22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on February 2, 2009
On November 8, 1882, many of America's elite in the field's of politics, business, and science gathered in Delmonico's banquet room in New York City to celebrate the triumph of Social Darwinism. The theory was deemed "the greatest conception of modern times, if not, indeed, all time." The banquet was in honor of Herbert Spencer, the theory's most well-known advocate. It was the culmination of Spencer's three-month visit to America, a country that was very receptive to his ideas.
Barry Werth begins his story a decade prior to the banquet and focuses mainly on the rivalry between the ideas of Charles Darwin, the naturalist, and Spencer, the philosopher. Although Spencer had initially published work on social development, it was Darwin's publication of The Origin of the Species that popularized the idea of natural selection and evolution. Darwin, being empirically minded, confined his theory to the biological world. He believed that one could only have knowledge of that which could be observed. Spencer, on the other hand, applied the theory of evolution to all manner of things, not only to the social realm, but all areas of human activity. Spencer was more given to sweeping generalizations than the painstaking research practiced by Darwin.
It is not difficult to see why Spencer's speculations found fertile ground in America: the country was emerging from the rubble of the Civil War and rapidly becoming a world power. It's new self-image was that it was a prime example of "the survival of the fittest" - a phrase coined by Spencer. In Spencer's cosmology it meant that the strongest and the most righteous ultimately prevailed.
The characters that animate Werth's chronicle of this period were mostly on the side of Spencer, and they illustrate the incredible versatility of the theory of evolution. Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate, believed firmly in Spencerian competition and progress, as well as his own superiority in its outcome. William Graham Sumner, the famous Yale sociologist, declared social welfare programs useless since, in his view, the needy will always be needy no matter how much assistance they receive.
Spencer, surpisingly, also had followers in the church. Henry Ward Beecher, who was arguably the most popular minister in America in his day, was famous for reconciling evolution with Christianity. His reasoning went something as follows: not only did God create all things, His wisdom was so great that He made all things create themselves. How many people actually believed that remains a mystery.
Werth's story is a very entertaining and informative work of intellectual history, but we are left wondering, in the end, how much of the theory of evolution was actually accepted by the population beyond Delmonico's banquet room. Although Spencerism was triumphant among some of the elites, a majority of the population probably still believed that God created all things the old-fashioned way.
Today, Darwin's more scientific approach is favored and Spencer's philosophy has largely been discredited, as his theories were used to support racism and eugenics. Even so, Darwin's theory must still compete with today's proponents of "intelligent design" - a good indicator that not much progress has been made and that the fittest theory is still struggling for survival.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on March 22, 2009
Banquet at Delmonico's: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America
In Banquet at Delmonico's Barry Werth pieces together narrative sketches involving about a dozen prominent American men (and one woman) who were influenced by the evolutionary ideas of Charles Darwin, but more especially by those of Herbert Spencer. Apparently his primary intent is to convey how evolutionary thought was interpreted and received in America in the 1871-1882 period. He also seeks to summarize aspects of the lives and thought of his chosen protagonists and to cover some selected highlights of American history in that era.
Each chapter covers a single year and skips across vignettes involving the principal characters. Chapter Three (1873), for example, involves the industrialist Andrew Carnegie, the Harvard botanist Asa Gray, Darwin himself and his English disciple Thomas Huxley, Spencer, the theologian Charles Hodge, the liberal minister Henry Ward Beecher, and the naturalist Louis Agassiz.
I found this method of organization to be choppy. Often each segment is too brief -- just as a thread of an idea or a life is established it is broken by an abrupt transition to some other character. Further, much of this material is not even directly relevant to the main theme of the book. For instance, there are far too many pages devoted to the adultery tribulations of Henry Ward Beecher. In fact, one would not even have to read most of the chapters in the main body of the text to get to the substance that Werth has to offer. For readers with less of an appetite I would suggest a look at the three preface pages that summarize the principal characters; attention to Chapter Twelve, which covers the speeches at the actual 1882 "Banquet at Delmonico's" (a tribute to Spencer organized by his chief American promoter, Edward Youmans); and a read of the Epilogue, which touches on the implications and later consequences of many of Spencer's ideas
Spencer's influence in America was undoubtedly significant, but almost surely stimulated more harm than good, since his interpretations of evolution were wrong or misguided on several counts. He inappropriately extrapolated the biological principle of natural selection to society, which he conceived as an organism trending from simpler to more complex systems. For Spencer, evolution was not morally neutral, but teleological and progressive. He defended "use inheritance," essentially the Lamarckian view that acquired characteristics can be passed on to the next generation. He inspired "social Darwinism," which entailed the belief that government should stay out of the way and let survival of the fittest shape men's destinies. And some of his prominent interpreters (though not all) became advocates of American imperialism, under the rationale that other peoples would be better off if brought under the guidance of a superior race.
At points Werth addresses key elements of this assessment, but it is not his main thrust. Rather, he seems to be aiming to convince us that evolution "triumphed" in America in this period. That is a dubious conclusion, however. First, Werth has written just about an intellectual elite. We well know from subsequent history that there was then, and may still be now, no triumph of evolutionary thought at the broad popular level. And second, even among the intellectuals within the author's scope, the notions of evolution that each accepted were far from uniform and, in many cases, were incompatible with what most biological scientists now understand evolution to be. The majority of Werth's chief American characters subscribed to one version or another of what today would be called "intelligent design."
If you are just seeking an introductory overview of the principal players who interpreted evolution in America in this period, you will likely find Banquet at Delmonico's to be helpful. In Werth's favor, he is a skilled writer and a competent historian. But if you seek more depth on either the subject (the acceptance of evolution in America and Spencer's influence) or the individuals Werth writes about, you may want to turn elsewhere. There are good recent biographies of many of the principals (Applegate on Beecher and Nasaw on Carnegie, for example). If your interest is mostly in the relevant ideas, then you could do no better than to start with Richard Hofstadter's classic Social Darwinism in American Thought.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on March 17, 2009
The most conspicuous absence in Werth's well-researched book is the lack of a lengthy discussion of the particularities of either Spencer or Darwin's ideas. He sets up an ideological competition between Darwin and Spencer, but the reader is never treated to its nuances. We assume it exists, but we never learn its particularities.
Instead, Werth primarily concerns himself with where the main characters were, who they were debating with, and what books they were writing. He spends chapter after chapter describing in exhaustive detail about the alleged affair between Henry Ward Beecher and one of his female parishioners without explaining why the affair was important to the debate concerning evolution. Was it because the affair had a transformative effect on Beecher himself? Did it discredit him? Did it change his viewpoints concerning evolution? Werth never explains.
It's a well researched, pretty well written book. But Werth's apparent insecurity with discussing the ideological debate - the very subject of his book, no less - is a big flaw. It's interesting to read about the comings and goings of famous men, but in the end that's all the book has to offer.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
When Darwin's _On the Origin of Species_ was published in 1859, it revolutionized our entire way of understanding biology. Darwin's further writing about human descent applied this understanding to our own species. Darwin's principles are pretty easy to understand; his supporter Thomas Henry Huxley berated himself for being so stupid as not to have seen them himself. They are not only simple, they can be applied as comparisons in all sorts of non-biological realms. They can also be misapplied: anyone who champions "survival of the fittest" may thereby seek excuse for any step toward making his own self and his own group survive. "Survival of the fittest" isn't a phrase Darwin used. It was coined by Herbert Spencer, a British philosopher, who in 1882 was given a lavish dinner in New York by many of his American supporters. _Banquet at Delmonico's: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America_ (Random House) by Barry Werth tells the story of that dinner and the personalities involved in bringing evolution to America in the form of Social Darwinism. Werth brought his skills of exposition of character to a biography of Newton Arvin years ago, and in this book has the opportunity to scrutinize the philosophers, biologists, politicians, entrepreneurs, and churchmen who played a role in supporting the now discredited concept of Social Darwinism. With the current celebration of Darwin anniversaries, Werth's book provides an amusing and instructive history of a philosophy that was the foundation of the Industrial Age in the nineteenth century.
It has to be remembered that Darwin himself did not expand his ideas about evolution beyond his own biological sphere. As a naturalist, he regarded evolution as morally neutral, just as gravity or climate is. Werth rightly points out that Social Darwinism ought better to be regarded as "Spencerism". Spencer thought evolutionary change was not neutral, but was a progressive force that would ensure that in a free marketplace the fittest would become rich and that the survival of these fittest would ensure the improvement of the human race. Spencer opposed expanding the government to help the welfare of its citizens, because that would thwart evolution's weeding out the unfit. Political economist William Graham Sumner wrote that social inequality was the law of nature, a law that would be immune to governmental reform. He wrote that "a drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be." The most famous preacher of the age, Henry Ward Beecher, said it was inevitable that the poor had to "reap the misfortunes of inferiority." The thinkers and their ideas bump through most of the book covering a period of eleven years, with the final chapter largely devoted to the banquet itself, a banquet organized by Spencer's biggest American booster, Edward Youmans. When it came time for Spencer to address the admiring crowd, he spoke about how humans were evolving from being militant to being industrialists, and how society must keep from degrading itself, and America's role in helping its leading race to continue to advance; and then he baffled the audience by explaining that Americans were working too hard and didn't know how to relax.
In an epilogue, Werth catches us up on what happened to the main participants in the years after the banquet. Spencer began to realize that evolution might be inevitable, but also that humanity was emphasizing nationalism and munitions rather than evolving toward a state-free utopia. He and Youmans fell out and didn't reconcile before Youmans died five years after the banquet. Beecher spent the rest of his life excoriating "this whole theory of sin and its origin that lies at the base of the great evangelical systems of Christianity." Sumner outlived most of the others here, long enough to see the skimpy and self-serving politics he advocated fade as a progressive reform movement and the philosophical school of pragmatism took over while Social Darwinism declined. Evolution never lost power in its natural setting of biological understanding, but citing evolution as an excuse for those in power ruthlessly to stay in power eventually became unacceptable. Werth's entertaining book is thus a look at the thinking of a bunch of smart guys who latched onto a wrong idea, and patted themselves on their backs in congratulation for their own cleverness.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
In this bicentennial year of Charles Darwin, it is most appropriate to consider how Darwinism was disseminated in America during the late 19th century. This book takes its title from a testimonial dinner held for Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) in 1882 at New York's famous Delmonico's restaurant. In attendance to honor Spencer were many of the leading American minds who had helped spead the message of evolution, either individually or in conjunction with Spencer. We are talking about folks like Asa Gray at Harvard, John Fiske, William Graham Sumner, Carnegie, Huxley, McCosh, Henry Ward Beecher, and O.C. Marsh to name just a few of this elite company. To set the stage, the author returns to 1871, and in individual chapters devoted to each intervening year, eventually devotes the final chapter to the dinner itself in 1882.
There is a lot of valuable information and discussion contained in the book, but it also has some design drawbacks. For one thing, the author spends a lot of time on folks who really are not evolutionists in the sense of the other subjects--namely Andrew Carnegie and especially Henry Ward Beecher ("the most famous man in America). I did not see how discussing Beecher's numerous adulterous problems contributed to the narrative, and he is probably second only to Spencer in the amount of space devoted to his activites. A second problem is that by breaking up the narrative as to each individual into bits and pieces scattered throughout various of the years between 1871 and 1882, makes it harder on the reader to comprehensively integrate their various contributions. Perhaps chapters designated by individual or subject matter might have avoided this problem. I was also skeptical that Spencer was that central a figure in America--but the skillful discussion by the author convinced me otherwise.
Despite these rough spots, this book lays out comprehensive coverage of its topic and is quite informative. It also introduces some folks who are not famous, yet played critical roles. For example, the Yale paleontologist O.C. Marsh devoted his life and money to digging out bones all over the West and facilitating their study. Another example is Edward Livingston Youmans, who incessantly publicized and published Spencer (in his "International Scientific Series"). The author also gives the opponents of evolution their due as well: Louis Agassiz and Charles Hodge are the two principal examples. Particularly the chapter devoted to the dinner itself is well done, and I almost felt as if I had attended. So, the book quite won me over despite the structural problems noted above. The author supports his text with an eight-page bibliography and 20 pages of informative notes. For anyone interested in Gilden Age intellectual history, this book is a must read.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
BAnquet at Delmonico's is a book about America at the start of the "Gilded Age" and the thinkers who made this transition period possible. We follow Herbert Spencer, the British phiiosopher of social darwinisism, as he finishes his "revolutionary" book applying Darwin's theory of evolution to society. We follow preacher Henry Ward Beecher as his popularity waxes and wains with a sex scandal that brought him near ruin. Thomas Henry Huxley, the British naturalist, is busy trying to make a name for himself in the United States defending Darwinism and agnosticism. And we witness a country trying to grapple with recoonstruction after the civil war, a contentious presidential election in 1890, the "Indian" problem, etc.
While this book is quite fascinating as collection of interwoven historical stories, I struggled to find a main theme here. Is it, as the cover says, a book about the "triumph of evoluiton in America?" I*f it were, then why the chapters on Benajamin Harrison's election and presidency, or Henry Ward Beecher's sex scandal? If the book is simply about America in transition, then why the chapters on British-born Charles Darwin and Thomas Henry Huxley? There really seems to be no real them to this book and as such, the stories lacked any feeling of collectivity and the forward motion it would have produced.
Anyone who wants an interesting depiction of the United States in transition from the industrial revolution to the gilded age (similar to The Education of Henry Adams) would likely appreciate this book and the characters in it. But I think the book's depth sacrifices a feeling of cohesiveness and settles.
Also, I agree with another reviewer that, for a book about idea-makers, the book spent very little time in discussion about the ideas made. We hear much about different evolutionary philosophers, but don't hear much about their philosophies of evolution. A character book? Yes. A book that gives a glimpse of ideas behind the characters? Definitely not.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on March 2, 2009
This altogether excellent book is really a chronicle of how the concept of evolution as expounded by Charles Darwin was embraced by an influential number of American intellectuals. And how its corollary, social evolution (or `social Darwinism') became the philosophical pillar of American industrial capitalism. The title of the book refers to a lavish banquet given in 1882 by a combination of capitalists, politicians, and intellectuals in honor of the English thinker Herbert Spencer, one of the most effective advocates of social Darwinism. The book reviews essentially the decade prior to this banquet to describe the impact that evolutionary theories had on American thought and to identify some of the most influential supporters (and opponents) of the biological and social theories of evolution..
Not surprisingly social evolution was much more widely accepted than was biological evolution. Its nonsensical arguments for superior and degenerate `races' and individuals, fit very well with the then existing prejudices and the still prevalent Calvinist theology of the saved and the damned. Then as now biological evolution, especially after Darwin finally screwed up the courage to publish the "Descent of Man", was seen as a threat to religion and man's place in the world. For every American advocate of biological evolution there were equally erudite advocates for intelligent design or creationism. It is ironic that the most dubious argument in evolutionary theory namely social evolution was and is the least controversial then and now.
Be that as it may this book provides an introduction to some really interesting American and English originals who did a good deal to enhance intellectual life in both the U.S. and UK.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on November 14, 2013
Social Darwinism in the Gilded Age, that's the premise. Herbert Spencer and a cast of great minds, work towards a "banquet at Delmonico's" where Spencer is honored for his intellectual work and social theories. Each scene brings other luminaries of the age into the act: Charles Darwin, Henry Ward Beecher, Andrew Carnegie and the like. Penetrating research, seamless coordination of their stories all building to the banquet. It takes 276 pages before the dinner begins but each is an appetizer in itself. The book is history, science and sociology blended together. Not necessarily an easy read nor a fast one but one worth the time.
on February 24, 2010
Especially without the knowledge of genes, or even a germ-cell based theoretical development in the theory of evolution, it was easy for Darwinism to develop the massive appendage of social Darwinism. Especially when, although rejecting the idea of multiple human species, Darwin himself accepted many of Herbert Spencer's ideas of social Darwinism.
Spencer's ideas justified laissez-faire economics (conveniently overlooking high tariffs!), the Gilded Age, social inequality and more. So, it became manna to the GOP in America. At the same time, because of its scientific cachet, in a post-Civil War America seeking to build its scientific reputation, latching on to Spencer and his ideas became the focus of American biologists, sociologists (an idea invented by Spencer) and psychologists.
Werth brings leading lights of these areas together, tracing their development and intersection across the Gilded Age, peaking in a dinner banquet for Spencer at the famed Delmonico's.
Per one reviewer, it's a bit true that Werth doesn't flesh out social Darwinism as much as he perhaps could. But, I don't think that's a serious drawback. He does well enough, while presuming a basic reader's knowledge.
Otherwise, this is a good overview of a major period in American history. It has an overview's limits, too, but is a good appetite-whetter.
on January 21, 2010
The book depicts the era from basically the end of the Civil War to the end of the Century. It is mosly about the thinkers of that age and how they either accepted or rejected the theory of Evolution and Natural Selection. Basically how these theories were accepted by the scientific community, the religous community and the general public. It is well written, well researched, but, at times, repititious. Neretheless, for history buffs, it is a good read.