Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)

Yesterday brought the sad news that Kurt Vonnegut had passed away. My first exposure to Vonnegut was Slaughterhouse-Five, which I had to read for a high school English class. It opened my eyes to a whole new kind of fiction that mixed humor, science fiction and social and political commentary. Vonnegut was in a class by himself.

Even though Vonnegut's books were more satire than science, there is indeed a biology angle.

Vonnegut's 1985 novel Galapagos in which a small group of mismatched humans visiting the Galapagos islands end up repopulating the Earth. The story is told from a million years in the future at which time humanity has evolved into creatures with smaller brains, flippers and beaks. According to the 1985 review of Galapagos in the New York times, it was no coincidence that the novel is set in the islands that provided data that helped shape Charles Darwin's hypothesis on natural selection.
Four years ago Mr. Vonnegut and his wife went on a cruise to the Galapagos Islands. ''Of course, I was fascinated by the island's natural life,'' he says. ''I spent as much time there as Charles Darwin did - two weeks. We had advantages that Darwin didn't have. Our guides all had graduate degrees in biology. We had motorboats to move us around the islands more easily than rowboats could when Darwin visited the Galapagos in the 1830's. And, most important, we knew Darwin's theory of evolution, and Darwin didn't when he was there. His 'Origin of Species' came out 20 years after his journal of the voyage on H.M.S. Beagle.''

Mr. Vonnegut has retained his interest in anthropology. ''I've tried to make the book as responsible as possible scientifically,'' he says, sounding as mock-serious as one of his familiar characters, Kilgore Trout, whose son, Leon Trotsky Trout, is the ghostly narrator of ''Galapagos.'' Laughing, Mr. Vonnegut says, ''If my predictions in the book are wrong, I will return all the money.''
The novel has been used as the basis of discussion on evolution and population genetics in biology, anthropology and even English classes. See, for example, the syllabi of Kenyon College's Biology 103 "Biology in Science Fiction" , CSU San Bernardino's Natural Science 360 "Legacy of Life" (lecture summaries), CSU Fullerton's LBST 491: Seminar in Literature and Science, and University of Calgary's Archaeology 617: Theory and its Application in Biological Anthropology. A quick Google search brings up many others.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, the semi-autobiographical narrator is philosophical about death.
If what Billy Pilgrim learned from the Tralfamadorians is true, that we will live forever, no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be, I mam not overjoyed. Still -- if I am going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that, I'm grateful that so many of those moments are nice.

And so it goes . . .

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