23 August 2020
TL;DR - 🐁🏜️⏳🧬🧘♂️ Philosophical-scientific analysis of the sci-fi book Dune by Frank Herbert using a Theory of Constraints found in biological complexity-theoretic readings of Erwin Schrödinger, Robert Rosen (see also here), & Stuart Kauffman.
I just finished re-reading this book 15 years later with my younger sister. It’s hard to believe that the last time I read it I was in my early teenage years. At the time it was one of my favorite books, and even though I think it has been eclipsed in many ways by newer sci-fi pieces that cover a richer and more nuanced part of the philosophical-thematic landscape, this book still holds a special place of endearment for having shaped much of my early inner mental development.
Since my original reading many years ago, I’ve followed the first novel with the rest of the original six books in the Dune saga, as well as every single one of the consequent books (for 19 total) in the Dune roman-fleuve by his son Brian Herbert and co-author Kevin J. Anderson. Add to that the fact that I played the Dune video games and watched both the film and tv series, and you’ll be reading an analysis & review coming from a dedicated Duniverse fan.
To give you some context, the majority of this novel takes place on an arid desert sand planet called Arrakis or Dune. Its inspiration stems from Herbert’s initial trip to Oregon where he was writing a piece as a journalist on the sand dune stabilization program there. They were growing special grasses along the coastal dunes to anchor them in place and prevent the sand from being eroded by the wind and carried further inland (aka - sand encroachment). In many places, this process leads to deserts growing and potentially even swallowing whole towns.
What’s special about Arrakis is that only there can you obtain this drug called Melange or the Spice. The Spice is ubiquitous on this planet, where its off-planet value is juxtaposed against the on-planet value of water. And the importance of water cannot be understated as it is paramount to the world-building of this entire book.
Zooming outside this planet we can see that Dune is situated in a universe where humanity has spread across space as an imperial galactic empire, but has strangely taken an almost neo-Luddite turn where “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a man’s mind” is a common belief.
Some readers have observed here the inspiration Herbert most likely drew from Samuel Butler’s book Erewhon written in the Victorian times and published in 1872. We can see this through Herbert’s subtle references to a historical “Butlerian Jihad” in the novel’s universe. Amazingly for Butler’s time (computers have yet to be invented!) he warns of the potential for mankind to offload so much of our cognitive burden to our machines that we soon are left behind (somewhat similar sentiments can also be found as far back as Plato cautioning us against the dangers of written word where “it will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it”).
Similarly, Butler argues that mankind will continue to develop more sophisticated forms of machinery such that we begin selecting the fittest machines for our needs over time, with us serving the role of evolution. From Butler:
“[Machines] bear no malice towards man for destroying a whole race of them provided he creates a better instead; on the contrary, they reward him liberally for having hastened their development…The machines being of themselves unable to Struggle, have got man to do their Struggling for them, but the moment he fails to do his best for the advancement of machinery by encouraging the good and destroying the bad, he is left behind in the race of competition. How many men at this hour are living in a State of bondage to the machines?”
Butler himself was most likely reacting to the intellectual zeitgeist of the Victorian Age, with the controversial theory of evolution from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species being published in 1859, and the spreading dominance of machine technology like the Jacquard loom and possible influence from talk of Babbage’s Difference engine.
I bring this up because it’s interesting that pretty much the rest of the book’s social structures are consequently born out of humanity’s machine-ban. Since there are no computers, humans are developed to such a highly sophisticated extent via breeding programs, psychological conditioning, and drug-induced enhancements.
Take the Mentats for example. Because of the ban and taboo against machines, humans with extraordinary analytical abilities are developed and serve as advisors to the powers that be.
Or how about the Spacing Guild Navigators, who possess the ability to predict phenomena and navigate ships safely through space. This grants them a monopoly on travel and the resulting interstellar economic structure.
And arguably the most interesting, we have the Bene Gesserit, a school of females who manipulate and run much of the sociopolitics behind the scenes. Not only are they trained to have excellent physiological self-control and are able to manipulate people with subliminal linguistic conditioning, but they also control a secret eugenics agenda in which they set up their students to mate with individuals possessing key traits, like “a broodmare preserving an important bloodline for the Bene Gesserit Plan”.
More importantly, the Bene Gesserit assume that we are all animals and that they are charged with the sacred duty of “sifting people to find the humans” in an effort to seek Agency amongst us, furthering their goal by seeding whole-scale mythologies on planets on staggering multi-generational time scales to aid their future members.
We can further see that culturally-speaking, Herbert creates a world where humanity is arranged as a feudal society, families compete and scheme for power, bloodlines are important, and intense training and conditioning from birth is the norm, which when combined with the above all create fertile conditions for talk on nature-vs-nurture, free-will-vs-fate, etc.
With the possible exception of his father Pardot, our planetary ecologist Liet Kynes is perhaps my favorite character. Thus, in the vein of the Kyne’s school of thought and through the eyes of a philosopher-scientist, I’d like to talk about Herbert’s world-building in a specific thematic context, that of complexity theory, self-organization, and the nature of constraints shaping the future of a given system. Let’s start with a quote by our ecologist Liet Kynes:
“You are dealing, you see, with the Law of the Minimum…Growth is limited by that necessity which is present in the least amount. And, naturally, the least favorable condition controls the growth rate.”
If taken at face-value, Kynes was talking about the scarcity of water that is present on Arrakis, and how that has shaped not only the cultural and religious practices of the people there, but the biogeochemical cycles present. More importantly, this law has further implications that go beyond the subject matter of water. Here’s one of my favorite poetic quotes by Pardot:
“There’s an internally recognized beauty of motion and balance on any man-healthy planet. You see in this beauty a dynamic stabilizing effect essential to all life. Its aim is simple: to maintain and produce coordinated patterns of greater and greater diversity. Life improves the closed system’s capacity to sustain life. Life–all life–is in the service of life. Necessary nutrients are made available to life by life in greater and greater richness as the diversity of life increases. The entire landscape comes alive, filled with relationships and relationships within relationships.”
What Pardot was talking about is given some mix of opportunities and constraints present in an environment (aka - affordances), biological systems are able to extract an available amount of energy from the environment and redirect that energy flow into their own internal systems (ie - metabolism). Over time these organisms are selected for and adapt to their environmental constraints, becoming entrenched in their special role or niche. This then alters the dynamics of the energy flow in the environment, creating new sets of constraints and hence new avenues for Life to diversify and emerge. As Pardot said, “the highest function of ecology is the understanding of consequences”.
This line of thought can be traced to some of my favorite thinkers like Erwin Schrödinger and Stuart Kauffman. For example, here’s a review of Kauffman’s A World Beyond Physics from Dr. Logan of the University of Toronto:
“Kauffman invokes the notion of the propagation of organization to explain how ‘the biosphere has become complex with teeming diversity since its origin’. He points out that each living self-propagating system or organism enables other living self-propagating systems or organisms to come into being. Kauffman suggests that each ‘species affords one or more adjacent possible new niches for yet new species, which expands what now becomes possible…with niches that invite the next new species…and niches expanding faster than the species that create them’. Thus, each new species that emerges enables still other new species to emerge”.
And we can make this connection of ecology to the science of thermodynamics more explicit through the language of constraints. From Kauffman:
“A living agent to create and propagate its organization must be able to take energy from its environment and convert it into work, which requires constraints. The constraint of the cylinder in an automobile engine that directs the energy of the gasoline air mixture explosion to push against the piston and hence do work is an example of the necessity of constraints to do work.”
We can see that Herbert seems to intuitively understand this theory of constraints through his character Pardot as he writes:
“Beyond a critical point within a finite space, freedom diminishes as numbers increase. This is as true of humans in the finite space of a planetary ecosystem as it is of gas molecules in a sealed flask.”
And as we can begin to see, this theory of constraints could potentially have implications that go beyond ecology and physics to a newer, more general science of information flow (aka - cybernetics, systems theory, or complexity theory). Kauffman points out that “Constraints are information and information is constraints…’One thing missing in the world according to physics is the crucial idea of agency…Given agency, meaning exists in the universe.’ He then asks “How did the universe get from matter to mattering? Mattering is simply meaning or information, and information is about the informing of a living agent that is able to propagate its organization”.
Agency! We can clearly see this from Herbert’s characterization of the Bene Gesserit’s fetish for “sifting people to find the humans”. In fact, as Herbert’s main character Paul ingests more of the Spice he begins to realize how the drug is making him become more aware of mankind’s “race consciousness”, a latent awareness of our genetic drives and biological forces shaping us. “These things are so ancient within us, that they’re ground into each separate cell of our bodies. We’re shaped by such forces.”
The Spice allows Paul to become fully aware of these forces granting him staggering levels of prescience and struggling with whether or not he is gaining or losing Agency. We see that Paul “focused his prescient awareness, seeing it as a computation of most probable futures, but with something more, an edge of mystery–as though his mind dipped into some timeless stratum and sampled the winds of the future…It was as though he existed within a globe with avenues radiating away in all directions…The thing was a spectrum of possibilities from the most remote past to the most remote future–from the most probable to the most improbable. Recalling the experience, he recognized his own terrible purpose–the pressure of his life spreading outward like an expanding bubble…and with this realization, the terrible purpose filled him…thinking with the race consciousness he had first experienced. He found he could no longer hate the Bene Gesserit or the Emperor or the Harkonnens. They were all caught up in the need of their race to renew its scattered inheritance, to cross and mingle and infuse their bloodlines in a great new pooling of genes.”
This seeming paradoxical struggle for Paul regarding the gain and loss of Agency becomes ever more apparent as “he sensed it, the race consciousness that he could not escape” while also realizing that the “expenditure of energy that revealed what he saw, changed what he saw. And what he saw was a time nexus within this cave, a boiling of possibilities here, wherein the most minute action–the wink of an eye, a careless word, a misplaced grain of sand–moved a gigantic lever across the known universe. He saw violence with the outcome subject to so many variables that his slightest movement created vast shiftings in the pattern“. Princess Irulan reflects on this dual nature of Agency when she asks, “How much is actual prediction, and how much is the prophet shaping the future to fit the prophecy? Does the prophet see the future or does he see a line of weakness, a fault or cleavage that he may shatter with words or decisions as a diamond-cutter shatters his gem with a blow of a knife?”
Like a bonsai master carefully pruning branches off a tree and adding constraints in key places in order to encourage and direct new growth for the long term and prevent the tree from shriveling up and dying of weakness, so too do we witness Paul struggling with decisions that preserve the multitude of paths and openness of humanity’s future, attempting to preserve Agency on the grand scale. Princess Irulan explains that Paul “fought the temptation to choose a clear, safe course, warning ‘That path leads ever down into stagnation’“. She writes of her conversations with Paul that, “We came from Caladan–a paradise world of our form of life. And the price we paid was the price men have always paid for achieving a paradise in this life–we went soft, we lost our edge”, indicating potential understanding of evolutionary fitness landscapes and optimization theory, and the role constraints play.
Throughout this novel Herbert seems to keep reminding us that systems and the actions that occur in those systems tend to layer on constraints which all direct the course of the future. Overall, we see this theory of constraints show up in Herbert’s depiction of prescience, his ecological conception of life creating more life, and his views on humanity giving up our Agency, allowing us to witness the grand synthesis of concepts that Herbert masterfully weaves. And what a fine story he creates!
“Yes. They’ll call me…Muad’Dib. The One Who Points the Way.”
Cross-posted from my Goodreads review found here.