What did Frank Herbert mean when he said “humans do not have equal ability”, concerning equality?



In the "Dune Genesis" essay originally published in the July 1980 issue of Omni Magazine* Frank Herbert wrote:

"I now believe that evolution, or deevolution[sic], never ends short of death, that no society has ever achieved an absolute pinnacle, that all humans are not created equal. In fact, I believe attempts to create some abstract equalization create a morass of injustices that rebound on the equalizers. Equal justice and equal opportunity are ideals we should seek, but we should recognize that humans administer the ideals and that humans do not have equal ability."

  • Did he try to say that humans have not the ability to administer successfully these ideals?
  • Was he trying to say that humans doing it have not equal ideals?
  • Simply saying that some humans have not the ability to administer the ideals while others have it?
  • Or, the worst meaning to me, "some humans don't deserve equality because their lack of ability"?

PS: I think people need to know Herbert's science fiction work to know his way of thinking, however you can't ask about the writers in Science Fiction SE.

(*) Herbert, Frank (July 1980). "Dune Genesis". Omni 2 (2): p. 72. ISSN 0149-8711.

Leopoldo Sanczyk

Posted 2019-01-13T18:03:38.217

Reputation: 327

28I would think reading the full sentence where he states that "Equal justice and equal opportunity are ideals that we should seek" rule out the last bullet point. Personally I would guess that it is simple as not everyone can do something at the same level. For example look at sports and how not everyone can make it to a professional/Olympic level regardless of the amount of training that they do. – Joe W – 2019-01-13T18:10:22.047

@JoeW is a relief, thanks for the insight! Then I should read it as "humans are not equal"? The "ability" part was worrying to me. – Leopoldo Sanczyk – 2019-01-13T18:17:40.963

1"ability" to do what? The "that no society has ever achieved an absolute pinnacle" prepositional clause is impossible to prove from within the system itself. – guest271314 – 2019-01-13T18:24:16.183

5I personally read it as we should strive to treat everyone as equal and give everyone an equal chance even though everyone does not have an equal ability to succeed. – Joe W – 2019-01-13T18:24:28.937

@guest271314 ability to govern, to "administer the ideals"? The "pinnacle" part seems to be about governments and forms of government through history, to not judge hastily. – Leopoldo Sanczyk – 2019-01-13T18:37:11.993

1@LeopoldoSanczyk It depends on whom is making the judgment. The sovereign nations of Turtle Island governed themselves for thousands of years prior to European powers' military conquest of their nations. It could be posited that those sovereign nations were at their pinnacle prior to being conquered by invading military expeditions who asserted that those peoples were not exploiting the natural resources of Turtle Island properly. Alexander of Macedonia's military invasion and conquest of Ancient Egypt, too, could be considered the pinnacle of all civilizations in known history. – guest271314 – 2019-01-13T18:47:20.047

@guest271314 thanks for the insight! Could be he implying that as members of the society change in their way of thinking, so they could aspire to differents ideals through time and context, so this dinamyc has these ideals as a driving force? – Leopoldo Sanczyk – 2019-01-13T19:11:32.403

7@Joe W: Yes. If I were to try to make a living as say a pro football player or rock musician (among many other possibilities), I would almost certainly starve. OTOH, I doubt many football players or rock musicians could write a decent computer program. (Note that I said MANY, and don't bring up that Queen guitarist who moonlights as a astrophysicist :-)) – jamesqf – 2019-01-13T19:14:40.343

2@LeopoldoSanczyk Can only speculate as to what the author of the essay meant by "ability" relevant to humans. That term is not clearly defined at the essay. The "no society has ever achieved an absolute pinnacle" can be objectively refuted with evidence - from the outside of the specific society being evaluated - not from the inside. A contemporary example could be the mantra "Make America Great Again", the first question would necessarily be "When exactly was America ever 'great'?" or "Why is America not 'great' right now?" A definition of "great" is required to make a rational evaluation. – guest271314 – 2019-01-13T19:16:34.370

@guest271314 you are raising good conditioning. I'm thinking the author judges that "pinnacle" in terms of "Equal justice and equal opportunity", and surely we can't know if there was a perfect society sometime, somewhere or the best way to value it. Seems that enters philosophy terrain. Apart from that, I can't understand if the 2 things he say "we should recognize" are independent or related. – Leopoldo Sanczyk – 2019-01-13T19:41:24.180

4I agree with JoeW. The author is referring to the fact that people simply are born with different abilities to do stuff - people are born with different muscle mass, stamina, metabolism, height, vocal cords, not to mention mental matters. It all results in different abilities (some are born to become basketball players, others are certainly not). I believe he is referring to the idea of every individual's "Equal justice and equal opportunity", but not necessarily equal outcomes, as an ideal – Steeven – 2019-01-13T19:48:21.753

1@LeopoldoSanczyk Yes, from the outside the nations of Turtle Island and Ancient Egypt had their pinnacle prior to military invasion and being conquered. Neither has returned to their prior state before the conquest. There is no way to know what the author meant by "ability" based on that essay alone. – guest271314 – 2019-01-13T19:48:22.570

1@Steeven So he is saying "we should recognize" that 1) people is human, will not administer perfectly; and 2) people is not equal, don't equalize things in an abstract way? My concern is the way he wrote it, as if 1 and 2 were related. – Leopoldo Sanczyk – 2019-01-13T20:31:15.670

2I'm not sure its official policy to not ask about SF author's views on SFF. – Mark Rogers – 2019-01-14T03:42:10.343

Naturally he meant that humans do not have equal ability to aliens such as the Annunaki, who will return and lead us to an age of peace and abundance. – Obie 2.0 – 2019-01-14T07:18:53.510

1@Obie2.0 Transhumanism is a theme in Herbert's books, so is possible to point humans flaws to reach ideals. – Leopoldo Sanczyk – 2019-01-14T17:52:40.270

2I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because internal states of authors aren’t politically knowable. Secondly that the author is irrelevant to the text. Thirdly this text is of no political interest in itself. – Samuel Russell – 2019-01-15T23:33:55.173



I think that Frank Herbert's points were these:

  1. Everyone is different, with different varying abilities. You might be good at math, I might not be. I might learn by doing, you might learn by reading.

  2. When people try to force people to meet a one size fits all standard so that everyone will be equal, it ends up creating injustices. Example: I'm not good at math, so I have a lower standard to get an accounting job, but you get a penalty applying for the same job because you're good at math, to make you equal with me.

  3. People should strive for equal opportunity and equal justice. Let us both do the best we can do to be as good at math as we can be, and let the whichever one of us who can do math the best get the accounting job. If both of us commit the same crime under the same circumstances, let us both be punished the same way, without respect to social class or other qualities that have nothing to do with the crime committed.

  4. Flawed human beings implement efforts toward ideals, so things aren't going to be perfect, and we should try the best we can to implement the ideals of equal opportunity and equal justice as fairly as we can even though we're limited imperfect human beings.

  5. Human beings don't have equal ability, so don't try to force things to turn out a certain way. Don't force someone who would rather be outside working in the forestry service to work in a so-called 'better' job because his group is 'underrepresented'. If I'm not good at math, don't pressure me to be a physicist which I may find to be a frustrating job that I'm not very good at. Let me do what I want to do and what I'm good at.


Posted 2019-01-13T18:03:38.217

Reputation: 1 496

1Thanks for the insights @TheLeopard! So, you see Herbert just worrying about some kind of forced standarization, or equality without freedom? – Leopoldo Sanczyk – 2019-01-14T01:22:30.130

8Being miserable and treating other people like dirt is every New Yorker's God-given right. – Mazura – 2019-01-14T01:29:23.860

Sorry @Mazura could you explain it a bit further? I did not understand it. – Leopoldo Sanczyk – 2019-01-14T02:26:28.757

22Yes. That was a political issue of his time, and it's still somewhat of an issue now. He's advocating for equality of opportunity, allowing people to be free to do their best and get the results they achieve, instead of forcing people into a system that tries to guarantee equal results for everyone. He's saying that imperfect people can't make a system like that without hurting people and inflicting brutal injustices, and even then it won't work. – TheLeopard – 2019-01-14T02:45:07.367

2The peasantry has never gone away (the caveat is that opportunity exists for those in the peasant class to move to another class). They now have smart phones and a relatively larger spending power. However, they are easily swayed and are the victims of the elite class. My point is that the peasant class does not have the ability to strive for that ideal because it means nothing from their point of view – Frank Cedeno – 2019-01-14T15:18:14.863

6I think your analysis is likely correct (based on my familiarity with the works), but the answer should ideally be backed up by quotes by Herbert himself or his books? – user4012 – 2019-01-14T16:41:34.533

1My answer is a clarification of Herbert's language in the quote with some examples, so the quote the OP mentioned is the source. Herbert says three things in the quote: 1) Humans are not created equal 2) Trying to equalize people creates injustice, and 3) We should seek equal opportunity and justice but recognize people's differences and limitations. – TheLeopard – 2019-01-14T16:59:24.513

5Much better real-world example for #2: Some people are great with the mental motivation and focus necessary to do things like fill out paperwork and make an keep Dr. Appointments, and some people have brains that are so bad at this they need neurochemical help to function in a world that demands those things. Expecting people in that second group to deal with lots of paperwork and bureaucracy that an average person can just barely deal with when something happens and they fall off their meds is a really great way to fill your society's streets with homeless people. – T.E.D. – 2019-01-14T17:24:35.693

1@Frank Cedeno you have a point there. Herbert's works invites to think in "What part do the meek play" to empower a bad leader. – Leopoldo Sanczyk – 2019-01-14T17:58:05.917

@T.E.D. So, you think he is pointing a relation between the 2 things "we should recognize"? Something like "humans with lack of ability could administer those ideals"? – Leopoldo Sanczyk – 2019-01-14T18:01:07.513

7@LeopoldoSanczyk - No, I just think that is a better example for the poster's point. Personally I think Herbert was just making a subtle "who watches the watchmen?" type of point about totally relying on governments to maintain justice and fairness (and most of the answers here are reading far too much into it), but I have nothing to back that up with. Just my own opinion. Remember, this is a guy who lived through WWII and the start of the Cold War, where two governments in particular were downright abusive to their own people, and caused a great deal of misery worldwide. – T.E.D. – 2019-01-14T18:41:20.317

1I agree with your answer, however with your third point I slightly disagree. Rather than "...whichever one of us who can do math the best get the accounting job." I understand Herbert's writing to mean more along the lines of "Let's provide the same opportunity of access to math education, so that those who seek it may find and utilize it equally." Its a minor adjustment, but an important one IMO. – That1Guy – 2019-01-14T21:45:25.323

@T.E.D.: Hah that's the story of my life xD (the former comment) – dhein – 2019-01-15T07:29:18.480


In fact, I believe attempts to create some abstract equalization create a morass of injustices that rebound on the equalizers. Equal justice and equal opportunity are ideals we should seek, but we should recognize that humans administer the ideals and that humans do not have equal ability."

Caveat: my answer's main point is pretty similar to @TheLeopard's excellent previous answer, just paraphrased to be more concise.

What Herbert refers to is the contrast of two political philosophical ideas: "Equality of outcome" and "Equality of opportunity"

Herbert then posits two reasons for his support of the latter over the former:

  • Theoretical reason: this is a standard classical liberal/libertarian/conservative argument that, even with the best government efforts, outcomes will never be actually equal. There are many reasons for that, Herbert quotes one of the main ones, namely differences in ability.

    Absent an oppressive totalitarian government, some people will always end up better than others, due to innate ability - grit, willpower, intellect, looks, physical abilities, height, ability to hustle, charisma, even luck. The only way to ensure the equality of outcome is to try to enforce that outcome by brute force, as was done in Socialist states like USSR/China/Venezuela/Mao's China (invariably, wth disastrous results).

    A somewhat simplistic analogy is running - some people will run faster, some people will lose their endurance faster, and the only way to make sure everyone finishes at the same time is forcing faster runners to be delayed by force; or forcing faster runners to start later (again, by force, and denying them equal opportunity).

  • Practical reason: Even if you ignore the theoretical reason and decide "no, no, I or someone else smart can figure out a perfect way to administer society that will ensure equal outcome without it becoming a Gulag state", they are ignoring the fact that this perfect society will be administered by humans. Who will end up screwing up this perfection, to either make themselves more equal, paraphrasing Orwell, or even through sheer human fallibility (stupidity, mistakes, lack of foresight, personal issues, interpersonal issues).


Posted 2019-01-13T18:03:38.217

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3To add to your second paragraph, even in a society which enforces equality, the people with the power to do the enforcing would be more powerful than people who don't, so equality would elude such a society. – TheLeopard – 2019-01-14T18:02:32.717


Herbert was also much interested in ecology. Genes control growth rates, and any increase costs an organism energy and resources. In some environs, the cost of being faster or having sharper teeth may not be cost effective -- which is why sloths, snails and cheetahs exist in different places. A world with only cheetahs would die off in one generation, because predators need 10x prey to support them, in which sense predators are among the most fragile and dependent of creatures.

– agc – 2019-01-14T18:37:07.070


It's not an interesting quote politically or otherwise, because it's obvious. SF writers of Herbert's generation were prone to issuing frank and chronic updates of their educational misadventures. Herbert meant that his earlier too literal reading of a certain Jeffersonian premise eventually led him to a somewhat less over-literal interpretation. (Herbert's latter interpretation is still too literal by half**...)

Did he try to say that humans have not the ability to administer successfully these ideals?

Humans in general possess an administrative ability, but not everyone in the general populace has equal nor sufficient ability to administrate well.

Was he trying to say that humans doing it have not equal ideals?

The quote doesn't go into that. But in Herbert's fiction, ability and benign ideals don't always coincide: the villainous Vlad Harkonnen was a man of great ability but base ideals. But Herbert's novels also attempt to show that having a "good guy" running things isn't enough either -- uncritical public hero-worship of ability and benign ideals can also lead to stagnation and misery.

Simply saying that some humans have not the ability to administer the ideals while others have it?

Yes, but also that it wasn't necessary or desirable or even possible to have "perfect" administration... or "perfect" ideals. A bad administrator pretends to be perfect, and failing that, abuses his power to hide any mistakes. A good administrator admits and shares mistakes so that others may themselves profit by avoiding that bad example, and perhaps provide counsel. Beyond the errors of administrators are the flaws in human ideals, which can become destructive when those flaws are fanatically denied, or enlightening when pondered and studied.

Or, the worst meaning to me, "some humans don't deserve equality because their lack of ability"?

No. Herbert was just saying that not everyone should administrate.

**For a better and earlier exposition of human metrics, see Burn's Is There for Honest Poverty.


Posted 2019-01-13T18:03:38.217

Reputation: 11 325

thanks for the links! So those 2 things "we should recognize" are related. He is saying humans will not administer the ideals perfectly, and even not close to that if the lack enough ability. – Leopoldo Sanczyk – 2019-01-13T20:56:45.417

2I think your analysis is likely correct (based on my familiarity with the works), but the answer should ideally be backed up by quotes by Herbert himself or his books? – user4012 – 2019-01-14T16:40:41.263


@user4012, Thanks. Quotes & sources would be better. FWIW, it being decades since I'd read any Herbert novels, my online memory refreshers were the Dune Genesis essay the OP noted, and chapter 4 "The Hero" of Tim O'Reilly's Frank Herbert. These refreshers suggested that FH earnestly didn't wish to stray anywhere near the tax exempt path of fellow SF writer and Korzybski reader Ron Hubbard.

– agc – 2019-01-14T18:16:15.023

1@user4012 is good to know you read that. My fear was that Herbert way of thinking was kind of libertarian anarchism? (not sure with the term) because of the anticomunist feel at that side of the cold war. The idea of thinking humans deserve to be rewarded by his ability, and thus ignoring that the ability could be a product of an unequal system. – Leopoldo Sanczyk – 2019-01-14T18:55:14.210


The bit concerning you seems to be

humans do not have equal ability.

That is manifestly true though.

Some people are strong, some are fast, some are smarter, some more intuitive. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses and some are strong in many areas, others are weak in many.

For example a special forces soldier has to be strong, fast, physically fit, well trained - they also need to be smart with it.

Your average Joe off the street is going to be both less physically fit and less mentally capable than your average special forces soldier.

Your average blacksmith is going to be stronger. Your average accountant better at math.

You could take up smithing and become stronger, or accounting and become better at math than you are now. But some people are just going to be naturally better than others at all of these things.

Trying to force everyone into the same mold as though all humans are interchangeable is just not going to work as well as finding what roles people are suited to.


That's a completely different question though from whether people should be compensated differently for their time based on what they do as opposed to paying all jobs the same no matter what skill or experience is needed.

How do you value a blacksmith, vs an accountant, vs a programmer, vs a CEO. Which has more skill and experience? Which works harder? Who should get paid better? That's the hard question.

Tim B

Posted 2019-01-13T18:03:38.217

Reputation: 1 396


I found a statement by Steven Pinker to an Argentine newspaper that in my opinion can not be more consistent with the issues expressed by Herbert. In his last TED talk Pinker affirmed that "We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one", about which he expanded:

We are not clones. There are biological and cultural variations and that is why there are always going to be mutual concessions between freedom and equality. If you treat people equally, they will end up being unequal. Some people are smarter than others, work more, take more risks or have more luck. The only way that people end up being equal in the result, is if you treat them in an unequal way. Freedom and equality have mutual concessions. You can not have much of both. Freedom also has concessions with human development. If you give people freedom, they can do stupid things like eating a lot, taking drugs, not exercising or dealing with unpleasant ways. If you force everyone to do what is best for them and everyone else, you would need a totalitarian Big Brother. There are concessions between the good things of life and human freedom. The people who would form the society that would try to be perfect are also human, with the flaws that accompany human nature. They would be tempted all the time to abuse their power and overestimate their knowledge. They might think that they know how to create a perfect society and we know that humans have a lot of confidence in their knowledge. They would be tempted to impose a vision on society that might not benefit everyone.

Inside that quote there is also sentences besides equality that can be close compared with other hot topics in Herbert books. "They would be tempted all the time to abuse their power" can be compared with:

“All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible.” -F. Herbert, Chapterhouse: Dune

And "If you give people freedom, they can do stupid things" compared with:

“Seek freedom and become captive of your desires. Seek discipline and find your liberty.” -F. Herbert, Chapterhouse: Dune

So, at least in these topics, I think his points of view seems very close.

Besides, I managed to found a 1981 interview at Mother Earth News, an ecology-oriented magazine, that think could be relevant to navigate his political thinking outside his books. There you could find his opinion about the welfare state:

I don't like governmental "helping"—or any kind of public charity system—because I learned early on that our society's institutions often weaken people's self-reliance and damage family bonds as well.

Or about leaders, in his views on Kennedy and Nixon:

There is definitely an implicit warning, in a lot of my work, against big government and especially against charismatic leaders. After all, such people—well-intentioned or not—are human beings who will make human mistakes. And what happens when someone is able to make mistakes for 200 million people? The errors get pretty damned BIG!

For that reason, I think that John Kennedy was one of the most dangerous presidents this country ever had. People didn't question him. And whenever citizens are willing to give unreined power to a charismatic leader, such as Kennedy, they tend to end up creating a kind of demigod—a leader who covers up mistakes instead of admitting them—and makes matters worse instead of better. Now Richard Nixon, on the other hand, did us all a favor.

Nixon taught us one hell of a lesson, and I thank him for it. He made us distrust government leaders. We didn't mistrust Kennedy the way we did Nixon, although we probably had just as good reason to do so. But Nixon's downfall was due to the fact that he wasn't charismatic. He had to be sold just like Wheaties, and people were disappointed when they opened the box.

I think it's vital that men and women learn to mistrust all forms of powerful, centralized authority. Big government tends to create an enormous delay between the signals that come from the people and the response of the leaders. [...] The bigger the government, the more slowly it reacts. So to me, the best government is one that's very responsive to the needs of its people. That is, the least, loosest, and most local government.

His dislike of centralized government and social aid makes me think that the equality he advocates is that of a social anarchism. He seems to be against affirmative action as a way to equalize people's equality of opportunity. But if after all this reading you find it difficult to classify his political ideas, don't feel bad. The interviewer Pat Stone himself stated:

Throughout this interview it's been all but impossible to pin you down to "neatly packaged" ideas. [...] I can imagine that many men and women who read your books or hear your ideas would prefer to be given a clear and uncomplicated plan they could respond to.

PS: I apologize to answer my own question, but I really needed to research about this, and used all the precious insights shared in the discussion to do it.

Leopoldo Sanczyk

Posted 2019-01-13T18:03:38.217

Reputation: 327

"*Yes! Stack Exchange has always explicitly encouraged users to answer their own questions.*" (from Help center). In other words, no need whatsoever for any apology, what you did was a good and welcome and fully encouraged step. (and a good answer, while at it :)

– user4012 – 2019-01-17T13:53:24.287