What Are The Darwin Awards?
The Darwin Awards are a self-proclaimed “tongue-in-cheek honor,” which began in the mid 1980’s in Usenet newsgroup discussions online. Paying homage to the father of evolution, Charles Darwin, these “awards” recognize individuals who have contributed to human evolution by removing themselves from the human gene pool, either via death or sterilization by their own actions. The Darwin Awards began as an informal idea with no centralized organization to select the “winners”. However, in 1993, Wendy Northcutt (a graduate in molecular biology from UC Berkeley) formalized the awards by establishing the official website. What originally began as a hobby for Northcutt turned into a full-time career, as her website (reaching 7 million page hits per month by 2002) caught the attention of book publishers. Northcutt has since published a series of books, including the most “notable” award winners over the years.
The Darwin Awards have definitely received mixed reviews. While many see the awards as a light-hearted way of telling cautionary tales, many others see them as insensitive and unkind. Indeed, Northcutt has received her fair share of negative feedback, in particular, from people who knew the deceased. In spite of this, Northcutt maintains that the awards are meant to serve as a “funny-but-true safety guide.”
Who Can “Win” a Darwin Award?
One of the most common misconceptions about The Darwin Awards is that anyone who dies in an “unusual” or seemingly “silly” way is a winner. Though that may have been the case before the website was established, there have since been put in place a series of criterion that need to be met for an individual to be considered. As the website states, “In the spirit of Charles Darwin, the Darwin Awards commemorate individuals who protect our gene pool by making the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives. Darwin Award winners eliminate themselves in an extraordinarily idiotic manner, thereby improving our species’ chances of long-term survival.” Those who run and contribute to The Darwin Awards site do their best to verify all submitted stories, but many similar sites have since began to pop up over the years. In efforts to legitimize the awards and set it apart from the imitation sites, Northcutt decided to put in place 5 criterion to judge the submissions the website receives:
1. Inability to Reproduce
First and foremost, the nominee must be dead or rendered sterile. Surprisingly, this rule is sometimes a matter of great dispute. Still, winners of the award are generally either dead, or have become unable to use their sexual organs.
This is perhaps the only award where “excellence” is equated with “astoundingly stupid judgement.” The nominee’s foolishness must be unique and almost beyond belief, as the award is ultimately supposed to be funny. This criteria is also hard to apply at times because it is so subjective. As a general rule, however, it gets more and more difficult to qualify as the years go on, as what is considered “beyond belief” seems to be reevaluated with each set of nominees.
One of the most clear-cut rules for The Darwin Awards is that the nominee must be the cause of one’s own demise. To earn a Darwin Award, the individual has to have killed themselves, or somehow rendered themselves sterile.
Another important criteria for the awards is that the nominee must be capable of sound judgement. This is determined based upon a few different factors, including the nominee’s age, and that they are not developmentally delayed. Indeed, Northcutt makes clear that she considers injury or death caused by mental defect to be tragic rather than amusing, and often disqualifies nominees on this basis.
Last, but perhaps most importantly, the nominated event must be verified. The story must be documented by reliable sources (such as reputable news sources or eyewitnesses). If a story is discovered to be untrue, it is immediately disqualified. The winning stories of The Darwin Awards often seem too absurd to be true, so it is important that they maintain a standard of verification. Still, if a made up story is found to be especially funny, they are often filed under the “Urban Legends” section of the website.
The “Winners” of the Darwin Awards…
Every year, there are a handful of “winners” of this unusual honour. Here is a short list of some of the most notable Darwin Award Winners from over the years:
1. “Smokin’ Hot Sauce!”
2012, North Carolina: “The investigator said it was a freak accident that caused the death of 43-year-old Gary Allen Banning. Gary was at a friend’s apartment when he spotted a salsa jar containing a mysterious liquid. Naturally, thinking that it was an alcoholic beverage, he helped himself to a gulp of what turned out to be gasoline! He immediately spit out the liquid onto his clothes, then, to recover from the shock, he lit a cigarette… you can guess what happened next.”
2. “Angry Wheelchair Man”
2010, Daejon, South Korea: “An angry 40-year-old man in a wheelchair became annoyed that an elevator departed without him. He began to ram his wheelchair into the doors repeatedly until they, at last, glided open. However, it wasn’t the elevator that awaited him, but the empty elevator shaft. This Darwin Award winner literally threw himself down the elevator shaft, falling to his death… A lesson in patience, perhaps?”
3. “Epitaph, She Liked Feathers”
2009, Devon, United Kingdom: “A seaside town, a coastal trail. Fencing was in place to protect people from falling off the path, but this protective barrier was no match for the allure of a feather blown by the breeze… just out of reach. A woman in her forties climbed that fence and chased the elusive feather right off a seaside cliff.”
4. “Man Drowns in Kitchen Sink”
2004, Wolfsberg, Austria: “The manager of an apartment building was surprised to find the legs of a corpse sticking out of one of the apartment windows. Police entered the apartment and found the deceased man’s head soaking in a sink full of hot water. Apparently the deceased had returned home after a night of drinking, and decided to slip in through the kitchen window. However, it was fixed at the base and tilted out, giving him just enough room to squeeze his head through as far as the sink before he got stuck. While flailing around trying to escape, he turned on the hot water tap. Police were not sure why he had not turned off the water, pulled the plug, or (perhaps most importantly) entered through the front door… since they found the keys in his pants pocket.”
5. “Bannister to Heaven”
2004, Florida: “The Kleman Plaza parking garage in Tallahassee has the ideal bannister for a long slide, spiraling around an open stairwell all the way down from the fifth floor without a break. Brian, 24, was a real-life hero who had saved a friend from drowning, but friends said he was also a big fan of reality TV and high-risk stunts. The bannister was his big chance! But just sliding down a 5-story the bannister was nowhere near risky enough for Brian, so he planned to leap onto the bannister to begin his slide. He ran, he jumped… and he sailed completely over it, plunging 52 feet to the bottom of the stairwell. A friend fondly reminisced that ‘Brian had done crazier things than this’ before. But this was Brian’s first stunt spectacular enough to win a Darwin Award. According to a police investigation, ‘alcohol may have been a factor’.”