Banquet at Delmonico’s — Spencer and Social Darwinism

AS YOU KNOW, the concept of “Social Darwinism” has little to do with Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. It was developed by Herbert Spencer, who, according to Wikipedia:

… developed an all-embracing conception of evolution as the progressive development of the physical world, biological organisms, the human mind, and human culture and societies. … He is best known for coining the phrase “survival of the fittest,” which he did in Principles of Biology (1864), after reading Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. This term strongly suggests natural selection, yet as Spencer extended evolution into realms of sociology and ethics, he made use of Lamarckism rather than natural selection.


[Spencer’s] attempt to explain the evolution of complexity was radically different to that to be found in Darwin’s Origin of Species which was published two years later. Spencer is often, quite erroneously, believed to have merely appropriated and generalized Darwin’s work on natural selection. But although after reading Darwin’s work he coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ as his own term for Darwin’s concept, and is often misrepresented as a thinker who merely applied the Darwinian theory to society, he only grudgingly incorporated natural selection into his preexisting overall system. … Moreover, in contrast to Darwin, he held that evolution had a direction and an end-point, the attainment of a final state of ‘equilibrium.’

In other words, although Spencer read Darwin, he had previously formulated his own views, which aren’t what one would call Darwinian.

There’s a new book out about Spender and Social Darwinism: Banquet at Delmonico’s (Amazon link) by Barry Werth, which was just published by Random House. The Publishers Weekly blurb at Amazon says:

In this fascinating study, Werth (The Scarlet Professor) shows how the idea of social Darwinism, as codified by Herbert Spencer, took hold in the United States, underpinning the philosophy of the Gilded Age’s social, cultural and financial elite. Anchoring his story with the stunning Delmonico’s celebration honoring the departure of Spencer after a triumphant tour of the United States in 1882, Werth rightly depicts the frame of reference Spencer left behind as a predecessor to Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, with its focus on unrestrained self-interest and unbridled capitalism. As Werth explains, Spencer’s interpretation of Darwinism won the approval of not only robber barons but also prominent religious, scientific and political leaders.

The Wall Street Journal has an article about the book: Darwin in the New World, subtitled “When the father of Social Darwinism came to America, the place where the fittest were supposed to thrive.” Here are some excerpts, with bold added by us:

Herbert Spencer, the 19th-century British philosopher, is remembered today as the forbidding — almost forbidden — father of “Social Darwinism,” a school of thought declaring that the fittest prosper in a free marketplace and the human race is gradually improved because only the strong survive. In Barry Werth’s satisfying “Banquet at Delmonico’s,” Spencer is also a querulous 62-year-old celibate whose 1882 American tour culminates in a feast to which are invited the “mostly Republican men of science, religion, business, and government” who shared and spread the Spencerian creed.

We’ve read elsewhere that the title’s “banquet” was held in November of 1882. Charles Darwin died in April of that same year, probably oblivious to Spencer’s activities. Let’s read on:

… Spencer concluded that vigorous competition and unfettered capitalism conduced to the betterment of society. He predicted that the American, raised in liberty, would evolve into “a finer type of man than has hitherto existed,” dazzling the world with “the highest form of government” and “a civilization grander than any the world has known.” Somehow I don’t think he had Rod Blagojevich and Justin Timberlake in mind. Though as Henry Adams commented at the time: “The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant, was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.”

Interesting stuff. Here’s more:

Mr. Werth wisely elevates to co-leading man the Brooklyn pastor and Christian Darwinist Henry Ward Beecher (1813-87), star of his era’s marquee sex scandal. Beecher, whose sister Harriet had written “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” almost surely bedded the comely Elizabeth Tilton. His mistress told her husband, who told Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who told the flamboyant priestess of free love Victoria Woodhull, who told the world, vowing: “I will make it hotter on earth for Henry Ward Beecher than Hell is below.”

Obviously, this book — like Spencer himself — strays very far from Charles Darwin’s work. Here’s more:

Reading Spencer convinced [Andrew] Carnegie that progress was godliness and that “all is well since all grows better.” He saw no “conceivable end” to man’s “march to perfection.” Carnegie buddied up to Spencer on the philosopher’s ocean crossing, though he was taken aback when, expecting his hero to discourse on topics lofty, he heard him chew out a waiter for serving the wrong kind of cheese. Spencer offered the good-humored defense that “no man is equal to his book.”


Andrew Carnegie, would see his “Spencerian faith in reason and progress” shattered by the barbarism of World War I. Carnegie’s greatest legacy would owe more to old-fashioned charity than Social Darwinism: He gave away money to build small-town libraries and restore church organs.

Clearly, this doesn’t have much to do with evolution or creationism, but because Spencer’s ideas are so often used by creationists to criticize Darwin, it’s worth knowing how unrelated their thinking really was.

Copyright © 2009. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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