Idiots: your species needs you

The Darwin Award is presented only to the 'extraordinarily stupid'. Pioneering sky pirate Larry Walters may have been that, but he was also a kind of genius. By William Hartston

Tricky business, evolution. Charles Darwin and his followers may have stressed the way useful characteristics are automatically selected for survival in the gene pool, but until this week there was no acknowledgment of the fact that the same mechanism of random genetic mutation can also explain how a commercial airline pilot, coming in to land at Los Angeles airport 15 years ago, came to spot a man at 11,000 feet, seated in a garden chair and carrying a gun. The man was Larry Walters and, in recognition of his achievement, he has just been announced as winner of the 1997 Darwin Award.

The Darwin Award is an Internet-based honour given each year to "the person who did the gene pool the biggest service by killing themselves in the most extraordinarily stupid way". Perhaps the strict criteria of the award explain why Mr Walters had to wait so long for recognition. His flight in a deck-chair in 1982 certainly fulfilled the condition of being "extraordinarily stupid", but he had survived relatively unscathed. Only with his death by suicide in 1993 did Mr Walters become eligible for the necessarily posthumous accolade.

The adventure began when Mr Walters's application to become a pilot in the US Air Force was turned down because of his poor sight. One day, however, he had an inspired idea. Helium balloons. He would buy up the entire stock of weather balloons from an army surplus store, fill them with helium, then cast off for a gentle flight in his garden chair. One tank of helium and 45 weather balloons later, he sat himself in his garden chair, armed himself with an airgun (to shoot the balloons when he wanted to descend) and cast off the rope anchoring the chair to the bumper of his jeep.

The next few seconds, however, showed that he had miscalculated. Instead of gently rising into the air as intended, he shot up to a height of 11,000 feet. Fearing disaster if he tried to shoot the balloons, he just sat there and hoped for the best. Fourteen hours later, he drifted into the main approach corridor of Los Angeles airport, where he was spotted by the pilot. When radar confirmed his presence, an emergency helicopter was sent up to investigate. After a delicate manoeuvre, a rescue line was lowered and Larry Walters was dragged back to the ground. He was promptly arrested for violating Los Angeles Airport air space.

As he was led away in handcuffs, Larry Walters was asked why he had done it. He replied: "A man can't just sit around."

That reply, as much as the feat itself, established the credentials of the 1997 Darwin award laureate. His name is now enshrined alongside those of the 1996 winner, whose car crashed into a mountainside 125 feet above the ground after he had attached a military aircraft's Jet Assisted Take Off unit to it in search of a faster ride; and the 1995 winner, who was crushed to death by a Coke machine as he was bending it over in an attempt to drain a free drink from it.

The 1995 runner-up, incidentally was a man who had attempted suicide by jumping from the top of a 10-storey building. The fall itself, however, would not have harmed him, since there were safety curtains installed to catch any falling window-cleaners, but a stray bullet killed him as he was passing the ninth floor.

The fatal bullet came from a gun that was fired by an elderly man, who thought the gun was not loaded, during a row with his wife. He often threatened her with a gun during their rows, and it had never been loaded before. But this time, the couple's son had loaded the gun in an attempt to engineer his mother's death, because she had cut off his allowance. Only he had done that months before and it hadn't worked, so he (for it was indeed the man we started with) grew despondent, then suicidal, and jumped off the top of the building.

All these may look, to the uninitiated observer, like cases of unmitigated stupidity, but what the Darwin award panel clearly appreciate is the necessary downside to evolution. In the evolutionary gene pool, the unfit must drown in order for the fit to survive. The basis of the entire system is the random mutation of genes. For every fit-to-survive Wright Brothers gene, soaring above the gene pool in a heavier-than-air machine, we have millions of shotgun-wielding genes clinging to their deck-chairs.

And not only that, but who is to tell whether an idea will work? Darwinian precepts apply to the evolution of ideas, as well as species. It is not necessarily the good ideas that survive, but the ones fittest for survival - which means the ones that turn out to be most suited to an unpredictable environment.

For every good idea that survives, there must be countless inspirational, even brilliant ideas that don't - either because they are unlucky enough not to work, or because the world is not ready for them. Take Thomas Edison, for example. We all remember him for the electric light bulb and the gramophone, but what about his other thousand patents? Did the world really need the electric vote recorder and the automatic repeater for telegraphic messages? And what about Leonardo da Vinci: have we not survived rather well these past five centuries without needing his alarm clock that woke a sleeper by tickling the soles of his feet? He may have doodled some remarkable designs for helicopters, but did they ever enable him to soar 11,000 feet up and startle airline pilots?

We would never have passed so far along the evolutionary path of technology were it not for the bad ideas that have fallen by the wayside. From the curved piano keyboard (to assist musicians with short arms) in 1860; the musical cigar in 1884; to Pardo's Improved Umbrella (with mosquito net curtain attached) in 1903; from the revolving spaghetti fork (1952), to the musical potty (1957). These, and countless others - particularly the multitude of devices patented in the late Victorian era that were designed to prevent horses from masturbating - are the intellectual equivalent of unfit genes. They have died out to clear the way for such modern inventions as the whistling key-ring, self-tying shoelace and sardine-flavoured ice- cream.

"If the facts do not fit my theory," said Einstein, "then so much the worse for the facts." The beauty of an idea lies not so much in its fitness to survive as in its intrinsic elegance and economy. And what can be more elegant that the thought of a man in a garden chair, armed only with an emergency descent apparatus, gliding on helium balloons at 11,000 feet? So let us all join in the spirit of the 1997 Darwin Award and celebrate the extraordinarily stupid achievement of the late Larry Walters, an inspiration to us all.

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