The L Word

wallace wells herbert spencer The L WordAngels and Ages: A Short Book about
Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life

By Adam Gopnik
Alfred A. Knopf, 211 pages, $24.95

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

By Barry Werth
Random House, 362 pages, $27

“Fifty years ago no one would have chosen Darwin and Lincoln as central figures of the modern imagination,” the essayist Adam Gopnik writes in Angels and Ages, his elegant, intelligent meditation on skepticism and the making of the liberal mind. The likelier picks, he says, would have been Marx and Freud, men of the 19th century who gave us auteur visions of life in the 20th, models of human behavior so comprehensive they were not just didactic but prescriptive, so vividly rendered that they retain their grip on us even after they’ve fallen into disrepute.

Darwin and Lincoln, by contrast, have never been held in higher regard—they were born, miraculously, on the same day, hours apart on Feb. 12, 1809 (a coincidence Mr. Gopnik likens to the deaths of both Adams and Jefferson on July 4, 1826), and the twin bicentennial promises literally dozens of books on each this year—yet Mr. Gopnik believes they are underrated still. Both were visionary men, like Marx and Freud and many other illustrious figures of the period. But what interests Mr. Gopnik about Darwin and Lincoln, and what he says have made them heroes again in our era, is not the breadth of their vision but their common restraint in expressing it, their shared skepticism about the value of amorphous quantities such as “vision” and their commitment to relentless scrutiny and self-scrutiny as the only way to make new knowledge in the modern age.

Above all else, what fascinates Mr. Gopnik is the language. Victorian English was blustery and boastful, but in their writing and speaking, Darwin and Lincoln were austere, restrained. “Our idea of eloquence—which includes a suspicion of too much of it—begins here,” he writes, with them. They “shared logic as a form of eloquence, argument as a style of virtue, close reasoning as a form of uplift.” They argued from facts, and were empiricists with language, too, using words to sharpen ideas, rather than inflate them. “They particularized in everything, and their general vision rises from the details, their big ideas from small sightings,” Mr. Gopnik says. “Good writers have always argued from facts, but few before had taken such narrow paths of reason toward the broad road of truth. Each, using a form of technical language—the fine, detailed language of natural science for Darwin, the tedious language of legal reasoning for Lincoln—arrived at a new ideal of liberal eloquence.”

This new eloquence, characterized by skepticism and restraint, is, for Mr. Gopnik, not merely a question of rhetorical power. It’s a new language, but it’s also our language, the language of modern liberalism. It’s the very essence of free and clear thought, and “essential to liberal civilization,” he writes, suggesting, too, that in its debt to skepticism, liberalism—of the kind that’s plural and parliamentary in culture, agnostic and ameliorative in politics—may have more in common with the postmodern tradition that has so often challenged it than the modern tradition that gave birth to it.

 

DARWIN’S CHIEF CONTEMPORARY rival had a very different approach to rhetoric, and to reasoning. The gentleman British polymath named Herbert Spencer took issue not with the validity of Darwin’s theory but the breadth of its implications. Like many others, Spencer’s work on evolution had predated Darwin’s, but it also outflanked it—applying the model of gradual improvement through competition to economics, politics, philosophy, ethics, industry, psychology and religion. Though Spencer is usually called a Social Darwinist—even the father of Social Darwinism—it would probably be more appropriate, as the historian Steven Shapin has written, to think of Darwin as a kind of biological Spencerian.

Spencer coined the term “survival of the fittest,” which Darwin resisted, and speculated rampantly on the future of society and the course of progress, which Darwin also resisted. Spencer believed competition was natural, and that it generated progress, in all cases; Darwin believed history had no purpose, and that natural selection was amoral. Spencer was a hero to the industrial class (“Thanks to Spencer, Victorian capitalists knew that nature was on their side,” Mr. Shapin has written), and a kind of cheerleader for the go-go Gilded Age. His laissez-faire triumphalism represented the market value of Darwin’s scrupulous, rigorous work, and in that era, the market reigned supreme.

The 20th century was the American century, we’re often told. But most of those things that allowed the United States to command the world stage for any period at all happened, in fact, the century before. In the first half of the 19th century, America warred again with Britain, firmly securing independence; reached the Pacific and took most of the Southwest in a war with Mexico; turned an agrarian economy into a market economy; established corporate protections; and industrialized, urbanized and developed a genuine middle class. In the second half, we mastered the steam engine and the electric motor; replaced a continental frontier with a continent of steel by spanning the landmass with telegraph wires and railroads; began an experiment with imperialism; industrialized more, urbanized more, federalized our culture as well as our politics; and lit the new cities of the now not-so-new nation with Edison’s incandescent lamps. In between, we had a little war.

Herbert Spencer was a kind of prophet for these years, and when he traveled to the United States in 1882, he was greeted as no less than a philosopher king, cheered by an amazing array of American titans, who assembled at a banquet tribute that was unquestionably the social event of the New York season.

That tribute is the subject of Barry Werth’s Banquet at Delmonico’s, a well-meaning but deeply frustrating effort to fashion an intellectual history from a dinner-party seating chart. And yet, there’s a lesson in this narrowness, of the smallness of the intellectual elite as recently as the Victorian era, when so many of the nation’s leading figures found themselves in intimate correspondence with one another.

And there’s a lesson, too, in that correspondence, of the sickliness of that culture: Nearly every character in Mr. Werth’s book, each of them thrilled by Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” imperative, complains in his letters of aches, pains, colds, falls, bruises, flu, insomnia and sleepless nights, fatigue physical and mental, and countless indistinct maladies and afflictions that should probably be chalked up to unadulterated health panic. (Mr. Gopnik reminds us that his heroes were no different: “Lincoln was a depressive; Darwin, subject to anxiety attacks so severe that he wrote down one of the most formidable definitions of a panic attack that exists.”) In the company of these eminent Victorians, the feeble Spencer presides as a kind of hypochondriac in chief.

 

THEY HAD NOT COME to bury Spencer, of course, but to praise him. “We recognize in the breadth of your knowledge,” the former attorney general and secretary of state William Evarts told Spencer, “a greater comprehension than any living man has presented to our generation.” Oliver Wendell Holmes declared that Spencer “has come nearer to the realization of Bacon’s claim of all knowledge as his province than any philosopher of his time.” The German-born Carl Schurz, a future senator who had read Spencer by candlelight while serving in the Union army two decades before, announced that, had Southerners read the book before secession, “there would never have been any war for the preservation of slavery.” Schurz called Spencer “a hero of thought, devoting his powers and his life to the vindication of the divine right of science.” The Episcopal rector and Yale professor of political economy William Sumner continued in this vein: “I can see no boundaries to the scope of the philosophy of evolution,” he said. “That philosophy is sure to embrace all the interests of Man on this Earth. It will be one of its crowning triumphs to bring light and order into the social problems which are of universal bearing on all mankind. Mr. Spencer is breaking the path for us into this domain. We stand eager to follow him into it, and we look upon his work on sociology as a grand step in the history of science.”

But what, exactly, did these men mean by “science”? When Darwin published On the Origin of Species, the germ theory of disease was still a controversial proposition. We hadn’t yet really harnessed electricity. Nobody knew about genes, and though Gregor Mendel had developed a model for the inheritance of traits by 1865, nobody knew about Mendel until 1900. At that point, atomic theory was still not yet considered settled physical law.

Of course, not everything seemed uncertain. Phrenology was accepted science. The practice of most doctors relied on the theory of the four humors, which often demanded tremendous bloodletting. Scientific racism was, of course, terrifically popular, and often demanded a different kind of bloodletting.

To the men gathered at Delmonico’s, science was not a knowledge enterprise. It was a power enterprise. It had little to do with free inquiry and testable hypotheses; it had much more to do with methods of controlling nature through intelligence and capital, as the term “technology” implies today. It concerned the frontier, and America’s right to it, and the world’s wealth, and America’s right to it. Social Darwinism wasn’t a failed science, or a pseudoscience; it was, like the assembly line, a philosophy of technology, which seemed to confirm, and be confirmed by, the country’s long-standing faith in its own providence.

 

AMONG THE LAST TO speak at the Delmonico’s banquet was Henry Ward Beecher. A giant of an earlier era (Lincoln said that no one in history had “so productive a mind,” and Sinclair Lewis would later call him the “Archbishop of American liberal Protestantism”), Beecher had been humbled in the past decade by a spiraling sexual scandal. In preacherly tones, he spoke of sin—man’s propensity for it, his struggle against it and, obliquely, of his own transgressions, which had not simply diminished his celebrity as a theologian and public intellectual but had divided his congregation, turning many of his patrons against him and transforming the shape of his own faith in the process. Beecher had recently withdrawn from membership in his congregational association, saying that though he believed “without reserve” in Christ and his divinity, his more fundamental belief was now in the theory of evolution. At Delmonico’s, he was seeking absolution of a new kind, not from God but from science, and he invoked man’s animal past as a way to make sense of his own inner turmoil. He had no use for Christian doctrine anymore, he said. “It will not be twenty years before a man will be ashamed to stand up in any intelligent pulpit and mention it,” he declared.

Beecher was not alone, of course, in thinking that Christian faith of the kind he inherited from his parents belonged to the past, while the scientific values cheered by the Victorian elite were the frontier of the future. So why didn’t Darwin knock out religion, once and for all? The answer is undoubtedly a complex one, but in Angels and Ages Mr. Gopnik suggests one intriguing hypothesis—that the two weren’t ever, actually, in natural conflict: The real enemy of religion isn’t science, he says, it’s history.

American religion of the 19th century, Mr. Gopnik reminds us, was no longer in the business of making materialistic truth claims; what it offered instead was an ethical structure that implied a moral orientation. That orientation, Mr. Gopnik writes, “involved what could be called a ‘vertical’ organization of life, one in which we imagine a hierarchy of species organized on earth, descending from man on down toward animals, and a judge appraising us above in heaven.” That order prevailed for a very long time, probably as long as everyday life gave the impression of moving in cycles, rather than in generations. (Modern science, which involves, essentially, scrutinizing the ground beneath our feet, could fit right in.) But the order was shaken by our sense of history, by our sense that we live in changing times and by our sense that the central and critical facts of those times are what does change. That modern orientation—reflected, Mr. Gopnik writes, when Darwin placed the human experience in the context of our extended biological history, and when Lincoln wrestled with making war to secure political progress—is a linear one, “with man looking behind only to see what had happened before, and forward to see what he could make next. On that horizontal plane,” he writes, “we are invested in our future as much as in our afterlife, and in our children more than in our ancestors.”

David Wallace-Wells is an editor at The Paris Review and the former books editor of The New York Sun. He can be reached at books@observer.com.