The Evolution of Inanimate Objects by Harry Karlinsky
Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
24 October 2012
Psychiatrist Harry Karlinsky was researching the history of Canadian asylums when he came across records of a young man named Thomas Darwin being admitted to an asylum in London, Ontario in 1879—and dying there of tuberculosis later that year, aged twenty-one. The coincidence of Thomas Darwin's surname and birthplace (the English village of Down) caught Karlinsky's attention; further research revealed that this Thomas was indeed the eleventh and youngest child of Charles and Emma Darwin. In The Evolution of Inanimate Objects, Karlinsky presents a biography of the previously-neglected Thomas Darwin and collects his writings, in which Thomas applied his father's theories to the development of cutlery and other everyday items.
Well, not quite. Harry Karlinsky is a professor of psychiatry, but Thomas Darwin never existed, and The Evolution of Inanimate Objects is a novel. Yet it's a novel made to look very much like a genuine historical biography, and Karlinsky fits Thomas's life into the interstices of many factual sources. So the book is constantly teetering on the edge of fiction and fact—and of whether its protagonist has a coherent alternative to scientific orthodoxy, or is deluded.
Karlinsky's novel can be seen as having three layers, which go progressively deeper into the fiction of Thomas Darwin's life and its workings. The first of these comprises an overview of Thomas's life: his childhood at Down House in Kent; his education at the nearby Clapham boarding school; his time as a student at Christ's College, Cambridge; and his incarceration in the London Asylum. The young Thomas we meet in the earliest chapters is introverted and inquisitive, obsessive about his interests. Karlinsky suggests that there's nothing so remarkable in Thomas's youth that it would point to how outlandish his ideas would become; but we do see signs of where his adult preoccupations would come from: involvement from an early age in his father's experiments; considerable time spent in the kitchen; and lots of collecting—buttons, coins, and ultimately cutlery. We also see Thomas begin to misinterpret reality:
As one activity, Thomas made a number of flimsy Easter baskets. He had intended to present individual members of his family with an identical holiday gift but each basket was significantly and disappointingly distinct from its predecessor. Thomas would later conclude that such imperfect reproduction was an important source of diversity in the world of artefacts. (p. 39)
At Cambridge, Thomas largely neglects his formal studies in favor of collecting and studying different types of cutlery, convinced as he is that Charles Darwin's theories of evolution could be used to account for the diversity of eating utensils—and eventually that new "hybrid" forms of utensil could emerge spontaneously. This seems a clear enough slide into delusion, but Thomas as a person remains shadowy in this first part of Karlinsky's novel—we don't even learn exactly why he left for Canada. Even if we've decided at this point that Thomas must have been mad, there is room for us to change our minds.
The Evolution of Inanimate Objects then goes on to explore Thomas's ideas in more detail, and to present his writings. Here, Thomas gains greater voice, and it's the earnest, eager voice of someone who believes he's found a previously unknown truth. In his first letter to Charles, Thomas seems concerned merely with adapting biological taxonomy to the world of objects:
I therefore consider the fork and spoon, each with a recognizable function quite dissimilar from the other, as two distinct species; whereas the dinner fork, the salad fork and, as I now appreciate, a remarkable range of other specialized forks, I view as varieties. (p. 108)
Charles encourages Thomas's endeavors, clearly unaware of how far his son is prepared to take these ideas. In a paper he presents to a student natural history society, Thomas takes his father's notion of organs becoming "rudimentary" through disuse, and sees a similar process at work among artifacts:
At first, forks were employed principally in the kitchen to aid carving and serving. But smaller versions of the kitchen fork gradually migrated to the table. With the table fork's superior ability to spear and hold food, the table knife's pointed tip became redundant. Disuse resulted, and the pointed table knife was slowly transformed into a blunt-nosed instrument. (pp. 122-3)
To Thomas's mind, the knife and fork are then two species in "competition" for the same functional niche. He develops his ideas further in a paper using the pastry fork as a case study: the development of softer dessert pastry meant that a separate knife was no longer needed for cutting through it; but the dessert forks that were most useful—the forks that survived—were those with a broader lower tine. Hence, the pastry fork emerged.
The thing is, these theories of Thomas's are not complete nonsense; there's potential that (within the frame of the book) they might be right. Eating utensils and other items do change form in response to external developments and new usage requirements; but of course, as Karlinsky is prompt to editorialize, Thomas overlooks the role of humans in manufacturing objects. Actually, Karlinsky is a little too quick to point this out, because it closes off any doubt that Thomas might be wrong. Late in the novel, there's a suggestion that there might be something to the spontaneous generation of hybrid artifacts; and the epilogue makes gestures toward a greater ambiguity. But this is too little, too late, to carry force when the reader has been so "primed" to assume that Thomas is insane.
What we do have, though, is quite an effective portrait of an individual's succumbing to delusion. Thomas will quite happily ransack his college kitchen for specimens of cutlery and send scientific papers to Nature, convinced that he's on to something even as we can see how desperate his actions truly are. The emotional impact of this is made all the greater by the novel's dispassionate, pseudo-academic framing—the distance it creates makes Thomas an even lonelier figure.
The third layer of the story, where Karlinsky goes deepest into the fiction, is in a section that might often be overlooked in a novel—the author's note and acknowledgements. It's here that Karlinsky reveals his sources; and the joins between fact and fiction are not necessarily where one would expect. Thomas's theories on pastry forks and objects' vestigial features have such a ring of plausibility because they're based on real works of technological scholarship, repurposed for Karlinsky's ends. Thomas Darwin himself seems hardly less eccentric than the real historical figure of Richard Maurice Bucke (who appears as a character in the novel), Superintendent of the London Asylum, who styled himself to resemble Walt Whitman, and had his own theories on the evolution of morality. The boundaries between fact and fiction appear almost unnecessary from this view.
Of course, they're not actually unnecessary; and The Evolution of Inanimate Objects wouldn't work as well as it does without them, if it couldn't play so much with form. The shape of Karlinsky's novel could itself be seen to reflect some of the scientific and pseudo-scientific ideas at play. I'd highlight blogger Alan Bowden's review as an incisive treatment of how the book uses concepts of heredity and scientific progress. One might also say there's something of Thomas Darwin's approach in the way Karlinsky has assembled diverse factual materials and envisioned a life in them that wasn’t there. And The Evolution of Inanimate Objects is itself a hybrid form, though not one that emerged spontaneously; we can look forward to future works by the hand behind it.