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The opening of Mass Effect 3 says Reapers come to purge the galaxy of organic life every 50,000 years.

I know it's fiction, but life evolves much slower than that, in fact the human race is already 50,000-200,000 years old in current times, depending on what you consider a human. There's been life on earth for hundreds of millions of years and it seems an odd oversight for a plot driven, sci-fi game to make.

Does the game mean that the Reapers only purge the galaxy of sentient/humanoid life or is this not elaborated on in the game's story?

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3 Answers 3

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This answer contains spoilers from ME 1 and 2.

The Reapers do not seek to destroy all organic life, nor do they try. Their interest in organic life seems to lie solely in that they use it for reproduction - i.e., to make more Reapers.

To this end, they seed the galaxy with their artifacts - The Mass Relays and The Citadel itself - such that life will develop in such a way to best serve their inscrutable purposes.

From Mass Effect 1:

Sovereign: Organic life is nothing but a genetic mutation, an accident. Your lives are measured in years and decades. You wither and die. We are eternal, the pinnacle of evolution and existence. Before us, you are nothing. Your extinction is inevitable. We are the end of everything.

Commander Shepard: Whatever your plan is, it's going to fail. I'll make sure of that.

Soverign: Confidence born of ignorance. The cycle cannot be broken.

Squad Member: Cycle? What cycle?

Sovereign: The pattern has repeated itself more times than you can fathom. Organic civilizations rise, evolve, advance, and at the apex of their glory they are extinguished. The Protheans were not the first. They did not create the Citadel. They did not forge the mass relays. They merely found them - the legacy of my kind.

Commander Shepard: Why would you construct the mass relays and leave them for someone else to find?

Sovereign: Your civilization is based on the technology of the mass relays. Our technology. By using it, your civilization develops along the paths we desire. We impose order on the chaos of organic life. You exist because we allow it, and you will end because we demand it.

The Cycle, as mentioned by Sovereign, occurs every 50,000 years (presumably as the Reaper fleet travels between galaxies), and involves the methodical destruction of every space-faring species. If you haven't discovered FTL travel, the Mass Relays, and the Mass Effect, the Reapers pretty much ignore you.

This is why Humans were not wiped out when the Protheans were, despite there being prominent Cro-Magnons rutting about on Earth (the Protheans even had an observation base on Mars specifically to watch Humans). We were effectively "beneath their notice".

This focus on space-faring races is further confirmed in ME3, where Admiral Hackett remarks that the Yahg homeworld is being completely ignored, even intentionally passed over, by the Reaper fleets invading nearby (they haven't achieved space travel). In his words "If we fail, it might be them in our shoes, next time".

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Very interesting, thank you. While it's an engaging hook, it does sort of bother me the first bit of plot exposed in ME 3 is a major exaggeration. –  Ben Brocka Mar 8 '12 at 1:33
    
@BenBrocka The clarifier doesn't make it nearly as succinct, though. :P –  Raven Dreamer Mar 8 '12 at 1:36
    
"Sentient" life instead of "Organic" actually gets like 99% closer to the reality, and is only one letter longer :). I wondered why they would bother blowing away every single spot of bacterial growth, and why they bothered with Husks ect if that was their job. It's just not efficient. –  Ben Brocka Mar 8 '12 at 1:38
    
That scene from ME1 was just...incredible. Totally boosted the game up a few notches. –  Alex Jan 31 '13 at 13:05

Stated Fact: The Reapers only kill "technologically advanced" organic life every 50,000 years.

Inference: The Reapers only kill technologically advanced organic life capable of creating "synthetic life" (e.g. Replicants and/or A.I. systems like computers and robots; to avoid what humans would call "the Frankenstein Syndrome") every 50,000 years.

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The Reapers are only after organic spacefaring civilizations. Primitive humans have been studied by Protheans, which precludes them being only 50000 years old. It is not stated explicitly, but the most reasonable explanation for that behavior is that spacefaring civilizations expand over multiple planets and star systems, meaning there is a great incentive to let an organic species develop. A hundred planets will yield much more genetic material for Reaper reproduction than a single planet of a primitive organic species.

They are not after sentience, and in fact are able to manipulate the synthetic, sentient Geth quite effectively in ME3.

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I never understood what they did with synthetics. You have to assume that they get destroyed or taken as they leave because other wise the Geth will be quite more advanced than the next wave of civilizations and can easily conquer them all if they were aggressive. –  z ' Jan 31 '13 at 12:53
    
@spartacus I don't think it was ever explained. They've used the Geth heretics, though, perhaps they use them for some purposes, since they can't exactly grind them into protoplasm. –  kotekzot Jan 31 '13 at 13:50

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