Lessons From the Gilded Age

What Social Darwinists didn’t get about evolution.

Appropriately for a book about the impact of Darwinism on 19th-century American life, Banquet at Delmonico’s has a distinguished intellectual pedigree. In his best-seller The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand wrote a group biography of the thinkers and teachers who made Pragmatism the quasi-official philosophy of post-Civil War America. That book proved what Darwin might have called its literary “fitness” by winning the Pulitzer Prize; so it is only appropriate that now, eight years later, it has produced a kind of offspring in Barry Werth’s new book.

Werth, too, is drawn to the Gilded Age, that ruthless forcing-house of modern American capitalism, and to the apparently recondite philosophical debates that helped form the character of the age. His title refers to a once famous, now forgotten event that might be considered the apotheosis of Social Darwinism in America. On the evening of Nov. 8, 1882, some 200 of the country’s best and brightest gathered at Delmonico’s restaurant, at Fifth Avenue and 26th Street in New York City, to raise a glass to Herbert Spencer, the philosopher who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” and transformed the theory of evolution from a biological hypothesis into an all-powerful explanation of human society, history, and psychology.

Spencer is little-read today, now that Social Darwinism—the doctrine with which his name is always, though not quite fairly, associated—looks less like the science of the future than the ideological self-justification of a rapacious and racist society. But that evening at Delmonico’s, Spencer could be forgiven if he imagined himself the most brilliant human being who had ever walked the earth. As the querulous, sickly philosopher listened, William Evarts—whose career included stints as attorney general, secretary of state, and U.S. senator from New York—announced that “in theology, in psychology, in natural science, in the knowledge of individual man … we acknowledge your labors as surpassing those of any of our kind.” Carl Schurz, a Civil War general and Republican reform politician, called Spencer “one of the great teachers, not merely of a school, but of civilized humanity.” Henry Ward Beecher, celebrity pastor of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church, confessed that Spencer’s works “have been meat and bread to me. … [I]f I had the fortune of a millionaire, and I should pour all my gold at his feet, it would be no sort of compensation compared with what I believe I owe him.”

It was, in short, one of those orgies of self-congratulation in which the Victorians, in America as in England, so delighted. Spencer believed that human society was inevitably progressing toward a perfect future; as apes were to humans, so 19th-century Anglo-American democracy was to the coming utopia. The louder they sang his praises, the surer Spencer’s admirers could feel that they were on the cutting edge of history—that their wealth, power, and racial privilege were not the fruits of luck or exploitation but the marks of election.

This complacency was what made it possible for Beecher to assure his congregants that they should not worry about workers who earned just $1 a day: “Was not a dollar a day enough to buy bread? Water costs nothing. … A family may live on good bread and water in the morning, water and bread at midday, and good bread and water at night.” The well-heeled Brooklynites greeted this homily with laughter, Werth reports, and surely they would not have laughed less if they had known that Henry “Bread and Water” Beecher, as labor leaders started to call him, earned $1,000 per speech on the lecture circuit. Traditionally, a Christian minister might be expected to remind his flock that the poor in spirit are blessed, that it was harder for a rich man to go to heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. But a modern preacher, steeped in the doctrine of evolution, could turn this message on its head: The rich and strong would inherit the earth, while the meek went extinct.

The irony was that this complacency rested on a complete misunderstanding of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwinian evolution is anti-teleological—a mindless process with no goal or direction. Yes, evolution gave rise to complex animals like human beings, but it would be a mistake to say that humans are “higher” creatures than apes in any moral sense: All living things are equally “successful” insofar as they manage to reproduce themselves. The whole thrust of Spencer’s thought, on the other hand, was that, in the words of his American disciple and popularizer Edward Youmans, “life, mind, man, science, art, language, morality, society, government, and institutions are things that have undergone a gradual and continuous unfolding, and can be explained in no other way but by a theory of growth and derivation.”

Oddly, Banquet at Delmonico’s never really offers a clear explanation of Spencer’s views on social evolution and the ways they differed from Darwin’s understanding of biology. (Spencer himself recognized the difference and even insisted on it: He was always reminding people that he came up with his version of evolution years before The Origin of Species appeared in 1859.) Werth is more interested in anecdotes than ideas, and he devotes much more space to Spencer’s rambling letters about his health problems than to his philosophical work.

Yet this lingering confusion is also oddly appropriate, since, as Werth shows, Gilded Age intellectuals themselves often used terms like evolution and positivism with no clear sense of what they really meant. As with so many intellectual buzzwords, from transcendentalism to deconstruction, evolution was not so much the name of an idea as a badge of identity. If you believed in it, you were on the side of science and progress; if you attacked it, you were superstitious or reactionary. Noah Porter, the president of Yale, set off the nation’s first battle over academic freedom when he forbade a young professor from using Spencer’s The Study of Sociology as a textbook on the grounds that it was “substantially atheistic.”

All this, of course, has a weirdly contemporary feel. The kind of opposition that the theory of evolution provoked in the 19th century—passionate, personal, and wholly unscientific—it continues to provoke today. The difference is that now, no Yale president would be caught dead banning a book for being atheistic. The whole religious, scientific, and intellectual establishment is behind Darwinism now, and the only opposition comes from the margins—from religious fundamentalists and small-town school boards. Yet Werth’s book reminds us that, in the past, the “progressive” doctrine of Darwinism authorized a very reactionary politics—culminating in the eugenics movement and the forced sterilization of unfit mothers. It is worth remembering that the most advanced members of society, intellectually speaking, are not always the wisest or the best.