What Are the Darwin Awards?

(Last Updated On: October 1, 2020)

What Are the Darwin Awards?

Have you ever met or seen someone that made you question how it is they made it this far in life? Perhaps on a slightly larger extreme, you’ve wondered how the heck they’re still alive. If you haven’t seen this in action, go watch those videos of people fighting tables from their roofs. Or just spend some amount of time on a college campus full of young people who think they’re indestructible. That or you could go outside it’s not like people change. Well when (not if) you one day meet someone who begs this question, you may want to give them a Darwin Award. So let’s ask the question: what are the Darwin Awards?

On the Origin of Stupidity

We’re going to assume that you have a basic understanding of Darwinian evolution. Many people assume the origins of evolutionary thought basically begin with Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. But honestly, that probably doesn’t give humans enough credit (for like the first time). The concept of “animal species change over time” has been understood by the ancient Chinese, Greeks, and Romans. It also played quite the role in Islamic science during the Islamic Golden Age. What we’re trying to say is that smart people did smart people things before the Enlightenment in the mid 1700s.

On the Darwin Awards, they owe themselves to natural selection. The whole thing where over time, the heritable traits contributing best to the propagation of the species will become more dominant. The inverse is also part of it. Heritable negative traits becoming less dominant/being removed from the gene pool is also natural selection. 

But the Darwin Awards aren’t a good thing, as you’ve probably guessed. They’re largely focused on the latter half of the earlier paragraph. Such was the joke in the mid 1980s, when the idea of modern internet forums was Usenet. You’ll probably feel old if you know/remember what that is. 

The Darwin Awards gained more popular notoriety in 1993 with their own website. Their creator, Wendy Northcutt, has written a handful of books about them as well. If you ever want to feel better about yourself, maybe giving them a read might help. You know, because you’re not on the list of people who would steal a live electrical wire.

But Where’d the Idea Start?

If you want to get into the really nitty-gritty, “Darwin Award” had been in the Usenet lexicon since 1985. Why? Well the earliest reference people point to is a guy who crushed himself shaking a vending machine. Apparently that wasn’t too uncommon–37 people met the same fate between 1978 and 1995 in the United States. It wasn’t until 1993 when Northcutt made a website, adding “Darwin Award” to the popular lexicon.

The inspiration for creating the Darwin Award website? Finding a different application for your degree. No really, Northcutt graduated with a degree in molecular biology and is a self-proclaimed klutz. Squish the two together and this is what you get.

Add that to the pile of “telling high schoolers it doesn’t matter what your degree is in.”

How Do You Win a Darwin Award?

Well the criteria are quite simple. Contribute to the gene pool positively by removing your dumb person genes from the pool. Normally the award is handed out posthumously, because you know… One of the chief ways to remove yourself from the gene pool is by dying. Also, grabbing live electrical wire is a wonderful way to… No longer be alive.

Though one can also win a Darwin Award through self-sterilization by being stupid. But you can disqualify yourself. Partly by never qualifying in the first place, but also by killing or sterilizing innocent bystanders. Because, you know, maybe they could have contributed positively to the gene pool.

You also have to be at least 16, and clinical cognitive impairment is also grounds for disqualification. This goes without saying, but you also have to have done the stupid thing of your own free will.

If you were wondering, Northcutt has almost won her own award–in her opinion anyway. During a California heat wave with a broken air conditioner, she ripped open an oubliette floor gate to her basement. There was the intention to install a fan at a later date. Except Northcutt ended up falling in and breaking her leg. When telling this story to UC Berkeley alumni (where she graduated) she said her first thought was “Oh no, I’m gonna win my own Darwin Award.”

Not that that’s even the worst way to win a Darwin Award.

The Awards

Here are a few Darwin Awards and honorable mentions we picked up for your morbid curiosity. In case you needed to be reminded, most of these people sadly didn’t make it out okay. 

  1. A Maine resident who set up a handgun to shoot anyone entering his front door. He set it off himself.
  2. The guy who tried to take a selfie with an injured and upset bear.
  3. Someone topped off their car’s brake fluid with dishwashing detergent.
  4. Honorable mention from Northcutt to the two brothers calling each other while driving in a parking lot. They were trying to find each other and ended up in a head-on collision. They’re fine now.
  5. A South Carolina prisoner’s sentence is commuted from the electric chair to life in prison. They ended up biting a live wire while trying to fix their TV.
  6. A Candian lawyer with a degree in engineering (the second part is important) who threw himself out of a skyscraper window to prove they were unbreakable. He was kind of right–the window didn’t break when he hit it, but the frame holding the glass gave way.

You know, this is kind of sad. We’re going to go lie down now. 

If we ever win a Darwin Award, hopefully it becomes a cool trivia fact.

Here’s some more Darwin Award Trivia.

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About Kyler 727 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.