A 1969 interview with Frank Herbert breaks down DUNE's white savior complex

Was it not Ringworld where humans inadvertently introduced Luck as a genetic characteristic due to the unintended consequences of having a lottery to reproduce? Forgetting the details now, I think it was to have a third child, perhaps? Anyway, yes, any attempt at actual eugenics would introduce unintended side effects. But to echo @Mindysan33, eugenics was always about “improving the human race” by eliminating the non-white part of it. Always.


After being subtly manipulated into doing so by the Puppeteers, yes. This premise is obviously ridiculous for several reasons, not least of which being that all of evolution would favor “luck” if luck was a trait that could be passed down genetically.

Also other “undesirables” such as people with disabilities.


I’m not sure if you intended to or not, but you highlighted the point (or at least pretty close to it) that Herbert was making with Paul Atreides. At the end of the book, he realizes that the jihad would happen with or without him, and that the forces at issue were too massive for any one leader to counter.

Of course Leto II sort of walked (squirmed?) back some of those notions…


And the poor, and the LGBTQ, and those with inconvenient political beliefs, and…


It’s a plot device.
Nothing more, nothing less.

Literature and other art always are commentaries on real world phenomenon. There isn’t any reason to ignore them as mere “plot devices”.


No. Even if used for “non-racist” intent doesn’t mean at its heart it’s not a racist ideology intended to wipe entire groups of people.

Genetics is not eugenics. It’s incredibly dangerous to conflate the two ideas. One is a racist pseudoscience and the other is the study of what makes up human traits.


From here:


At first glance, each of these three novels offers a superficial critique of imperial expansion and colonial occupation: Stranger challenges the idea that a foreign territory occupied by indigenous natives (in this case Martians) can be appropriated legitimately by settler colonists; Dune dramatizes the uprising of a colonized diaspora population, the Fremen, against outside imperial oppres- sors; 2001 warns that the apotheosis of Cold War imperialism may be the nuclear annihilation of the human race. Each of these challenges to imperial imaginings emerges from a postwar historical moment when European decolonization has shattered the mythos of imperial adventure and when American optimism about frontier conquest is confronting repressed histories of racial violence in the face of the civil rights movement and (eventually) in light of mass protest against the Vietnam War. Despite these general criticisms of imperialism and colonialism, however, all of these narratives portray inward voyages in imperial terms, and each text operates similarly to the drug narratives Zieger describes; they each replace or augment the conquest of outer space with a central focus on the conquest of inner space. Inner space conquest thus offers a way of liberating the racially unmarked male subject from the repressive internal colonization of the psyche; in this sense, Frantz Fanon’s notion of psychic decolonization is appropriated in the service of the Western privilege it opposes in its intended context.

The eugenics program was absolutely 100% intended to wipe out entire groups of people. What makes this so fascinating to me in Dune is it asks the question:

“If you knew (by literally seeing the future) that humanity was doomed to its own extinction, and tens of thousands of years of eugenics, austerity and technological dark ages could save the human race, would you choose that path?”

The question creates some unbelievable moral quandaries backed against something that could only exist in sci-fi - knowing the outcome for certain. It’s part of why I love the genre so much - you can discuss hypotheticals that literally cannot exist in reality.


I have no problem exploring complicated questions via literature, as that’s one of the things it’s best for. I would take issue with the idea that there is ever going to be a problem that necessitate employing such a dangerous idea. To me it seems more like the BG are operating within a blinkered ideology. Of course, again, it’s within the rules of the universe Herbert set up. But maybe we can also see it as how we ourselves are all too often blinkered by the structures we live out our lives within, which limit our horizon of possibilities… what did Marx say about that? Men do make history, but they do not make it in situation of their own choosing? It also operates from the whole notion that Herbert does seem to be interrogating some of the assumptions of the previous century and a half of history prior (imperialism, white savior complex, etc), all of which were coming apart at the seems as he would have been writing the books.

But I stand by my argument that we shouldn’t pretend like eugenics is something other than what it was, which is a pseudo-science with no redeeming value.


Of course, Frank Herbert probably couldn’t have conceived that both the Soviet Union (15 years later) and the US (35 years later) would try their luck at something the British realized wasn’t really a swell idea. Maybe the PRC will break their pick there in another 20 years.


In the words of Michael Curtiz, director of Charge of the Light Brigade (The Errol Flynn one), “Bring on the empty horses!”

(English was not his native language)


Um… they only did that because they got their ass kicked… not because they had some wisdom about their fellow man…


I think maybe it’s important to make a distinction between eugenics and selective breeding. Selective breeding is an thing that humans have used for thousands of years to manipulate other species to be more useful to us. It was proto-scientific (and I assume now is scientific at least in some cases).

Eugenics is a psuedoscientific cover-up for genocide (credit to @Mindysan33).

So a successful selective breeding program on humans would result in humans (or a new species) with more of some trait that was desired by the breeders (which would kind of have to be non-human). That could be that well-marbled flanks or whatever. It would also result in unpredictable changes in other traits (@brainspore’s point, I believe).

Whereas a successful eugenics program would be the installation of a fascist government that uses actual or threatened genocide to control the people.

When we conflate those two things we are doing the work of the eugenicists by buying into their cover story. So when we are talking about breeding humans to have specific traits in a science fiction story, I don’t think we should call that eugenics (even if the story did).

As for Herbert, I think the Dune books used science-fiction to sidestep the issue that makes a species doing selective breeding on itself impossible: that the breeders would be a product of the breeding (either directly genetically, or culturally). Selective breeding has to serve the desires of something outside the thing being bred.


I think you’ve exactly nailed the disconnect. As @brainspore points out, there isn’t anything unique about how human genetics works compared to other animals. Given enough time and lacking enough morals, selective breeding in humans could produce any number of outcomes, many of which being monstrous and/or unintended.

The BG breeding program viewed itself as creating something truly “human,” as opposed to the “animal” that makes up most people. That rightly conjures up a hell of a lot of baggage for 20th century history, but I’m not sure it’s exactly what Herbert was getting at.

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Yeah, I think the unique thing is that humans are the ones who control human breeding. So there’s a feedback loop there unless some group of humans is able to successfully separate themselves and run things for many, many generations. Ultimately in the Dune universe that is taken over by the God Emperor who actually a non-human intelligence. But in real life it would look more like the royal families of Europe: ruling over many people for many generations, but ultimately unable to insulate themselves from the influence of the people they are ruling over, and all the while inadvertently inbreeding themselves into hemophilia. If a similar set of rulers had a selective-breeding-of-the-people agenda, they’d be no more immune to the realities of trying to make people do what you want.

I mean, you could argue that effectively a super-human intelligence selectively bred much of the world for a long time (arranged marriage according to cultural dictates). But that intelligence was culture, and still in the feedback loop.


Agreed. The very word eugenics is unscientific. It directly implies an objective value system regarding augmentation, alteration and traits. Which is no surprise since it’s woo borne of racism attempting to latch on to the legitimacy of science its originators didn’t understand.

A lot of people conflate eugenics with genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is itself an ethically complicated field, but it isn’t eugenics which is pseudoscience even if the eugenicists understand genetic engineering. It’s just pseudoscientific racism by another name.


It’s been tried, in a very limited sort of way


Lebensborn Association: We shall improve the racial and genetic makeup of the fatherland by encouraging only the finest physical specimens to reproduce!

Supporters: Hey, we’ve got the Olympics coming up soon! There’s bound to be lots of great physical specimens there!

Berlin, 1936:

Lebensborn Association: We shall improve the racial and genetic makeup of the fatherland by encouraging only the palest physical specimens to reproduce!