Banquet at Delmonico’s: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America
Banquet at Delmonico’s is a densely packed history of the rise of social Darwinism in the United States between 1871 and 1882. Each chapter traces a year’s events in the lives of scientific, religious, and political leaders who embraced or rejected this offshoot of Darwinian evolutionary theory.
The English philosopher, Edmund Spencer, extended Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest beyond nature to history, society, politics, economics, and morals. He is the hero of this history — or the villain, depending on one’s standpoint — and it is in his honor that the banquet at New York’s Delmonico Restaurant was given. The celebration is the launching point of Werth’s chronicle.
The author provides thumbnail biographies of the prominent men, and the one woman, Victoria Woodhull, who played roles in the tempestuous debate over the new theory. This is a great reference help as the author tracks all fifteen of them over the entire period.
The book is chatty and filled with all kinds of interesting trivia. (Who knew what Princeton’s “rocket cheer” was?) But the theme couldn’t be more serious. Spencer’s social Darwinism was used to justify imperialism, capitalism, racism, and eugenics programs. This is a worthwhile read — not to be overlooked in this day of facile acceptance of evolutionary theory.