The Curse of the “Big Brain”

In Galapagos, we are presented with a story of a set of humans who go on a cruise ship to the Galapagos, only to never return. They begin their own revolution and eventually become the ancestors of all human/humanoid kind a million years in the future.

Millions of years in the future, this story is told by a human who is (was?) of our current time period. Although he was essentially ‘one of us’ he talks of us as if we are a embarrassing mutation, a genetic mistake; one that existed in just one small blip of time in Earth’s vast history. The narrator then draws a great deal of attention to our “big brains” in particular, even admitting that one of two of the central themes of the story he weaves is that “the brain is far too big to be practical.”

The discussion of the humans and their ‘big brains’ caught my eye significantly throughout the reading. It has a multitude of implications. Firstly, it implies that humans, or humanoids, or whatever species descends from our present day homo sapiens adapted and eventually evolved specifically to have significantly smaller brains. It begs the question; why is this more practical?

Perhaps the answer can be found in a man who never lived to see the end of humanity as we know it, or even to set sight on the islands themselves: Roy. One of the final few phrases he utters on his deathbed is to his wife Mary:

I’ll tell you what the human soul is, Mary,” he whispered, his eyes closed. “Animals don’t have one. It’s the part of you that knows when your brain isn’t working right.”

He goes on to admit that he knew something was wrong all along but that there was nothing to be done about it. Is this the flaw of a “big brain”? Knowing that we have the capacity to be wrong and yet arguing to the very end that we are always right; that we are superior because we have intelligence matched by no other?

I believe this to be the fatal flaw of humanity: we are too “smart” for our own good. We mistake intelligence for always doing what is best. It cannot be denied that we are the brains that invented modern medicine. We are the brains that can cure a plague that once killed millions of people. However, we are also the brains that created nuclear bombs, and guns, and have been single-handedly responsible for the death of just as many human beings, among other species.

We are too intoxicated by the power of human intelligence to admit that even it does not hold all of the answers. This novel brings a fresh perspective to ego and the anthropocentric lifestyle that is a central concept in dark ecology. I am curious to see how far the narrator and ultimately the author will go with this idea of “big brains” destroying our fitness and being replacing it with a far “simpler” central nervous system and how by destroying humanity as we know it, we ultimately save it.

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