by Wendy Northcutt



327pp/$16.95/November 2000

The Darwin Awards

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Every now and then, a forwarded piece of e-mail will arrive in my mailbox purporting to tell the real life (or death) story of a nominee for the Darwin Awards.  These are a series of awards "presented" in honor of the recipient doing something so stultifyingly stupid that is results in the individual's removal from being able to make any future donations to the human gene pool.  Invariably, these stories raise the question of whether or not the events actually happened.  The clearinghouse for this information is Wendy Northcutt's Darwin Awards website.

Northcutt claims to have researched many of the stories presented on the website and now collected in a book.  The stories she has been able to verify, she notes as having been "Confirmed by Darwin," which, she indicates in the introduction, means that the stories have been reported in reliable newspapers, on television news shows, or reported by a "responsible eyewitness."  However, for the sake of humor, Northcutt includes many stories which are either unconfirmed or clearly denoted as urban legends.  In addition, she includes stories in which the protagonist has somehow managed to survive or which she claims are eyewitness accounts.  What she fails to include, but which would have made the book more interesting and believable, would have been an example of the confirmation process she goes through to verify a story is not just a put-on.

The book is divided into several chapters, each of which collects thematically linked examples of Darwin nominees.  Northcutt prefaces each chapter with a short discussion of evolution or the philosophy of the Darwin Awards concerning the specific topic.  These short essays add tremendously to the book, again raising it above the level of a conglomeration of stories of human stupidity.  Northcutt never loses sight of the fact that the stories are funny and she never takes herself or the awards too seriously.

Although the book can be read from cover to cover in a matter of hours, Northcutt recommends dipping into the book occasionally, reading a story here or a chapter there.  She acknowledges that the humor of the awards, either on a specific level or a general level, will not appeal to everyone and suggests that skipping offensive stories or sections be done as the reader sees fit.  However, anyone reading the book beyond the first few pages is likely to see the humor in the stories.

Despite the fact that these stories are funny, there remains the fact that they happened to real individuals, something which Northcutt is at pains to remind the reader.  She never suggests that people should laugh at the loss of a family member, merely points out that in some cases the manner in which someone achieves their accidental demise is worthy of examination, remembrance, and, occasionally, laughter.

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