Banquet At Delmonico’s – How Darwinism Came to America

Banquet at Delmonico’s
Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America

by Barry Werth

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.

For her part, America, young and wildly growing, took to Spencer’s suggestion of societal progress like a maiden to a handsome suitor. To be more specific, a diverse assortment of leading figures took to it. In Banquet at Delmonico’s, Werth illuminates these elites who directed the period’s intellectual currents and narrates their decade-long trans Atlantic love-fest, which culminated in Spencer’s 1882 tour of America.

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.”

But Agassiz died in 1873, and other more favorable scientists had taken his place. Yale paleontologist Othniel Charles (O.C.) Marsh, for example, whose extensive fossil collection had been pronounced by Thomas Huxley to be physical evidence of evolution, despite the fact that some of his discoveries were later exposed as overzealous and unscrupulous, if not fraudulent.

Banquet at Delmonico’s depicts fervent proselytizers promoting a revolutionary paradigm to a largely receptive audience, all the while persuaded and persuading that somebody somewhere has proven it factually true. Andrew Carnegie’s adoption of evolution typified many. Already doubtful about religion, Carnegie read Spencer and Darwin and concluded, “Not only had I got rid of theology and the supernatural, but I had found the truth of evolution.”

Advancing as if they truly inhabited a system forged by evolutionary struggle, where the fittest survive by out-propagating the competition, Spencer’s proponents overtook American thought, declaring Evolution to be the de facto established, scientific view. It simply was because all the intelligent people said it was.

This review first appeared in Salvo Summer 2009, Issue 9.

3 Comments on “Banquet At Delmonico’s – How Darwinism Came to America

  1. “It simply was because all the intelligent people said it was.”

    I find the same issue with Scripture. Most believe certain doctrines because credible competent people hold that particular view. Then once a majority maintains that same Biblical doctrine or scientific theory, most are too intimidated to question the status quo. It’s a rather insidious method of developing “certainties”. Once the decades evolve into centuries there’s no going back—at least not without a serious fight.

    I have found that the need to establish the preponderance of evidence is always on the side of the challenger. Overturning anything takes far more effort and evidence than the thing one is attempting to rebuff.

    And all along I thought it was Darwin not Spencer who coined “The survival of the fittest.” My world is shattered! 🙂

    Thanks Terrell.


  2. Chuck, I agree with you. I see many of us in churchianity viewing Scripture through the lens of our doctrine rather than vice versa. It can become cultish.

    I think we’re all more prone to groupthink that we like to think.


  3. “Groupthink”…I really like that. ExpertThink or AuthorityThink is another. Who dares trifle with a scientist educated in spectrograpy or the theolgian schooled in ancient languages? All too often we (I may be alone on this) are intimated out of our call to “test all things and hold on to that which is good”(1 Thes 5:21).

    Once we venture out past the man-made fences, the gatekeepers brand us with the big “H”. From faithful to fallacious. Everyone appears to be a heretic but the ones doing the heretic hunting. A little spec/beam thing is going on there. Eschatology is a prime example. Once you begin to distance yourself from “LeftBehindology”, it’s as if you are no longer a Christian. How dare you question these sacrosanct traditions (even if they’ve only been with us for 180 years)?

    “Evolution: once an Hypothesis, [is] now the established Doctrine of the Scientific World.”

    Talk about a blind leap of wishful thinking for those that don’t have their spiritual houses in order. I guess the above statement settles it for me. No need for further scrutiny. Who am I to question the theories of men far more learned and accomplished than I?

    How many have these men bullied into believing creationism has religious foundations that fall far short of scientific demands? Holy piltdown man, Batman!

    True intellectuals and seekers of the truth don’t have nearly this kind of dogmatic approach. They aren’t afraid of honest debate. A willingness to be wrong is the first step in attempting to be right. Most evolutionists (that I’ve rubbed shoulders with) tend to have the least tolerance for other points of view. In my estimation, a truly scientific approach doesn’t begin with empirically-driven presuppositions.

    And regarding our call to be fair-minded and open to truth that may have alluded us thus far. Dr. Luke applauded the Bereans because they were more noble than their Thessalonian counterparts.

    “These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so. Acts 17:11

    I think we need to become Bereans in all areas of life (including science), always striving to attain to the truth, while constantly searching the Scriptures. Even the Apostle Paul was not above the Berean scrutiny. They measured everything he said against the backdrop of the law and the prophets.

    Regarding YEC vs OEC, and it’s relevance to youth leaving the church, I believe the following articles/videos are valuable. (article) article) (video) (follow-up video) (article)

    Blessings all,
    Chuck (a project in the making)


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