‘Alone but not lonely’ The Evolution of Inanimate Objects: The Life and Collected Works of Thomas Darwin (1857 – 1879): A Novel by Harry Karlinsky

‘He who will go thus far, ought not to hesitate to go one step further.’ Charles Darwin

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Thomas Kuhn argued that the history of science is a messy business, involving imaginative leaps, dead ends, and competition, rather than the smooth process of observation and theorising it is often taken to be. Kuhn himself likened the development of scientific ideas to Darwin’s theory of natural selection and it is this Nineteenth Century paradigm shift and the consequent conceptual instability surrounding evolution that is the subject of The Evolution of Inanimate Objects which has been longlisted for the Wellcome Trust Book Prize 2012. Harry Karlinsky’s fascinating novel is both a reflection on inheritance and an attempt to probe the dynamic at the boundary between reason and irrationality in a time when established scientific paradigms were breaking down and Darwin seemed amidst the chaos to reveal a world of possibilities in other domains. As the title suggests, the novel consists of the fictional biography and works of Charles and Emma Darwin’s youngest and non-existent child Thomas, the correspondence between his family and Richard M. Bucke, the  Superintendent of the London (Ontario) Asylum for the Insane whose diary details the last troubled months of the young man’s life. Karlinsky’s writing emulates, footnotes and all, the sedulous tone and structure of a biographer: Preface, Life, Works, Illness, Epilogue. The careful and hedged academic argument with the occasional gentle moment of whimsy will be all too familiar to those of us who read such things frequently. For example, one footnote in the biography appropriates the ‘Hurrah, hurrah!’ of Darwin correspondence. Such details would render the novel merely charming, however, were it not for the theoretical heart of Thomas’ endeavours.

After attending the lectures of Pitt Rivers, an anthropologist who used Australian aboriginal weapons and other artefacts to illustrate his opinions (see Chapter 5), Thomas had suddenly realized that his father’s theories could be applied to more than just successive forms of organic life. Thomas now had only goal – to account for the origin and diversity of artefacts in a manner analogous to his father’s evolutionary theories on biological change. In what seem to be more affectionate moments, Thomas referred to the artefacts under his study as “my special world of inanimate objects.”

The most interesting aspects of the novel are the fabricated essays and letters of Thomas and those around him. Karlinsky’s deep knowledge of Darwin’s life and work allow him to construct and appropriate theoretical and biographical details in order to render Thomas’ ‘unusual interest in eating utensils’ plausible. Thomas’ research culminates in his bizarre submission to Nature: ‘Hybrid Artefacts and Their Role in Our Understanding of the Evolution of Inanimate Objects’ but before that are his trips to Sheffield to acquire all sorts of obscure cutlery and papers read before the Plinian Society in Cambridge. In ‘Artefacts and the Origin of Their Rudimentary Characters: By Means of Competition Between Species’ Thomas details how artefact features may fall into disuse and become rudimentary (consider the human appendix).

 …the table knife and table fork have evolved in form due to their competition with one another. The table knife, originally serving two purposes, has had its pointed tip become much reduced due to competition with the table fork; yet the table knife’s cutting edge remains perfectly efficient. We may conclude that competition between species can contribute to the existence of characters in a rudimentary condition.

A less well-received paper ‘On the Effects of the Increased Use of a Character in a Domestic Eating Utensil’ follows wherein Thomas focuses on the development of the lower tine of a pastry fork.  One observer describes it in his diary as ‘[Darwin’s] magically expanding fork fiasco.’ Throughout Karlinsky’s occupation of the mind and tone of his writers is faultless. Indeed, Karlinsky’s writing successfully performs the shift of forms of language and conceptual frameworks appropriate to certain contexts in precisely the way that Thomas’ thought does not. Language is vitally important in this novel because it can obscure and reveal so much: contrast, for example, the bland reports of the Plinian Society, which give no hint of the ‘brouhaha’ in response to Thomas’ papers.

Karlinsky is a psychiatrist and Professor at the University of British Columbia and Thomas’ instability is well-handled throughout, from his early shyness and preference for solitude, to the obsessive, manic acquisition of cutlery and his apparently threatening behaviour when challenged on his views in Canada. The first hint of Thomas’ odd approach to ‘hybrid artefacts’ and reproduction by mechanical fusion is his covering letter to the editor of Nature. He includes among the illustrations an Oyster Fork-Spoon, whose dual function is presented as a result of non-human reproduction:  ‘I apologize for the salacious nature of the latter but this rare depiction of mechanical fusion in flagrante delicto warrants its inclusion, despite the explicit lewdness.’ The manuscript itself is a mixture of failed observation and theoretical intransigence. Its poor reception apparently occasions Thomas’ breakdown and flight to Canada, where he falls into Bucke’s charge and eventually succumbs to TB.

It is not generally recognized that artefacts are capable of self-propagation. However, in the process of spontaneous mechanical fusion, two distinct artefacts are, as it were, combined. The hybrid offspring of these spontaneous acts of fusion, I have come to realize, are the most important source of novelty in the artefact world. The mixing of the characteristics of both progenitors produces an abundant supply of variation in every generation.

Of course, our response – and that of the editor and Charles Darwin – to Thomas’ odd theory is very similar to that of many to his father’s theories and reflects the nature of discovery and the redrawing of conceptual frameworks. The deeper correspondence is that between Darwin’s concept of the combination of inheritance and variation in the production of new organisms and Thomas’ inheritance of his family’s tendency toward mental illness, his father’s discipline and scientific aptitude. Thomas’ problem is that he has the tenacity (‘your independent mind and your determination to make a contribution in the field of science’) which his father needed, and which is urged on the son as one of the keys to scientific innovation, but, at some point, he moves from sound to unsound and irrational beliefs (and a curious obsession with pastry). Richard Weihe’s Sea of Ink (which I reviewed here) addressed the relationship between madness and creativity in the artist. Like Thomas, the artist Bada Shanren sought solitude in order to develop and practise his art. Shanren’s greatness, however, is unquestioned despite his (apparent) madness, which prompts interesting questions as to the relationship between artistic and scientific genius.

The porosity of the boundary between creativity and madness challenges the naïve view of the scientific method as a smooth progression from observation, to theorising and hypothesis and experimentation. Karlinsky’s novel pushes the evolutionary analogy to its extreme in order to reflect on the domains in which such an analogy might be valid. Indeed, his fictional biographer quotes Ernest Nagel: ‘[It] is in line with the normal strategy of the natural sciences to extend the use of ideas fruitful in one set of inquiries into related domains.’ Bucke’s attempt to appropriate the evolutionary analogy for the development of human moral psychology in Man’s Moral Nature (which is a real work) demonstrates the array of uses to which Darwin’s fundamental insight have been put – some more legitimate than others. Which brings us back to Kuhn and his reflexive use of the evolutionary analogy to speak of scientific ideas themselves.

The Evolution of Inanimate Objects is a rich and impressive novel, reflecting its subject matter in its aggregation and presentation of a huge range of real and fictional data to create the impression of a life and work, and in doing so it forces us to consider the nature of scientific innovation, empirical methodology, inference from premise to conclusion, and the character of genius. Full of gentle humour and sophisticated consideration of the fluidity of language which results from paradigm change, this is a genuinely innovative novel.

The Evolution of Inanimate Objects is out now from The Friday Project and the Wellcome Prize Shortlist is announced on 11th October.

My thanks to The Friday Project for this review copy.

And Other Stories Short Story Competition

Publisher And Other Stories (Reviews: Swimming Home, Lightning Rods) ran a 500-word short story competition with the theme of ‘walking’ last month inspired by their release Zbinden’s Progress. I’m lucky to have been selected as one of two runners-up. The winner was Rishi Dastidar and my fellow runner-up was Nikesh Shukla. And Other Stories will post all three stories on their blog this week. I’m looking forward to reading the others. My story was the first thing I’ve written in a long time that wasn’t either philosophy or a review of some sort. I’m rather pleased.

‘Speaking as a businessman’ Lightning Rods – Helen DeWitt

‘It’s not for me to make moral judgements. I’m a businessman. I deal with people as they are, not as they ought to be.’

When I explained the plot of Lightning Rods to my wife she was horrified. That was my aim and my dear wife’s mortification amply demonstrates how remarkable it is that Helen DeWitt has managed to write such a stunning satirical novel about one man’s fantasy-derived solution to the sexual harassment problems of big business in America. With the relentless warped logic of the failed vacuum-cleaner salesman Joe manages to place lightning rod ‘facilities’ for the release of tension. They amount to an anonymous naked woman (the lighting rod) poking her rear-end through a hole in the wall of the disabled toilet in order for the results-orientated male to release (earth) their tension and get back to generating business for the company. DeWitt captures perfectly the tone and logic of sales and the boardroom; a tone Joe has mastered.

 “Speaking as a businessman,” he went on, “I know that it is often the most valuable individuals in a company who present the greatest vulnerability to sexual harassment related issues. We know that a high level of testosterone is inseparable from the drive that produces results. Speaking of people as they are rather than as they should be I know that a high-testosterone-level individual has a high likelihood of being sexually aggressive; if the individual is working twenty-hour days as a drive results-orientated individual often does, that sexual aggression will find an outlet in the office.”

Anyone familiar with business-speak (or 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy) will recognise the tendency of businesspeople to evade the language of moral responsibility in favour of realpolitik goal-orientated nonsense which begins with an apparent truism, but ends who knows where.  Joe’s catchphrase – which soon catches on – is ‘At the end of the day, we got to be realistic. We’ve got to deal with people the way they are, not the way we might like them to be.’ Joe’s apparent realism contrasts nicely with the fantasy which underpins his invention.

Whilst remaining very funny indeed the novel demonstrates the extent to which those at a disadvantage will rationalise actions they would never normally consider to get through college, provide for a family, or just survive, and the way people can approach almost anything if it will allow them to get ahead in an unsympathetic corporate landscape. Lucille and Renée, who are as driven as any of the men they cater to, take on their role and make it work for them. The easy desire to reproach that point of view is undermined by the success lightning rods go on to achieve.

‘Besides, the thing to remember is there are two ways of looking at things you don’t like that life throws at you. One way is to emphasize the negative and just fall apart because every little thing isn’t exactly the way you like it. The other way is to look at it as an opportunity to practice dealing with things you don’t like. It’s a chance to practice not letting things get to you.’

However, as David Flusfeer points out in his introduction, Lightning Rods is far more than a satire on commercial institutions and sexual mores. DeWitt’s language is irrepressible, full of energy and control, as she takes Joe’s idea and pushes it forward on his terms, and with his faults, through one challenge after another. Flusfeder writes that ‘despite its ostensible subject matter it is set in a world utterly without sin. Everything originates from Joe’s world view, with its vocabulary and metaphors derived from self-help manuals and management guidebooks, its salesman tone of convivial yearning, where people are always on first name terms, even when they’re talking to themselves…’

This prelapsarian tone is undermined by Dewitt’s use of it and allows her to present office developments resulting from facility-use as near exotic: ‘Something that had looked completely uncomplicated, a purely physical convenience, turned out to have far-reaching psycho-social repercussions.’ Joe’s grasp of psychology extends as far as his fantasies take him, which is why he must reconcile each development with his own libido, but that does not hold him back. Especially once the more enterprising lightning rods start to take advantage of him, selling their expertise dear and improving their experience with constant suggestions. It is an odd sort of empowerment, but it is empowerment nonetheless.

Be in no doubt that this is a very strange novel indeed. It’s also brilliant. Subscription publisher And Other Stories is having a very good year indeed, what with Swimming Home shortlisted for the Booker Prize and novels of the quality of Lightning Rods on their list. There has already been talk of Lightning Rods featuring somewhere in next year’s Booker Prize. It might be a bit early for such things, but I would not be at all surprised. DeWitt’s writing never falters in its tightly controlled exploration of one man’s idea to make the world a better place. All that and a dig at the FBI as well.

 Lightning Rods is published today (1st October 2012) by And Other Stories.

My thanks to And Other Stories for this review copy.