Kurt Vonnegut

Myth and Science in the Postmodern World

by Gilbert McInnis (Author)
©2020 Monographs 184 Pages


Kurt Vonnegut: Myth and Science in the Postmodern World attempts to understand, in Vonnegut’s novels, how Darwin’s theory of evolution functions as a cosmogonic myth that is widely accepted in order to explain why the world is as it is and why things happen as they do, to provide a rationale for social customs and observances, and to establish the sanctions for the rules by which Vonnegut’s characters conduct their lives. Moreover, this study deals with how and why Kurt Vonnegut’s fiction represents the changing human image resulting from Darwinism. The book's theoretical approach is based primarily on ideas from myth criticism and complemented by treatises on evolution.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Copyright Acknowledgments
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One Darwinism, Social Darwinism, and Mythology
  • Chapter Two Mythology and Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection in Galápagos
  • Chapter Three The Principles of the Evolutionary Mythology in Galápagos
  • Chapter Four The Sirens of Titan: Darwin, Einstein, and the Cosmological Connection
  • Chapter Five The Sirens of Titan: Quantum Mechanics, Einstein, and the In-Complete Story
  • Chapter Six Slaughterhouse-Five: Einstein, Natural Selection and the Unified Story
  • Chapter Seven Nazi Mythology and Totalitarian Minds in Mother Night
  • Chapter Eight Adapting to the Evolutionary Mythology in Mother Night
  • Chapter Nine The Myth of the Two Monsters in Breakfast of Champions
  • Chapter Ten Evolutionary Mythology in the Writings of Kurt Vonnegut

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Historically speaking, an investigation into the impact of science and technology on culture is nothing new to the study of literature; in fact, it has been done for centuries. However, this study attempts to understand how Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has given rise to a mythology, or cosmogony, as depicted in the five novels of the American author, Kurt Vonnegut. It seeks to explain how Vonnegut’s stories utilize Darwin’s cosmogony, which describes why the world is as it is and why things happen as they do; to provide a rationale for social organization, economics, and material culture; and to establish sanctions for the rules by which people conduct their lives. More specifically, I approach Vonnegut’s fiction as an exploration of how the ideology of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has an impact on real situations and people in the twentieth century. Overall, I do not agree with the historical notion that the rise of evolutionary science spells the fall of myth; therefore I argue that an evolutionary mythology is alive and vibrantly affecting real people and situations even today. In this book, I argue that there are actual mythic qualities which have come to adhere to evolution as a scientific theory, and I will cite a number of literary critics and thinkers who support this fusion of science and mythology. In this way, my argument distances itself from Neo-Darwinism as such, for Neo-Darwinism might refuse to concede that mythic qualities have adhered to the Darwinism now assimilated into popular culture. By contrast I argue that mythology can be considered ←1 | 2→as coexisting with the scientific theory of evolution itself even before Darwinism became systematically well-known as Neo-Darwinism.

The field of the original scientific Darwinism is not at stake here but I may refer to certain aspects of scientific Darwinism that are given to mythological or other metaphoric interpretations. Vonnegut himself appears to accept the reality of scientific Darwinism in Wampeters when he writes, “I suspect that Darwin was right” (238), and Wampeters is an essay of ideas and not a work of fiction. What concerns me in this study is, first, the mythology that Darwin unknowingly seems to have provoked and how, second, this mythology appears in the five novels by Vonnegut under question. Some of the commentators on the original Darwinism have themselves contributed to the mythology of evolution on the assumption that they were dealing with it scientifically. Other commentators may be considered as having dealt with Darwinism deliberately as a system of knowledge that is partly or mainly mythological thinking at the same time that they were handling it as strictly scientific. It is not my purpose to argue one side or the other of the correctness of these commentators. I necessarily borrow from all of these commentators indiscriminately where necessary or useful to show how a mythology of evolution developed in popular culture sometimes under the name of Social Darwinism, Neo-Darwinism and even Darwinism itself. The book proceeds in this fashion to show what elements of Darwinism were involved in Vonnegut’s novels, and how he explored Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection with social or philosophical criticism, parody or even comedy for the purpose of writing fiction.

Similar critical parameters must be kept in mind for the use of the words mythology, myth, mythological, mythical, and mythic in my study. A mythology can be taken to refer to a specific widespread system of beliefs expressed in a clearly delineated collection of characters who live out the ideas that they represent in a narrative. These characters may or may not have existed or they can be a combination of both. By contrast, a myth can be held to refer to a specific event or incident within the narrative of a mythology. As such, a myth could be looked upon as a sample branch of a given mythology. Necessarily the words mythological, mythic and mythical are adjectives describing these nouns. But things are unfortunately not always that simple. Myth can also be employed to refer to a specific narrative in the large humanistic study of mythology in which many such narratives are the object of study. Whatever the case, for the purposes of this study, mythology and myth refer to the ideas of Darwinism that became prefigured in the general or popular knowledge of evolution. Both terms also refer to the mythological narrative of the existence of people and things to which Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection gave birth. In several places I refer to more specific theories of mythology and myth by a variety of commentators, for example Northrop ←2 | 3→Frye, who elaborate on the basic meanings of both words. I sometimes rely on the approaches of these commentators to develop specific points of my argument, and at other times I choose not to use them.

I have chosen five novels from Kurt Vonnegut’s repertoire, Galápagos (1985), The Sirens of Titans (1959), Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Mother Night (1961), and Breakfast of Champions (1973) because they specifically reveal how a materialistic ideology embedded in Darwin’s theory of evolution functions as the basis for twentieth-century “social organization, economics, and material culture.” However, I recognize that Vonnegut’s two later novels Timequake and Jailbird explore similar themes, but it does not appear to me that in either of these novels Vonnegut remained interested in pursuing the implications of an evolutionary mythology that he explored in Galápagos. I reserve Timequake and Jailbird for a later study even though I will refer to them briefly later in this thesis. In contrast, the five novels I have chosen to include in this present study do reflect how Darwin’s cosmogony encapsulates key elements of a mythology, namely: (1) four essential functions of a mythology itself that I will describe later, (2) personified characters of Chance, Nature, and Natural Selection, and (3) to some extent Darwin’s organization of his narrative as “his-story.”

However fascinating Darwin’s narrative of the human “species” is to some, Vonnegut has chosen not to spend his energy exploring it extensively, perhaps because Kurt Vonnegut, the postmodern writer, like Lyotard claims about many postmodern writers, is “lamenting the loss of meaning” in postmodernity, or “mourning the fact that knowledge is principally narrative”(Landow 104). If this is true of Vonnegut, then characters imitate him as their author very much because they too do not adhere to any “Grand Narrative” to explain why the world is as it is and why things happen as they do. In fact, they neglect to embrace any Grand Narrative at all. Instead, often, they opt for a rationale that has its basis in the scientific principles of modern science. Hence, this book is not primarily concerned with the narrative aspect of Darwinian myth or Vonnegut’s reasons for neglecting to explore Darwin’s “Grand Narrative,” but instead it focuses its attention on how Vonnegut’s characters’ beliefs are derived from the ideology embedded in Darwin’s three principle characters, Nature, Chance, and Natural Selection.

Of the three major characters in Darwin’s narrative of the human species, “Nature” is “truer in character than man’s production,” and according to one critic of Darwin, Boodin, Darwin’s other major character, Chance, is “God” in the evolutionary myth. Moreover, in the five novels I have chosen, Darwin’s “God” or “Chance” is responsible for the transformation of all “Nature” on the biological and cosmological levels, through the working of the third character, “Natural Selection.” For instance, Vonnegut’s character Mary in Galápagos (1985) is a personification of ←3 | 4→Darwin’s character, Nature, and Chance operates on the principal characters in that novel through the character of “Natural Selection.” In the other novels, Chance reappears in both The Sirens of Titans (1959) and Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) as an “accident” with a “will,” and both Natural Selection and Chance are responsible for transforming the “Totalitarian Mind” in Mother Night (1961). Lastly, in Breakfast of Champions (1973), Vonnegut’s characters live according to the beliefs of scientific materialism embedded in all three of Darwin’s characters.

Vonnegut’s concern with the “character” approach to the Darwinian myth, instead of the narrative aspect of his theory of evolution, appears to bring to fruition a foundation laid earlier by nineteenth-century fiction writers, who were initially interested in Darwin’s “new authority of ordering narrative.” These writers ultimately came to consider Darwin’s concept of chance “as the only sure determinant” to replace the notion of a fore-ordained design, or the Judea-Christian understanding of God. In Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Gillian Beer noted this development of thought. “Evolutionary ideas proved crucial to the novel during that century not only at the level of theme but at the level of organization. At first evolutionism tended to offer a new authority to orderings of narrative which emphasized cause and effect, then, descent and kin. Later again, its eschewing of fore-ordained design (its dysteleology) allowed chance to figure as the only sure determinant” (6). Moreover, discussing Victorian biology and literature, Peter Morton, in The Vital Science: Biology and the Literary Imagination, 1860–1900, points out that T.H. Huxley, the world-renowned evolutionist and disciple of Charles Darwin, was one of the first scientists to advocate a close relationship between science and literature. “Reasoned defenses of scientism by biologists were rare, and therefore Huxley’s address of October 1880, ‘Science and culture’, is notable among his prolific writings in that it marks one of the very few occasions in the period when a biologist made a critical foray into the literary culture” (42). Both Beer and Morton agree therefore that Darwin and the ideas of evolutionary science influenced nineteenth-century literary culture. In fact, in Darwin’s Plots, Beer examines Darwin’s influence on George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1872) and Daniel Deronda (1876). For his part, Morton investigates Darwin’s influence on Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh (written 1873–5; published 1903), Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), and H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895). Wells was one of the originators of science fiction, and studied science under Huxley. In addition, according to yet another critic Bergman, Wells “was one of history’s most staunch defenders and apologists for evolution,” and he “openly stated that his work was written to influence people’s views in various areas, one of which was evolution” (“Influence” 24). As suggested by all these critics, Darwin’s ideas influenced many nineteenth-century writers. That influence continued into the twentieth century, as in the works of Vonnegut. ←4 | 5→

In 1959, the same year that Vonnegut’s second “science fiction” novel, The Sirens of Titan, appeared, Sir Charles Percy Snow, novelist, Cambridge don, and man of science, published his The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Snow’s book argued that twentieth-century culture needed to be more informed about evolutionary science, or what he called the “Scientific Revolution,” and he posited that literature was an ideal avenue by which to bring the “two cultures” together. Moreover, Joseph Sigman asserts that “As Snow saw it, science ‘has got to be assimilated along with and as part and parcel of the whole of our mental experience, and used as naturally as the rest’ ” (39). Sigman claims that Vonnegut met Snow in London, and that Snow’s treatise influenced Vonnegut’s writing (39). In his collection of essays and other short non-fiction pieces, Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons (1974), Vonnegut praises Snow: “But listen—about the editors and anthologists and publishers who keep the science-fiction field separate and alive: They are uniformly brilliant and sensitive and well informed. They are among the precious few Americans in whose mind C.P. Snow’s two cultures sweetly intertwine”(4). Hence, Snow made a valuable contribution to Vonnegut’s choice to weave the two cultures of evolutionary science and fiction into narrative form.

But in 1973, when Vonnegut was asked in a Playboy interview whether his writing was influenced in any way by Charles Darwin’s ideas, he responded as follows:

I’m not very grateful for Darwin, although I suspect he was right. His ideas make people crueler. Darwinism says to them that people who get sick deserve to be sick, that people who are in trouble must deserve to be in trouble. When anybody dies, cruel Darwinists imagine we’re obviously improving ourselves in some way. And any man who’s on top is there because he’s a superior animal. That’s the social Darwinism of the last century, and it continues to boom. (Wampeters 238; italics added)

In this passage, Vonnegut makes no distinction among “Darwinism,” “cruel Darwinists,” and “social Darwinism of the last century.” Moreover, Vonnegut is “not very grateful for Darwin,” but it must be emphasized that he partly accepts Darwin’s explanation of the physical world, saying, “I suspect he was right.” However, by 1999 Vonnegut’s faith in Darwin’s notion of natural selection had changed. In a letter (May 4, 1999) to Stephen J. Gould Vonnegut stated, “… I have been ruminating extra-hard about natural selection recently—almost, one might say, like Einstein on an elevator, pondering, every time the thing started or stopped, what the fuck was really going on” (Kurt Vonnegut Letters, 276). A few months later, in a letter to Robert Maslansky on October 8, 1999, Vonnegut’s loss of faith in Darwin’s notion of natural selection is evident:

I continue to agonize over my loss of faith in both natural selection and the big bang theory. Both seem to me to be absurd—testimony only as to how we are presently ←5 | 6→doomed to reason, with great big things necessarily having to come from teeny seeds as time creeps by. No other story [myth?] of how things have come to be as they are is for our brains acceptable. (Kurt Vonnegut Letters, 278–9)


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (August)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XII, 184 pp.

Biographical notes

Gilbert McInnis (Author)

Gilbert McInnis earned his Ph.D in English literature at Université Laval in 2007. He has contributed to Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Kurt Vonnegut—New Edition (2008) and contributed to Kurt Vonnegut: Critical Insights (Ed. Robert T. Tally Jr., 2013). He is currently serving as Assistant Professor on the Tataskweyak Cree Nation in Manitoba, Canada.


Title: Kurt Vonnegut