Eugenics

EUGENICS was controlling reproduction to imagine a future without defective heredity. At its height in the early 20th century, the eugenics movement was an applied science based on race and centered on notions of “fitness”. In its American incarnation in particular, the field has focused on attempts to apply Darwinian natural selection to the production and reproduction of “fit” populations. These concerns were (and are) central to various visions of the future, including science fiction. Whether The best of worlds or an episode of black mirrorspeculation — dystopian and utopian — has long revolved around the same axes as American eugenics. Whether dystopian or utopian, these worlds emerge at the border between the bedroom and the clinic.

In the real and imagined eugenic worlds, the driving goal is the production of a society free from defective heredity. Proponents have often followed a two-pronged approach: to encourage certain people to reproduce (called “positive eugenics”) or to discourage others from reproducing, including through forced sterilization and involuntary institutionalization (known as “negative eugenics”). Both approaches have been zealously pursued in the United States and beyond – and as historian Nathaniel Comfort has shown, both approaches remain entrenched in medical and scientific practice, from early human genetics to family planning. through the advent of modern genetic engineering.

Eugenics is at the heart of the plot of Dunes, embodied in the breeding program of the Bene Gesserit. A matriarchal order with superhuman abilities, the Bene Gesserit practice a mix of positive and negative eugenics in hopes of determining the fate of the universe. Because their foresight makes them valuable to the ruling Great Houses, the Bene Gesserit can use their position as advisors to powerful families to pursue eugenics matching. The order’s age-old goal, to bring forth the messianic (and eugenic) Kwisatz Haderach, is the logic behind their painstaking efforts to manipulate and cross bloodlines. These efforts, along with their powers, invite fear and distrust, and the nickname “witches.”

While there is much in Frank Herbert’s Bene Gesserit that echoes American eugenics, there are two major departures from history that are worth noting. The order’s breeding program is based on pairing its own members with people in positions of power – but the Bene Gesserit themselves control the pairing. This empowerment of women is definitely do not consistent with the history of American eugenics. Their power extends down to what appears to be the cellular level, with Lady Jessica Choose bearing a male child rather than a female child (and thus, at least potentially, inducing the Kwisatz Haderach) even after the moment of conception.

Another significant change from the story is the order’s focus on a single individual. The emphasis in American eugenics tended to be at the group or even population level, as the promotion or elimination of racial or other trait-based collectives took center stage. This focus on the group also appears in science fiction, with brutal leaders getting rid of unwanted individuals in the name of the greater whole or the greater good. Dunes takes a different approach. While individual members of the Bene Gesserit are charged with putting order before their own desires, their messianic aims culminate in a individualnot a socially engineered utopia.

But dig a little deeper and the similarities between fact and fiction reappear. The terminology of the Bene Gesserit, their obsession with inheritance, birthright and bloodlines, mixes 20th century eugenic ideologies with a much older attention to rites of succession. The same could be said of eugenics itself. Yes, the movement was built on the nascent sciences of evolutionary biology, serology and statistics, but its motivations did not emerge again from these scientific innovations. On the contrary, everyone from eugenicists to casual readers saw in this new movement an opportunity to create a different world – and to secure a place in it, whether for themselves, their offspring or what they perceived as their gender. Here, where science merges with solipsism and where past and future come together in a eugenic present, the world of Dunes and our own anxious relationship to reproduction fade.

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Artwork by Kenneth Mills.

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Ayah Nuriddin is a medical historian and Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow with the Society of Fellows at Princeton University. She is also a lecturer at the Humanities Council and in African American Studies.

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