Sociable Darwinists

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Reviewed by Louis Bayard
Sunday, January 11, 2009


Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America

By Barry Werth

Random House. 362 pp. $27

Breakfast at Tiffany's it ain't. Rather, this ambitious and diffuse intellectual history is about what happens when a bunch of smart guys get hold of a big five-course meal of an idea -- the idea, specifically, that modern life forms have evolved over time and that this process is guided not by God but by Nature.

From the moment it was put forth by Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species, natural selection was seen as an affront to traditional religion. But, like religion, it soon proved amenable to a dizzying number of agendas. Marx and Engels tried to claim it for "scientific socialism." Andrew Carnegie viewed it as an endorsement of Steel Age prosperity. Theologian John Fiske discovered proof of "the eternal Power that lives in every event of the universe." Carl Schurz, a U.S. politician and former German revolutionary, believed that Darwinism affirmed liberal democratic freedoms, while political economist William Graham Sumner found only a rationale for pitiless social programs.

Remember the six blind men of Hindustan who felt the elephant and declared it to be, variously, a wall, spear, snake, tree, fan and rope? Each was partly in the right, and all were in the wrong. And no one was, perhaps, more in the wrong than the man whom many Darwinists esteemed above all: Herbert Spencer, a British philosopher who -- bravely or foolishly, depending on your perspective -- followed evolution's implications to their outermost limit.

Having seen how well Darwin's theory worked in the biological world, Spencer asked, in essence: Why shouldn't evolution work just as well in describing the social organism? The political animal? Art, economics, morality, metaphysics . . . everything in the human experience could be brought within the same "cosmic value system." The law of survival could apply everywhere. Spencer couched his findings in scientific rhetoric, but he wasn't the sort to crawl after tortoises and finches. Generalization was his gift -- and his curse -- and no one was more skeptical of him than Darwin. Spencer's theories, he wrote, "never convince me: and over and over I have said to myself, after reading one of his discussions, -- 'Here would be a fine subject for half-a-dozen years' work.' "

But Spencer didn't have that kind of time. He was in a hurry to be great, and he found a nation in the same hurry. Within the expanding boundaries of America, Spencer became even more famous than Darwin, as ministers, politicians and captains of industry seized on his work to justify their own ambitions. America -- rich, young, overwhelmingly "fit" -- gave Spencer the ideal proving ground for his ideas; he, in turn, gave America the implicit assurance that it was the endpoint of human evolution.

Now, if we applied evolutionary theory to literary canons, we might expect Banquet at Delmonico's to be even better than Barry Werth's previous book, The Scarlet Professor, a generous, beautifully wrought portrait of gay academic Newton Arvin. Unfortunately, Werth's talents for character study and exposition don't shine as brightly in this wide-ranging account of social Darwinism's rise in America. The titular banquet, an 1882 testimonial dinner in Spencer's honor at Manhattan's finest restaurant, was something of a bust at the time, and it doesn't fare much better as a narrative hook. Lacking the kind of framing device that Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club found in a post-Civil War discussion group, Werth has two routes open to him: to forge straight ahead on a single chronological axis or to tear off on multiple tangents. He takes both routes.

Certainly, there's no harm in revisiting the 1876 presidential election or the Garfield assassination or the sex scandal surrounding preacher Henry Ward Beecher, but what exactly does any of it have to do with Darwinism and its discontents? And while I admire Werth's reluctance to lecture his readers, if ever a book cried out for perspective and interpretation and even a dash or two of editorializing, it's this one.

Start with that subtitle. Does Werth honestly believe that evolution triumphed in America? As recently as 2005, a CBS poll revealed that half of Americans still believe God created humans in their present form and that only 15 percent believe in evolution without divine guidance. If Darwin really had triumphed, the words "intelligent design" would never again be heard where adults gather.

In the scientific community, at least, Darwin's theory has withstood nearly 150 years of rigorous scrutiny. Time has not been so kind, however, to the Social Darwinists. We have Spencer to thank for coining the term "survival of the fittest," but what he really meant was survival of the finest. He opposed any government interference in business or society because it would keep unsound specimens from being weeded out. (He himself was notably frail.) His paeans to the Aryan race no longer have the quasi-scientific panache they once did, and now that the fever glow of evolution has passed, we may find it easier to question his starting assumption. Why should a theory that unlocks one realm of knowledge necessarily unlock every other realm?

The most modest and least overreaching figure to emerge from Banquet at Delmonico's is Darwin, who refused to go beyond what he knew and who could be found, late in life, crawling through the woods on his estate, gathering new evidence among the local earthworms, making certain of the ground beneath him. ยท

Louis Bayard is a novelist and reviewer. His most recent book is "The Black Tower."

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