Pandemic in the Pacific: Kurt Vonnegut’s COVID novel

Just about every adult human being 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. … This was a very innocent planet, except for those great big brains.

There is a volcanic archipelago in the Pacific that Polynesian settlers on their canoes never reached. In 1854, Herman Melville saw “The Encantadas” through a dark lens, darkly:

Take five-and-twenty heaps of cinders dumped here and there in an outside city lot, imagine some of them magnified into mountains, and the vacant lot the sea, and you will have a fit idea of the general aspect of the Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles. A group rather of extinct volcanoes than of isles, looking much as the world at large might after a penal conflagration. It is to be doubted whether any spot on earth can, in desolateness, furnish a parallel to this group.

Darwin, though,  saw the Galapagos islands quite differently when he arrived in September of 1835 He may not have wasted much time praising the landscape in the ways he praised the mind-bending sublimity of Patagonian steppes. But in The Voyage of the Beagle includes this teaser about those soon-to-be-famous Galapagos finches:

Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.

Galapagos finches in Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle
finches in same order as Darwin’s illustrations: clockwise from upper left, large ground finch, medium ground finch, small tree-finch, green warbler-finch.

Much as I love Melville, I gotta give this  one to Darwin. Even if the  world is inclined to  forget everything else about these minuscule upwellings in the Pacific, we will remember the finches. And the flightless cormorants. And the  giant land tortoises. And the  marine iguanas.

into something rich and strange….Iguanas learned to swim on the Galapagos; what might humans become there, in time?

Little  wonder that quite  a few of the 30,000 inhabitants of the Galapagos are named Charles or Darwin. (I did not meet a single Herman or Melville during my  unforgettable week among those enchanted islands.)

COVID-19 has come to the Galapagos Islands. On the one hand they  lie rocks hundreds of miles out from South America, adrift in the Pacific. On the other hand for people fuel and food is the tropical port of Guyaquil, swampy, overcrowded and now a massive COVID hotspot. So it’s not shocking that there are now 107 reported cases and at least one death..

The news struck me hard, because  one of the best pandemic novels I know is about these amazing islands. Sort of.   Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos (1985) tells the story of a million years of hominid evolution on a remote Pacific island. It is narrated from a million years in the future, after homo sap. has managed to obliterate itself everywhere else by way of—you guessed it—a runaway pandemic (one that makes humanity sterile). Humanity’s only survivors turn out the be a bumbling set of castaways, trapped on a cruise ship they are to too ignorant to steer  properly,  crash  on a remote outer Galapagos island.

Vonnegut has a dim view of American ingenuity that brought us the atom bomb, napalm, and the Vietnam War (see epigraph above).He wants us to own our casual decisions and their unintended but foreseeable consequences: drill for oil, mine coal, split atoms—what could go wrong?

Still, he’s wiling to cut humanity a deal, if we manage to downsize our most deadly organ–the one between our ears. Just as Darwin saw finches and iguanas and mockingbirds radiating out and adapting in various isolated ecological niches, so too does Vonnegut trace how a tiny bumbling group of castaways gradually breed descendants with a thick layer of blubber and fur: human seals, not that different from the blubber-coated walrus-men of Neptune in Olaf Stapledon’s super-trippy Last and First Men (1930).

By Vonnegut’s telling it is an evolutionary jackpot when the castaways’ fingers turn into little nubs whose nails glow brightly during mating season. Good news, he means, considering what those fingers had been up to during the 20th century. As Vonnegut tells it, humanity’s troubles will only end when  “the only true villain in my story: the oversized human brain” stops building “useful” tools such as bazookas, flamethrowers and atom bombs.

Is it sad that Vonnegut’s take on the glories and pitfalls of opposable thumbs is giving me a lot of post-human comfort these days? Sad maybe, but also funny. Vonnegut—like his sf compadres Stanislaw Lem and Douglas Adams—owes a considerable debt to the saturnine cynicism of Mark Twain’s 1885 Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court­.

I love Vonnegut’s pandemic novel, with its ultimately jaunty vision of fat-swaddled humans-turned-seals, teeth their only remaining tools and fingernails their single remaining adornment. Ultimately, he may remind me most of that brilliant Czech modernist Karel Capek.  

Karel Capek’s 1920 “Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti

Even in Capek’s robots-kill-all-humans fantasy, RUR, he imagines robots falling in love. In The Absolute at Large  all  the world’s armies exterminate one another except nine soldiers who fall asleep  under a fruit tree, and awaken to begin the world again. And if you are looking for another (heartwarming) Pacific Ocean end-of-mankind story, try War with the Newts.

Vonnegut too offers a bargain with poetic justice. If like the flightless cormorant and the marine iguana, humans in Galapagos are willing to shed our former habits and adapt ourselves to an island niche, we may be good (good because harmless) for another million years. A tough pandemic lesson but a fair one. So I am rooting for Galapagosians to beat COVID. Even if the rest of us are doomed.

Upcoming: Next week, Paul Saint-Amour, Modernist to the stars (and the lucky students of U Penn) rhapsodizes about science fiction’s time travel metaphysics.

30 In Focus: Nir Eyal on (the deontology of) “challenge testing” a Covid vaccine

On April 27, David D. Kirkpatrick reported in the N. Y. Times that Oxford’s Jenner Center is close to starting human trials on a potential Covid-19 vaccine. According to Kirkpatrick, “ethics rules, as a general principle, forbid seeking to infect human test participants with a serious disease. That means the only way to prove that a vaccine works is to inoculate people in a place where the virus spreading naturally around them.”

It ain’t necessarily so, says Nir Eyal, Henry Rutgers Professor of Ethics and Director of  Center for Population-Level Bioethics, Rutgers University.

Eyal is lead author (along with Harvard’s Marc Lipsitch and Peter Smith) of a striking March article in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, “Human Challenge Studies to Accelerate Coronavirus Vaccine Licensure.” A recent interview with Nir in Nature has a more revealing title: “Should scientists infect healthy people with the coronavirus to test vaccines?”

So, John sat down with Nir to discuss the idea of deliberately exposing healthy young volunteers to corona virus in order to accelerate the efficacy phase of vaccine testing. Prior to this pandemic, many felt challenge testing with a deadly disease was beyond the ethical pale. Eyal et. al propose that despite its checkered history (think coerced deadly medical procedures), there is an interesting philosophical case to be made in its favor.

Want to read more coverage of challenge testing? Start with this Washington Post article, or this one.

Listen to the episode here:

Read a transcript here:

Upcoming Episodes: Books in Dark Times returns next week with Australian scholar Vanessa Smith singing the praises of the uncategorizable Marion Milner–as well as one of John’s favorite novelists from Down Under. The following week, Modernist Paul Saint-Amour wins John’s heart by unpacking the metaphysics of time travel in such SF born-classics as Arrival, perhaps the most octopus/Heptapod-loving film of recent years.

19: Scientists, collaboration, and groupthink with Albion Lawrence (EF, JP)

In this episode John and Elizabeth sit down with Brandeis string theorist Albion Lawrence to discuss cooperation versus solitary study across disciplines. They sink their teeth into the question, “Why do scientists seem to do collaboration and teamwork better than other kinds of scholars and academics?” 

The conversation ranges from the merits of collective biography to the influence of place and geographic location in scientific collaboration to mountaineering traditions in the sciences.  As a Recallable Book, Elizabeth champions The People of Puerto Rico, an experiment in ethnography of a nation (in this case under colonial rule) from 1956, including a chapter by Robert Manners, founding chair of the Brandeis Department of Anthropology. Albion sings the praises of a collective biography of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, A Message to Our Folks. But John stays true to his Victorianist roots by praising the contrasting images of the withered humanist Casaubon and the dashing young scientist Lydgate in George Eliot’s own take on collective biography, Middlemarch.

Continue reading “19: Scientists, collaboration, and groupthink with Albion Lawrence (EF, JP)”