Vonnegut. And so it goes.

Alas, my daughter and I are big fans of Vonnegut’s writing, but he’s showing signs of losing it. He sounds terribly unhealthy on the radio, and his performance on the Daily Show a while back was depressing. This morning, Vonnegut was on NPR, and said scientists were defending evolution because of “tribalism”, and that “my body and your body are miracles of design”, and that “natural selection couldn’t possibly have produced such machines.” Please, please remind me to stop blogging when my mind deteriorates that far, OK?

To call the body a “miracle of design” is begging the question, while denying the possibility of evolution is the argument from incredulity. Neither is at all persuasive. I would like to know if Vonnegut thinks all those scientists who insist that the Earth is roughly spherical are also arguing for tribal dogma, or whether he suspects that they might actually be relying on this little thing called evidence…and why he thinks biologists fall in the former category and not the latter.

Out of respect for his past writing career, though, I will refrain from cutting him up with a razor here. There were some signs in his interview that he hasn’t drunk deep of the ID kool-ade, but overall it was a sadly muddled exercise in sloppy reasoning, spoken without the sharpness and clarity I’ve expected from Vonnegut.


  1. says

    I heard this on the way to Winston-Salem this morning. I couldn’t restrain myself from yelling at the radio. I think it kind of confused my dog.

  2. afarensis says

    I thought I was hallucinating when I heard that, but since you heard it too I can stop worrying about my sanity and start worrying about Vonnegut’s. To add insult to injury he even mentioned having an anthropology degree…

  3. Stephen says

    The man has done a world of good for skeptical culture, with his early years’ reverence of science and knowledge. And if you recall from his writing, in his opinion being tribal is not such a bad thing. Maybe ID is something for scientists to rally around, to grow closer and bridge gaps between previously unrelated fields. It’s a karass I can stand to be a member of.

    Or maybe I just don’t want to see him go and I’m falsely justifying his statements.

  4. says

    i also love vonnegut’s books. fortunately, my parrots were arguing over an apple when vonnegut was on, otherwise, i might have cried all the way to work on the subway. he did sound a little disjointed during the parts of the interview that i heard.

  5. Steve LaBonne says

    Holy crap. That sure doesn’t sound like the guy who wrote Galapagos. Sad. Perhaps the government finally got around to installing one of those “Harrison Bergeron” mental handicap radios in his ear. ;)

  6. Bayesian Bouffant, FCD says

    Maybe Vonnegut is contending for the 2006 Antony Flew award in hanging on past your prime.

  7. says

    Note that in the same interview Vonnegut also said he’s sure that Pat Robertson on some level really believes in evolution. The whole thing was a complete muddle, but if it’s any consolation it sounds like he really hasn’t thought too deeply about these issues. He certainly doesn’t appear to know much about ID. I’d like to think that if he were a regular reader of Pharyngula, Vonnegut would readily agree that ID is a fraud.

    Still, it was a disappointment. Vonnegut has been one of my heroes since I read Slaughterhouse Five back in high school. He lost a few points this morning.

  8. george cauldron says

    The man is 83. If his health is failing (wouldn’t that argue against the ‘miracle of design’ concept, BTW?), perhaps he’s feeling his mortality and he’s a bit more susceptible to creeping back to religion? It’s certainly happened to better minds than his.

    I was a huge Vonnegut fan in the 1970’s, but I sort of quit reading him long ago, after Slapstick. Even as a teenager I could tell how incredibly lazy and self-indulgent that book was, plus when I turned 18 his books ceased to engage my brain. I never read any of his later stuff, so I can’t speak to their content, but Vonnegut has a long history of sprinkling facile, gimmicky concepts in among his clever ideas.

  9. Glen Davidson says

    I suspect there is tribalism in any group. But Vonnegut needs to learn a bit about what causes scientists to have their particular beliefs (if we choose to call well-critiqued opinions “beliefs”) and their various ways of considering things. The tribalist problems evinced by scientists arise at the frontiers of knowledge (which ID is not, no matter how they try to claim it is), not in the highly established core of scientific information.

    Is he going to start faulting physics for its tribalism now? I’ve had enough of its difficulties, don’t you know, and I think it’s about time we give a mighty heave to Einstein, Schroedinger, and Bohr, and just make life simpler.

    I wonder if pattern recognition is next on Vonnegut’s anti-tribal warpath. I mean, we wouldn’t want to assume that Shakespeare used the Bible and Ovid in his plays, just because the same information exists in both Shakespeare and in the earlier works, would we? That’s so stupid. Miracles can account for similarities in literary pieces and for the similarities in DNA information, so why don’t the scientists just quit assuming that similarity points to derivation?

    Well then, we’ve destroyed all intellectual achievement. Hey, if that isn’t an accomplishment, I don’t know what is. Smarty pants scientists can claim that our psychological/cognitive framework tells us something about the world, but they can’t prove it. So there.

    It must be wonderful for Vonnegut to be so old without having prostate problems due to the wonderful design capabilities of the IDists unknown being. No hernias either, I’m guessing. I mean, we who stupidly took pattern recognition as a guide to knowledge in the past explained hernias and prostate problems by evolutionary contingency in the case of the prostate. And for scrotal hernias, we appealed to the fact that testes once resided in the body and do not have the developmental pathways to develop anywhere except within the body–so they descend through the abdominal wall, leaving weak spots. Of course we were stupid not to recognize this miracle of the designer. I see it now.

    Mitochondria. Wonderful little “machines” (well hey, Behe and Vonnegut have informed us that they are machines indeed), that wreak genetic havoc on us by not recombining with other genetic material during sexual reproduction. I thought this was due to evolutionary contingency, the fact that endosymbionts with their own genetic material could not readily adapt to the sexual dynamics of eukaryotes. In my benighted days I did recognize that many genes did move to the nucleus exactly under selective pressure in favor of recombination, while a number of genes did not make it so far. Now I know that the remaining genes reflect the genius of the designer, who really does want us to be subject to mitochondrial genetic diseases.

    I could go on to teeth in juvenile platypuses and in young baleen whales, but why bother? We know now that all of the hideous pain and disease, useless organs, parasites, back pains, hernias, and routing of urethras through prostates which enlarge later in life, are miracles of design, wondrous expressions of the Creator’s regard for us. It makes me feel so much better, now that I know what sort of supernatural being is “looking out for me” is.

    Glen D

  10. Bloviator says

    I admire Vonnegut’s work as much as anyone. However, he’s now more than 80 years old and has been a smoker for far longer than most of us have been alive. Long-term smoking has a profound effect on brain function, due as much to damage to blood supply as anything else. I saw it in my own parents, and have seen it in others as well.

    Actually, and sadly enough, I would have expected him to have deteriorated even more than he has at this point.

  11. T_U_T says

    saddly, Vonnegut is becoming a variation of the old joke:
    Vonnegut : What’s the name of the german guy, who keeps hiding my things around the house ?
    Vonnegut Jr. : Alzheimer, daddy, Alzheimer…

  12. Geral Corasjo says

    Thats too bad, but it only gives evolution less credibility. I think its time for a creationist debunking post.

  13. says

    Note, however, that he did still characterize IDists with the “lunatic fringe of the Christian religion” and said there’s no doubt that evolution happened. To me, it seemed like he was mostly saying that he was still “searching” for some kind of higher power or spirituality, but that, as he notes at the end, the explanations he’s seen don’t satisfy him. Just my take on it–as PZ said, the whole thing was pretty muddled.

  14. says

    This isn’t the first time Vonnegut has shown a bit of excessive credulity.

    As great a novel as Slaughterhouse Five was, for instance, it nonetheless propagated many myths about the Dresden bombing that had been debunked by historians even before the novel was published in 1969–for example, the death toll of 135,000 and the contention that Dresden was a city of no military significance, neither of which was true. The real death toll was more around 25,000 to 40,000, plenty horrible, but the higher figure was a result of Soviet propaganda, and, sad to say, no more horrific than the firebombing of Hamburg or Tokyo or the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, or Nagasaki. Nor was Dresden without military significance. There was plenty of precision industry there manufacturing gun sights and other equipment for the Wermacht.

    I understand that, from Vonnegut’s point of view and given the antiwar purpose of the novel, it probably seemed as though the myths were true, and it is definitely true that Dresden was one of the more horrible examples of our bomber war against German and Japanese cities during WWII, but exaggerating its death toll so much actually hurts his credibility. Also, it doesn’t help that that estimate of 135,000 dead originally came from a book on Dresden by the infamous Holocaust denier David Irving.

    Vonnegut’s still repeating the same errors, as well.

  15. says

    We’ve also lost Anne Rice, Madonna, Mel Gibson, and a few others to some form of communicable brain wasting disease recently. Makes me wonder if all the mad cow hysteria might actually have something to it. Was Vonnegut a big beef eater?

  16. says

    Well, I listened and I am perfectly appalled at Vonnegut. I have been a huge fan of his, but I don’t care that he’s 83, I know people older than that who have retained all their marbles. Vonnegut sounded like a babbling moron! Tribalism, what nonsense. He was just casting about for something “interesting” to say. Obviously he has always believed that his ego was intelligently designed, just as a gift to us, who are “intimidated” by his anthropology degree. I always knew he was a blowhard and forgave him time and again for it, but now that’s all he is. What a shame.

  17. PaulC says

    Vonnegut can believe whatever he wants on a personal level. Did anyone ask him if he thought it was possible to make a science out of the belief that “my body and your body are miracles of design” and teach such a science in school? Knowing the answer to that would let me determine whether he’s merely wrong about one thing that he doesn’t understand, or wrong-headed and potentially dangerous.

    My favorite statement by Vonnegut is something to the effect that for humans to think their problems would be solved if they were just smarter is like giraffes thinking their problems would be solved if their necks were just longer. At one level, I’m not sure I agree; it’s anti-rational, and I do think that reason is buys you more than a long neck does. At another level, it’s anti-teleological and even pro-evolution: our big brain is just another adaptation like a giraffe’s neck; let’s not exaggerate the advantage it confers. Either way, it made me stop and think, and gave me a perspective outside of my usual one. It functions as a sort of koan.

    I appreciate Vonnegut’s sensibilities and consider him a great American thinker and moralist–kind of the same way I would rank Henry David Thoreau. I don’t see it as necessary to agree with him in everything. It’s a much smaller descrepancy for instance than the one needed to appreciate Fahrenheit 451 as an anti-censorship tale while conceding that Ray Bradbury is a cranky old rightwinger who’s wrong about nearly everything else politically but had a flair for lyrical prose back in the day.

    I sense a tendency around here to throw out the baby with the bath water on a lot of issues. All I can guess is that a lot of people haven’t noticed how murky the bathwater really is. It’s hard enough for an individual to do anything worthwhile. If somebody does something of value, why not celebrate it instead of bemoaning the fact that they are wrong about many other things?

  18. says

    “As great a novel as Slaughterhouse Five was, for instance, it nonetheless propagated many myths about the Dresden bombing that had been debunked by historians even before the novel was published in 1969”

    Or so Frederick Taylor claims. Other historians, like Joerg Friedrich disagree and have done so publically. Of course the American and British public would prefer that Taylor was right, and that’s why Taylor’s book has done so well there.

  19. Vince Sherwin says

    I hated his book Galapagos with the fire of a thousand suns, but there was one evolution-related concept that I enjoyed and took with me. He made a comment (in the context of the story) that nature was selecting against humans’ large brains. It’s a simple notion but something I hadn’t thought of before. Perhaps it was just my personal bias that, of course, a large brain is a wonderful adaptation. But if we as a species destroy ourselves it will be precisely because of our large brains. So as any other animal that becomes extremely devloped or specialized in one attribute, it could one day become our downful and natural selection will take its toll on us.

  20. Brook says

    Well, I’m not sure how recent his marble loss is – about 5 or 6 years ago he was a customer of mine at a street fair in NYC. Or rather he rambled on in drunken incoherence at 10am on a Sunday morning while his sweetie picked out sweaters for grandchild children? I don’t know, tried to involve him in some of the decision making and extracted the wallet from his pocket to pay. He then stumbled off to un-nerve the potter selling next to me.

    At least I won’t get any airtime when I’m in my dotage.

  21. Jason Powers says

    I attended a speech by Vonnegut in 1994 at University of Florida, where he told us we were sending the country to hell in a handbasket because we didn’t live with our grandparents. It takes a lot of crazy to make the previous guest speaker look sane, but he did just that for…Louis Farrakhan.

    12 years later, I now wonder why he surprises anyone anymore. The works we remember fondly were satire, and a satirical attack has to come from a fixed position. Sure, he wrote some stuff that appeared smart, made good practical sense and was a little subversive, but you could never tell exactly which position it came from. Now it’s easy to tell, this guy’s no better than Mencken: a few smart aphorisms may makes you “witty,” not “right.”

  22. says

    Yes I just heard to this too … sad but incredible. Why is evolution discussed as simply an opinion? A credo?Tribalism???

    I guess I also belong to the Newtonian tribe … and it’s also my opinion that 2+2=4.

  23. Flex says

    I remember very well listening to Vonnegut speak at Oakland University in Michigan around 1984.

    He gave a very interesting description of the various types of narrative forms from different cultures. Whereas our western narrative forms are heavily influenced by Aristole (Comedy ends when difficulties are overcome, Tragedy ends when privledges are eliminated), he described Native American tales as being at a constant emotional level. He covered narrative forms from a great variety of cultures.

    There has always, to my mind, been a very spiritual facet to all of his writing. I’ve never thought of him as a hard science-fiction author like C.J. Cherryh or David Brin. Instead he reminded me more of Clifford Simak or Gene Wolfe. Vonnegut always seems to be speaking in metaphors rather than fact. It’s one of his strengths. Which means that a candid conversation is not going to be as powerful or as clear as a prepared lecture (like I saw) or a polished piece of prose.

    In essence, one of the people who helped shape our thoughts during our adolescence has revealed he is human? Isn’t that one of the highest tributes we could pay to him? To recognize that he, a person who has entertained and stimulated our minds, is not superhuman, but one of us. That each of us can strive to reach the same heights that he has. That we are not dependant on his thoughts, no matter how much we respect them. We are also willing to disregard his notions when those ideas conflict with our own.

    When I read Vonnegut, I don’t get the sense that he is attempting to impress me with his craft. He doesn’t want me to think that the author is better than the reader. He is presenting a concept, a highly polished and considered concept, but he is not demanding that I agree with it. I suspect Vonnegut is content with his weaknesses, and doesn’t think we should be too concerned if he shows it. He is, after all, of the same clay as the rest of us.


  24. says

    It was such a sad and pathetic interview; he did indeed sound, as you say, terribly unhealthy. It’s a bit like seeing Ali these days, such ravages.

  25. says

    “Or maybe I just don’t want to see him go and I’m falsely justifying his statements.”

    That’s exactly what I started to do when I read this. It’s too depressing to think he’s that far gone.

  26. says

    I think we all heard him correctly on NPR this morning. For my part, I stood, mouth agape, coffee slowly sliding toward the floor, as Vonnegut all but outright endorsed ID over evolution as a “credible” means to creating humanity. On the other hand, I recall that when he appeared on “The Daily Show,” Vonnegut left Jon Stewart with almost the same reaction. I found myself feeling sorry for Stewart, who was clearly trying to figure out how to get Vonnegut back on track in the interview while marveling on a meta-level at how badly it was turning out in real time.

  27. says

    I’m just going to pretend I didn’t hear any of this… Especially after my dedication to the man led me to write an entire damn review of his latest book, A Man Without A Country without using any semicolons, in deference to his suggestion for good creative writing.

  28. sean says

    Are you guys, all of you, and especially you, PZ, this sadly simple-minded?

    This was an interview of less than five minutes. Have you ever read his books? Are you not familiar with his views on what ‘truth’ is?

    It is easy for you, and generally for me, to think that yes, there is such a thing as ‘truth’ and that we discover it by way of the scientific method. But the concept of ‘truth’ goes a hell of a lot deeper if you want to get into it. Anyone with a passing familiarity with quantum physics should be aware of that.

    Vonnegut knows evolution took place. He obviously has no idea what’s going on with the nitty-gritty of the debates with the ID morons. He’s talking about something larger and deeper and doing so in a 15 second sound bite which, you must admit, is not really the apppriate place to get into deeper levels of philosophical truth.

    What Vonnegut believes– have you read Cat’s Cradle? Galapagos?– is that NOTHING anyone has come up with, scientist or no, is the whole story. That everything amounts to a belief, that we all live in our karasses based on whatever it is they end up being based on.

    And yes, as scientifically minded sorts of people, it’s all well and good here in the practical real world to point out that scientific truths are rather more immediately useful than those people just make up out of thing air.

    But Vonnegut is interested in something deeper. In something that in a classroom or no, we all think about. If you’re a scientist and you think you really KNOW the capital T Truth of something– anything– you’re delusional. We know a surface truth presently adequate to get by on. I’m not suggesting I know a better way than science to get at what’s really going on, but remember: a 100 years ago, 500 years ago, five thousand years ago, people thought they had it all pretty much figured out. We’re going to look very stupid and very tribal a thousand years in the future. Get used to it.

  29. says

    “Other historians, like Joerg Friedrich disagree and have done so publically. Of course the American and British public would prefer that Taylor was right, and that’s why Taylor’s book has done so well there.”

    Three things:

    1. Contrary to your apparent implication, in his book Taylor did not downplay the horrors that occurred that night. He described many of them in great detail, particularly the deaths of people trapped in cellars and the burial of the bodies after the raids. Read his book if you don’t believe me. Also, read this interview and decide whether you think he’s “excusing” the raid.

    2. Taylor’s estimates are quite well documented, and he explains why, for example, David Irving was wrong. He also explains the way first Nazi and then Soviet propaganda pumped up the numbers. Can you point to recent historians other than Joerg Friedrich who argue that Taylor’s numbers are significantly too low by factors or two, three, or even more?

    3. As far as I know Joerg Friedrich has never claimed that 135,000 died in the Dresden firestorm. (Vonnegut did and still does.) Friedrich’s estimate of 40,000, although somewhat higher than Taylor’s, is not really all that far off from now commonly accepted estimates. It is through his characterization of the significance, rather than the body count, of the raid that he causes controversy. Friedrich’s blunt accusation that the bombing of Dresden was a war crime that gets attention, and intentionally so, given his apparent love of being a provacateur. Indeed, Friedrich uses intentionally inflammatory language, comparing Allied bomber pilots to the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing squads that hunted down and massacred Jews and Communist Party officials after the invasion of the USSR) and calling cellars in which people died “crematoria” (like the Krema in Auschwitz). Given his use of such language, his claims that he is not comparing Dresden to the Holocaust seem disingenuous to me. At the very least, he is very reckless in his use of language. Not surprisingly, Nazi apologists and the far right love his work.

  30. Anonymous says

    I also listened to Vonnegut with great disappointment. It is true that we do not have anything near a complete explanation for the human organism, and anyone who has obtained a Ph.D. or gone through a tenure decision knows that scientists specifically and academia in general have many tribal qualities. Nonetheless, the theory of evolution is not a tribal belief.

    Vonnegut at least referred to the lunatic christian fringe, and called them tribal too, but I never would have expected him to toss rationalism aside and head happily into the new Endarkenment. His characterization of evolution was awful. What is it about evolution that allows people who know nothing about it to be so confident about their negative and uninformed opinions? But so it goes.

  31. says

    Yes, Sean, I’ve read his books. Vonnegut is not a great writer, is just not in the same league as Nabokov or Dickey, and I don’t care what his theory of “truth” is. (I don’t know that science offers a definition of “truth,” anyway.) He has an audacity which I’ve admired, and is a great satirical caricaturist (as opposed to an author crafting complex characters with “depth,” so don’t give me his larger truth with a capital T), and when I saw him speak in the latter 1990s he could still string coherent sentences together. He made political sense that night, but he’s apparently become a doddering old fool who should not be dissing the scientists, okay?

    He had plenty of time to say what he wanted to say, and what he wanted to say was perfect sentimentalist gobbledygook. Americans just love that old compromise trick–“there is wrong on both sides, the truth is somewhere in the middle.” [“Oh, so you see tribalism on both sides?” asked the fawning reporter.] Baloney. Anytime people want to check out his performance on “The Daily Show,” follow the link.

  32. PaulC says

    “I never would have expected him to toss rationalism aside”

    I never mistook him for great promoter of rationalism in the first place. He’s an intuitionist who has lots of interesting thoughts but has not, to my knowledge, devoted much effort to finding empirical backing. As far as I can tell, he puts a lot more value on human relationships and the importance of just being kind than he does on getting things right. Some of his writing (e.g. the depiction of the inventor of ice-9 in Cat’s Cradle) look downright anti-science, or at least portray certain kinds of science as harmful, immoral, and affectionless. Likewise, he has compared the human emphasis on intelligence with giraffes thinking they would be better if they just had longer necks. Vonnegut, as far as I can tell, thinks people are plenty smart enough already and need to develop other traits in order to live together.

    The world is big enough to have both a Kurt Vonnegut and, say, a Richard Dawkins. I don’t see why Vonnegut has to be right about evolution any more than Dawkins has to be able to write satirical novels–or draw funny comics about pointy-haired bosses like Scott Adams. Vonnegut has mercifully not gone on a tirade in favor of ID. It sounds more as if he was pulled into the fray reluctantly.

  33. Carpenter says

    I watched the Daily Show interview but I don’t recall Vonnegut making a fool of himself
    He make some satirical remark about how we know there’s intellegent design cuase God went through all the trouble to make girraffes and hippopotumuses and the Clap.

    Then he said we can really teach the middle east the rules of how to run a democracy, after 100 years you let the slaves go, after 150 you have to let the women vote.

    He sounded as sharp as usual to me.

  34. says

    He had a few good comments, but mostly he was maundering, and the little list he pulled out of his pocket was sad and pathetic.

    I like the guy as a writer (at least, many of his older books). I am sympathetic with him politically. But it’s the unfortunate truth that he’s losing it as he gets older, and he’s coasting on his reputation.

  35. PaulC says

    I was trying to remember where he said that thing about giraffes. Here it is, from a Salon interview:

    But, you know, a science fiction cliche is that we don’t know how to stop war or cure cancer, till people in flying saucers come and tell us how to do it, or till we grow an extra lobe on our brains and get smarter. We’re getting smarter. Human beings are getting smarter, just like elephants in trouble, you know, saying, “Hey, you know, we’re in trouble but we’ll be OK if we put on a couple of hundred more pounds.” Or a giraffe saying, “Boy, life is hell now but if we add a couple of feet to our necks we ought to be OK.”

    I think this is a great comment. I don’t agree with it, but it’s still a challenge to be addressed. My retort is that intelligence is a universal adaptive trait: if you have it, you can get the other things. But Vonnegut has a point that it’s a liability as well and could destroy just as surely as it could help us.

    The other thing to note is that he’s not making a reasoned, empirically based argument. He’s just manipulating language and images in an engaging way. It shows that he has an active mind, and may make you want to listen, particularly if you are inclined to agree with his conclusions. On the other hand, it should come as no surprise if he gets a lot of things completely wrong.

    I don’t think that Vonnegut has changed particularly, but it seems some people may have had a false impression of him.

  36. says

    Please, please remind me to stop blogging when my mind deteriorates that far, OK?

    Don’t worry Dr Maggrrzz, we most certainly are looking out for your best interests in this regard.

  37. PaulC says

    Oh, and right above the part I quoted in my last comment, Vonnegut said: “Well yes. Evolution is utterly — whatever the mechanism is, and I don’t think much of natural selection as a mechanism — but whatever the mechanism is, it has no conscience, it has no purpose.”

    That was from 2001. Most of the interview strikes me as lucid and engaging. So I suspect that his recent comments reflect an old preconception (incredulity) rather than the recent effects of aging.

  38. G-Do says

    Maybe it would be prudent to write to Vonnegut, asking him to clarify his comments? Or perhaps he can be privately engaged and persuaded on the subject of the ID movement?

    I do not think he should be written off as an incompetent geriatric. The man’s work was a comfort to me, when I was younger, and I would sooner be his friend than his foe. I suspect that some others here feel the same way.

  39. says

    “Read his book if you don’t believe me. Also, read this interview and decide whether you think he’s “excusing” the raid.”

    I have read the book. It reminds me of similar books that try to justify Hiroshima. It’s the same in any war history. The atrocities of the losers are “war crimes” and the atrocities of the winners are always excused as “regrettable, but necessary”. The standard “regrettable. but necessary” line is exactly what Taylor is trying to push in both the book and interview.

    “Can you point to recent historians other than Joerg Friedrich who argue that Taylor’s numbers are significantly too low by factors or two, three, or even more?”

    Taylor and Friedrich are the only recent significant historians on the topic that I’m aware of. It might be interesting to find other relatively recent estimates and correlate them to the author’s nationality. Science may not be completely value-free, but historical research is far, far more tied to politics. Historians have axes to grind.

    “Not surprisingly, Nazi apologists and the far right love his [Friedrich’s] work”

    And neocon American wingnuts love Taylor’s work and similar works about Hiroshima. Such ad hominem “guilt by association” attacks aren’t very productive or convincing, though.

  40. george cauldron says

    I like the guy as a writer (at least, many of his older books). I am sympathetic with him politically. But it’s the unfortunate truth that he’s losing it as he gets older, and he’s coasting on his reputation.

    We should be so lucky when we’re in our mid-80’s…

  41. Fred Levitan says

    What Vonnegut has on (most) historians and others who describe the Dresden firestorm: He was there.

  42. Mark White says

    I heard the interview this morning. The moment he made that statement, I switched to another station and heard nothing more. I’ve lost all respect for Kurt.

  43. miko says

    Steve Labonne wrote: Holy crap. That sure doesn’t sound like the guy who wrote Galapagos.

    No kidding! Or the guy who, in Hocus Pocus (his last good book), came up with the museum display of beautifully-crafted attempts at perpetual motion machines, and titled it “The Complicated Futility of Ignorance.” Remember the idiot characters who reacted to the exhibit by saying it was “too negative” and “maybe physicists just haven’t tried hard enough?” Vonnegut seems to have become one of those characters. Very sad indeed…he is clearly addled in recent years and it is innappropriate to interview him, I think.

  44. Rebecca says

    I wish I’d heard this interview. I’ll try to find it online. The thing with Vonnegut is that it’s become extremely hard to tell when he is joking. (He is getting a little slow, I think he can’t respond as easily to unexpected interview questions, and the book tour has sort of tired him out. He has sort of gotten a little more disjointed over time in each interview I’ve heard him in the last few months.)

    The tribal thing he talks about in Man Without a Country, only as it relates to politics, not science as in the NPR interview. He makes the point that while Laura and George Bush may think that they are this great power couple, actually what keeps them afloat is their extended family, and in the Bushes case this family includes a lot of rich business cronies and bankers. Mostly his point is that folks with big extended “families”, be they related or not, have more power because they have more backup.

    In Man Without a Country, he talks about being in Dresden during the bombing. If that’s true, then I take whatever he says about it as his impressions, and what he and others there were told and thought during the time of the event. Much like some of my grandfather’s war stories. Maybe not so hard on historical accuracy of dates or numbers, but great descriptions of people and fellow soldiers/journalists/prisoners’ ways of coping with war. I was listening to this book on tape while doing housework, though, so I may have misunderstood that part.

    I’m going to keep my fingers crossed that either his sarcasm didn’t come across well on the radio, or that he was on some type of cold medication or something during the interview. While I don’t agree with everything he says in his books, or think he’s always right, he sounds a little out of character in the interview discription, which makes me worry that he might be starting to have problems with his brain being missing. Or maybe he’s just in his eighties, that’d explain it too.

  45. Matthew says

    C’mon people.

    This guy is an atheist, a humanist, and a former president of the Humanist Society.

    This is obviously satire.

    Anyone see him on the Daily Show *CRITICISING* Intelligent Design? No?

    You guys just “don’t get Vonnegut.”

    Chill out. He got you!, even in this old age.

    – Matt

  46. says

    If you follow the link, you can hear him. My quotes were accurate.

    And no, I’m sorry, he wasn’t very good on the Daily Show.

    I’ve read all of his books. I think I do get him. This was just sloppy thinking on his part.

  47. says

    Sean, you said: “If you’re a scientist and you think you really KNOW the capital T Truth of something– anything– you’re delusional.”

    Guess what, Sean:

    The WHOLE EFFING POINT OF SCIENCE is that we DON’T know it all. Science is based on the freaking proposition that we have a lot to learn. (You know, all that business with experiments and analysis and testing theories and such?)
    Got it? Good.

    It’s only the mystical folks (and not even all of them) that claim to know it all.

  48. Manson's Cellmate says

    Matt’s right, PZ — you been had. Linking to the audio (again) is further evidence you just don’t get Kurt. Maybe it would have helped to see the twinkle in his (still very lucid) eyes when he makes outrageous statements. Not so easy on the radio …

  49. sean says

    Phoenix Woman hilariously points this out to me:

    “The WHOLE EFFING POINT OF SCIENCE is that we DON’T know it all. Science is based on the freaking proposition that we have a lot to learn. (You know, all that business with experiments and analysis and testing theories and such?)
    Got it? Good”

    Yes. Indeed. So the next time a wise– despite being a bit OLD– man hints in a 3 minute interview that there might be something far deeper to knowledge in this universe than what science has given us or is able to give us: DON’T FUCKING PANIC, to paraphrase the HHGTTG.

    All these posts about KV “coasting on past accomplishments” and so on, it’s absurd. Um, he’s 80 folks. I suppose when he’s dead and rotting we’ll see an angry thread denouncing him for having produced so few new works. “It’s as if he expects us to like him for the ancient BOOKS he wrote when there he is with the NERVE to be DECOMPOSING!”

  50. NatureSelectedMe says

    Having not heard him on NPR nor read through all these comments I feel qualified to give an opinion. ;)

    Thanks for the link. It’s got to be satire. He got the right all excited last November about terrorists being ‘sweet and honorable’. He’s quite a mixer in his old age.

  51. MpM says

    I am a Vonnegut fan. I do not believe he is losing it. More to the point I think he is a victim of “Elder Statesman” disease. He has been going around the country promoting his latest work, “Man without a Country”, being about as outrageous and controversial as he can manage, yet even his tirade against the current administration was lacking in precision.
    My view is that he is being lazy, like an aging rock star who can miss a few notes knowing they’ll line up for tickets anyway. He is capable, but why bother. Stirring up a bit of dust will sell a few more books.
    It is a shame really. I admire his early works.

  52. says

    Here is what he sent to the offices of In These Times (a great liberal magazine to which he occasionally contributes):


    It’s in this month’s letters. Not particularly relevant to this discussion, but it suggests that some wheels are still spinning there.


  53. says

    It’s late at night and I’m too tired to contribute anything original to this discussion, but I wanted to chime in with my 2 cents of support for Vonnegut.

    Props to Sean, Flex, Matthew, MpM and others for pointing out what should be obvious to you supposedly-sensible folks bashing Vonnegut with irrational vitriol for a soundbite you heard on the radio: He doesn’t believe any single philosophy has a monopoly on truth, and he’s not timid about making impromptu replies to impromptu questioning.

    Remind me to judge all of you when you’re 83 on a few improvised statements you make in a brief audio interview; we’ll see how you perform.

    The only thing shameful here is the virtual bullying of an accomplished and wise old man.

  54. Mike Kelly says

    I’ll admit that I’d probably defend Mr. KV if I saw him murder my dog. BUT given his long history as a secularist and his often backdoor way of making a point, I think it’s worth being sceptical that he actually espoused anything regarding ID.

    He was trying to explain his ideas about “tribes” and the interviewer interjected a direct question about ID in science class. If Mr. KV began his story by speaking from the point of view of someone in the ID Tribe, then saying that we are a miracle of design (which we would appear to be if “our tribe” didn’t know better) doesn’t mean he believes it himself.

    Was it on the Dailey Show when he was going on about Bush and sounding for all the world like he supported Bush’s actions? That interviewer was respectful enough to let MR. KV finish the point, which ended with a punchline that turned the entire explanation ironic. The interviewer said something about being a little worried there for a moment. If that interviewer hadn’t been aware enough to let the story continue without interjecting some hot-button question, we’d have ended up thinking that Mr. KV was a Bushie.

    I have to believe that if the NPR interviewer would have kept his mouth shut for a few seconds, we would have learned something about Mr. KV’s thoughts on tribes and been relieved that he didn’t actually support ID in science class.

    A litteral use of the verb “to design” implies an intent by a designer. Our tribe is very careful these days about using that word. But just because someone from a “different tribe” uses that word in a poetic or casual way does not mean that the person doesn’t believe in/understand evolution.

    Our tribe points out that ID might be appropriate material for a philosophy class — just don’t teach it as science. I think Mr. KV was just pointing out that everyone thinks about how/why we came to be, and that our tribe doesn’t let that sort of wondering into its science classes, but may still want to think about it elsewhere.

    Anyway, the interview was awkward and I think it’s possible to explain away the notion that Mr. KV espouses ID in science class. Hopefully he’ll chose to explain it himself, otherwise I will continue to be seriously half bummed.

  55. denise says

    It’s so sad for me to see Mr. Vonnegut deteriorating so quickly. I have been a long-time fan of his writing. He writes fairly coherent essays on American politics, but my impression has been that he is not firing on all cylinders anymore and that those essays may be heavily edited for coherency.

    I am disappointed that his formerly secular humanist attitudes may have been replaced by an approval for ID. It’s possible that he was getting to a point opposite to what his words would convey and got cut off due to interview/segment time contraints or that he was being sarcastic and couldn’t convey it, but either way it’s a sad situation.

  56. CalGeorge says

    Two things from a September 2002 interview (McSweeney’s). Italics mine:

    Q: Do you think our atomic toys might even cut the party short?

    Vonnegut: Yeah. We’re only animals, but special animals at that. Every animal has fought and killed to survive, even before the dinosaurs. We’re the only ones that do it for fun. That’s why I don’t know about Darwinism. Supposedly evolution and natural selection are all about survival, but we haven’t gotten smarter over the years, only more dangerous. I think the big winners are the ones who get off of the planet first. [Laughs] And so I have trouble with Darwin. I mean, if they can kill Christ, they can kill anybody!


    Q: I know you’re an avowed Humanist. Yet in a lot of your work you play with the idea of an afterlife or a heaven.

    Vonnegut: Well, anything’s possible, isn’t it? But we don’t have enough graduates of Cornell University’s Hotel School to take care of us all on the other side.


  57. dhatman says

    I thought it was quite clear what he was saying. Not so bad at all. It was true what he was saying.

  58. SGEllerhoff says

    Bwahahaha! Finding this post several years after it went up is a real treat. The vast majority of people responding, spurred on by Mr. PZ Myers himself, are illustrating precisely what Mr. Vonnegut was talking about. Everybody in the Science Tribe ran to their spears/guns/words and started rattling ’em like heck. Heeeeeeeeeee-larious!

    You might be interested to know that Mr. Vonnegut was good friends with Stephen Jay Gould, too, until that brilliant scientist’s premature death from cancer. They used to discuss this very topic in an ongoing friendship. Gould even uses Vonnegut’s word “karass” to make a point in his magnum opus: The Structure of Evolutionary Theory.

  59. John Morales says

    SGEllerhoff, I see you’re easily amused, if rather confused.

    BTW, PZ is a professor, not a mister.

    (But you knew that, didn’t you?
    You were trying to be snide.)

  60. desertfroglet says


    What’s pretty heee – etc – larious is your Amazon profile picture. Do you shop at the same woollens store as Dembski?

    (Yeah, yeah, that’s a childish jibe, but it’s an ancient thread and the Vonnegut ‘scholar’ has only just found it. So what’s a gal to do?)