Social Darwinism: Background information when reading Banquet at Delmonico's

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Banquet at Delmonico's

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

by Barry Werth

Banquet at Delmonico's by Barry Werth
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2009, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2011, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Micah Gell-Redman

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Beyond the Book:
Social Darwinism

Print Review

It may seem that the concept of globalization is a very new one, and that the growth of free trade and its accompanying controversy belong to our era alone. In fact, the 1860s saw an explosion of trade between nations, accompanied by a doctrine of free markets unbridled by government intervention. Unlike today, though, many of the free marketeers of this earlier era were willing to apply their logic outside the realm of economics, to human societies and to human beings themselves.

These are the Social Darwinists (sometimes called Social Positivists) whose thinking stood behind the great economic expansion, was challenged by a global recession, and ultimately fell out of favor in the United States when the princely accumulation of wealth and power by a generation of Robber Barons was recognized as jarringly undemocratic.

Isidore Auguste Marie François Xavier ComteThe intellectual grandfather of the Social Darwinists was a Frenchman named August Comte, who argued that the progress of science would ultimately yield a perfect society. This faith in rational pursuits was transformed by the English philosopher Herbert Spencer into a belief that rationally sound laws could lead to the perfection of the human race, if only they were allowed to operate without interference.

Spencer and his many followers built on the older concept that humans in their natural state are locked in constant warfare with one another. To this they added the essentially Darwinian view that the struggle for survival will naturally result in the most fit emerging as the victors.

In practice, these arguments were used to justify unfettered accumulation of wealth by the few, racial superiority and imperial conquest.

Image: Isidore Auguste Marie François Xavier Comte (1798-1857)

This article was originally published in January 2009, and has been updated for the April 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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