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Originally published Thursday, January 15, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Banquet at Delmonico's" serves great minds

Author Barry Werth's "Banquet at Delmonico's: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America" explores a who's who of science.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Banquet at Delmonico's: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America"

by Barry Werth

Random House, 362 pp., $27

The meal was sumptuous, to say the least. For 2 ½ hours, a group of 200 or so "cultivated and brilliant" men ate at New York's famed Delmonico's restaurant on November 8, 1882. Starting with oysters, they proceeded to poached chicken pastries, striped bass, venison and saddleback duck. After dinner they smoked cigars and heard more than three hours of speeches, culminating with preacher and orator Henry Ward Beecher, who ended his talk in tears. The audience responded with tremendous cheering and clapping.

Oddly, the person happiest that the event was over was Herbert Spencer, the man whom the dinner honored. The English philosopher, ill at ease in the company of other people, was relieved that after three months of travel the banquet was his final event in the United States. Coiner of the phrase "survival of the fittest," Spencer was regarded by many as the greatest intellect of his day, famous and well-read in both America and his home of England. An ardent promoter and defender of the theory of evolution, Spencer had taken Charles Darwin's and Alfred Russel Wallace's ideas out of the realm of natural history and applied them directly to social issues, which is why the well-fed 200 had come together to honor him.

Beginning with this great meal and then jumping back 11 years, author Barry Werth's "Banquet at Delmonico's" weaves a wide-ranging story of the politics and science in the decades after the Civil War. Those years were heady and tumultuous times for America. In the East, the great industries of steel and railroads began to arise, creating some of the first truly rich people in the country, and at the same time a depression was leading to dire poverty. Out West, scientists opened an entire new world with fantastic discoveries of the great beasts — dinosaurs and massive sloths — that once roamed North America. And throughout the country, from Chicago to Washington, D.C., one of the most talked-about ideas was the theory of evolution, discussed by everyone from laymen to scientists to preachers.

As we move forward in time with Werth, we meet a who's who of science. Louis Agassiz and Asa Gray battle over evolution at Harvard; Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope fight over fossils; and Thomas Huxley and Charles Darwin flesh out the details of natural selection. Beecher appears throughout, famous not only for his great speeches but also for his very public adultery trial. He also defends evolution, though in a manner that in modern times we would call intelligent design.

Werth gives the impression that these decades must have been a thrilling time for intellectuals, at least the few famous ones. They were wined and dined. Thousands attended their talks. Railroads provided private cars for them, and presidents sought them out. Though he occasionally bogs down in details, for the most part Werth moves his story along. In doing so he has written a thought-provoking account of a fascinating time in American history.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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