The Dune Hypothesis

Sunday, March 17th, 2013

It should come as no surprise that Peter Turchin describes himself as “an avid consumer of science fiction and fantasy novels” — his field of cliodynamics aspires to become Asimov’s psychohistory.

Frank Herbert’s Dune is one of his favorites:

I don’t know whether Herbert read Ibn Khaldun, but much of his cliodynamics, especially the aspects dealing with Arrakis and Fremen, could come directly from Ibn Khaldun. As a result, he creates a highly believable world (well, this is a science fiction novel), both ecologically and sociologically. This must have been an important reason why this novel was so successful.

There is one law of historical dynamics that Herbert discusses explicitly. This general rule may be formulated as follows: Harsh environmental conditions create a selective regime under which only the best survive, producing cultures with tough and capable warriors. This is the reason why the Emperor recruits his best shock troops, the Sardaukar, from the prison planet Salusa Secundus. Only the Fremen, evolving under equally harsh conditions of Arrakis, can match the ferocity and fighting ability of the Sardaukar.

What is particularly interesting about this hypothesis is that it is explicitly evolutionary. Nevertheless, I believe it is wrong. The problem is that it focuses on individual fighting ability, which is much less important than collective fighting ability. To give a single historical example, an average Roman legionary would most likely lose in a single combat against an average Celtic warrior. A Roman legion, on the other hand, would easily defeat an equal number of Gauls. Cooperation, discipline, ability to work as a team, willingness to sacrifice for the common good (in short, asabiya of Ibn Khaldun) is what wins battles and wars, not ferocity of individual warriors.

The selective regime that breeds militarily capable cultures is not harsh physical environment, but living in a ‘tough neighborhood.’ In other words, it is between-group selection, not individual selection, that creates aggressive expansionist cultures.

A real-world discussion led to his Dune Hypothesis:

This post was prompted by a recent discussion with colleagues about whether people living in poor environments (those capable of supporting lower population densities) are more likely to go to war. The logic here is that people living under such conditions have greater incentive for attacking neighbors, than people living in rich environments. I think that in predicting incidence of warfare, incentives are less important than capabilities. So people living in relatively poor environments that are also characterized by intense between-group selection (e.g., Ibn Khaldunian Bedouins) would be expected to be quite troublesome for their neighbors. On the other hand, people living in poor environments with weak between-group selection (e.g., boreal forests) should be relatively peaceful.


  1. Turchin is correct on Herbert’s acceptance of the “harsh evironment → savage individual warriors” idea, but the rest of his argument ignores some very important (and carefully chosen) characteristics of the Dune universe. Specifically, the Holtzmann field generator was introduced by Herbert to elevate individual fighting prowess to primary importance. It makes the user immune to any projectile or explosive-based weapon and can be countered only by a supremely skilled swordsman.

    It may be that Turchin’s a little too embedded in the modern world, where combat is dominated by Lanchester’s Square Law and skilled concentration is the key to tactical victory. The ancient battlefield was somewhat more linear: if both sides were playing smart it was difficult to bring multiple men to bear against any single enemy. This is in large part why pre-modern battles tended to involve remarkably few casualties until one side broke. The ways around this, generally based on polearms like pikes that allow multiple men to attack a single foe, are invalidated by the “stickiness” of the Holtzmann field; a long spear becomes very easy to parry with your sword if its mobility is hindered by a kinetic-energy-sapping shield. Individual combat in Dune is all about getting in close and personal with finesse-weapons.

    This pattern still presents in modern warfare, because it’s the result of certain human psychological characteristics, but to nothing like the same extent. The best modern armies often take at least as many casualties in tactical victory as in tactical defeat, whereas exceptional ancient armies could go from victory to victory suffering only single-digit casualty percentages. Note that I’m referring only to tactically “fair” fights, none of this M1-Abrams vs. Toyota Hilux we’ve been dealing with lately.

    In Dune, this effect combines with the Spacing Guild injunction against space-combat, the religious injunction against computers (and thus computer targeting systems that would make precision orbital bombardment possible), and the pragmatic injunction against atomic bombardment to render a galactic empire that can be ruled (and conquered) with no more than a few million soldiers.

    Turchin also ignores that the Sardaukar are as brutally disciplined as they are brutally skilled. The Fremen were nothing until Paul brought them the same discipline under the flag of religious fanaticism.

  2. Buckethead says:

    He [Scipio] said everything I was going to say, and likely better.

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