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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Books in passing: Darwin's post-Civil War fans feast on life

Here, Terrell Clemmons reviews Barry Werth's Banquet at Delmonico’s: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America:
Post Civil War America was looking for a new belief system, says social historian Barry Werth. Across the Atlantic Charles Darwin had proposed a new theory of biology, but had left the popularization of it to others. In Banquet at Delmonico’s, Werth chronicles the spread of Darwinian evolution in America, focusing on the works of English philosopher Herbert Spencer.

Reclusive, never married, and chronically dyspeptic, Spencer introduced the phrase “survival of the fittest” in 1851, eight years before Darwin. That Darwin’s name became associated with the concept, even though Spencer had beaten him to publication, seemed to embitter Spencer and fuel his drive to expand evolutionary theory beyond biology. In 1855 Spencer, an agnostic and former civil engineer, had written and self-published Principles of Psychology, applying evolutionary theory to the human mind and behavior, but by 1860, Spencer had undertaken a re-examination of the whole of human history and thought. Calling it, Synthetic Philosophy, he set out to unify virtually all academic disciplines – philosophy, psychology, sociology, ethics, and politics – under the rubric of evolution.

The title comes from an elaborate farewell dinner held in Spencer’s honor at Delmonico’s, a posh Fifth Avenue restaurant in New York. Marking the momentous occasion, William Evarts, a Boston-born statesman, began his toast by declaring to the assembled who’s who of industrialists, Ivy League professors, government dignitaries, and religious leaders that, “Evolution: once an Hypothesis, [is] now the established Doctrine of the Scientific World.”

Few of the dinner guests, though, including Evarts and Spencer, were actually scientists. In fact, there had been dissenting voices among America’s scientists over the previous decade. Harvard paleontologist Louis Agassiz had tenaciously pointed out that the Darwinists furnished an impressive array of “startling and exciting” information, but not a shred of evidence showing one species changing into another. “Hasty generalizing of observation is Darwin all over,” Agassiz had said. “Darwin’s theory … is thus far merely conjectural.”

- Banquet At Delmonico’s – How Darwinism Came to America
Sure, but once the big boys had bought in, any mediocrity could be a Darwinist. Any big hair news anchor could spout that Darwinism was beyond reasonable doubt - because he himself, after all, never has any reasonable doubts, or reasonable beliefs either. But read the rest; it is fun and enlightening. Look inside the book here.

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