Too Big for Our Own Good: Kurt Vonnegut on the Human Brain


So far the human episode has been a brief chapter in the story of life on Earth—about two hundred thousand years.  That’s not very long compared to the dung beetles who feed on rhinoceros droppings, which are the hearty descendants of bugs that were frolicking in dinosaur poop at least forty million years ago.  And sharks have been around for over 400 Million years.

Although it’s fun to fantasize about a time long ago when giant monsters roamed the earth, it’s much more painful to imagine a point in the future when Mother Nature says: “Time’s up, humans.  You had your chance, but you blew it.”   Indeed, as the poet Richard Wilbur notes, it’s almost impossible to imagine a future on this planet without us:

Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race.
How should we dream of this place without us?—

The novel Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut describes a future where evolution has altered humanity beyond recognition.  A million years hence, we have mutated into a furry, seal-like creature with flippers and a much smaller brain encased in a “streamlined skull.”  Our future progeny is no longer equipped to build skyscrapers or compose Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  And these new creatures exhibit an immense moral superiority over modern-day humans because they lack the intellectual and physical tools to harm one another on a grand scale.  Besides, “how could you ever hold somebody in bondage with nothing but your flippers and your mouth?”

According to the Ghost of Leon Trout, the narrator of Galapagos who witnesses the million-year transformation of our species, this reduction of endowment is all for the better because humans

back then had a brain weighing about three kilograms!  There was no end to the evil schemes that a thought machine that oversized couldn’t imagine and execute.

Trout’s Ghost concludes that the human brain “is much too big to be practical.”  A practical brain would never “divert” people from “the main business of life by the hobgoblins of opinion.” The main business of life, of course, is survival and procreation.  Yet by some freak of evolution, human beings are capable of so much more.

Trout’s Ghost laments how our “overelaborate nervous circuitry” is responsible “for the evils we [are] seeing or hearing about simply everywhere.”  Furthermore, such self-inflicted horrors as war, famine, slavery, and genocide are “as purely a product of oversized brains as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.”

Trout’s ghost confides that, “A million years later, I feel like apologizing for the human race.”  He also describes “the most diabolical aspect” of the oversized human brain:

They would tell their owners, in effect, “Here is a crazy thing we could actually do.”….And then, as though in trances, the people would really do it—have slaves fight each other to the death in the Colosseum, 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, and on and on.”

Here’s another disadvantage to having too much brain power for our own good:

Big brains back then were not only capable of being cruel for the sake of cruelty.  They could also feel all sorts of pain to which lower animals were entirely insensitive.

Today the “mass of mankind” is “quietly desperate” because “the infernal computers inside their skulls [are] incapable of idleness.”  The constant din of thought inside our brains that people must bear is akin to having “Ghetto blasters inside our heads.” And there is

no shutting them down! Whether we had anything for them to do or not, they ran “All the time!  And were they ever loud!  Oh, God, were they ever loud.”

Like Brick in Tennessee in Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” humanity craves to hear a “click in the head” which renders life “peaceful.” In Galapagos, Kurt Vonnegut suggests an evolutionary solution to the plight which ails us.  And perhaps it is the most plausible solution.  As Emily Dickinson notes

Narcotics cannot still the Tooth That nibbles at the soul

by Richard W. Bray

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One Response to “Too Big for Our Own Good: Kurt Vonnegut on the Human Brain”

  1. Seven Ways of Looking at a Line of Poetry | Laughter hope sock in the eye's Blog Says:

    […] As Kurt Vonnegut notes, this spectacular transformation gave us not only the capacity and the inclination to produce Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; it also gave us the capacity and the inclination to […]

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