The Darwin Awards

/ by Maggie Wittlin /

Prizes honor the demise of the un-fittest.

Darwin Portrait.  One of the last photographs taken of Charles Darwin, circa 1878. © From the Richard Milner Archive, via the American Museum of Natural History

Stupid people are like children, peeing in the crystal clear waters of our gene pool. Occasionally, a stupid person moves us one step closer to our goal of an adult swim by removing himself from the gene pool in a fashion that can only be referred to as morbidly hilarious.

And then there’s the award that dares to step away from our “culture of life,” and celebrate the naturally deselected. As the honor’s website notes, the annual Darwin Award salutes “the improvement of the human genome by honoring those who remove themselves from it.” Now that 2006 has finally rolled around—that leap second felt like an eternity—Wendy “Darwin” Northcutt, the woman behind these curious prizes, has looked back on the past year of accidents and calamities to single out four fatal faux pas for the 2005 Darwin Awards:

A 24-year-old Swiss second lieutenant picked up an award for learning a lesson Indiana Jones taught us long ago in Raiders of the Lost Ark: Don’t attack with a sword if your opponent has a gun.

While trying to demonstrate a surprise knife attack on an armed soldier, the lieutenant grabbed a bayonet and leapt at an unsuspecting young man nearby. The surprised soldier had just finished target practice with live ammunition; he had recently been trained on how to quickly release the safety catch and ready his weapon. The unsuspecting soldier used these newly honed maneuvers to save himself by preparing his gun and firing at the lieutenant with deadly accuracy. The lieutenant didn’t get any posthumous medals from the Army, but he did receive a Darwin Award.

Marko, a 55-year-old man from Croatia, won a Darwin for an ill-fated attempt at chimney sweeping. No, Marko didn’t fall down the chimney and asphyxiate from the smoke—that would be far too banal for these awards. Instead, since Marko’s chimney was too tall for a broom to clean from below, he decided to weld a weight to a chain attached to his brush and drop the contraption from the roof through the chimney. He had the brush, he had a chain, all he needed was the weight. He found an ideal attachment: small, heavy and apparently perfectly weldable.

It wasn’t until poor Marko began to weld the object to the chain that he realized his weight wasn’t some deformed Bocce ball. Rather, it was a hand grenade packed with explosive material. The grenade’s contents ignited when Marko heated the metal, and the blast that killed him most likely added more soot to the chimney.

A 21-year-old named Nguyen from Vietnam snagged a Darwin mention for staking his life on a claim that an old, rusty detonator wouldn’t explode. He put the device in his mouth and boldly told a friend to plug him in to a 220-volt socket.

Had the detonator merely conducted the electricity, Nguyen would have had a very bad day: 220 volts to the chest can cause a cardiac emergency, and Nguyen’s salty, wet saliva would have conducted plenty of current to his mouth, giving him an excruciating electric shock. But electrocution was the least of Nguyen’s worries. His flawed belief that the detonator wouldn’t detonate would be his undoing. The explosion blew out his cheeks and teeth, and he died on the way to the hospital.

The final award comes a bit late for the late Philip Quinn of Kent, Washington. On November 30th, 2004, for some reason, the 24-year-old Quinn placed a lava lamp on his stove. Maybe he was disappointed with its meager bubbling and hoped that a slow boil would improve the effect.

Quinn’s plan literally backfired when the lava lamp exploded, sending a large shard of glass shrapnel through his heart. Makes one wonder if 70s peaceniks are concerned that their hippie-chic tchotchke has become an instrument of death and destruction.

Thousands of people die senselessly every year, but only a few have eliminated themselves in such beautifully silly ways that their demise earns them this not-so-coveted prize. This year’s winners have sacrificed themselves for the greater good of our evolving species, and they deserve this honor.

Seed wishes next year’s candidates the very worst of luck.

Download podcast

Originally published January 4, 2006


Share this Stumbleupon Reddit Email + More


  • Ideas

    I Tried Almost Everything Else

    John Rinn, snowboarder, skateboarder, and “genomic origamist,” on why we should dumpster-dive in our genomes and the inspiration of a middle-distance runner.

  • Ideas

    Going, Going, Gone

    The second most common element in the universe is increasingly rare on Earth—except, for now, in America.

  • Ideas

    Earth-like Planets Aren’t Rare

    Renowned planetary scientist James Kasting on the odds of finding another Earth-like planet and the power of science fiction.

The Seed Salon

Video: conversations with leading scientists and thinkers on fundamental issues and ideas at the edge of science and culture.

Are We Beyond the Two Cultures?

Video: Seed revisits the questions C.P. Snow raised about science and the humanities 50 years by asking six great thinkers, Where are we now?

Saved by Science

Audio slideshow: Justine Cooper's large-format photographs of the collections behind the walls of the American Museum of Natural History.

The Universe in 2009

In 2009, we are celebrating curiosity and creativity with a dynamic look at the very best ideas that give us reason for optimism.

Revolutionary Minds
The Interpreters

In this installment of Revolutionary Minds, five people who use the new tools of science to educate, illuminate, and engage.

The Seed Design Series

Leading scientists, designers, and architects on ideas like the personal genome, brain visualization, generative architecture, and collective design.

The Seed State of Science

Seed examines the radical changes within science itself by assessing the evolving role of scientists and the shifting dimensions of scientific practice.

A Place for Science

On the trail of the haunts, homes, and posts of knowledge, from the laboratory to the field.


Witness the science. Stunning photographic portfolios from the pages of Seed magazine.

SEEDMAGAZINE.COM by Seed Media Group. ©2005-2015 Seed Media Group LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Sites by Seed Media Group: Seed Media Group | ScienceBlogs | Research Blogging | SEEDMAGAZINE.COM