Banquet at Delmonico's: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America

  • Barry Werth
Random House: 2009. 400 pp. $27 9781400067787 | ISBN: 978-1-4000-6778-7

“There is apparently much truth in the belief that the wonderful progress of the United States, as well as the character of the people, are the results of natural selection,” wrote Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man. Today, such a claim jars, and not just because of the grammar. But the wonder is that Darwin so infrequently over-extended his evolutionary explanations.

Not so his English contemporary, Herbert Spencer, who attempted to give an evolutionary account of almost every realm of human affairs. Ruminating on history, psychology, sociology and ethics, Spencer's evolutionary philosophy led him to argue that, among other things, government regulation was bad, the poor and needy should be left to fend for themselves, and the United States was destined to become the pinnacle of civilization. These ideas fell on fertile ground, particularly in the United States, and Spencer was hailed there as the brightest, most insightful man of his generation.

Banquet at Delmonico's, titled after an 1882 dinner to honour Spencer at a New York restaurant, covers the elite's battle for ideas during the turbulent years of the 1870s and 1880s. The nation was emerging from a bitter civil war that had led many to question the benevolence of God. It was obvious that the country was about to transform itself from an underpopulated minor player to a world-dominating industrial giant, and its direction and politics were up for grabs. The issues of the times were challenging: credit crunches, presidential unpopularity, disputed elections, terrorist atrocities, military blunders, and arguments about the nature of marriage, race relations and intelligent design. Manhattan got electrical lighting, Pittsburgh got steel and General Custer got annihilated.

Herbert Spencer felt evolution could cure social ills. Credit: J. BAGNOLD BURGESS/NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY, LONDON

Spencer's US acolytes included powerful industrialists, politicians, religious leaders and intellectuals. In a beautifully written classic of non-fiction narrative, author Barry Werth tracks Spencer and associated characters as they try to use evolutionary doctrine to perfect humankind and society, often attempting to take the credit. The startling cast includes the liberal Christian minister and alleged adulterer Henry Ward Beecher, the first female candidate for US president, Victoria Woodhull, and the publisher and self-flagellating scientific crusader Edward Youmans. Among the academics are Harvard University's John Fiske, who believed in the country's divine destiny, Louis Agassiz, who believed human races were created separately, and Asa Gray, who believed fervently in both Darwin and Christianity. The book is so rich in details — church meetings, fossil hunts, ocean voyages, hikes, courtroom dramas and Victorian hypocrisy — that it reads like a novel. But the narrative drive is weak: it is often hard to see where the story is going or why. That, I guess, is reality.

It is also not obvious why the book culminates with much hyperbole in the eponymous banquet. This 12-course meal, with a separate wine for each course, was held at a famous Manhattan restaurant shortly after Darwin's death. It was attended by 200 of the most powerful men in the United States, and celebrated Spencer at the end of what was to be his last US trip. The build-up to the meal is tremendous, and we are treated to all the procedural details — course three of the first service included buttery, scarlet kettle-drum-shaped pastry tufts stuffed with truffles, tongue and pistachios — and there is a very full summary of the three hours of after-dinner speeches. The book's cover claims that this event was “a historic celebration from which the repercussions still ripple throughout our society”. But I now understand why I had never heard of it. Spencer himself found the speeches boring and wanted to leave early. The audience found a new idea only in John Fiske's speech: he asserted that humans acquired a sense of morality not from God, but from natural selection. The only speech that might resonate today was Spencer's own. Worried about the country's well-being and health, he railed against the national work ethic, arguing that Americans should spend less time striving for a future good, and more time enjoying what the passing day had to offer. The idea baffled his audience and was poorly received.

Yet the narrative non-fiction genre allows unexpected things to emerge. Many of the protagonists were, like Darwin, bedevilled by bad health. Doctors are summoned at a frightening rate throughout the book. The ailments were many and the treatments fascinating — at one point, Agassiz was forbidden from thinking. That natural selection should have excised such sick men does not seem to have caused much concern among any of these social Darwinists. Moreover, neither Spencer nor any of his US disciples seems to have spent any time trying to push evolution into medicine, even though medicine was becoming a serious scientific enterprise, with the verification of the germ theory of disease and the developing cellular theory of disease (now pathology). Even today, medicine is the most obvious area in which evolutionary biology remains under-extended. Mutation, competition and selection are key to understanding cancer and infectious diseases, for example, but still very few medical schools teach evolutionary biology.

We have yet to fully comprehend the consequences of what Darwin did to humanity's view of itself. Werth's picture of what his 'great minds of the gilded age' were thinking, of how far they tried to stretch Darwinian insights, and of the personal and moral lessons they drew, makes a forceful argument that the causes of biological diversity — and humankind's place within it — really matter. The fact that many of these thinkers' conclusions were based on such a poor understanding of evolution also shows why everyone deserves proper schooling in evolutionary biology. The Victorians had the crippling disadvantage that they did not understand inheritance or units of selection. Today, humanity has no such excuse.