Banquet at Delmonico's: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America
by Barry Werth
Reviewed by Art Winslow
Los Angeles Times
In his spirited and comprehensive 2005 analysis Darwinism and Its Discontents, Michael Ruse argues that "from the beginning, right down to the present, many people have regarded evolution as a kind of biological equivalent to social progress. In this respect, it has been and still is an epiphenomenon on culture."
Ruse's book is a full-bore defense of what is known as neo-Darwinism, or the "new synthesis," the combination of Charles Darwin's ideas of natural and sexual selection with what was later learned of genetic inheritance from the initial work of Gregor Mendel. "The key fact about the raw stuff of evolution -- Mendelian mutations -- is that they are random. Not uncaused, but not appearing in response to the needs of their possessors," Ruse points out, by way of taking issue with the contemporary biologist Edward O. Wilson, and Wilson's assertion that "progress, then, is a property of the evolution of life as a whole by almost any conceivable intuitive standard, including the acquisition of goals and intentions in the behavior of animals."
The idea that evolution is an ordered progression, societally as well as biologically, has adhered to popular conceptions of Darwinism since the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, but it was more accurately a theme of Darwin's contemporary and would-be rival, the social philosopher Herbert Spencer. Spencer (greatly admired by Wilson, according to Ruse) is the guest of honor in Barry Werth's Banquet at Delmonico's: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America.
Spencer's manifold view of evolution -- value-laden, less empirically rooted than Darwin's and extending the concepts of natural selection to the social order -- matched perfectly the culturally aspirant beliefs of both post-Civil War America and late Victorian England, as Werth puts them on display. It was Spencer, in fact, who coined the term "survival of the fittest," although Darwin went on to make use of it without, as Werth carefully notes, sharing Spencer's conviction that "survival of the fittest also meant survival of the best." Remarking on Spencer's "pervasive effect" on late 19th century thought, Darwin's chief modern biographer, Janet Browne, even contends that "much of what was ultimately attributed to Darwin was the result of philosophical shifts expressed in one form or another by Spencer."
What Werth has done, cleverly, in addition to drawing Spencer out from behind Darwin's shadow and raising the troubling future specters of Social Darwinism and eugenics, is to create a narrative double helix of his own: We watch as, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, the two principals and their retinues of acolytes and antagonists spin out their ideas to respective advantage in the public sphere. In politics, religion, science and academia, there was foment and division over the meaning and moral implications of what Darwin and Spencer put forth but ready acceptance in many quarters too.
Debate among the elite
Having invoked a very generalized version of evolution prior to Darwin, Spencer "felt the stab of Darwin's new upheaval keenly," Werth writes, as did Edward Livingston Youmans, Spencer's publisher and American promoter. Youmans' efforts to reinforce Spencer's primacy is a prominent motif in Werth's book; this is understandable in human terms but hard to justify in a historical sense, for Spencer depended heavily on updating Lamarckian ideas already in circulation.
Yet Werth's main objective is to present the clashing of perspectives by way of cultural portraiture, which even when it came to the academy -- as in the case of Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz, a staunch anti-evolutionist -- was commonly tied to religious belief.
In 1871, Werth reports, Agassiz contended that, on the basis of a deep-water dredging expedition off the Brazilian coast, "there was nothing...to show that the living organisms were lineal descendants of long-extinct ancestors." Agassiz went on to claim that the lack of any link disproved evolution, and his reputation was such that the Smithsonian Institution published his assertions without substantiation. Furthermore, he agreed with the American ethnologist Samuel Morton, whose miscellaneous collection of skulls convinced him that there were "twenty-two different species of man," evidence to both men of "separate acts of creation," rather than, as Darwin believed, a universality of descent from common ancestry.
Werth concentrates on the years 1871 to 1882, and his historical capstone is a speechifying evening in the smoke-filled banquet room of Delmonico's, the upscale period restaurant in New York, where Spencer was lauded at the end of a three-month visit to America. The glitterati invited included the political power broker, presidential advisor and former Sen. Carl Schurz; the preacher Henry Ward Beecher, who termed himself a "cordial Christian Darwinist" and was so famous that his weekly sermons were printed nationwide in newspapers; the self-made steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, a believer in tooth-and-claw competition who later became renowned for his philanthropy; the prominent journalists E. L. Godkin and Charles Dana; and William Graham Sumner, a Yale professor on the losing side of a prominent public battle for academic freedom to teach Spencer's work.
A sense of the times
All these people play a part in Werth's narrative, and the celebration serves as a means to knot together threads that might otherwise go astray. Among other things, for example, Werth offers a discussion of the era's political campaigns, and while Beecher is important -- given his clerical standing and his public acceptance of biological adaptation -- we also receive a lengthy account of his tribulations over the accusation of adultery with a parishioner, Elizabeth Tilton. This was one of the sensational stories of the age, but it doesn't have much to do with evolution.
Most other figures caught in Werth's web make sense, among them: Asa Gray, the Harvard botanist and devout Christian who worked to reconcile Darwinism and religion; John Fiske, a lecturer who equated Spencerian and Darwinian evolution with moral development; Sumner, who became the nation's foremost Social Darwinist but buckled under Yale President Noah Porter's pressure to cease teaching Spencer to undergraduates; Charles Hodge, "perhaps America's most noted theologian," who reasoned that "Darwinism, carried to its logical end," held no place for God; and the noted scientists O.C. Marsh and Thomas Henry Huxley, whose work reinforced Darwin's conclusions in America and England, respectively.
Spencer emerges as a crusty iconoclast whose social conscience seemed held in abeyance -- Huxley berated him for opposing a free public school system in England, which Spencer deemed wasteful, and in America the philosopher William James launched a "blistering attack" on both him and his disciples for offering blind, upward development as an explanatory schema and suggesting that biological evolution and social development are subject to the same principles.
As for Darwin, Werth quotes him without comment amid claims by Youmans that Spencer had elucidated evolution before Darwin did. "I am not conscious," Darwin noted in a memoir, "of profiting in my own work by Spencer's writings."
Winslow is a former literary and executive editor of the Nation.