power, but the continents drifted—which they do. I had others help me get it here, but then it got stuck in—would you believe it—customs.

A Hole in the World

The continental drift of the North American continent is somewhere between 1-10cm per year, so this puts the kingdom a minimum of 2,200,000 years ago if we assume the fastest rate of drift in the ideal direction. Now, this number is excitingly close to the 2 million years for human evolution, but unfortunately it’s not quite as easy as that because the plate is moving in a largely south westerly direction, and 10cm is very much at the top end of the range of estimates. Indeed, if we assume that the mistaken calculation occurred because the plate is moving away from the Deeper Well in the Cotswolds (which indeed it is) then the nearest non U.S. country in that direction is probably the Azores. And I’m not even going to try to estimate what that would mean but it would be a very long period of time, many, many millions of years. I think we have to assume that whatever the teleportation calculation was, it was based on the positions of the continents a very long time before the actual end of the Kingdom – perhaps not unexpected in a being capable of walking through time and dimensions. It must be hard to keep track of when and where you are if all you’ve got to go on is the prevalence of shrimp.

So from Illyria’s evidence we can conclude that vampires are approximately the same age as the genus Homo as a whole, 2.5-2 million years, though we cannot pin it down any more precisely than that.

2.5-2 Million Years

Is 2.5-2 million years long enough for some significant evolution? Absolutely yes.

Humans have evolved massively in that time, and one of the strongest evolutionary pressures on vampires will have been from changes in the human host/prey. A parasite or predator that does not evolve alongside its host is in serious trouble.

And although asexual reproduction can slow evolution down, artificial selection of the host could speed it right back up again. Artificial selection can produce very fast results indeed – Darwin, when interviewing pigeon breeders, was told that they could produce a new beak shape in three years, a complete new head in six. And vampires can breed faster than pigeons since all the evidence is that they are reproductively mature from birth.

So yes, there has been easily enough time for vampires to evolve from whatever their origins were, and there has been evolutionary pressure for them to do so.

Turok-Han

Finally, let us consider the evidence of the Turok-Han:

Giles
Uh, what you fought was a vampire, but it was, um, something more than that. It was a Turok-Han. As Neanderthals are to human beings, the Turok-Han are to vampires. Primordial, ferociously powerful killing machines, as single-minded as animals. They are the vampires that vampires fear. An ancient and entirely different race and, until this morning, I thought they were a myth.

Bring On The Night

Now, it is unclear from this exactly what Giles means by As Neanderthals are to human beings. It is now known that Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis, are not the direct ancestor of H. sapiens, but an extinct side branch of the Homo family tree, one that survived alongside H. sapiens until about 30,000 years ago and may possibly have interbred. Yet, in popular usage, Neanderthals are generally taken to be the direct ancestors of modern humans. Which did Giles mean? He is an intelligent and well informed man, but who knows how much he knew about Neanderthals, or how much he used that knowledge in a casual conversation with Buffy where the details were fairly unimportant. But either way, there is an implication that Turok-Han are related to modern vampires in some way. They are the same but different, and they went extinct.

So what exactly is that relationship? There are several possibilities.

  1. Maybe Turok-Han are standard vampire demons who have used Homo neanderthalensis as a host instead of Homo sapiens. We know that Neanderthals were larger and stronger than modern humans, with slightly bowed legs, and a considerably greater cranial capacity possibly implying greater intelligence. This coincides with many of the observed physical features of the Turok-Han. It would also explain why they went extinct – dying out when their hosts did.
  2. Alternatively, maybe modern vampires and Turok-Han evolved alongside one another from some common ancestor until the Turok-Han went extinct. Just as H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis did, hence Giles’ analogy, but with both species using any of the same homo species as hosts. If that were true, then we would have clear evidence of vampire evolution in the differences between modern vampires and Turok-Han. But frustratingly we do not know if it is true.
  3. Maybe the last demon to leave the Earth created more than one hybrid before departing, hence Turok-Han and vampires are similar demons due to having similar origins, but they are no more related than that.
  4. Or maybe Turok-Han are indeed the direct ancestors of modern vampires and one has evolved from the other.

So annoyingly, the evidence of the Turok-Han is not as clear-cut as it at first appears. They show that the vampire genus is more complex than just modern vampires, but I still do not think we can conclusively prove or disprove vampire evolution from the Turok-Han.

In Conclusion

With a magical creature it is impossible to make definite statements. We are also frustratingly lacking the evidence of enough vampire bloodlines to be able to compare and contrast individuals and observe if there are inherited traits. However, I think we can say that there are mechanisms by which evolution might happen. And there have also been strong evolutionary pressures on vampires during the course of human history, as humans themselves evolved and then vastly altered their social structures over the centuries. It therefore seems reasonable to say that if vampires have not evolved then they have been very lucky to survive this long. And I would conclude that given available mechanisms and pressure, the likelihood is that over the millennia they have indeed evolved.