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Dune Finds Entertainment in Eugenics

Photo credit: I, Luca Galuzzi, CC BY-SA 2.5 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Many of us will have days off around Christmas and New Year’s and you may be looking for thought-provoking ways to spend that holiday time. John West has already suggested one new and unusual movie. See, “A Christmas Nightmare for the COVID Era.” I have a couple of other suggestions for your consideration that are relevant to subjects covered at Evolution News.

A prominent YouTuber, Overlord DVD, has referred to the entertainment of the last century as modern myths, and few sources of myths have been more influential than the Dune series of novels, by Frank Herbert. Its influence on the sci-fi genre cannot be understated; it has even been credited as giving George Lucas inspiration for the Jedi mind tricks in Star Wars. The first book in the series was recently adapted again as a film, as David Lynch had already done back in 1984. There was also a miniseries that launched in 2000. While I won’t review any of these at length here, there is one element of the story that’s worth mentioning: the Bene Gesserit. These priestesses are the political movers and shakers in Herbert’s world, and their philosophy and history are deeply influenced not just by religion but, interestingly, by eugenics.

A Test of Bloodlines

The Bene Gesserit are all about bloodlines. Their philosophy is plainly stated in the opening chapters of the book when the protagonist, Paul Atreides, is taken to the Reverend Mother who puts him through a test to decide whether he is a human or an animal. Paul is forced to put his hand into a box which will cause him great pain. If he tries to move his hand during the trial, he will be killed. The idea is that an animal will gnaw its own leg off to avoid pain while a human will feign death in order to lure the trapper so the human can kill him.

Once the test is concluded, Paul is given a philosophical explanation. The Reverend Mother says, “The original Bene Gesserit school was directed by those who saw the need of a thread of continuity in human affairs. They saw there could be no such continuity without separating human stock from animal stock — for breeding purposes.” The Reverend Mother goes on to imply that Paul’s mother, Jessica, was wedded to Duke Leto with such a purpose in mind. The Reverend Mother goes on to state, “We might, for example, have wanted to breed her to a close relative to set up a dominant in some genetic trait. We have many reasons.” This concept is also mentioned when the Reverend Mother chastises Jessica for giving birth to a boy instead of a girl. That may have been the Duke’s wish, but such an action has destabilized the political climate in the Imperium.

World-Building and Historical Background

It’s amazing to see that even as late as the 1960s, after the horrors of World War II, eugenics was still influencing writers of the time. And Frank Herbert takes the idea to another level. In the universe of Dune, such a practice could lead to telepathy and extra-sensory abilities such as “The Voice.” What Herbert himself believed about such things, I don’t know. What’s important to note is the role eugenics has had on our culture. 

Still, Dune is worth reading, and the latest movie version is worth watching as well. The world-building is fantastic, but the historical background to the novels is also instructive. Tomorrow I’ll have some comments on another relevant piece of entertainment, Squid Game.