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Banquet at Delmonico's: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America Hardcover – Deckle Edge, January 6, 2009

4.1 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Random House (January 6, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1615233016
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400067787
  • ASIN: 1400067782
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,535,370 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Izaak VanGaalen on February 1, 2009
Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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