Excerpt from Banquet at Delmonico's by Barry Werth, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Banquet at Delmonico's

Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America

by Barry Werth

Banquet at Delmonico's
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Jan 2009, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2011, 400 pages

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Micah Gell-Redman

Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt


Darwin had long avoided publishing his ideas on human evolution, letting Huxley and others speculate before him on the effects of natural selection and the universal linkages between people and animals. But by 1867, eight years after Origin and following two years of crushing illness - vomiting, nausea, eczema, and an "accursed stomach" that for months on end left him sleepless and all but unable to work - he decided he could wait no longer. His "man-essay," as he had described it to Gray, had grown into two parts. The first, due to be published at the end of the month, addressed the conjoined questions of whether man, like any other species, descended from earlier forms; the manner of human development; and, most explosively, for this had been his urgent agenda since he first recorded his thoughts on evolution in secret notebooks thirty-five years earlier, "the value of the differences between the so-called races of man" - the race question. A follow-up book - a rare sudden respite from his health problems was now letting him surge ahead, writing four hundred pages in three months, and adding, for the first time, photographs - would address the similarities in feelings and expression between humans and animals. Hence his interest in Laura Bridgman.

Darwin informed Gray that he had finished work on the first volume - The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, now at the printer’s - and would soon send him a copy. "Parts, as to the moral sense, will I daresay aggravate you," he wrote, "and if I hear from you I shall probably receive a few stabs from your polished stiletto of a pen."

Polite jests aside, Darwin and Gray had long since argued themselves into a stalemate on many fronts. Darwin had confessed to Gray a year earlier that he was having great difficulty explaining the animal underpinnings of civilized behavior - the "moral sense" - and he dreaded another onslaught of scalding criticism, public and private, from Gray and others. Many people might be prepared for Darwin to claim that man physically descended from apes, as Huxley and several other widely respected naturalists had already done, through the process of natural selection - "survival of the fittest," to use Spencer’s phrase. But how did one explain a mechanism for discerning right from wrong? Good from evil? Righteousness from sin? What animal ancestry, he knew he’d be asked, could possibly account for such virtues as a love of justice, or of Jesus?

All these added up to the "highest and most interesting problem for the naturalist," which Darwin now sought to answer. He had come to attribute morality to a combination of three evolutionary forces: instinctive sympathy born (as in many other species, notably dogs and monkeys) of family and tribal ties in the struggle for survival; habit ingrained by social behavior; and education. At the same time, natural science contained for Darwin, who grew up in a world of deep-seated antiroyalist and anti- Anglican leanings, a political thrust. Nothing so appalled him as blind Christian acceptance of the immorality and sufferings of genocide and slavery - nothing except the use of science to justify that indifference. Loath to offend a pious wife and friends like Gray, he withheld from making direct attacks on religion in his new work, seeking instead to show only how such creeds might have evolved. "How so many absurd rules of conduct, as well as so many absurd religious beliefs, have originated, we do not know," he wrote in Descent,

but it is worthy of remark that a belief constantly inculcated during the early years of life, whilst the brain is impressible, appears to acquire almost the nature of an instinct; and the very nature of an

Darwin had made up his mind about racial origins during his voyage, where he first encountered the "shocking barbarity" of slavery in Brazil, then primitive "savages" in Tierra del Fuego, but only now felt confident enough in his research to publish his theory. Two views of racial descent recently competed in Western thought, neither egalitarian. People either believed all humans descended from a single stock (monogenism), and that while the entire species had degraded since Creation, some races, usually those in hot climates, degraded more than others; or else that the races were created separately and hierarchically, with distinct and unequal endowments (polygenism). Either way, whites had no difficulty deeming themselves intellectually and morally superior. Darwin, though he shared in the general self-congratulation, held the radical notion that racial distinctions were fundamentally cosmetic: that features such as skin color and hair texture were simply caused by sexual selection - different beauty standards and mating preferences among different groups. However disturbing the notion to contemporary Western sensibilities, he believed that all mankind was one species. As he now predicted confidently in Descent, "when the principles of evolution are generally accepted, as they surely will be before long, the dispute between the monogenists and the polygenists will die a silent and unobserved death."

Excerpted from Banquet at Delmonico's by Barry Werth. Copyright © 2009 by Barry Werth. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  Social Darwinism

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member
and discover your next great read!

Join Today!

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
The Opposite of Everyone
by Joshilyn Jackson

"Quirky and appealing characters, an engaging story, and honest dialogue make this a great book!"
- BookBrowse

About the book
Join the discussion!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Holding Up the Universe
    Holding Up the Universe
    by Jennifer Niven
    Jennifer Niven's spectacular Holding Up the Universe has everything that I love about Young ...
  • Book Jacket: Coffin Road
    Coffin Road
    by Peter May
    From its richly atmospheric opening to its dramatic conclusion, Peter May's Coffin Road is a ...
  • Book Jacket: The Guineveres
    The Guineveres
    by Sarah Domet
    It's a human need to know one's own identity, to belong to someone, to yearn for a place ...

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    Victoria
    by Daisy Goodwin

    Daisy Goodwin breathes new life into Victoria's story, and does so with sensitivity, verve, and wit." - Amanda Foreman

    Read Member Reviews

Win this book!
Win All the Gallant Men

All The Gallant Men

The first memoir by a USS Arizona survivor, 75 years after Pearl Harbor.

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

K Y Eyes P

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.

 
X

Free Weekly Newsletter

Keep up with what's happening in the world of books:
Reviews, previews, interviews and more!



Spam Free: Your email is never shared with anyone; opt out any time.