A rich, entertaining slab of Victorian American history, focused on the debate over evolution.
Adopting a format similar to Louis Menand’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Metaphysical Club (2001), historian Werth (The Scarlet Professor, 2001, etc.) follows a dozen figures who made “survival of the fittest” the guiding principle of the Gilded Age. He stresses that Charles Darwin shared the American media spotlight with fellow Englishman Herbert Spencer, who actually coined the famous phrase and felt Darwin received too much credit. More philosopher than naturalist, Spencer wrote on human evolution, interpreting Darwinian natural selection in ways scientists now consider spurious. In Darwin’s view, fitness described an organism’s ability to adapt; the fittest were not the strongest, but those who produced the most offspring. In Spencer’s more pugnacious version, humans battled it out. The strong overpowered the weak, grew prosperous and became civilized, thus evolving into a more advanced species. In the turbulent years following the Civil War, this idea galvanized enthusiastic American “social Darwinists.” They believed Spencer’s version of evolution proved that America’s entrepreneurial spirit, wealth and laissez-faire government marked its citizens as a superior race. Not everyone agreed, and Werth gives an engrossing account of the lives and quarrels of Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Huxley, Louis Agassiz, Carl Schurz, Henry Ward Beecher, Victoria Woodhull and a half-dozen undeservedly lesser-known figures. Many digressions into their private lives, such as the media circus surrounding minister Beecher’s adultery, seem distantly related to the evolution controversy, but few readers will skip them. The finale recounts the 1882 dinner at Delmonico’s, where a Who’s Who of leading men assembled to honor Spencer. Their adulatory speeches brilliantly summarize the book’s theme, although Spencer bit the hands that fed him by lecturing the Americans on being excessively preoccupied with business and preaching the need for a “gospel of relaxation.”
Histories of ideas are rarely page-turners, but Werth has done the trick.