Originally posted by Brian Switek
On March 8, 2009 6:32 PM
On November 8, 1882 the paleontologist O.C. Marsh, popular minister Henry Beecher, industrialist Andrew Carnegie, and other influential men of the late 19th century converged on Delmonico's Restaurant in New York. They were there to toast Herbert Spencer, the social scientist who had gone beyond Charles Darwin's studies of natural transmutation to outline the evolution of society itself. All present, in one way or another, had been influenced by Spencer's work, and they ate and pontificated long into the night despite the fact that the dyspeptic Spencer would rather not have been there in the first place.
Such is the event that acts as the linchpin for Barry Werth's Banquet at Delmonico's: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America. In the chaotic and violent years following the Civil War the United States was being rebuilt institutionally and socially and Spencer's ideas meshed well with those who felt the country was striving onward and upward to some higher goal. Darwin's work was all fine and well for the natural world, but in the United States it was the evolution of society that most fascinated industrialists, clergymen, and scientists alike.
The beliefs Spencer and his students are particularly interesting in light of present debates over the free market economy. Although presently associated with political conservatives (often opponents of evolution on religious grounds), the ranks of the Spencerian social scientists felt that natural evolution revealed that society could only evolve through competition. No one was owed a living, and the only social responsibility of the "haves" was not to be overly abusive to the "have nots." For the government to provide anyone with a job or any other "hand out" was appalling. It was through competition that a nation could go from a violent state where military leaders were the most honored members of the society (as in the West) to one where the most educated of the people would be revered (as in China).
Werth gets to these notions by way of following the stories of the men present at that November dinner 1882 at Delmonico's. (No women were allowed, although several women prominently play in Werth's larger narrative.) This is an unenviable task. Even though the histories of many of the featured figures intersect an independent biography is required for each. Werth approaches this problem of organizing the chapters largely in chronological order (1871-1882) and shifting from one story to another as he sees fit. The changes are ubiquitously abrupt with little attempt to weave them together, and a fair bit of concentration is required to catch all the changes.
Werth's narrative style can also be confounding. He documents the life of each of his chosen "characters" but provides little to no analysis of their work; interactions between people take precedence over full explanations of their ideas. Whatever understanding the reader receives of Spencer's ideas comes from snippets of letters, editorials, and speeches, which the reader is left to largely piece together for themselves. At times I wished I could cut up the abruptly-separated biographies in the book and glue them together to make a reorganized text in which I could follow the ideas more closely, and I have to admit that at times I was left scratching my head as to the relevance of the material being presented (like Marsh's acquisition of large sauropod bones from the American West).
Indeed, Banquet at Delmonico's is largely a descriptive work and is by no means comprehensive. Discussions over evolution, primarily social evolution, are explained via the ambitions of an elite group of politicians, clergymen, philosophers, scientists, and business moguls. How widely their views were shared in the United States is left unclear and the book eventually grinds to a halt with a "Where are they now?" type epilogue that follows each major personality to their death. The rise of eugenics is loosely connected to Spencer's ideas in this section, as well, but the discussion of it feels more like a teaser that is dropped almost as quickly as it was brought up.
Werth's book is one to be read with great care. The transitions between sections can be tricky and the relevance of material to the main historical narrative is not always clear. There is sparingly little introductory and no concluding discussion to frame the contents of the book and so the main principles of social evolution (i.e. that free market economics and minimal government care is essential to the higher evolution of nations) must constantly be kept in mind to get the most from it. This is not always easily done, but if it can be accomplished the reader will find a snapshot of how the marriage of evolution and social science reflected the hopes and fears of a nation that had just barely escaped the fires of total destruction.