Freese’s Analysis of Vonnegut’s “Galápagos”

For my final research paper I have analyzing Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Galápagos. This novel, set in 1986, tells the story of ten misfits whose cruise ship crashes on the island of Santa Rosalia in the Galápagos. While a bacterial infection stops the rest of humanity from reproducing, the ten survivors become the foundation for the next (and only future) generation of the human race. While looking through scholarly articles, I found an article regarding Vonnegut’s portrayal of the end of humanity, as we know it today. Since the article focuses on how various authors portray the end of humanity, Vonnegut in particular is only briefly mentioned. The specific pages that I will be referring to are pages 168 to 171.

            Freese claims that Vonnegut implies that the universe is “based on pure luck” and that “it is not the fit that survive for good reasons but only the lucky that survive for no reason at all”. I took this claim to mean that it’s fate that let some humans survive and reproduce while the rest of the species was eliminated. Do you believe in fate? What if the cruise ship hadn’t taken off before the infection? Or what if it got lost at sea and the passengers died before it reached Santa Rosalia? Would that have been the end of the human race or would fate have stepped in to save it? Also, what does that say about human exceptionalism if our whole species can be wiped out by a bacterial infection so easily?

            Later, Freese comments on the fact that the third party narrator is the only person who can feel the satisfaction at the end. The narrator, a man named Leon Trout, is a ghost of a man who was decapitated while building the cruise ship. He follows the characters around and narrators their story from a million years in the future (from 1986). Freese’s analysis reminds me of the question we were asked in class. Is what actually happens at the end of the story the same as what the audience thinks ought to have happened? Since at the conclusion of the novel the human race has evolved into little more than sea lions, the audience’s instinctive reaction is to think that this is not what ought to have happened.

            Since the story is told from the point of view of someone who was not affected by the drastic change in physical form of the human species, Freese feels that the audience is left confused as to whether or not the outcome is truly a benefit over the old way of human life (in 1986).

            Another point that Freese makes is that the downfall of the human race, in the novel, is shown as a result of human’s “big brains” and their selfish characteristics. Vonnegut implies that natural selection eliminated these selfish characters by ending the human race, but Freese points out the irony since Darwin’s pointing out natural selection is what caused humans to behave this way. Freese feels that Darwin encouraged humans to act with “greed and heartlessness”. Do you agree with Freese? Did the publication of natural selection cause the dramatic change in the human mindset? Are our selfish actions justified, and are they even causing a problem in today’s society?

            Finally, Freese states that Vonnegut is offering an alternative for “man’s eventual perfection” since he points out the major flaws in today’s society and shows how inept we are to survive without our technological innovations. Do you think the path that we’re on is leading us to “perfection”? Why or why not?

Freese, Peter. “Surviving the End: Apocalypse, Evolution, and Entropy in Bernard Malamud, Kurt Vonnegut, and Thomas Pynchon.” Heldref Publications XXXVI (1995): n. pag. Print.

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9 Responses to Freese’s Analysis of Vonnegut’s “Galápagos”

  1. roberly2 says:

    above is a New York Times book review of Jay Gould’s WONDERFUL LIFE The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. The review, entitled Survival of the Luckiest, uses themes in Gould’s book to highlight how “those who study evolution have lately been undertaking some serious mental housecleaning” and “have been throwing out some preconceptions that they had not examined for generations;” these scientists “are, reluctantly or enthusiastically, accepting the idea that humans are as much an accident of nature as a product of orderly development.”

    What’s interesting about this review, something that ojc31084 touches on, is the human race could be a product of little more that chance.

    Be that as it may though, believing in luck and believing that the development of the human race is determined by luck are two vastly different things. Perhaps it was a chance encounter between cells that propelled the human race into development, but that is chance pure and simple. To think that something like fate, which implies an intelligence of some sort with an awareness of the state of the human condition, is controlling human development is to disregard evolution all together in favor of a belief that much more strongly represents intelligent design.

    I do agree with Freese about Darwin either; I do not think that Darwin encouraged the human population to act out of greed and selfishness by publishing his findings about evolution. Not only were his preliminary findings not about humans, Darwin was constrained by social confines of the time (including a religious and conservative population) and was hardly encouraging humans to act in a particular way. He was a scientist first and foremost, not a social experimenter. I refuse to believe he could present findings in any way other than completely objective.

    The idea of perfection is something that Freese brings up that I find more value in than his beliefs about Darwin. We are as a modern society very dependent on the latest technological advances and grow more and more physically incapable every day. Perhaps we are headed for a different kind of perfect, though, because of this. Perhaps we’re headed to the kind of intellectual perfection born from our ability to access information instantaneously. In any case, we are most definitely not headed towards the traditional sort of physical perfection one might come to associate with Darwinism. We are too dependent on technology for that.

  2. GreenDC says:

    While Freese makes some interesting points, his concept of how natural selection and genetic mutation functions are not completely accurate. First, he states that the flaw of the human race is their capacity for complex thought. By suggesting that natural selection has removed this characteristic for the fictional evolved species, he is arguing against the definition of adaptation. The process of mutations is random; however, we have obtained our high mental capacity by gaining “successful” traits that have allowed humans to survive and adapt to the world. While humans today may have a high technological dependence, we are the organisms we are because this level of thought has permitted us to survive and reproduce.

  3. theotherhemingway says:

    One thing I believe GreenDC touches on in relation to ojc31084’s discussion of perfection is the role of our so called technological dependence. Assuming our level of thought and our devolving of labor to technology as being the pinnacle of productivity on our planet, we have made the most broad leaps and bounds out of any species on the planet and done so in the least amount of time. Thus, our population has expanded exponentially and our traits that have yielded this productivity are passed on and copied.

    Recently I went back to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum and looked at the Human Genome exhibit. While many individual parts were fascinating and excellently introduced visitors to the concepts within the field of genetics and genomics, one part drew my attention even more closely. A DNA sequencing machine is on display towards the end of the exhibit, just after a timeline chronicling advances in sequencing DNA. The first genome was fully sequenced in 2003, with the scientists responsible making the cover of TIME magazine. The panel below the sequencing machine indicates that the machine is one of many now across the United States doing the work that the scientists from 2003 took over a decade to complete–in less than a day.

    While sequencing our genome is best equated to being able to read the genetic cookbook, we still have little ability to make its most precious recipes in a meaningful way: proteins. Manipulating genes and building new or different quantities of proteins will give us a unique ability to define our race in whatever way we desire. The simple fact that we even discuss our path may be that of perfection shows our desire to change it or otherwise intervene. Therefore, I would say our path is towards perfection, but only because it is on our terms and we will eventually actively work to manipulate it.

  4. findwhatwind says:

    I believe roberly2 brings up an excellent point about technology’s role in “man’s eventual perfection”, and whether or not humans will reach this physical perfection. I think I agree mostly with theotherhemingway on the fact that technological advancement is in fact part of evolution, and it is in fact this technology that allows humans to continue striving toward perfection, particularly physical perfection. I believe the question , however, is what the “perfection” we are striving for will someday become. For example, there are trends in popular physical appearance, especially with women. While it was once considered “perfection” to have a twelve inch waist, society now has a very different idea of perfection. The fact that humans have evolved to be able to create a technological means to attain whatever this decade’s perfect physical appearance is, through surgery or medication or otherwise, shows that humans have created their own way of reaching whatever their perception of “perfection” is.

  5. shoutoutjfk says:

    I want to comment specifically on Vonnegut’s claim that natural selection is based on pure luck and no other reason. Chaos theory, especially the way it is connected to nature in Michael Crichton’s book Jurassic Park, is applicable in this situation. Basically, Crichton explains how due to the immense number of factors effecting natural phenomenon, these become too complex for human comprehension or more importantly, prediction. Therefore, characteristics deemed favorable – which Darwin outlines as being products of environmental phenomenon – are also effectively random. I understand this, and Vonnegut’s subsequent claim that survival is based on luck. However, as far as we can observe, time exists as only one dimension. There is a past which we remember, a present which we observe, and a future which we do not know with absolute certainty. This has always been the case. Within this perception of time, natural selection therefore makes perfect sense. The best individuals are allowed to pass on their genes. I disagree with Freese in that Vonnegut’s ideology is self-contradictory. Natural selection deals with observable events. Vonnegut merely claims that natural selection works within the past and the present. What may be are unknown and thus, irrelevant.

  6. tksekf says:

    Darwin’s theory of evolution does not only talk about natural selection (or survival of the fittest). It also considers the ‘chance’ part of evolution, which GreenDC also mentions: the mutation. DNA mutation is part of the evolution that no human can control and which also has the power to bring a huge change in the categorization of species. Since I do not know the novel written by Vonnegut, I cannot talk about the accuracy of Freese’s claim on Vonnegut’s implication “that the universe is “based on pure luck” and that “it is not the fit that survive for good reasons but only the lucky that survive for no reason at all””, but what I can say is that the ‘real’ universe we live in today is not “based on pure luck”. Evolution does not depend solely on mutation but also on the selection of the well adapted.

  7. phillykid888 says:

    A major theme of Kurt Vonnegut’s various books is the flawed nature of the human race. I’ve read “Slaughterhouse Five” and “Cat’s Cradle” and both of these present humanity in a negative light. It doesn’t surprise me that Vonnegut mocks humanity in “Galapagos”: the transformation of humans into seal-like creatures is exactly the kind of dark humor that Vonnegut utilizes in many of his works. Furthermore, I would like to contest several of the points made so far on this thread regarding the “luck” aspect of the universe. I actually agree with Vonnegut’s argument that the universe is largely based on luck. The only reason that life exists in the first place is random; Earth, out of thousands of planets, has just the right atmosphere to support life. Also, species change through natural selection but natural selection happens because of variations in a species. Why do these variations happen? Chance mutations. It is interesting to think that many of our species’ advancements happened as a result of random genetic variations and mutations.

  8. I agree with phillykid888 that Vonnegut’s fate for humanity is mostly satire, I also agree that luck does have a huge role to play. Natural selection is a very systematic form of luck, but its still luck, and as Vonnegut points out, a string of very bad luck could very well result in the end of the human race. And even though I believe in the concept of fate, I don’t think it necessarily has any allegiance to the human race and would let us go extinct. I also don’t agree with the idea that Natural selection was trying to wipe out the human race because of their big brains and selfishness as ojc31084 suggests, our big brains and selfishness came from natural selection and have helped us to survive. The disease in the book was a nightmare senerio, it spread extremely fast and absolutely no one was immune, it would be more realistic if there were a few who were immune and thus able to reproduce, and they would pass on their genes through natural selection, that would have made more sense, but that’s not what happened in the book, one could argue that that small of a population on a remote island was doomed anyway, and through their big brains and selfishness the species was able to survive and evolve to best fit their environment.

  9. It seems like Vonnegut is being especially cynical when he believes that the universe is totally up to chance and does not acknowledge human interference or any human action that determines our own fate. Personally, I do not believe in divine intervention however, I believe that people make their own fate. A situation is completely able to change based on the people involved. For example, if the cruise ship was never able to reach the island, a person on the ship has that situation to battle and their strategy or choices determines their own fate. I agree with shoutoutjfk’s comment when he explains why Vonnegut is being too cynical and believes that the universe and natural selection are only by chance. Natural selection uses the forces of nature to steer evolution in the direction it goes. Also, his comment on on the irrelevancy of the past and future when dealing with the present is why the universe cannot be simply described as random. Each situation has its own pressures that direct.

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