March 27, 2022   •   By Ayah Nuriddin

EUGENICS WAS ABOUT controlling reproduction to imagine a future without defective heredity. In its heyday in the early 20th century, the eugenics movement was a race-based applied science centered on notions of “fitness.” In its American incarnation in particular, the field centered on attempts to apply Darwinian natural selection to producing and reproducing “fit” populations. These preoccupations were (and are) at the heart of diverse visions of the future — including science fiction. Whether Brave New World or an episode of Black Mirror, speculation — dystopian and utopian — has long spun on the same axes as American eugenics. Whether dystopian or utopian, such worlds emerge at the boundary of the bedroom and the clinic.

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

Eugenics is central to the plot of Dune, embodied in the breeding program of the Bene Gesserit. A matriarchal order with superhuman abilities, the Bene Gesserit practice a blend of positive and negative eugenics in the hope of determining the fate of the universe. Because their clairvoyance makes them valuable to the ruling Great Houses, the Bene Gesserit are able to use their position as advisors to powerful families to pursue eugenic matchmaking. The order’s centuries-long aim, to bring about 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 moniker “witches.”

Though 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 predicated on matching their own members with people in positions of power — but the Bene Gesserit themselves control the matchmaking. This empowerment of women is decidedly not in keeping with the history of American eugenics. Their power extends down to what seems like the cellular level, with Lady Jessica choosing to bear a male rather than a female child (and thus, at least potentially, bringing about the Kwisatz Haderach) even after the moment of conception.

Another significant departure from history 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 promoting or eliminating racial or other trait-based collectives took center-stage. This group focus appears in science fiction as well, with brutal rulers disposing of undesirable individuals in the name of the larger whole or the greater good. Dune adopts a different tack. While individual members of the Bene Gesserit are tasked with prioritizing the order over their own desires, their messianic aims culminate with an individual, not a socially engineered utopia.

But dig a bit deeper and similarities between fact and fiction reemerge. The terminology of the Bene Gesserit, their obsession with inheritance, birthright, and bloodlines, blends eugenic ideologies of the 20th century with much more ancient attention to rites of succession. The same could be said of eugenics itself. Yes, the movement built upon the burgeoning sciences of evolutionary biology, serology, and statistics but its motivations did not emerge anew from these scientific innovations. Rather, everyone from eugenicists to casual readers saw in this new movement a chance to create a different world — and to secure a place in it, either for themselves, their offspring, or what they perceived to be their kind. Here, where science merges into solipsism and where the past and future connect in a eugenic present, the world of Dune and our own anxious relationship to reproduction blur together.


Art by Kenneth Mills.


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