|Submitted by Alan Oak |
(Jan 16, 2007)
Our brains are just too big. In fact, they are an evolutionary disadvantage that contributed to humanity's near extinction. I have this on the expert authority of Leon Trout, a one million year old ghost and narrator of Galapagos, by Kurt Vonnegut.
Trout tells the tale of humanity's evolution from a planetary scourge to an isolated population of seal-like creatures on the fictional island of Santa Rosalia in the Galapagos islands over one million years. The story begins in 1986, when a luxury cruise ship, the Bahia de Darwin, is set to make its maiden voyage with a shipfull of celebrities, including Jackie O.
But then the world economic system fails, leaving only a small sample of the original passenger roster (not including Jackie O!) stuck in the Ecuadorian port city of Guayaquil. It seems that money -- which human's big brains had imbued with imaginary value just months before -- becomes nearly worthless by an act of collective disbelief. Small countries like Ecuador find themselves worthless currency and unable to import foodstuffs. All is chaos as starving people riot in the city. Then war breaks out with Peru.
In the chaos, the further dues ex machina of human's big-brained stupidity results in eleven people escaping the city on the Bahia de Darwin: four original passengers, the ship's captain, and six girls, who themselves are the improbable surviving remnant of an Ecuadorian jungle tribe, the kanka-bonos. The Bahia de Darwin is shipwrecked on Santa Rosalia, and the survivors become the new Adams and Eves when a viral plague destroys humanity's reproductive ability on the mainland. Over the next million years, human brains devolve as maladapted for survival by fishing.
If there is a weakness in the book, it's that Leon Trout never lets us appreciate the good qualities of the other characters, or come to recognize their humanity in other than their folly. This makes sense with the message and the cynicism of the narrator, but some readers won't find this satisfying. This is a book for ideas and wit, not characters; it is a satirical dissection of people as a subject of scientific scrutiny in light of evolution.
Galapagos is a vortex of a novel that's nonlinear style of storytelling and strong central idea sucks the reader in and won't let go. The plot and theme are laid out in the first few pages; but the reader is drawn to see how exactly it all happens by one improbable coincidence after another. I read this book for the first time about 17 years ago, and it's still holds an honored place in my personal canon of literature.