Thinning the Herd 

Doling out Darwin Awards, Cal grad Wendy Northcutt lauds lethally dumb ideas.

By her own admission, Wendy Northcutt is extremely accident-prone. But she isn't foolhardy -- unlike the human speed bumps and autoelectrocutors who under her auspices have won Darwin Awards. And she isn't stupid. She earned a molecular biology degree from UC Berkeley, then went on to pursue a career in academic research, then pharmaceutical research.

Ten years ago, she started collecting newspaper articles about people who had died as a result of their own gross miscalculations, misplaced ideas of fun, or other forms of what she calls, simply, idiocy.

What else could you call fishermen who repaired their boat with duct tape, college students who used a Dumpster as a sleigh, or a religious sect whose members tested their faith by standing on a busy interstate?

At the time, "I was just learning how to make Web sites ... the Internet was young." On her new site, Northcutt posted some tales of "humans in dangerously stupid situations. Over time, it just grew" and eventually became the site's main focus. When she began doling out "Darwin Awards" to "commemorate those individuals who ensure the long-term survival of our species by removing themselves from the gene pool in a sublimely idiotic fashion," Northcutt assumed the name of the immortal British scientist who introduced the world to the idea of evolution.

The 19th-century Darwin "wasn't as humorous as the current Darwin -- myself," she says, "but I do think he would find a piquant humor in the overlap of his theories with rampant human stupidity."

Visitors to www.darwinawards.com -- chosen as a Cool Site of the Year in 2000 -- and readers of the best-selling books it has spawned can cringe over stories of "winners" who play chicken with trains, play Russian roulette with semiautomatic pistols, and dose themselves with aphrodisiacs meant for large barnyard animals.

Culled from personal accounts and the world press, the stories comprise a truly international panorama of pratfalls and pandemonium, and have a universal appeal, though readers from various countries approach the matter in their own ways, Northcutt says.

"Americans [like to] laugh at other Americans. Germans are not as amused by German winners, and also prefer to laugh at Americans. The Japanese go for the most profane ones. ... They emphasize the stories with lurid fetish overtones."

On the Web site, all-time reader favorites include a 1995 account of six people drowning in an Egyptian well while trying to rescue a chicken that had fallen into the water. (The chicken survived.) Another, from the same lethal year, concerned a Midwesterner who -- concerned about a strange noise his truck's motor was making -- climbed under the truck and clung there as his friend drove it down the road. Northcutt's paraphrasings of winners' tales take an unabashedly sarcastic tone. A man who fell off a freeway overpass while taking a leak is dubbed a "ur-inate-iot." Her account of another who spent three hundred times longer lying on a sun bed than its manufacturers recommended is briskly titled "Sunny Side Up."

Any author would welcome the pop-culture-icon status that the Darwin Awards have attained; Northcutt's first book spent six weeks on the New York Times top-ten list. Yet she was chagrined to "come across a story where a fellow accidentally got himself lodged in a woman's chimney, and when they broke him out with the Jaws of Life, he announced to the TV news crews, 'Maybe now I'll win a Darwin Award!'"

Readers regularly contact Northcutt, quite "pleased to be able to share their own personal near-death encounters. But I never feature those who are trying to be stupid." She does all she can "to minimize any attempts to 'win' a Darwin Award." Jackass: the Movie this isn't.

"It's humor, not self-help."

Even so, as a trained scientist she is not entirely joking about this gene-pool stuff.

"There's probably no particular genetic basis for the traits that make people stop cars on railroad tracks, for instance. But there are some actions that seem particularly prone to selection. For instance, isn't it time we're rid of men who show off to potential mates by performing dangerous stunts? That's a motivating cause in a number of Darwin Awards, and I can well believe it has a genetic basis. On the other hand, if it's a useful survival trait -- daring men kill themselves 1:10,000 but also win mates more successfully, increasing their genetic contribution" -- then maybe, she says, we shouldn't be laughing.

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