Another look at the Darwin Awards

Schmidt—Getty Images

It was on Valentine’s Day this year, as the law of irony would have it, that an unnamed couple were arguing as they walked along a riverside in Berlin. The quarrel worsened, in fact, to the place that the young man, seemingly unable to sustain his point, shoved the young woman into the river and leaped in after her, reportedly to try to continue to force her under the water. As it happens, the pusher did not know how to swim; the pushee swam to safety and the young man drowned. It will never be known whether his opinion was the more compelling, but certainly his judgment is in question.

This anecdote is only one of thousands of entries in the Darwin Awards, which date back into the early 1990s. These unofficial awards of dubious value are “named in honour of Charles Darwin, the father of evolution . . . [to] commemorate those who improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it.” These incidents are some of humankind’s dumbest—and often, to us unrelated survivors, hilarious—everyday mistakes, which offer a kind of proof that only the fittest survive. Presumably, this accidental, self-inflicted fatality prevented this ill-equipped creature from producing less-than-fit offspring. His personal genes lost the war in the great gene pool. And the rest of us can utter a sigh of relief.

This idea of survival of the fittest, though, deserves some examination. Are there not universal influences beyond the mere physicality of genes that may bring about the end of an evolutionary line? Isn’t it also possible that at least some dumbness may be learned? OK, maybe “learned dumbness” may appear at first to be an oxymoron. Some of the most brilliant people in the annals of humanity did some of the most foolish things that sometimes led to their untimely end. Is it possible to be too fit for survival?

With this in mind, even the most casual reading of the Bible would bring up Solomon, whose name has been synonymous with wisdom ever since his reign as the third king of Israel almost a millennium before Christ. It could be said that the story of his life is the stuff of legend, except that it is truly historical.

Early in Solomon’s reign, God appearing to him in a dream to make an amazing offer. “Ask for whatever you want me to give you”—kind of like granting three wishes!

But Solomon’s response wasn’t what we might have been expected: “I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. . . . So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.” (Read the story in 1 Kings 3:5–15.)

God was pleased! Recognising that Solomon could have asked for long life, riches or victory over enemies, He gave him “a wise and discerning heart” and promised him the more obvious blessings as well: “both wealth and honour” and, “if you walk in obedience to me and keep my decrees and commands . . . I will give you a long life.”

Apparently, there would be no possibility of a Darwin Award for Solomon. And clearly, as he set out to serve his people, this young king demonstrated some uncommon wisdom.

The Bible in 1 Kings 3:16–28 goes on to recount the story of two women, each claiming she was the mother of the same newborn child after the other of the women’s babies had died in the night. The women appeared before Solomon, seeking a judgment. The child was apparently too young to show any positive response to either woman, and there seemed to have been no witnesses.

What to do?

Solomon summarily made the decision that the child should be cut in two and half given to each woman. One of the women bitterly agreed that this was the fairest outcome; the other immediately surrendered her claim in order to save the child’s life. Solomon promptly rescinded his command and awarded full custody to the woman who had pled to save the baby’s life. Clearly, he said, she was the true mother.

Brilliant! As the years came and went in his 40-year reign, Solomon’s reputation became known far and wide. “King Solomon was greater in riches and wisdom than all the other kings of the earth” (2 Chronicles 9:22). Such was his international reputation, in fact, that the queen of Ethiopia, a monarch of formidable reputation herself, made a state visit with the full intention of analysing his wisdom. “She came to test Solomon with hard questions” (read the story in 1 Kings 10:1–10).

The queen was impressed. “The report I heard in my own country about your achievements and your wisdom is true,” she said, impressed with Solomon, his nation and his God. The two sovereigns exchanged gifts and the queen returned to her land.

But somewhere along the way, as curious as it may sound, Solomon’s wisdom went to his head. The power, wealth and celebrity that came from God’s blessings led him in an unexpected direction that sounds as if it would have assured at least the physical survival of his genes in the evolutionary process. Not only was he smart, but he was virile and proved it by marrying 700 wives (not to mention the 300 other women who didn’t quite make it to wife status). Surely there could have been no risk of this particular branch of the human species dying out. No Darwin Award for Solomon!

This did result, however, in an alteration of Solomon’s spiritual DNA that nearly cost him the extinction of his relationship with God. For much of his latter life, his pagan and polytheistic wives “led him astray” (1 Kings 11:3), which, in turn, brought about the inevitable increased risk that his heirs, those eligible to take his place on the throne, would face an extinction of their own.

Solomon’s once-powerful kingdom fell apart, with only a trace of its former eminence remaining in the reign of his son. Before he died, Solomon came to the realisation that intelligence and wisdom are not the same thing. “Do not be wise in your own eyes;” he wrote, “fear the Lord and shun evil” (Proverbs 3:7).

The life of Solomon—the wisest man who ever lived—is a tragic cautionary tale of the consequence of placing too much confidence and pride in human capability. There is grave danger in forgetting where our talents and abilities comes from. And more than mere physical survival is at stake in what one does with God-given intelligence. There is a goal for humanity that transcends anything that may be suggested in the discomfiting distinction of winning a Darwin Award.

image Subscribe to our eNewsletter