Barry Werth’s Banquet at Delmonico’s: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America is a fascinating study of social Darwinism in the United States. Werth’s book was published in 2009 by Random House. The analysis sets forth the idea that Darwinism served as a catalyst for much-needed change in nineteenth-century America.
Werth contends that post-Civil War America was struggling for direction, cohesion, and purpose. The thoughts of Darwin provided such a wealth of inspiration that it enlivened the sluggish nation.
The author describes the response to Darwinism and its influence far beyond the scientific community. The term “survival of the fittest” (which incidentally was coined by English philosopher Herbert Spencer, not Darwin) was widely used in many sectors, including government, business, and theology. Editors, politicians, economists, biologists, preachers, and industrialists all ascribed to the theory. Disagreement was sharply divided about the deeper social questions regarding the place of religion and even the existence God.
As one example, Werth notes that Andrew Carnegie, the steel industry giant, was so profoundly influenced after he read the works of Darwin and Spencer that “all [became] clear." At the entirely other end of the spectrum of society, Henry Ward Beecher became a “Christian evolutionist.”
Werth bases his work on a Delmonico's celebration that honored the departure of Herbert Spencer after his U.S. tour in 1882. In 1859, Spencer published his “doctrine of development,” before Darwin’s Origin of Species of 1859. Both men share basic areas of thought: both agreed that conflict leads to competition, and species compete for resources to survive. They also were proponents of the principle of adaption. Spencer represented the predecessor to Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, which focuses on the runaway tendencies of capitalism and the lack of restraint in self-interests.
Reviewers have criticized Werth’s lack of perspective. He fails to provide a guide for readers for how average people incorporated these ideas into their lives. Taking a step back from the material would have allowed Werth an opportunity to grasp a broader perspective. For example, why has Darwinism "won out” over Spencerism? Banquet at Delmonico’s does, however, provide a thought-provoking examination of one of the most influential ideas to affect modern society.