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A human being

23 December 2017

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Robert A. Heinlein


64 Comments to “A human being”

  1. In the making of a Watch, if one Man shall make the Wheels, another the Spring, another shall Engrave theDial-Plate, and another shall make the Cases, then the Watch will be better and cheaper, than if the whole work be put upon any one Man.

    —Adam Smith

    Seems to me one of these men was a bloody idiot. Given that there has never in history been one human being who could perform every one of Heinlein’s list of tasks, I’d say the idiot was not Smith.

    • Smith and Heinlein are not mutually contradictory on this point. A human being should be able to do a multitude of things, even if his primary focus is on just one thing.

    • I know Heinlein but I’ve never heard of Adam Smith. Who is/was he? I assume he has to be early production line era because modern studies show that piece-meal is not the way humans work the best.

      • Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations?


        • Not merely an economist, but the founding father of the whole science. It’s criminal that anyone should be able to graduate high school without at least knowing who he was.

          • Just another dead white man like Newton and Darwin.

          • -grin- I’m Australian not American. Merry Christmas.

            • Smith was Scottish. 😀

              Being a dead white male and a direct influence upon the “founders” of the American republic he is currently out of favor in American universities. Economic thought has evolved a bit in the centuries since his time but the comparison to Newton is apt.

              Somebody had to be first and they were it.

              • Interesting. I had what’s probably called a liberal arts education so I didn’t learn anything about economics until I stumbled across the name of John Maynard Keynes long after I left uni. More recently, I’ve come across a concept called ‘behavioural economics’ which purports to take human nature into account when theorizing about economics. Just goes to show that we all seek out knowledge in our areas of interest only.

                • Just goes to show that we all seek out knowledge in our areas of interest only.

                  Agree. But notice how just about everyone has strong opinions on economic policy, while having little grounding in econ.

            • acflory: And you were born in Hungary — interesting! How old were you when your family moved to Australia? Or would “fled” be a more precise verb than “moved”?

              I never knew who Adam Smith was, either, until I met my spouse who taught me more about politics, economics, and biology while I taught him more about astronomy, writing & editing, and art.

              • I turned four in a plane somewhere over Asia. 🙂 The Australian government brought us to Australia as refugees after the failed Hungarian revolution. So yes, fled is the right word. 🙂
                ‘Charnov’? Russian?

                • Polish — it used to be “Charnokovsky” (sp? I’ve only heard the old name, never seen it in writing) before Ellis Island. Many of them had recognized the existential threats and emigrated before WWII’s concentration camps appeared; they were the lucky ones.

                  The story of the “other side of the family” (Irish) is that certain ancestors were caught stealing sheep during the Great Potato Famine, and were given the choice between prison (or worse) or leaving their beloved country for good. They left.

          • If all of us here were to ask the question “Who was Adam Smith?” at a holiday dinner table this week, I think it likely that few hosts and adult guests would be able to answer, and then not with much certainty about his life and work. And could the teens and young adults present even locate Scotland on a map?

            An indictment of our inadequate education systems.

            • I just asked four adults. All knew. The best response was, “Who is John Galt?”

              • Answer: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.
                That book gave me sleepless nights as I struggled to reconcile Rand’s persuasive view of capitalism with the Australian [and Catholic] view of society, and the need to have a social conscience, to give everyone a ‘fair go’.
                That is one huge cultural difference between the US and Australia.

                • Her philosophy was a tad extreme but her extrapolation of future social trends was right on the money. Only difference is that if there were a John Galt out there he would blow his brains out. 🙂

                • No, Galt would be in the Trump administration,gleefully exploiting the public purse for his own benefit.

                • No, Galt would be in the Trump administration,gleefully exploiting the public purse for his own benefit.

                • Nate, have you actually read the book or at least watched the movies?
                  Galt is an extreme individualist libertarian.
                  His credo; “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

                  The only thing he despises more than socialism is populism.

                  He’s also a fool but in the context of his world dropping out was his only option. In the context of ours he would be compelled to kill himself rather than be part of the system in any way or form.
                  Taken as 50’s SF instead of a life guide, it’s an amusing read.

                • @ Felix J. Torres. I don’t think Ayn Rand meant for the book to be SF at all. Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957, right in the thick of the McCarthy era when Communists of any persuasion wore black hats and Capitalism had to be defended from evil.
                  The irony is that the hats got changed around, and Rand’s vision of heroic inventors and creators gave way to corporatism and shareholder dividends.

                • @Acflory: almost certainly so. Nonetheless, that is what she produced. She was not alone in using the tools of the genre to illustrate sociological principles. Orwell’s 1984 did the same as did Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD.
                  “SOFT” SF is still SF. 🙂

                  Over the years lots of authors have produced pretty good SF without conscious intent. Verne and Wells most prominently. One could even make a case for Tom Clancy and other technothriller authors. I wouldn’t try it but I can see it being a defensible position.
                  (John Ringo’s Paladin of Shadows series is unquestionably technothriller. John Ball’s vintage THE FIRST TEAM can be seen as dystopian SF – 70’s US defeated and occupied by the soviets.)
                  As always it boils down to what the story is about.

                  A couple years back there was a piece here about an author that *swore* his novel of dragons and ogres in a medieval setting wasn’t fantasy.


                  Everyone who read it knew better.

                • As a fan of sci-fi, I have to agree that defining the genre is slippery. Nevertheless, I still see Atlas Shrugged as more of a soft mix of philosophy/polemic/propaganda than sci-fi.
                  To me, a work of fiction is sci-fi if the story could not occur without some element of science or science based technology. I don’t remember that from Atlas Shrugged.:/

                • Re Ishiguro. I haven’t read the book that began the furor, but I have read ‘Never Let me Go’, and I’d probably describe it as accidental sci-fi. I should also add that I absolutely loved it, ditto The Remains of the Day.

                • John Galt invented a magical engine that ran off vacuum energy like the STARGATE ZPMs.
                  That was the reason he dropped out: it made him a target because of the economic power it represented. Power he refused to use because it would preserve a system he despised.
                  No engine, no power, and he’s just a philosopher instead of a man of extreme principle.
                  The movie version made it a bit clearer and, more realistically, the regime tortured him to get his secret instead of trying to bribe him.
                  Soft SF is more in line with the “literature of ideas” definition of SF, anyway. Not as clearcut as hard AD or space opera.
                  I see ATLAS SHRUGGED as more in line with Chad Oliver’s SHADOWS IN THE SUN and other anthropological SF. (That one was an reflection on the cultural differences between big city and small town cultures, circa 1950. Still relevant today.)

                • ‘John Galt invented a magical engine that ran off vacuum energy like the STARGATE ZPMs.’
                  Thanks for that, Felix. It’s literally been 40 years since I read the book, and I’d completely forgotten about that ‘invention’. :/
                  Thanks also for the reference to Shadows in the Sun. Haven’t read that at all, but I’m definitely going to look it up.

            • lol – so your connection to your European roots is still relatively fresh. Boldog Karacsonyt kivanok. 🙂

          • I didn’t go to school in the States, but picked that up in the course of my reading.

    • I’m distressed because I fail Heinlein’s test. I can do everything but prepare a tasty meal.

      • I am not learning to butcher a hog, regardless of my family name.

      • You’re an anime heroine!

        (There’s a comedy cliche where the most knowledgeable and skilled girls are unable to cook, or actually produce toxic substances whenever they try. Home economics classes are still a thing in Japan, so all kids are supposed to know how to cook simple foods.)

    • Perhaps the spring maker knows how to change a diaper?

  2. This reminds me of Elizabeth Bennet’s retort to Mr Darcy: “I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.”

    How many human beings did Heinlein know who could do everything on his list?

  3. It’s a shame Heinlein didn’t follow his own advice instead of wasting his time specializing in writing…

    • You aren’t aware of Heinlein’s bio, are you? Served in the Navy. When he was discharged from the Navy due to contracting tuberculosis, he designed and built a new waterbed to help with his treatment. Studied math and physics in college (though had to withdraw due to his health). Went into politics. Supported himself with silver mining and real estate sales. Worked as an aeronautical engineer during World War II (and recruited Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp to serve in the Philadelphia Naval Yard). Designed and built his own house(twice). Honeymooned by taking a round-the-world trip via cruise ship. Was a stone mason as a hobby. Founded one of the most successful blood donation drives in the country during the 1970s. Was part of the Citizens Advisory Council on National Space Policy.

      Oh, and wrote 32 novels and dozens of short stories during his lifetime.

      I’m not sure he could have done all the specific things described in the quote, but he hardly “specialized” in writing.

  4. The literalism in the comments section here always baffles me.

    The only three things I haven’t done in Heinlein’s list is butcher a hog, set a bone, and die gallantly, but I’ve certainly caught and cleaned fish, which is almost certainly tangent with what he means. And while I didn’t set my own thumb at 10, I knew how and certainly was able to stabilize it until I got help, which was a minute’s walk away. So I’m symbolically down to one. None of the things on his list is particularly difficult (“die gallantly” is not fully in one’s control, but “live gallantly” is as good a bulwark as any).

    He’s clearly saying that humans shouldn’t focus on any one thing to the exclusion of others, but that they should strive to have many different experiences across the broad spectrum of human activities.

    That authors would argue that Heinlein is misguided and people shouldn’t try to experience new things beggars belief.

    • That authors would argue that Heinlein is misguided and people shouldn’t try to experience new things beggars belief.

      Meanwhile, more and more men are calling AAA to change their tires…

      • To be fair, some part of that is the changing design of motor vehicles that prevent people from fixing their own cars. With the wheel locks currently on my tires, I need a motorized tool I don’t own in order to change them (I could buy one, but AAA is cheaper). I may know how to DIY it on older models, but if I wanted to change the oil or the battery of my current car, I would need a garage, which I don’t own.

        That said, this is one of my favorite Heinlein quotes specifically BECAUSE of that “people should try to experience new things” belief it espouses.

        • In “What’s The Matter With Kansas,” Thomas Franks told us the people of Kansas weren’t rational because they didn’t base their voting on financial considerations. He’s right. They have other values they place above the financial.

        • My old Subaru had a tire too so short that you couldn’t get enough leverage to break the lug-nuts loose. And you were not supposed to use a cheater bar. After ending up on my rump twice and starting to strip the nuts as the tool slipped, I called for help.

          Better design for a better planet my hind leg.

    • You’ve planned an invasion, have you?

      That authors would argue that Heinlein is misguided and people shouldn’t try to experience new things beggars belief.

      That’s not what I’m arguing. I am arguing against the entire point of Heinlein’s rant, which he placed conveniently at the conclusion so you could identify it as such: ‘Specialization is for insects.’ If you think every human being should be a generalist, equally capable in every area of life, and nobody should specialize, then you are an idiot. If you don’t think that, then you are not in agreement with what Heinlein said.

  5. Uh, that quote doesn’t necessarily reflect Heinlein’ personal thoughts: the quote originated in TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE and it comes from Lazarus Long, the oldest human ever (2000 years plus. His death was never recorded.)

    Long was born on a Midwestern farm around the turn of the 20th and lived to see humanity spread to the stars, dealt with a disastrous encounter with advanced aliens who tried to bioengineer\optimize humans (in METHUSELAH’S CHILDREN), and who helped ramp up several colonies on other worlds.

    The statement thus reflects two separate ideas: the literal one that humans are generalists capable of multiple roles in life but also that if humans live long enough they will live the equivalent of what would’ve been multiple lives in earlier times.
    The latter phenomenon is something modern society is starting to face as life expectancy and old age quality of life improves. When Heinlein was growing up people who held multiple different careers were a rarity; today it is common.
    I would suggest that if you don’t take the list literally you will find plenty of exemplars right here.

    As for the book itself it marks the beginning of the latter phase of his writing career when he grew increasingly self-indulgent until he hit NUMBER OF THE BEAST, his biggest misfire.

    TIME ENOUGH is a good read as an example of a picaresque SF novel but it could easily have stood some editorial surgery. NUMBER OF THE BEAST absolutely needed that surgery.

  6. Officially, I’m a teacher, historian, and writer. I can also: fly airplanes, ride English and Western, cook, garden, shoot handguns, fix airplanes, do basic woodwork and carpentry, clean, mend clothes, clean a fish, clean and skin several kinds of game, perform basic first aid, change diapers, and a few other things. That’s called being a well-rounded adult.

    If you look at Heinlein’s character’s and worlds, the men and women needed to have a wide variety of skills. Those of us who end up having multiple careers also do better if we have a large tool-box. In that way, Heinlein’s quote makes perfect sense.

    • Can you plan an invasion? Can you fight as a professional soldier against other professionals? Can you conn a ship? Can you design a building?

      • Of course. Can’t everyone?

      • Can you plan an invasion? Yep. Twice.

        Can you fight as a professional soldier against other professionals? BTDT, several times. Got the physical and mental scars to prove it.

        Can you conn a ship? Yep. Haven’t done an ocean liner but can handle small craft.

        Can you design a building? Yes. Not a skyscraper but have done houses and bunkers.

        Those skills aren’t really that uncommon, especially for men from the Vietnam time frame.

        • Those (and other) skills are learned/learnable, not hard-wired. Humans do what the times teach and require of them. Times change and humans change with them. Insects don’t change, they are what they are biologically programmed to do.

          Some humans try to avoid change and learning. It doesn’t typically end well.

      • Clearly, she can conn an airship! She just admitted so!

      • I have planned invasions, yes, with and without air support. Not in the military per se, but as part of war-gaming and joking around with military friends when I was younger. Fight combat? No, not trained and after a few tries to get into the military I got the hint that I was meant for other things. I’ve taken architecture classes and designed the things that go around buildings.

        I suppose the proper answer would be yes with qualifications, no, and no. I have not had the opportunity to conn a ship, so no.

      • *small smile* I think we have very different ideas about society and individual development, and may have to agree to disagree. I’ve been blessed with the opportunities to learn a lot of skills, and had the perhaps misfortune to need to have multiple rather different careers.

        From what I’ve read in your books and blog and elsewhere, you have a much, much better classical education than I do, and you write far better than I do. Different perspectives, different conclusions.

        For what it’s worth, I re-read _Style is the Rocket_ every so often to see where I’m going astray.

  7. An insect should be able to do one thing, and do it well: fight a war, build a wall, rule a colony, serve a master, compose an epic, sing a song, compute an algorithm. Generalization is for mammals. – Unknown

  8. Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your friendly reminder that this is a quote from a character in a book, not revealed wisdom from the mouth of G-d that must be taken as a literal life checklist.

    Amusingly enough, the gym I go to loves to quote this “Specialization is for insects” line. Not because the trainers believe you need to butcher a hog and conn a ship in order to lift well, but because they believe that if you get the whole body stronger, then you’ll be much better at coping with whatever things life throws you. So instead of focusing on this muscle group or that muscle group, they focus on squat, press, and deadlift – and the results are pretty darned impressive. (I no longer need a cane to walk!)

    • I hope to follow you down that path you’ve written about on your blog, very soon, when we move into a community with the right equipment and trainers (I start from a rather delicate self). I’m going to do everything I can.

      • Rock on! I understand the delicate self part… something about the first deadlift I ever did, I fell on my butt because you can’t hold a cane and deadlift at the same time. My poor trainer was apologetic at overestimating my stability, and made sure to build that up before we tried again!

        In the words of Monty Python, “I got better!”

        Even my darling husband has gotten better; he still carries his cane if we have to walk any distance, but he rarely needs to use it these days.

        Best of luck to you!

      • Mark Rippetoe has written a lot re weight training for people over 50. One of the overlooked benefits is the release of various chemicals triggered by the lifting. Those chems benefit all kinds of things in the body besides muscles.

  9. I don’t understand this discussion. Almost every human could do everything on the list if they wanted to and circumstances allowed. Compared to a complete catalog of what humans can and have done, it is a rather short list. I’ll wager that every person who reads this has an equally impressive list of accomplishments they can be proud of.

  10. Lots of the stuff on the list used to be learned in Boy Scouts, and much of the rest (as noted previously in the thread) is somewhat biased toward the old Naval Academy training of midshipmen.

    It’s a good idea to help kids try out lots of things. If nothing else, every kid should learn how to swim and survive in the water, as well as in the natural surroundings of his area. Stuff happens. Having a little bit of practice and experience helps.

    But it also gives people confidence, if they are allowed to explore new things that aren’t job-related. They don’t need to spend all their free time on unrelated skills, but “a change is as good as a rest.”

    Obviously anybody with limited spoons of energy has to be careful about that, first.

  11. I decided to start a new comment rather than continue a chain because we had already reached the maximum depth.

    Nate, have you actually read the book or at least watched the movies?
    Galt is an extreme individualist libertarian.
    His credo; “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

    The only thing he despises more than socialism is populism.

    He’s also a fool but in the context of his world dropping out was his only option. In the context of ours he would be compelled to kill himself rather than be part of the system in any way or form.

    Taken as 50’s SF instead of a life guide, it’s an amusing read.

    I read it. My take was that his philosophy can be boiled down to being self-centered to the point of sociopathy. It is based on the inherently false idea that one man can be an island, and that it is perfectly ethical to stand back and let everyone else die when you could have done something to save them.

    I like alt-hist SF, but this was just ridiculous.

    • None of that even hints that he would join any government, whether one you approved or disapproved of.
      Whatever his motivations, when presented with the opportunity to enrich himself within the system he chose instead to divorce himself from the system. The total opposite of what you claimed he would do.

      The character is nothing if not consistent just as Dagny, the actual protagonist, is consistent to the end of her quest to find the creator of the “magic” engine.

      As for calling it alternate history, there is nothing in the book that ties it to any specific past era. If nothing, we are now closer to that world than when it was published.



      “Atlas Shrugged is a 1957 novel by Ayn Rand. Rand’s fourth and final novel, it was also her longest, and the one she considered to be her magnum opus in the realm of fiction writing.[1] Atlas Shrugged includes elements of science fiction, mystery, and romance, and it contains Rand’s most extensive statement of Objectivism in any of her works of fiction.

      The book depicts a dystopian United States in which private businesses suffer under increasingly burdensome laws and regulations. Railroad executive Dagny Taggart and her lover, steel magnate Hank Rearden, struggle against “looters” who want to exploit their productivity, including Dagny’s brother and Hank’s wife. As Dagny and Hank fight the looters’ efforts to control their business operations and confiscate their production, they realize a mysterious figure called John Galt is convincing other business leaders to abandon their companies and disappear. While investigating a strange electric motor found in a ruined factory, Dagny finds a sheltered valley where Galt and the missing businessmen have been hiding. Galt is leading a “strike” of productive individuals against the looters. The strike escalates when Galt announces his views in a radio address, leading to a collapse of the government. The novel ends with the strikers planning to build a new capitalist society based on Galt’s philosophy of reason and individualism.

      The theme of Atlas Shrugged, as Rand described it, is “the role of man’s mind in existence”. The book explores a number of philosophical themes from which Rand would subsequently develop Objectivism.[2][3] In doing so, it expresses the advocacy of reason, individualism, and capitalism, and depicts what Rand saw to be the failures of governmental coercion.

      Atlas Shrugged received largely negative reviews after its 1957 publication, but achieved enduring popularity and consistent sales in the following decades.”

    • In terms of the public purse, I think you’re confusing John Galt with Ellsworth Toohey.

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