The Evolution of Inanimate Objects

Written by Harry Karlinsky
Review by Helene Williams

The premise of this delightfully imaginative book is worthy of A.S. Byatt: a psychiatrist comes across the name “Thomas Darwin” while researching the history of Canadian asylums of the 19th century, and wonders if, by chance, the documentation refers to a relative of the great Charles Darwin. Further investigation reveals that indeed, Thomas Darwin was the heretofore mostly-unknown eleventh son of the famous English naturalist; the book chronicles Thomas’s brief life, and collects all extant documents by or about him. Of central importance are the young Darwin’s writings about natural selection as it pertains to inanimate objects, specifically silverware. Thomas is particularly interested in the evolution of the pastry fork, and one of the essays documents his scientific efforts at proving that it and other artifacts evolved along the lines of his father’s famously controversial precepts. A young man of sensitive disposition, the 21-year-old Thomas leaves England for Canada, where the last records of him are of his admission and treatment at the asylum.

Before readers rush off to the Dictionary of National Biography to see if Thomas Darwin existed, let me reassure you that no, he didn’t. Karlinsky openly admits that his tale is purely imaginative, although some of his documentation is based on historical materials about the Darwin family. His fictional contributions are in keeping with Victorian style and substance, providing both authentic context as well as some sly parodying of the mores and culture of the time. The book is a quick, entertaining read for fans of 19th century history, and a fun, manageable introduction to the writing style of the thinkers of Victorian England.