Man vs. Machine
In Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos, Vonnegut acts as a first-person narrator who tells a story
of the evolution of people from the 20th to the 21st century. Vonnegut’s evolutionary story
mocks the human race, and more specifically the human brain and its intellectual in creating
technological machinery that is almost as useless as the brain.
The evolutionary adventure starts out with six random strangers who plan on going on “The
Nature Cruise Ship of the Century,” named Bahía de Darwin, to explore the Galápagos Islands. By
the end, only two random strangers survive and actually make it on to The Nature Cruise Ship:
Mary Hepburn (a widow from Illium, New York) and Captain Adolf von Kleist (captain of the cruise
ship). The deaths of the other strangers, James Wait, Andrew MacIntosh, Selena, and the
Hiroguchis, all happen due to a random chain of disastrous events, and according to Vonnegut, due
to the lack of using the human brain’s full potential to provide sound decision-making (4).
Vonnegut tells the story in the perspective that the randomness is life, and the events in life
happen for no reason and the human brain triggers the randomness. Things just happen, and
nothing goes as planned.
Furthermore, all the randomness in the events of survivals and deaths show how the human
brain was not really a controlling factor of decisions, at least not at a consciously controlling
level. The human brain comes off as being an inner, subconscious voice that gave bad advice
(103). Vonnegut portrays the human brain as a “character” on its own, uncontrollable and
unpredictable. So is the human brain an impulsive character? Is the thinking process a myth?
Is the brain a paradox to the human race and its intellectual?
Oddly enough, the human brain as an impulsive, unintelligible character plays off the one
technological machine available to the survivors on the Galápagos, called Mandarax. Mandarax is
a portable hand-held machine that mirrors the actions of the human brain, in terms of memory
storage and alleged knowledge. For instance, it knows over 1,000 languages and spits out quotes
from authors of all time periods when given a keyword (55). The “intelligence” of Mandarax can
be seen as a reflection on what has become of the human race and the human brain.
Humans and their brains undergo an extensive process of education. They retain
information of all sorts, then attempt to use what was “learned” to work in an office with
technologically savvy computers that have as much, or possibly more, retained information as the
human brain. The only difference between the human brain and the computer: the computer was
built with information not through twelve-plus years of education, but through the hands of other
such knowledgeable machinery. So what has become of the human brain? Sure, the brain was what
gave birth to the ideas of new technology and machinery, but what happens after that? What
happens when technology and machinery exceed the human brain’s capacity?
Vonnegut’s character of Mandarax mocks today’s society of man-versus-machine relationship.
Instead of using the human brain, humans have created another brain to do the job of the human
brain. There is nothing around us that is not built to cater to the needs of the human race and
to ease off the duties of what the human brain is supposed to do; for instance, thinking. Is
laziness going to be the death of the human race?
Especially in recent years of the 21st century, technological advancements have
contributed in giving birth to even smarter machines, from the MacBook to the iPhone. Now, here
is Vonnegut’s paradox in showcasing the relationship of man-versus-machine: do machines keep the
human brains exercising and useful, or do they keep the human brains idling and useless?
Vonnegut plays out the paradox even more to say that though the brain is purposeless,
humans ask for more in order to not be idle. But how would one be idle if the brain is idle in
and of itself:
“Nobody leads a life of quiet desperation nowadays. The mass of men was quietly desperate a
million years ago because the infernal computers inside their skulls were incapable of restraint
or idleness; were forever demanding more challenging problems which life could not provide.”
Technology has gotten the best of today. Humans try to create order through machinery,
but it only results in more randomness and improbability because the machine is yet another brain
under its own control. And ironically, according to Vonnegut, humans cannot even seem to control
their own brains (166).
In the end, Mandarax dies, not due to self-extinction, but due to a random chain of
events: Captain Kleist throws Mandarax into the ocean out of frustration of its, what he
considers, uselessly memorized languages and famous quotes (288). Again, Vonnegut plays out
another contradiction in symbolizing the machine’s memorization as the human brain’s extensive
“knowledge” of educated information. So will the human brain disintegrate due to its
uselessness? Will Darwinian Evolution and the Law of Natural Selection do its work in shrinking
what is not fit to survive?
Taking Dr. Grobstein’s Biology 103 taught me a different way of looking at life and
living: it is a circle of randomness strung together by improbable assemblies of improbable
assemblies. Reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos added on to that idea of randomness: life and
living is Nature’s experiment with Darwinian Evolution and the Law of Natural Selection. And the
human brain is no exception to that experiment of randomness. The brain has become dependent on
other brains, the brains of technology. This evolution of the brain’s independence to its
dependence truly shows the randomness of the world today. There is no more thinking, no more
sound decision-making, no more plans, just doing, doing, doing. So next time you act on impulse,
just remember, it’s not you, it’s your good-for-nothing brain. Thanks a lot, brain.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Galápagos. New York: Delacourt Press/Seymour Lawrence,