Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos, published in 1985, is a novel whose events take place between 1986 and 1,001,986. It is narrated by a spirit following a group of people who would eventually become the progenitors of all of humanity. These people embark on the “Nature Cruise of the Century” to the Galapagos Islands and, having shipwrecked there, are spared from the tragedies of World War III and a disease rendering humans outside of the Galapagos infertile. From these very few survivors the human race begins again and eventually, over the course of a million years, evolves into a species more like a seal than a human and lacking all of the things that distinguish humans from their animal brethren. Through the sequence of events that take place in Galápagos, the novel takes on a different stance to evolution—perhaps a more informed one—than seen in other speculative fictions such as Wells’ The Time Machine and warns that all of the problems currently plaguing humanity are the result of our large brains, and that these would all be fixed if only we weren’t so complicated.
The Narrator of Galápagos, a disembodied spirit named Leon Trout, constantly comments on the difference between his contemporary world—the 1980s—and the one he is telling the story from—a million years in the future. Leon states time and again that the villain of the novel is the big brain of the humans, which always seems to get them in trouble. He often notes that the descendants of humans are incapable of most of the negative things that humans have done in modern history. Among them, Leon notes that the descendants of humans no longer have the physiology to pull the triggers for guns (even if they still had guns) nor do they have the capacity wage war or hold grudges or even speak for that matter; the humans of the future are more akin to seals than humans: flippers, fur, and all.
However, towards the end of the book the narrator has moments of pity, where he almost (but not quite) regrets what humans have become after a million years. He says at one point “they don’t make memories like that anymore,” commenting on a love story and the utter lack of love among the descendants of humanity (Vonnegut 245). In a manner of speaking, Vonnegut is stating that culture (and therefore big brains, because you cannot have one without the other) is both a bane and a blessing to humanity. That said, humanity can not exist as it is without culture, and Vonnegut’s contention with Galápagos seems to be that once culture (and knowledge) is removed from the equation humanity will return to its rightful place among the rest of the animals. Despite his moment of pity over the lack of love, Vonnegut’s narrator admits that in the future “all the people are so innocent and relaxed now, all because evolution took away their hands” (Vonnegut 202). This builds on the central theme of the novel that culture—in essence, knowledge—make humans extraordinary amongst the animal kingdom, but also dangerous to their own survival.
The book either stumbles upon or is built on a foundation of something called Dual Inheritance Theory—which had its origins between 1960 and 1980. Dual Inheritance Theory, otherwise known as Gene-Culture Coevolution, is a theory that explains that human behaviour is the result of two interwoven and interconnected processes: evolution of genes and evolution of cultures (Richerson 194). Up to a certain point in human history the only thing that mattered to the evolution of our progenitors was genetic evolution, something Darwin examined and codified in On The Origin of Species. However, there eventually came a time when humans introduced culture into the mix, fundamentally changing the process of evolution. The point at which this happened is unknown, but it is undeniable that it occurred—for we have culture now and it is certain that at some point in the distant past we did not. In Galápagos, Vonnegut posits a future where humans have returned to a purely Darwinian mode of evolution; culture and knowledge have disappeared.
Culture complicates the ability of evolution to happen through the traditional logic of natural selection. For example, culture amongst human populations can change what is considered desirable—in effect, changing the definition of what is fittest in Darwin’s framework—in this way, and many others, culture affects the outcome of genetic evolution. For example, the presence of congenital diseases does not present a significant problem to modern humans. As Vonnegut’s narrator notes, some diseases that manifest late in life are no longer a problem in the seal-human future because “Killer whales and sharks keep the human population nice and manageable” (Vonnegut 129). But to modern humans, medicine and other cultural scientific products allow people with congenital diseases of all sorts—such as James Wait’s heart condition, and Siegfried von Kleist’s Huntington’s Chorea in Galápagos—to reproduce and pass on their diseases. Because modern humans don’t have sharks and things to worry about, certain diseases aren’t evolutionary hurdles due to culture. Additionally, because culture is far more fluid than genes, and can change in single generations and be taught to whole generations at a time—thus working faster than genetic evolution which occurs through mutation of individuals by progeny—the introduction of culture influencing evolution is thought to possibly have sped up the evolution of humanity in the past ten thousand years, that being the point at which human population expanded exponentially (Richerson 146).
The point of Vonnegut’s novel is to show that all the problems of humanity stem from our big brains, from our culture. He shows that those things, though giving us enormous ability to create and destroy, could not save us from a bacterium that rendered the entire planet infertile—save those shipwrecked on the Galapagos islands. Ultimately, Galápagos is not a dystopia but rather speculative fiction didactic in nature. That is not to say that it does not fulfil the same purpose in warning about social anxieties, only that it does not fit the conventions of the genre that Wells’ The Time Machine, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Orwell’s 1984 do. The contemporary issues that this novel deals with as speculative fiction are not what one would initially expect for the 1980’s such as war or economic troubles, though they are certainly present in the novel. Instead, the primary social issue that Galápagos deals with is the range of human culture, our capacity to create things that destroy and take actions that destabilise our tenuous hold on evolutionary continuity. Galápagos shows the reader that though culture is what separates humans from beasts, it is also culture that will one day lead to the end of humanity.
Richerson, Peter J., and Robert Boyd. Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2005. Print.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Galápagos. New York: Dial, 2009. Print