The Darwin Awards III: Survival of the Fittest

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9780452285729: The Darwin Awards III: Survival of the Fittest

The hilarious New York Times bestselling phenomenon—more than 1.5 million copies sold! 

Honoring those who improve our gene pool by inadvertently removing themselves fromit, The Darwin Awards III includes more than one hundred brand new, hilariously macabre mishaps and misadventures.


From a sheriff who inadvertently shot himself twice, to the insurance defrauder who amputated his leg with a chainsaw; from a farmer who avoided bee stings by sealing his head in a plastic bag to the man crushed by the branch he just trimmed, The Darwin Awards III proves again that when it comes to stupidity, no species does it like we do.

Featuring scientific and safety discussions and filled with illustrations depicting inspiring examples of evolution in action, The Darwin Awards III shows once more how uncommon common sense still is.

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About the Author:

A graduate of UC Berkeley with a degree in molecular biology, Wendy Northcutt began collecting the stories that make up the Darwin Awards in 1993. Her award-winning Web site is one of the most popular humor pages on the Web. The Darwin Awardshave been profiled in USA TodayThe Wall Street JournalEntertainment Weekly, and on NPR’s All Things Considered. Wendy is the author of the international bestsellers The Darwin Awards: Evolution in ActionThe Darwin Awards 2: Unnatural SelectionThe Darwin Awards 3: Survival of the Fittest, The Darwin Awards 4: Intelligent Design, The Darwin Awards: Next Evolution, and The Darwin Awards: Countdown to Extinction.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


Darwin Awards are not for everyone—only a select few earn this dubious distinction. Review the rules, the categories, and the evolutionary concepts underpinning the Darwin Awards.


Darwin Awards are bestowed upon individuals who improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it in a spectacularly stupid manner. They involve themselves in situations that a person with even a modicum of common sense would avoid, and their subsequent and predictable demise removes a set of judgment- impaired genes from circulation, thereby ensuring the long-term survival of the human race—which now contains one less idiot.

Every time a Darwin Award winner eradicates himself (or, occasionally, herself) from the population, we can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that our descendants won’t have to deal with—or breed with—the descendants of this mental midget, who lacks the ability to survive his own appallingly ill-conceived ideas.

Of necessity this honor is awarded posthumously, except in rare instances where a nominee eliminates only his ability to reproduce.

These stories are not mere tragic accidents. They are astonishing misapplications of judgment of such magnitude that the observer can only shake his head ruefully at the poetic justice dished out by fate to a deserving recipient.

The Darwin Awards commemorate the not-so-unexpected demise of a wood thief crushed by the overhead tree branch he methodically sawed in half while standing beneath it (page 37); two men competing to see who’s the bravest of them all by holding lit fireworks in their mouths (page 55); a judge who pulled the pin of a live grenade introduced into evidence (page 41); and all the absentminded catastrophes caused by those who repeatedly stump us with their cluelessness.

Want to feel like a genius? The next time you feel foolish, stupid, or incompetent, seek out the Darwin Awards and read a few of these true tales of misadventure. You’ll soon realize how brilliant you really are, compared with the morons featured on these pages.

And you will probably find yourself taking a few personal pledges while reading this book, such as: “I will keep pointy metal objects away from electrical wires.” “I will not suck gasoline into a vacuum cleaner.” “I will hold no fireworks in my mouth.” “No sleeping in the road for me!”

There is an especial danger in new technology, which presents challenges that some people find insurmountable. The cover illustration shows the quintessential modern Darwin Award winner, holding a cell phone, intent on the wrong signals, and clueless in the face of impending doom. The image of a squashed cell-phone user typifies the absentminded human animal, unaware of dicey circumstances and headed for trouble.

Cell phones have become ubiquitous, but humans are still singularly ill equipped to use these devices safely. Although we have been communicating for millennia, we have not yet evolved the multitasking aptitude needed to talk on a cell phone while driving. Put one of these lethal instruments to the ear of the average driver, and a traffic accident is quite likely to occur. In fact, accidents involving cell phones are too common to be eligible for a Darwin Award unless additional stupidity is present. “What’s That Sound?” on page 160 and “(un) Armed and Dangerous” on page 190 are two sterling examples.

As more and more people remove themselves from the gene pool while using cell phones, the species as a whole will become better equipped to safely coexist with this new technology. As the population of cell- phone idiots is slowly depleted, one can imagine a golden day, far in the future, when cell phones are considered as safe to use as a faucet.

A 2002 Harvard study estimated that 6 percent of U.S. traffic accidents are caused by drivers talking on cell phones, resulting in 2,600 deaths and 330,000 injuries. In January 2003, the California Highway Patrol reported that cell phones are the leading cause of crashes attributed to driver distraction, a category that covers 10 percent of all crashes.
Reference: San Jose Mercury News


Now that the concept of the Darwin Awards has been explained, a discussion of the rules will not only elucidate their genesis, but also illuminate some of the more obscure questions that arise when evaluating nominees.

There are five basic rules:

Reproduction Out of the gene pool!
Excellence The event transcends common stupidity.
Self-selection They did it to themselves!
Maturity But not a child or handicapped person.
Veracity Confirmed or, at least, plausible.


The candidate is no longer able to contribute to the gene pool.

The traditional method of satisfying this requirement is to cause one’s own death. However, the occasional rebel opts for sterilization, which allows him more time to enjoy the dubious notoriety of winning this award.

The existence of offspring, though potentially deleterious to the gene pool, does not disqualify a nominee. Children inherit only half of each parent’s genetic material and thus have their own chance to survive or snuff themselves—if, for instance, the “play with combustibles” gene has been passed along. If they have inherited the “play with combustibles” gene, but have also inherited a “use caution when ... ” gene, then they are potential innovators and possible assets to the human race. Therefore, each nominee is judged based on whether or not she has removed her own genes, without consideration to number of offspring or, in the case of an elderly winner, the likelihood of producing offspring regardless of an untimely demise.

The candidate suffered an astounding lapse of judgment.

It takes a phenomenal failure of common sense to earn a Darwin Award. Common idiocies such as playing Russian roulette, falling off a boat, or sleeping next to a smoldering cigarette are not sufficient to win the dubious distinction of a Darwin. On the other hand, playing Russian roulette with land mines, jumping off a boat into shark-infested waters knowing you cannot swim, or sleeping with a smoldering cigarette under an oxygen tent ... just might win you a Darwin Award!

It has been argued that more emphasis should be placed on the stupidity aspect, and less on the extreme nature of the stupidity. After all, humans are supposedly able to learn from their mistakes, and yet time and time again we manage to fall down stairs and drop radios into bathtubs. There is merit to this criticism, as natural selection is undoubtedly eliminating “bad driver” genes more rapidly than it’s eliminating “grenade juggling” genes. However, it is not amusing to read dozens of stories about poor driving! Therefore, the Darwin Awards are given only to those who show their flagrant disregard for the laws of nature in a novel way.

Those who participate in extreme sports are not automatically eligible, as they knowingly assume an increased risk of death. They are, in a sense, correctly applying their judgment that the entertainment is worth the risk. However bizarre the sport, an additional misapplication of judgment must be present in order for the deceased to qualify for a Darwin Award.

Not a Darwin, but not safe either:

• Falling off a precipice while posing or pissing
• Warming aerosol cans or gasoline in the oven
• Whizzing on an electric rail or fence
• Being hit by a train or an automobile
• Smoking inside an oxygen tent
• Carbon monoxide poisoning
• Most autoerotic deaths

These circumstances are all too common!

The candidate must be the cause of his own demise.

The humor of the Darwin Awards depends on the fact that the only victim is the nincompoop who planned the ill-fated scheme that resulted in his death. For that reason, the death of an innocent bystander rules out a nomination. Self-removal of incompetent genetic material is essential. One person cannot “give” another person a Darwin; rather, each person must earn the award based on his own ingenuity.

Oddly enough, those who commit suicide are not eligible for a Darwin Award, even though such a decision may be ill advised. A suicidal person is applying his judgment that life is not worth living, and the outcome is therefore expected. The spirit of the Darwin Awards, on the contrary, requires an element of surprise, when one departs from the gene pool by accident.

The death of an innocent bystander is not allowed, as it is not amusing. Suicides, whether or not they succeed, are not eligible. And anyone who dies while intentionally engaged in notoriety-seeking behavior is disqualified, as the Darwin Awards are not meant to encourage risk taking.

The candidate must be able, and capable of sound judgment.

Some people, like children (whose judgment has not fully developed) or those who are born with physical or mental handicaps, are more susceptible to injury doing activities that an average adult can perform safely. Because the increased risk comes from an innate impediment, deaths that result are not amusing and not eligible for an award.

Also, children (typically below the age of sixteen) do not qualify, as it is commonly understood that they do not possess sufficient maturity and experience to make life-or-death judgments. The responsibility for their safety still resides with their parents and guardians.

The maturity rule is occasionally bent for a sufficiently humorous story. For instance, if a person confined to a wheelchair routinely travels by holding on to the fender of a speeding car, she is eligible for a Darwin Award when her wheelchair overturns on a freeway. Or if a woman chooses to impair her own judgment—for instance, by smoking marijuana before napping on a steep roof—she is eligible for a Darwin Award when she turns over in her sleep and rolls off the roof.

The event must be verified.

The world is full of tales of wondrous stupidity, but in order to make the cut as a Darwin contender the tale must be true, not tall. Articles published by reputable news outlets, confirmed television and radio reports, and responsible eyewitnesses are considered valid sources. A chain email, an Internet humor ’zine, or an edited photograph, is not considered a valid source.

Depending on the plausibility of the story, more or less confirmation may be deemed sufficient to consider it verified. As the author has a finite amount of time to spend investi- gating the stories, a designation of “Confirmed by Darwin” means it has been verified to the best of her knowledge and is presumed—but not guaranteed—to be accurate.

The Categories
There are three categories of stories in this book: Darwin Awards, Honorable Mentions, and Personal Accounts. All stories must be excellent examples of self-inflicted stupidity; the other three rules are flexible. Honorable Mentions and Personal Accounts usually don’t meet the loss-of-reproduction rule. The veracity rule doesn’t apply for Personal Accounts, which are by their nature unverified. And if a person is mature enough to submit her story as a Personal Account, age or other mental or physical impediments are of no concern.

Darwin Awards
Those whom life does not cure, death will.
—Cormac McCarthy

Darwin Awards are true examples of astounding stupidity leading to a loss of reproductive capacity, generally because the perpetrators are no longer alive. We do not take into account the unsettling possibility of the existence of cryogenically stored spermatozoa when selecting a Darwin Award recipient.

Honorable Mentions
He who hesitates ... is sometimes saved.
—James Thurber

Honorable Mentions are foolish misadventures that, against all odds, stop short of the ultimate sacrifice. They illustrate the innovative spirit shown by a true Darwin Award candidate, without the unpleasant side effect of being deceased or, arguably worse, no longer able to reproduce.

Personal Accounts
Common sense is not so common.

Personal Accounts were submitted by loyal readers blowing the whistle on stupidity—their own, or that of a spouse, neighbor, coworker, or (sometimes former) friend. The narratives are plausible but usually unverified. In some cases the people who submitted Personal Accounts have been identified with their permission, but this does not necessarily mean that they are directly associated with their Personal Accounts.

All Darwin Awards and Honorable Mentions are known or believed to be true. The phrase Confirmed by Darwin under the title generally indicates that a story was backed up by multiple submissions and by more than one reputable media source. Unconfirmed by Darwin indicates fewer credible submissions and the unavailability of direct confirmation of media sources. In unconfirmed Darwin Awards or Honorable Mentions, names have been changed and details of events have been altered to protect the innocent (and, for that matter, the guilty).

Evolution is the process of species changing over time to better suit their environments. The mechanism of evolution was referred to as “survival of the fittest” by Alfred Russell Wallace, who is considered the codiscoverer of evolution. He used this phrase because he felt that the term coined by Charles Darwin, natural selection, incorrectly implied a directed force behind the selection.

In order for “survival of the fittest” to cause a species to evolve there are four requirements. The species must show variation, and that variation must be inheritable. Not all members of the population shall survive to reproduce, but the inherited characteristics of some members make them more likely to do so.

Inheritable Variation
Every species scientists have studied has been found to consist of individuals exhibiting a variety of traits. Numerous differences exist between even the most closely related individuals, from amoeba to zebra. Some variations are caused by environmental factors and are not inheritable; for instance, chronic food scarcity results in shorter humans. However, many variations are the result of different genetic instructions and are inherited. For example, even with ample food, short parents produce shorter children than tall parents. Only inheritable characteristics are subject to evolutionary pressures.

These inheritable characteristics are encoded in long strands of DNA. Populations constantly acquire new variations because the process by which DNA is copied is prone to infrequent but inevitable errors. The error rate of DNA transcription is not accidental, but rather is a carefully tuned variable that introduces an optimized amount of random mutation into a population. Because the vast majority of random mutations are deleterious, if they occur too frequently, the species would be too sickly to survive. If mutations occur too infrequently, the evolution rate would be too slow to keep up with the changing environment of a cooling Earth, or, later, with the competetion of other species adapting faster to their surroundings.

Some Succeed While Others Fail
Wild adult squirrels have two litters of three pups every summer, and they live about four years. Given these numbers, a single pair of squirrels could multiply to 63,967 trillion in thirty-three years if they all survived. (See figure on page 14.) That’s more than enough squirrels to cover the entire surface of the planet! Obviously, most squirrels die before they produce nine children.

Because not all squirrel...

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