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.
I mailed this today:
September 28, 2009
The Honorable Evan Bayh
1650 Market Tower
10 West Market Street
Indianapolis, IN 46204
Dear Senator Bayh,
Thank you for your letter of September 3rd 2009, on the impact of global climate change. Thank you especially for your invitation to continue informing you of the issues important to me.
Your letter states that the scientific consensus on this issue is unequivocal and that greenhouse gas emissions from human activity are definitely causing global warming. Perhaps you are not aware of the Global Warming Petition, which was signed by over 31,000 climatologists, meteorologists and other scientists. The succinct petition reads:
“We urge the United States government to reject the global warming agreement that was written in Kyoto, Japan in December, 1997, and any other similar proposals. The proposed limits on greenhouse gases would harm the environment, hinder the advance of science and technology, and damage the health and welfare of mankind.
“There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gasses is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate. Moreover, there is substantial scientific evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide produce many beneficial effects upon the natural plant and animal environments of the Earth.”
Like you, I am not a climatologist, but I do understand the meaning of “unequivocal.” What I don’t understand is how you understand the consensus to be unequivocal if 31,478 scientists, including 9029 Ph.D.’s, publicly espoused a dissenting position.
Since you mentioned your concern for Hoosier ratepayers, workers, and businesses, and any climate change legislation would have a significant impact on them, I encourage you to include these experts’ opinions when you discuss this most important issue. To do less sir, is, frankly, deceptive. Moreover, as a leader in the Senate, I hope you will inform your Senate colleagues of the views of this excluded body of experts. You can find more information about the Global Warming Petition and its signers at www.petitionproject.org.
Thank you for your time and attention,
In the spring of 2000, we took our kids to Washington DC. One evening, we came upon a group of 20-30 Cuban Americans demonstrating in front of the White House. They were protesting President Clinton’s decision to send Elian Gonzalez back to Cuba. They carried signs and sang and chanted, “Don’t send Elian back.” A policeman on a bike watched from nearby, but it was a peaceful protest and he appeared unconcerned.
As a parent of school-aged kids, I seized on this teachable moment like a bird dog chasing a rabbit. I spent one day behind the Berlin Wall, but it was enough for me to understand the value of free speech. “This is free speech!” I nearly shouted. “You can’t do this everywhere in the world. This is freedom.” It didn’t even matter to me that they thought Mom had fallen off her rocker. This mattered, and I wanted them to observe it and understand.
Contrast that with this video of some protesters in Pittsburgh last Friday:
I’m not familiar with what was going on at the G20 or what the protesters were protesting. What strikes me is the appearance of the Pittsburgh police marching toward them in lockstep and threatening force if they don’t cease and desist.
I wonder: will my kids raise their children in a country as free as the one they grew up in?
The Wall Street Journal ran an article in its Life & Style section a few weeks back called, “Man vs. God.” They had commissioned Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins to address the question, Where does evolution leave God? You can read the article here
If you’re familiar with outspoken atheist, Richard Dawkins, you won’t be surprised at his take. Evolution is. God isn’t. End of story.
Karen Armstrong’s response, though, was more artistic. She spoke of two complementary ways of arriving at truth, which the Greeks called mythos and logos. Both were recognized by scholars as legitimate. Logos was reason, logic, intellect. But logos alone couldn’t speak to the deep question human beings ask like, What is the meaning of life? and, Why do bad things happen to good people? For that, she said, people turned to mythos – stories, regardless of whether or not they were true, that helped us make sense out of the difficulties of life. They were therapeutic. We could think of them as an early form of psychology. Here’s what she said:
“Religion was not supposed to provide explanations that lay within the competence of reason but to help us live creatively with realities for which there are no easy solutions and find an interior haven of peace; today, however, many have opted for unsustainable certainty instead. But can we respond religiously to evolutionary theory? Can we use it to recover a more authentic notion of God?
“Darwin made it clear [that] we cannot regard God simply as a divine personality, who single-handedly created the world. This could direct our attention away from the idols of certainty and back to the ‘God beyond God.’ The best theology is a spiritual exercise, akin to poetry.”
Here’s how I understand what she’s saying: Not only is the truth of any religious story irrelevant, it is incorrect to believe any account concerning God as objectively true. To do so is to construct an idol of certainty. How do we know that? Because of the certainty of Darwinian Evolution.
Her response, at bottom, isn’t very different from the atheist’s. Evolution is. God isn’t. But some of us like to imagine that he is.
The frontrunner in “Man vs. God” according to the Wall Street Journal appears to be unanimous: Man. I’d love to have the platform of the Wall Street Journal, but since I don’t, I’ll just toss out my piece here: God is.
I suggest a third way of knowing truth – revelation. Because if there is a God, he can reveal himself if he so chooses. I like the ideas of mythos and logos. Some people come to believe in God through the portal of mythos. Rituals, stories, and artistic expressions can communicate to the soul in ways words can’t. Others come to know God through the portal of logos. Long time atheist intellectual, Antony Flew renounced his atheism a few years ago after seeing the complex language of DNA. “Intelligence must have been involved,” he said.
But revelation is a whole new realm, and my personal opinion is it only comes to those who want to know. “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart,” God said. The real question is, Do you want to know?
For all my friends out there who do believe, I’d love to hear how you came to that place. Did it start through mythos? logos? Did God later reveal himself to you in a supernatural way? I suspect there are some great stories that are well worth being told. Here’s a platform. Would you tell it? Or if you don’t want it posted, send it to me in an email.
I believe the winner of Man vs. God will ultimately be God. What do you think?
The Housing Boom and Bust
by Thomas Sowell, Economist Extraordinaire
A straightforward case study that should be required reading for American voters, political science students, and anyone who supports government interventions into business “for the good of society.” In The Housing Boom and Bust, Sowell analyzes the housing boom which peaked in 2005, and the collapse which followed shortly thereafter.
Here’s the chain of events, as he presents them:
(1) Beginning in the 1970’s land use restrictions were enacted in certain areas, for example coastal California, Arizona, and a few others. This reduced the amount of developable land which led to higher housing costs in those areas.
(2) Citing “skyrocketing” housing costs and the noble goal of affordable housing for all, politicians began pressuring, bullying, and at times forcing banks to lower lending standards so more buyers could obtain a mortgage. At the same time, HUD began charging banks with discrimination for denying minority applicants, further squeezing high risk loans out of mortgage lenders.
(3) Economists who warned of the risk of a future collapse were ignored, and regulators who uncovered “irregularities” were silenced.
(4) Borrowers began lagging in payments, home values which had been falsely inflated began to decline, and by 2006, the house of cards was beginning to implode.
(5) Politicians, some of whom personally enacted the policies that created the boom and bust, blamed Wall Street, banks, political opponents, anyone and anything except the actual cause which was government intervention into banking.
(6) In October of 2008, the federal government began spending taxpayer dollars and in exorbitant amounts and further intervening into the business realm to “save” the economy.
The case study demonstrates how political posturing, policies, and legislation, whether well-meaning or not, are the biggest cause of the mess our economy is in now. Sowell evenly criticizes Republicans and Democrats, so you won’t find a single partisan argument here, just a smart man hammering facts and drawing lines from causes to effects. It’s a book for citizens.
Whether you fear government takeover, or believe in the power of government to solve problems, check him out. Then come back her and tell me about it.
I’ll never forget the day. Who could? The events of September 11th 2001 drove home to me a few points:
(1) We live in an unstable and dangerous world. Some people in it are bent on destruction.
(2) I’ve taken safety and relative security for granted. Life can end for me or you at any time.
(3) I’ve neglected to tell people I love and value that I love and value them.
(4) Coming to terms with God and the ultimate questions of life matters.
What did September 11th teach you?
I’m blowing 16 years of dust off my computer programming skills and attempting to get me a blog up and running. How am I doing so far?