social degeneration


  • [18] As more people began to mix with a race or people that was seen as lesser, degeneration theory became intertwined with development in a racial and colonial sense and
    more of these examples became common.

  • Degeneration theory fell from favour around the time of the First World War because of an improved understanding of the mechanisms of genetics as well as the increasing vogue
    for psychoanalytic thinking.

  • Development of the degeneration concept The earliest uses of the term degeneration can be found in the writings of Blumenbach and Buffon at the end of the 18th century, when
    these early writers on natural history considered scientific approaches to the human species.

  • Psychiatrist Henry Maudsley initially argued that degenerate family lines would die out with little social consequence, but later became more pessimistic about the effects
    of degeneration on the general population;[14] Maudsley also warned against the use of the term “degeneration” in a vague and indiscriminate way.

  • [citation needed] Selected quotes “The word degenerate, when applied to a people, means that the people no longer has the same intrinsic value as it had before, because it
    has no longer the same blood in its veins, continual adulterations having gradually affected the quality of that blood….in fact, the man of a decadent time, the degenerate man properly so-called, is a different being from the racial point
    of view, from the heroes of the great ages….I think I am right in concluding that the human race in all its branches has a secret repulsion from the crossing of blood….” Arthur de Gobineau (1855) Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races.

  • The theory of evolution, as described in Darwin’s The Origin of Species, provided for many social theorists the necessary scientific foundation for the idea of social and
    political progress.

  • [9] In the years following Buffon’s death, the theory of degeneration gained a number of new followers, many of whom were concentrated in German-speaking lands.

  • In Britain, degeneration received a scientific formulation from Ray Lankester whose detailed discussions of the biology of parasitism were hugely influential; the poor physical
    condition of many British Army recruits for the Second Boer War (1899–1902) led to alarm in government circles.

  • However, he remained skeptical of over-simplistic versions of this concept: While commenting approvingly on the basic ideas of Cesare Lombroso’s “criminal anthropology”,[15]
    he did not accept the popular idea of overt “stigmata of degeneration”, by which individual persons could be identified as being “degenerated” simply by their physical appearance.

  • With the taxonomic mind-set of natural historians, they drew attention to the different ethnic groupings of mankind, and raised general enquiries about their relationships,
    with the idea that racial groupings could be explained by environmental effects on a common ancestral stock.

  • The novel experience of everyday contact with the urban working classes gave rise to a kind of horrified fascination with their perceived reproductive energies which appeared
    to threaten middle-class culture.

  • “It has become the fashion to regard any symptom which is not obviously due to trauma or infection as a sign of degeneracy….this being so, it may well be asked whether an
    attribution of “degeneracy” is of any value, or adds anything to our knowledge…” Sigmund Freud (1905) Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality.

  • An alternative view of the multiple origins of different racial groups, called “polygenic theories”, was also rejected by Charles Darwin, who favored explanations in terms
    of differential geographic migrations from a single, probably African, population.

  • [5] History The concept of degeneration arose during the European enlightenment and the industrial revolution – a period of profound social change and a rapidly shifting sense
    of personal identity.

  • In 1788, Kant wrote [5] He maintained in this work that a human’s place in nature was determined by the amount of sweat the individual produced, which revealed an innate ability
    to survive.

  • [8] By the 1890s, in the work of Max Nordau and others, degeneration became a more general concept in social criticism.

  • [citation needed] Theories of degeneration in the 18th century In the second half of the eighteenth century, degeneration theory gained prominence as an explanation of the
    nature and origin of human difference.

  • Those who had developed the label of “degenerate” as a means of qualifying difference in a negative manner could use the idea that this “darker side of progress” was inevitable
    by having the idea society could “rot”.

  • [17] The “dark side” of progress The idea of progress was at once a social, political and scientific theory.

  • [6] He claimed to have observed the transformation of certain animals by their climate and concluded that such changes must have also shaped humankind.

  • The central idea of this concept was that in “degenerative” illness, there is a steady decline in mental functioning and social adaptation from one generation to the other.

  • In 1892, Max Nordau, an expatriate Hungarian living in Paris, published his extraordinary bestseller Degeneration, which greatly extended the concepts of Bénédict Morel and
    Cesare Lombroso (to whom he dedicated the book) to the entire civilization of western Europe, and transformed the medical connotations of degeneration into a generalized cultural criticism.

  • Secondly, the proto-evolutionary biology and transformatist speculations of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and other natural historians—taken together with the Baron von Cuvier’s theory
    of extinctions—played an important part in establishing a sense of the unsettled aspects of the natural world.

  • The terms evolution and progress were in fact often used interchangeably in the 19th century.

  • [19][page needed] In the last decades of the century; Victorian social planners drew deeply on social Darwinism and the idea of degeneration to figure the social crises erupting
    relentlessly in the cities and colonies.

  • “[13] Although Kant advocated for a theory of shared human origin, he also contended that there was an innate hierarchy between existing races.

  • [6] Buffon’s theory of degeneration attracted the ire of many early American elites who feared that Buffon’s depiction of the New World would negatively influence European
    perceptions of their nation.

  • [5][6][7] This theory provided an explanation of where humans came from and why some people appeared differently from others.

  • Degeneration fell from popular and fashionable favor around the time of the First World War, although some of its preoccupations persisted in the writings of the eugenicists
    and social Darwinists (for example, R. Austin Freeman; Anthony Ludovici; Rolf Gardiner; and see also Dennis Wheatley’s Letter to posterity).

  • The polygenic theories of multiple human origins, supported by Robert Knox in his book The Races of Men, were firmly rejected by Charles Darwin who, following James Cowles
    Prichard, generally agreed on a single African origin for the entire human species.

  • The concept of disease, especially chronic mental disease fit very well into this framework insofar these phenomena were regarded as signs of an evolution in the wrong direction,
    as a degenerative process which diverts from the usual path of nature.

  • Such mixed marriages, all but unthinkable in 1848 but now on the rise among Indo-European and even full-blood European women with native men, were attributed to the increasing
    impoverishment and declining welfare of these women on the one hand an “intellectual and social development” among certain classes of native the other.

  • Degeneration theory achieved a detailed articulation in Bénédict Morel’s Treatise on Degeneration of the Human Species (1857), a complicated work of clinical commentary from
    an asylum in Normandy (Saint Yon in Rouen) which, in the popular imagination at least, coalesced with de Gobineau’s Essay on The Inequality of the Human Races (1855).

  • The belief in the existence of degeneration helped foster a sense that a sense of negative energy was inexplicable and was there to find sources of “rot” in society.

  • [7] Blumenbach believed that a multitude of factors, including climate, air, and the strength of the sun, promoted degeneration and resulted in external differences between
    human beings.

  • Quite different historical factors inspired the Italian Cesare Lombroso in his work on criminal anthropology with the notion of atavistic retrogression, probably shaped by
    his experiences as a young army doctor in Calabria during the risorgimento.

  • [2][page needed] This led to the emergence of a general theory of degeneration, never reduced to a concrete, simple theory or axiom.

  • The issue, however, was rarely addressed since the gender hierarchy of the argument was contingent on assuming those who made such conjugal choices were neither well-bred
    nor deserved European standing.

  • The forces of degeneration opposed those of evolution, and those afflicted with degeneration were thought to represent a return to an earlier evolutionary stage.

  • Degenerationist devices Towards the close of the 19th century, in the fin-de-siècle period, something of an obsession with decline, descent and degeneration invaded the European
    creative imagination, partly fuelled by widespread misconceptions of Darwinian evolutionary theory.

  • [6] Buffon also applied these principles to the people of the New World.

  • Instead, the concept of degeneration was produced and refined within and between several discourses, including the human sciences, the natural sciences, fictional narratives
    and socio-political commentaries.

  • In this way, a wide range of social and medical deviations, including crime, violence, alcoholism, prostitution, gambling, and pornography, could be explained by reference
    to a biological defect within the individual.

  • In contrast, degenerationists in the 19th century feared that civilization might be in decline and that the causes of decline lay in biological change.

  • [citation needed] The rapid industrial, political and economic progress in 19th-century Europe and North America was, however, paralleled by a sustained discussion about increasing
    rates of crime, insanity, vagrancy, prostitution, and so forth.

  • It is notable that the Nazi attack on western liberal society was largely couched in terms of degenerate art with its associations of racial miscegenation and fantasies of
    racial purity—and included as its target almost all modernist cultural experiment.

  • “…Any new set of conditions which renders a species’ food and safety very easily obtained, seems to lead to degeneration….” Ray Lankester (1880) Degeneration: A Chapter
    in Darwinism.

  • [7] However, he also asserted that these changes could easily be undone and, thus, did not constitute the basis for speciation.

  • He attacked the premises of Buffon’s argument in his 1785 Notes on the State of Virginia, writing that the animals of the New World felt the same sun and walked upon the same
    soil as their European counterparts.

  • Morel’s concept of mental degeneration – in which he believed that intoxication and addiction in one generation of a family would lead to hysteria, epilepsy, sexual perversions,
    insanity, learning disability and sterility in subsequent generations – is an example of Lamarckian biological thinking, and Morel’s medical discussions are reminiscent of the clinical literature surrounding syphilitic infection (syphilography).

  • [17] This forwarded the notion the idea that society was structured in a way that produced regression, an outcome of the “darker side of progress”.

  • Confronted with this apparent paradox, evolutionary scientists, criminal anthropologists and psychiatrists postulated that civilization and scientific progress could be a
    cause of physical and social pathology as much as a defense against it.

  • [12] Blumenbach’s views on degeneration emerged in dialogue with the works of other thinkers concerned with race and origin in the late eighteenth century.

  • De Gobineau nevertheless argued that the course of history and civilization was largely determined by ethnic factors, and that interracial marriage (“miscegenation”) resulted
    in social chaos.

  • Lombroso, with his concept of atavistic retrogression, suggested an evolutionary reversion, complementing hereditary degeneracy, and his work in the medical examination of
    criminals in Turin resulted in his theory of criminal anthropology—a constitutional notion of abnormal personality that was not actually supported by his own scientific investigations.

  • In her influential study The Gothic Body, Kelly Hurley draws attention to the literary device of the abhuman as a representation of damaged personal identity, and to lesser-known
    authors in the field, including Richard Marsh (1857–1915), author of The Beetle (1897), and William Hope Hodgson (1877–1918), author of The Boats of the Glen Carrig, The House on the Borderland and The Night Land.

  • [19][page needed] These women were tasked with the purification and maintenance of boundaries and what was seen as “inferior” places in society they held at the time.

  • According to the theory of degeneration, a host of individual and social pathologies in a finite network of diseases, disorders and moral habits could be explained by a biologically
    based affliction.

  • Wells in The Time Machine (1895) in which Wells prophesied the splitting of the human race into variously degenerate forms, and again in his The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896)
    wherein forcibly mutated animal-human hybrids keep reverting to their earlier forms.

  • [10] Jefferson believed that he could permanently alter Buffon’s views of the New World by showing him firsthand the majesty of American wildlife.

  • [13] Additionally, Kant introduced the term “degeneration,” which he defined as hereditary differences between groups with a shared root.

  • Thirdly, the development of world trade and colonialism, the early European experience of globalization, resulted in an awareness of the varieties of cultural expression and
    the vulnerabilities of Western civilization.

  • Morel’s psychiatric theories were taken up and advocated by his friend Philippe Buchez, and through his political influence became an official doctrine in French legal and
    administrative medicine.

  • [6] This climate limited the number of species in the New World and prompted a decline in size and vigor among the animals which did survive.

  • Anxieties in Britain about the perils of degeneration found legislative expression in the Mental Deficiency Act 1913 which gained strong support from Winston Churchill, then
    a senior member of the Liberal government.


Works Cited

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essays in the history of psychiatry. Volume III, The asylum and its psychiatry. London: Tavistock Publications. pp. 188–232. OCLC 564383203.
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Thomas, 1743-1826”. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 2006. Retrieved 24 May 2020.
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Magazin für das Neueste aus der Physik und Naturgeschichte (in German). No. 6. pp. 1–13.
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Dowbiggin, Ian Robert (2018). Keeping America Sane: Psychiatry and Eugenics in the United States and Canada, 1880-1940. Cornell University Press. p. 81. ISBN 9781501723803.
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(PDF). European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience. 258 (S2): 12–17. doi:10.1007/s00406-008-2002-5. ISSN 0940-1334. PMID 18516511. S2CID 143752131.
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b Stoler, Ann (July 1992). “Sexual Affronts and Racial Frontiers: European Identities and the Cultural Politics of Exclusions in Colonial Southeast Asia”. Comparative Studies in Society and History. 34 (3): 514–551. doi:10.1017/s001041750001793x.
ISSN 0010-4175. S2CID 145246006.
19. ^ Jump up to:a b McClintock, Anne (1995). Imperial leather: race, gender, and sexuality in the colonial contest. New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780203699546.
20. ^ Hurley, Kelly (1996). The Gothic Body: Sexuality,
Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin de Siècle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511519161. ISBN 9780511519161.[page needed]
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University Press. doi:10.1017/9781911623281. ISBN 9781911623281. S2CID 210452247.[page needed]
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