Amazon Best of the Month, January 2009
: Banquet at Delmonico's
is a fascinating look at how the theory of evolution provided a much-needed challenge to 19th-century America. Although evolution itself was hardly a new concept--scholars had pondered transmutation and common descent for centuries--naturalist Charles Darwin ignited an intellectual bonfire during the 1860s with his hypothesis of natural selection. Author Barry Werth explains how the uproar reached far beyond the scientific community, as evolutionary ideas such as "survival of the fittest" (a phrase coined not by Darwin, but by English philosopher Herbert Spencer) became rallying cries for leaders in business, theology, and government. Steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie gushed that "light came as in a flood and all was clear" while reading the works of Darwin and Spencer, while preacher Henry Ward Beecher embraced his role as a "Christian evolutionist." With post-Civil War America growing increasingly uneasy over irreconcilable differences between the modern world and old truths of theology, Werth thoughtfully explores how a bold leap into a new school of thought rejuvenated a weary nation. - Dave Callanan
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In this fascinating study, Werth (The Scarlet Professor
) shows how the idea of social Darwinism, as codified by Herbert Spencer, took hold in the United States, underpinning the philosophy of the Gilded Age's social, cultural and financial elite. Anchoring his story with the stunning Delmonico's celebration honoring the departure of Spencer after a triumphant tour of the United States in 1882, Werth rightly depicts the frame of reference Spencer left behind as a predecessor to Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, with its focus on unrestrained self-interest and unbridled capitalism. As Werth explains, Spencer's interpretation of Darwinism won the approval of not only robber barons but also prominent religious, scientific and political leaders. Henry Ward Beecher, writes Werth, used the most acclaimed pulpit in America to preach the gospel of evolution; that is, that it was God's way to... sort the worthy from the wretched. This was survival of the fittest, which Spencer and his followers saw as not only just but necessary. Thus, Werth elegantly reveals a firm philosophical foundation for all the antilabor excesses of the Industrial Age. (Jan. 6)
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