Galapagos, by Kurt Vonnegut


Vonnegut chooses as the epigraph for this book an Anne Frank quotation: “In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart.”

In a book filled from cover to cover with mankind’s basic idiocy and nastiness, I’m tempted to call that irony, but the delightful thing about Vonnegut is that he can say the most misanthropic things not only with humor but with an odd lack of misanthropy. You get the sense that he likes people as much as he likes skewering them for all that they do wrong.

Galapagos is as fanciful as any of Vonnegut’s tales, which is saying something. It is set a million years in the future—which turns out to be approximately a million years after humanity rendered itself very nearly extinct—and it is narrated by a ghost who has been around that whole million years plus, to see the apocalypse and its aftermath (wherein the tiny number of human survivors—holed up in the obscurity of the Galapagos Islands—kept the species going, a species that through natural selection eventually evolves into some sort of sea creatures with flippers where the arms and hands used to be).

The main characters in Galapagos are the people who have booked passage on what is billed as “The Nature Cruise of the Century” to the Galapagos Islands, or at least the very few who have arrived in Ecuador (the starting point of the cruise) intending to go through with the cruise in spite of the fact that the global economy has collapsed into depression and the world has degenerated into constant war and preparation for war (I guess even more so than the real world has). We get to know each of them and their foibles through Vonnegut’s wry and insightful observations—which are at least as sharp as usual; I think this is one of his strongest books.

The main theme of Galapagos is that there’s no reason to assume the greater intelligence of the human species is and will always be an evolutionary advantage, that indeed it may turn out to be the kind of disadvantage that natural selection will eventually eliminate.

That’s exactly right about evolution, by the way, and a point that people with a casual or less understanding of evolution routinely get wrong. There’s nothing about evolution that guarantees it will inexorably lead to “higher” species, in the sense of species that are more intelligent, are able to develop language, can use tools, develop a complex culture with art and religious beliefs and such, or any of that. Evolution simply favors those species whose members reproduce at rates higher than they die off, whether they are dung beetles, Oxford professors, or bacteria. Indeed, if Vegas is offering odds on it, there are countless species of bugs and microbes and such that are much better bets to avoid extinction than humans (or chimps or dolphins or whatever “smart” species you prefer).

I’ve long been of the opinion that the more we “advance” in terms of technology and such, the more vulnerable we become. I think it’s a fluke we’ve made it this far without going extinct, and I suspect that may be why there’s a puzzling lack of evidence of other intelligent life in space—it’s probably rare at best that a species gets as far as we have without wiping itself out.

I think we’re teetering on the brink of (self-caused) extinction now, and each passing year or decade just increases the likelihood of it as we develop more, and more sophisticated, ways to kill each other. I don’t know if it’ll be nuclear war or gray goo or self-replicating artificial intelligence machines that get out of our control or what, but we can’t keep dodging bullets forever.

Unless, that is, along with our ever improving intelligence and technology we somehow rapidly evolve in the direction of some kind of Gandhian nonviolence, but I wouldn’t count on that.

We’re better at solving problems due to what Vonnegut calls our “oversize brains,” but the flip side of that is that it’s those brains that cause and exacerbate most of our problems. As he notes of the worldwide economic collapse, “There was still plenty of food and fuel and so on for all the human beings on the planet, as numerous as they had become, but millions upon millions of them were starting to starve to death now…And this famine was as purely a product of oversize brains as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.”

Yes, in principle we could use our greater intelligence to benefit each other and build a better world and all that, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. It’s telling that the first major character Vonnegut introduces is a con man who bullshits rich women, marries them, and abandons them as soon as he’s squeezed them dry, i.e., a person who uses his wits to benefit himself at the expense of others.

Here’s some classic Vonnegut: A Japanese computer expert invents a diagnostic machine that asks questions and then uses all the answers as its data in generating a diagnosis. It questions a rich capitalist who is always looking for exploitative investments. After a series of questions and answers, its diagnosis of him is “Pathological personality.” “Unfortunately…the computer was not programed to explain that this was a rather mild affliction compared to most, and that those who had it were rarely hospitalized, that they were, in fact, among the happiest people on the planet—and that their behavior merely caused pain to those around them, and almost never to themselves.”

And more: “Why so many of us a million years ago purposely knocked out major chunks of our brains with alcohol from time to time remains an interesting mystery. It may be that we were trying to give evolution a shove in the right direction—in the direction of smaller brains.”

Solid recommendation for Galapagos.

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