Banquet at Delmonico’s
Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America
by Barry Werth
Reviewed by: Terrell Clemmons
Post Civil War America was looking for a new belief system, says social historian Barry Werth. Across the Atlantic Charles Darwin had proposed a new theory of biology, but had left the popularization of it to others. In Banquet at Delmonico’s, Werth chronicles the spread of Darwinian evolution in America, focusing on the works of English philosopher Herbert Spencer.
Reclusive, never married, and chronically dyspeptic, Spencer introduced the phrase “survival of the fittest” in 1851, eight years before Darwin. That Darwin’s name became associated with the concept, even though Spencer had beaten him to publication, seemed to embitter Spencer and fuel his drive to expand evolutionary theory beyond biology. In 1855 Spencer, an agnostic and former civil engineer, had written and self-published Principles of Psychology, applying evolutionary theory to the human mind and behavior, but by 1860, Spencer had undertaken a re-examination of the whole of human history and thought. Calling it, Synthetic Philosophy, he set out to unify virtually all academic disciplines – philosophy, psychology, sociology, ethics, and politics – under the rubric of evolution.
For her part, America, young and wildly growing, took to Spencer’s suggestion of societal progress like a maiden to a handsome suitor. To be more specific, a diverse assortment of leading figures took to it. In Banquet at Delmonico’s, Werth illuminates these elites who directed the period’s intellectual currents and narrates their decade-long trans Atlantic love-fest, which culminated in Spencer’s 1882 tour of America.
The title comes from an elaborate farewell dinner held in Spencer’s honor at Delmonico’s, a posh Fifth Avenue restaurant in New York. Marking the momentous occasion, William Evarts, a Boston-born statesman, began his toast by declaring to the assembled who’s who of industrialists, Ivy League professors, government dignitaries, and religious leaders that, “Evolution: once an Hypothesis, [is] now the established Doctrine of the Scientific World.”
Few of the dinner guests, though, including Evarts and Spencer, were actually scientists. In fact, there had been dissenting voices among America’s scientists over the previous decade. Harvard paleontologist Louis Agassiz had tenaciously pointed out that the Darwinists furnished an impressive array of “startling and exciting” information, but not a shred of evidence showing one species changing into another. “Hasty generalizing of observation is Darwin all over,” Agassiz had said. “Darwin’s theory … is thus far merely conjectural.”
But Agassiz died in 1873, and other more favorable scientists had taken his place. Yale paleontologist Othniel Charles (O.C.) Marsh, for example, whose extensive fossil collection had been pronounced by Thomas Huxley to be physical evidence of evolution, despite the fact that some of his discoveries were later exposed as overzealous and unscrupulous, if not fraudulent.
Banquet at Delmonico’s depicts fervent proselytizers promoting a revolutionary paradigm to a largely receptive audience, all the while persuaded and persuading that somebody somewhere has proven it factually true. Andrew Carnegie’s adoption of evolution typified many. Already doubtful about religion, Carnegie read Spencer and Darwin and concluded, “Not only had I got rid of theology and the supernatural, but I had found the truth of evolution.”
In fact, the way Werth presents it, Carnegie’s adoption of evolution typified the whole of America’s adoption. Test the new idea according to some standard of scientific methodology? Pshaw …science, schmience! It’s is the newest idea, and nobody wants to be caught holding yesterday’s idea… Advancing as if they truly inhabited a system forged by evolutionary struggle, where the fittest survive by out-propagating the competition, Spencer’s proponents overtook American thought, declaring Evolution to be the de facto established, scientific view.
It simply was because all the intelligent people said it was.
This review first appeared in Salvo Summer 2009, Issue 9.