The secretive and mysterious cult of the Bene Gesserit from Frank Herbert's Dune have a human breeding program as one of their prime goals (perhaps the prime goal). As a result, they've developed a definition of human that does not actually include all people. This odd belief is revealed early in the first novel of the series when Paul Atreides was tested with the Gom Jabbar. I can't recall it being mentioned much after that. There was mention of the Butlerian Jihad, where "thinking machines" were destroyed and declared anathema, and a trite metaphor about an animal in a trap. I feel like there's more.

I've read up through Heretics, so spoilers aren't likely.

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    A definition of humanity that doesn't include all biological humans is not exactly unprecedented on our planet.
    – Adamant
    Mar 23, 2019 at 0:00
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    @Adamant Sure, but such ideas are roundly criticized these days. Did herbert want us to hate them?
    – user15742
    Mar 23, 2019 at 0:18
  • @fredsbend - Along with many scifi writers of his generation, he was keen to push a environmentalist (and highly misanthropic) agenda. It's the same reason that Sagan was happy to promulgate 'fake science' about nuclear explosions causing a global winter.
    – Valorum
    Mar 23, 2019 at 10:34

2 Answers 2


This is a key concept of Bene Gesserit teaching, that a true 'human' is a person capable of identifying a course of action that benefits other humans, even at the cost of their own happiness. By comparison, 'animals' (a category in which they include other less evolved humans) will act to support their own personal survival even if the long-term consequences are undesirable.

Paul sensed his own tensions, decided to practice one of the mind-body lessons his mother had taught him. Three quick breaths triggered the responses: he fell into the floating awareness … focusing the consciousness … aortal dilation … avoiding the unfocused mechanism of consciousness … to be conscious by choice … blood enriched and swift-flooding the overload regions … one does not obtain food-safety-freedom by instinct alone … animal consciousness does not extend beyond the given moment nor into the idea that its victims may become extinct … the animal destroys and does not produce … animal pleasures remain close to sensation levels and avoid the perceptual … the human requires a background grid through which to see his universe … focused consciousness by choice, this forms your grid … bodily integrity follows nerve-blood flow according to the deepest awareness of cell needs … all things/cells/beings are impermanent … strive for flow-permanence within….

The Bene Gesserit use the pain box (in combination with the Gom Jabbar) to determine whether the person being tested can resist their animal urge to remove their hand, even if they've been told that the consequence is their death a short time afterwards.

“Good,” she said. “You pass the first test. Now, here’s the way of the rest of it: If you withdraw your hand from the box you die. This is the only rule. Keep your hand in the box and live. Withdraw it and die.”

This, presumably, is how the Bene Gesserit identified which humans to focus their breeding plans onto. By identifying the most 'human' humans alive at the time, they were able to breed those individuals together to get an even more 'human' human.

  • The quotes are illuminating, but I don't think they, nor the GJ test, support "a course of action that benefits other humans, even at the cost of their own happiness". The GM seems to test discipline in the face of "animal" urges. The quotes extend that to understanding and belief in the value of a framework and long term planning.
    – user15742
    Mar 23, 2019 at 11:24
  • @fredsbend - I'm not sure that there's any other way to read "animal consciousness does not extend beyond the given moment nor into the idea that its victims may become extinct … the animal destroys and does not produce"
    – Valorum
    Mar 23, 2019 at 11:50
  • There's a quote in one of the books (can't check which right now) about one who falls into a hunter's trap: an animal will chew off its own leg to survive and escape, while a human will remain in the trap, waiting for the hunter to return so they can slay it and thereby save others from being hunted. I think that sums up the Bene Gesserit concepts from this answer very well. Sep 27, 2019 at 19:18
  • @ChrisHayes - "The old woman said: “You’ve heard of animals chewing off a leg to escape a trap? There’s an animal kind of trick. A human would remain in the trap, endure the pain, feigning death that he might kill the trapper and remove a threat to his kind.”"
    – Valorum
    Sep 27, 2019 at 19:36
  • @Valorum: Only a human would think of it because only a human could carry it out. It is far beyond the capacity of the animal to be a threat to the trap layer.
    – Joshua
    Nov 1, 2021 at 16:07

Their definition of "humanity" is based on the ability to make rational pro-survival choices even when under the most intense stress possible. If you'll break under a little acute torture, they think you don't qualify.

  • That makes sense within the books, but leads to another question: why? What's the reasoning that sacrifice for tomorrow's gain is the metric?
    – user15742
    Mar 22, 2019 at 23:47
  • Is there a quote you could provide?
    – user15742
    Mar 22, 2019 at 23:48
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    @fredsbend Well, they are trying to get people to breed with partners they select in an effort to produce their Kwitzatz Haderach (sp?). Finding people who are willing/able to make this kind of sacrifice would help in manipulating them to make the genetic pairings the BG want.
    – Steve-O
    Mar 23, 2019 at 0:14
  • @Steve But that doesn't require defining human. That would only require recruits with certain traits. It's quite a jump, hubristic and insidious even, to define "human" anywhere outside of biology.
    – user15742
    Mar 23, 2019 at 0:31
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    @fredsbend The Bene Gesserit have their share of hubris, as I recall. And they're definitely insidious. They went around the known universe planting specifically chosen keywords into the culture and religion of various peoples just so they could use those keywords to manipulate the populace if the need arose (as it did for Jessica and Paul in the first book.)
    – Steve-O
    Mar 23, 2019 at 1:35

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