Copyright 2022 Brian Davis - CC-BY-NC-SA

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, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

I've never read Heinlein. Let me just get that out of the way. Despite describing myself as a sci-fi fan I just haven't got around to his work. I suspect that I wouldn't enjoy it, but that's only from a vague impression and a topic for another day.

I do love this quote though. It's well written. It sticks in the memory and it resonates with one of my core values, but maybe not the one that you'd think. Today I want to address two criticisms of this quote and explain what it means to me.

Criticism One: Specialization is what gave us civilization.

This is correct. Specialization is what humans needed to progress beyond hunter-gatherers. It's what created surplus production and enabled people to become writers, and artists and priests and scientists and so on. That surplus production was almost always captured and redistributed through violence (or threat of violence) and oppression, but that too is a topic for another day. Bottom line to this criticism is that specialization is actually a requirement for the progress of humankind. But I think only a completely shallow reading of the quote implies that it's suggesting otherwise. Heinlein says we should be able to "take orders, give orders, [and] cooperate". Those abilities are the building blocks of organizations and efficient organizations naturally lead to specialization. A leader (giving orders) must delegate. A follower (taking orders) must specialize. That's how these things work.

Criticism Two: Individuals don't have the time or talent to master such a wide breadth of activities.

In a second I'll get to why I think this is another misreading of the quote but first let me address this one head on. I think in born talent is wildly overrated. While I think talents exists, the greatest people ever in each given field almost certainly were born with a certain aptitude, I don't thinks it's necessary to achieve compentence and it's definitely not sufficient to achieve mastery. In all cases, masters of a skill achieved that mastery via application of hard work over a long time, often augmented by skilled teachers and lucky opportunities. If there is an equation that describes abilities, talent is a small term that makes a difference only in the very first attempt, when all other terms are zero, and in the very end, when all your peers have equivalent levels of experience and knowledge and innate talent is the last differentiator.

But what about time? A human lifetime is limited. Surely we don't all have time to master every skill? True but this is where I think my reading of Heinlein's quote differs. He's not talking about mastery, maybe not even compentency. "Should be able..." implies to me only the bare minimum of ability. The quote is more about attitude, willingness to take responsiblity, than it is about skills.

The thing about insects that practice extreme specialization, take ants for example, if the queen dies the workers can't do a single thing about it. None of them can rise to the occasion and lead the hive, they just die. Humans should not be so. In the event that we find ourselves leaderless, we should be willing, and in at least some way prepared, to lead.

I think this is emphasized by Heinlein's choices of activities. He opens with "change a diaper." In the event a human finds himself alone with a child (or an incontinent adult) who has soiled themselves, this human ought not shirk the duty of changing that diaper. There should be no task below a human's station. If it's the very first time he's changed a diaper, he may be flustered, awkward and make a mess. But we ought each to say to ourselves, the buck stops here. Or if you prefer a more lofty version, "I am responsible to use whatever powers I have to create a better world."

Humans have power over ourselves, each other and nature. That power is varied and limited but it is still creative, and none of us are utterly powerless. With that power comes the responsibility to use it, not avoid it, and to use it well.

Likewise there should be no task above a human's station. If there is no strategist to plan the invasion, it falls to someone for whom strategy is not their core competency. But the job is there to be done and so we must do it.

The corollary is that we ought to be prepared (as much as we can be) for these situations. It would be a responsible use of our time to pay attention to diapers being changed in our presence so that, should that responsibility fall to us, we can discharge it with some measure of compentency. First aid training can prepare me, at least a little, for setting a bone. A passing notion of how to fight efficiently does not require years of study in martial arts. Dying gallantly is mostly about acting on comraderie, brotherly love, in the face of fear. There is no training for comforting the dying, but a mind prepared to face death can at least sit with those near death, and perhaps weep, without turning away. Pitching manure can be done efficiently or not, but anyone can start by simply picking up the fork.

I think the point of the quote is that every task is menial and no task is menial. If there is a job that falls to me or you, we ought to get on with it. It doesn't belong to someone who can do it better, it belongs to us because we're here. If we approach life with this view we become empowered to create the world around us.