Books : reviews

Wendy Northcutt.
The Darwin Awrds.
Orion. 2000

rating : 4 : passes the time
review : 27 January 2001

The Darwin Awards have become famous on the Web -- they are awarded to those who remove themselves from the human gene pool by killing themselves in some amazingly stupid way, thereby significantly improving said gene pool.

Think of it as evolution in action.

-- Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Oath of Fealty, 1981

Some of these stories have become legendary. There is "Lawnchair Larry", who attached 45 helium-filled weather balloons to his chair in an attempt to fly, and found himself at 16,000 feet, wondering how to get down (true story, but honorable mention only -- he didn't die in the attempt). Possibly the most famous of all is "JATO", who attached booster rockets to his car in a speed attempt, and smeared himself over a cliff-face when he couldn't stop (urban legend only, unfortunately).

In this book, Northcutt, who runs the Darwin Awards Web Site, collects together the best stories. They are classified as "confirmed" (there is supporting evidence that the story is true), "unconfirmed" (may be true, but no strong evidence) or "urban legend" (almost certainly not true.

What the stories do demonstrate is that, rather unsurprisingly, people can be amazingly stupid when their intellect is depressed -- many of the tales involve alcohol or other drugs. Quite a few others seem to involve a single lapse of concentration or brain fart -- the sort of just plain unlucky thing that could maybe happen to anyone. A few do involve spectacular degrees of deeply-planned and well-executed stupidity -- and again unsurprisingly, many of these turn out to be urban legends. Which leaves a core of just a few stories to make you sit back and think, good grief, how did these people live so long?