Book review: Galápagos by Kurt Vonnegut

By Martin Vogel

When humans evolved into seals.

Kurt Vonnegut’s 1985 novel Galápagos is a Darwinian satire on the mess humankind causes for itself as a result of having evolved big brains. Set in the late 20th Century, it charts the breakdown of society and the near extinction of the human species — caused by a cocktail of hedonism, financial crisis and viruses. The twist is that the story is narrated from the vantage point of a million years hence, from which perspective the culture and behaviour of 20th Century humans seems inexplicable. The few surviving humans of the future — a small colony that settled on the Galápagos islands — have evolved a more stable equilibrium with their environment with small brains, minimal language and a simple life in which the only concern is when to dive into the ocean to catch fish.

The novel has a fragmented narrative but is brimming with ideas. Reading it in the wake of the financial crisis of the early 21st Century, it resonates more strongly possibly than it may have at the time of publication. Vonnegut evokes the rapidity with which society can break down when people no longer believe in the value of money: a catastrophe to which we came closer than most of us care to imagine.

The crux of the book is that our brains evolved to such a size that we developed redundant capacity. Somewhere along the way, the consciousness of humans was turned away from the boredom of simply existing and reproducing and towards a variety of lifestyle choices that could make life meaningful:

“Human brains back then had become such copious and irresponsible generators of suggestions as to what might be done with life that they made acting for the benefit of future generations seem one of many arbitrary suggestions which might be played by narrow enthusiasts — like poker or polo or the bond market, or the writing of science-fiction novels.”

The humans of a million years in the future are descendants of a motley group of mainly women and one man who survive by luck. They escape the mainland before the rest of humankind becomes infected by a virus which terminates further reproduction, and between them they embody some genetic and cultural inheritances that help them to adapt well to the small island of rock where they run aground. Most of the group are from a primitive tribe, the Kankabono, and there’s also a Japanese baby who was born with seal-like fur.

What quickly becomes apparent in this new environment is the uselessness of the sum of knowledge of Western civilisation, which happens to have been captured for them in a computer called Mandarax which accompanies them on their voyage. When human life is stripped of culture, the simplicity of the Kankabono has more to offer than the great achievements of art and science.

Vonnegut does not deny the positive things that have emerged from human endeavour — such as Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. But it’s a running gag in the book that most people were never destined to create something of such sublime significance. The achievements of human culture seem to be outweighed by the inevitability that even the most destructive and outlandish imaginings of the mind would always end up being put into effect:

“That, in my opinion, was the most diabolical aspect of those old-time big brains: They would tell their owners, in effect, ‘Here is a crazy thing we could actually do, probably, but we would never do it, of course. It’s just fun to think about.’

“And then, as though in trances, the people would really do it – have slaves fight each other to the death in the Coliseum, or burn people alive in the public square for holding opinions which were locally unpopular, or build factories whose only purpose was to kill people in industrial quantities, or to blow up whole cities, or so on.”

Even the narrator, the soul of a 20th Century American is compromised, having shot an elderly woman in Vietnam out of vengeance when he served there as a soldier. It was an instinctive reaction to seeing his comrades killed by a hand grenade, but one which would be unimaginable to the humans of the future — whose limbs whither away to flippers and who have no need for weapons.

I chanced upon Galápagos while researching my Masters dissertation. It is quoted by the educationist and psychologist Guy Claxton in his book on consciousness, Noises from the Darkroom. Claxton argues that we give too much credit to our sense of the conscious authorship of our lives, and underplay the largely unconscious processes by which our minds work for us:

“The problem is that we can pretend to claim conscious credit for our decisions only if we persist in denying the existence, or even the possibility of unconscious influences. Once we see consciousness as an intermittent and unreliable print-out from the invisible biological system that underlies it, we can no longer claim the credit with such confidence.”

Vonnegut’s novel delivers a warning about where our reverence for consciousness could lead us. In his depiction of the survival of humankind as being dependent on relinquishing our big brains, he challenges what we most value in Western culture. His imagining of how humankind might evolve is a call on us to learn again how to appreciate the simplicity of just being with our unconscious experience.

Galápagos by Kurt Vonnegut
Available from Amazon

See also Things Mean a Lot.

Image courtesy putneymark.