The world is always changing. The things that change with it, that flexibly adapt to its new demands, are the things most likely to survive and flourish. Charles Darwin’s take on this theme has profoundly influenced our understanding of the natural history of the living world. In Harry Karlinsky’s The Evolution of Inanimate Objects: The Life and Collected Works of Thomas Darwin (1857–1879) we learn that Darwin’s eleventh and youngest child extended and applied his father’s work to the domain of man-made artifacts, such as eating utensils. How do different types of forks, for example, “evolve” to acquire specialized features and characteristics that distinguish them from other types of forks? How did the left-outermost tine on a pastry fork come to be wider than its other tines?
We also learn that there is an intriguing connection to Canada in all of this. It seems that Thomas spent the final weeks of his relatively short life detained in an insane asylum in London, Ontario. How could the son of such a pre-eminent British scientist end up locked away from society? And if he really was in need of psychiatric care, why was he so far from home? Such questions are part of what make this biography a compelling tale. But here’s the rub: it really is a tale. Indeed, Thomas is entirely fictional. It is this clever trick by Karlinsky—mixing mostly accurate historical detail into the description of the life and times of this newly created son of a genius—that really sets this book apart. Karlinsky, who, in addition to being a psychiatrist, holds a master’s degree in neuroscience, is so convincing, in fact, that it is easy to forget you are reading a novel. And, like a real biography, much of what you learn is true. So, while entertaining and easily readable, the book is also good at providing a sense of discovering something new.
One of the interesting aspects of this book is how young Thomas comes to extend the application of his father’s ideas related to natural selection of animate objects—the birds and the bees, etc.—to inanimate objects, such as knives and forks. We are reminded how successfully elements of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution can be, and have been, applied across a variety of domains. And it all comes down to adaptability. Anything that is not particularly well suited to meet the challenges it faces, has to make certain changes to increase its chances of surviving. Thomas shows us that the “anything” here can be a line of forks just as easily as it can be a line of finches, or any of his father’s other animal examples. This resonates well with the very real and serious books written over the years about how similar principles determine the survival of everything from simple ideas to multinational corporations.
Part of the intrigue lies in the sense that Karlinsky is providing us with a rather privileged glimpse into the family workings of Charles and Emma Darwin. We are shown Charles Darwin, the scientist, who while otherwise fully consumed by his work, is nevertheless a caring and nurturing father. And much of this nurturing is of his children’s sense of curiosity, encouraging them to take a systematic approach in observing and documenting the world around them. Consider this account concerning walks that Charles would go on with his children on what was known as the “thinking path”:
One summer, Charles grew curious about the bees that disturbed their otherwise contemplative walks. In the guise of a game, he recruited Thomas and his brothers to track the bees’ movements. After dispersing his sons around the Sandwalk, Charles instructed each to yell out “Bee!” as one flew by. Charles would reposition his assistants in accordance with these cries and, in time, the bees’ regular lines of flight were determined.
This early exposure to the methods of scientific inquiry and the clear and growing impact of his father’s work set the stage for Thomas to develop and test the validity of his own theories.
Indeed, the idea of survival of the fittest sits at the heart of the scientific method itself. The search for a better understanding of the universe requires that we constantly adjust our views to accommodate new discoveries. And the context that Karlinsky provides, taking us back to a time of steam engines and knickerbockers, makes clear just how far we have progressed in this regard over the last 150 years. Given this opportunity to reflect, we see that our rapid advances in technology and other areas of scientific inquiry have been truly astounding.
Karlinsky’s depiction of the London Asylum for the Insane, however, raises the question of just how far we have progressed when it comes to mental illness and how we diagnose and care for individuals with such brain disorders. Compared to my smartphone, for instance, for which successive generations of technological improvements have provided previously unimaginable capabilities, the stigma and treatment of those with disordered thoughts and feelings are today all too similar to those of Darwin’s era. It may even be worse for individuals caught up in the growing trend for the mentally ill to end up incarcerated rather than to be provided with reasonable treatment. At least Thomas ended up in a facility designed for care and treatment. Sadly, advances in our understanding and treatment of brain disorders have simply not kept pace with other areas.
Perhaps the slow rate of progress in finding ways to ensure mental health is related to the previously held, but mistaken, belief that the adult brain is incapable of change. We now know that what goes on in the brain is critical in determining what a person thinks and how he or she feels, and the ways in which a person behaves. But until fairly recently, most experts thought that the brain became relatively hard-wired once beyond adolescence. If you cannot promote change within the brain, how could you possibly expect to help someone in need of changing the way they think, feel or behave? Fortunately, through advances in neuroscience, we are discovering that the adult brain is far more adaptable than we ever thought possible. We are learning that what we do with our brain—the different ways in which we stimulate, engage and care for it—can have a significant impact on the way it works, and can even alter its physical landscape. It retains the capacity to change for the better throughout one’s lifetime.
Adaptive change in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution occurs over successive generations. It depends on variability through naturally occurring mutations in the genetic material passed on from parents to offspring. The change is from one life to the next. The growing evidence of neuroplasticity throughout one’s lifetime emphasizes instead the possibility for adaptive, positive change to occur within one’s lifetime. And this offers hope for radical advances in our capacity to help those whose daily functioning is affected in ways such as that of Thomas Darwin.
Karlinsky’s first novel is a great read. Thoroughly engaging, it provides a key reminder of the importance of change as a central concept for understanding how the world has come to be the way it is. It also reminds us that change is essential on a very personal level. Our health and well-being, if not our survival, might just depend on it.