Degeneration theory

Social degeneration was a widely influential concept at the interface of the social and biological sciences in the 19th century.[1][2][3][4] Degenerationists feared that civilization might be in decline and that the causes of decline lay in biological change. These ideas derived from pre-scientific concepts of heredity ("hereditary taint") with Lamarckian emphasis on biological development through purpose and habit. Degeneration concepts were often associated with authoritarian political attitudes, including militarism and racist science, as well as with fears of national decline. The theory originated in racial concepts of ethnicity, recorded in the writings of such medical scientists as Johann Blumenbach and Robert Knox. From the 1850s, it became influential in psychiatry through the writings of Bénédict Morel, and in criminology with Cesare Lombroso[5]. By the 1890s, in the work of Max Nordau and others, degeneration became a more general concept in social criticism. It also fed into the ideology of Ethnic nationalism, attracting, among others, Maurice Barrès, Charles Maurras and the Action Française. Alexis Carrel, a French Nobel Laureate in Medicine, cited national degeneration as a rationale for a eugenics programme in collaborationist Vichy France.

The meaning of degeneration was poorly defined, but can be described as an organism's change from a more complex to a simpler, less differentiated form, and is associated with 19th century conceptions of biological devolution. In scientific usage, the term was reserved for changes occurring at a histological level - i.e. in body tissues. Although rejected by Charles Darwin, the theory's application to the social sciences was supported by some evolutionary biologists, most notably Ernst Haeckel and Ray Lankester. As the 19th century wore on, the increasing emphasis on degeneration reflected an anxious pessimism about the resilience of European civilization and its possible decline and collapse.


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. Several influences were involved.

The first related to the extreme demographic upheavals, including urbanization, in the early years of the 19th century. The disturbing experience of social change and urban crowds, largely unknown in the agrarian 18th century, was recorded in the journalism of William Cobbett, the novels of Charles Dickens and in the paintings of J M W Turner. These changes were also explored by early writers on social psychology, including Gustav Le Bon and Georg Simmel. The psychological impact of industrialisation is comprehensively described in Humphrey Jennings' masterly anthology Pandaemonium 1660 - 1886. Victorian social reformers including Edwin Chadwick, Henry Mayhew and Charles Booth voiced realistic concerns about the decline of public health in the urban life of the British working class (urban squalor), arguing for improved housing and sanitation, access to parks and recreational facilities, an improved diet and a reduction in alcohol intake. These contributions from the public health perspective were discussed by the Scottish physician Sir James Cantlie in his influential 1885 lecture Degeneration Amongst Londoners. 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.

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 polygenic theories of multiple human origins, supported by Robert Knox in his book The Races of Men (1850),[6] were firmly rejected by Charles Darwin who, following James Cowles Prichard,[7] generally agreed on a single African origin for the entire human species.

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.

Finally, the growth of historical scholarship in the 18th century, exemplified by Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire (1776–1789), excited a renewed interest in the narratives of historical decline. This resonated uncomfortably with the difficulties of French political life in the post-revolutionary nineteenth century.

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). 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). 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.

Arthur de Gobineau came from an impoverished family (with a domineering and adulterous mother) which claimed an aristocratic ancestry; he was a failed author of historical romances and his wife was widely rumored to be a Créole from Martinique. 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. De Gobineau built a successful career in the French diplomatic service, living for extended periods in Iran and Brazil, and spent his later years travelling through Europe, lamenting his mistreatment at the hands of his wife and daughters. He died of a heart attack in 1882 while boarding a train in Turin. His work was well received in German translation—not least by the composer Richard Wagner—and the leading German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin later wrote extensively on the dangers posed by degeneration to the German people. De Gobineau's writings exerted an enormous influence on the thinkers antecedent to the Third Reich - although they are curiously free of anti-Semitic prejudice. Quite different historical factors inspired the Italian Cesare Lombroso in his work on criminal anthropology and the notion of atavistic retrogression, probably shaped by his experiences as a young army doctor in Calabria during the risorgimento.

In England, degeneration received a scientific formulation from Ray Lankester whose detailed discussions of the biology of parasitism were hugely influential; and the poor physical condition of many recruits for the second South African war (1899-1902) caused alarm in British government circles. The 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;[8]Maudsley also warned against the use of the term "degeneration" in a vague and indiscriminate way. British anxieties about the perils of degeneration found legislative expression in the Mental Deficiency Act 1913 which had the strong support of Winston Churchill, then a senior member of the Liberal government.

In the fin-de-siècle period, Max Nordau scored an unexpected success with his bestselling Degeneration (1892). Sigmund Freud met Nordau in 1885 while he was studying in Paris and was notably unimpressed by him and hostile to the degeneration concept. 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). Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West (1919) captured something of the degenerationist spirit in the aftermath of the war.

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 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.

"When under any kind of noxious influence an organism becomes debilitated, its successors will not resemble the healthy, normal type of the species, with capacities for development, but will form a new sub-species, which, like all others, possesses the capacity of transmitting to its offspring, in a continuously increasing degree, its peculiarities, these being morbid deviations from the normal form - gaps in development, malformations and infirmities..." Bénédict Morel (1857) Treatise on Degeneration.

"...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.

"We stand now in the midst of a severe mental epidemic; of a sort of black death of degeneration and hysteria, and it is natural that we should ask anxiously on all sides: 'What is to come next ?' " Max Nordau (1892) Degeneration.

"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.

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. 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. This pre-Darwinian belief in the heritability of acquired characteristics does not accord with modern genetics. 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.

The theory of degeneration found its first detailed presentation in the writings of Bénédict Morel (1809–1873), especially in his Traité des dégénérescences physiques, intellectuelles et morales de l'espèce humaine (Treatise on Degeneration of the Human Species) (1857). This book was published two years before Darwin's Origin of Species. Morel was a highly regarded psychiatrist, the very successful superintendent of the Rouen asylum for almost twenty years and a fastidious recorder of the family histories of his variously disabled patients. Through the details of these family histories, Morel discerned an hereditary line of defective parents infected by pollutants and stimulants; a second generation liable to epilepsy, neurasthenia, sexual deviations and hysteria; a third generation prone to insanity; and a final generation doomed to congenital idiocy and sterility. In 1857, Morel proposed a theory of hereditary degeneracy, bringing together environmental and hereditary elements in an uncompromisingly pre-Darwinian mix. Morel's contribution was further developed by Valentin Magnan (1835–1916), who stressed the role of alcohol—particularly absinthe—in the generation of psychiatric disorders.

Morel's ideas were greatly extended by the Italian medical scientist Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909) whose work was defended and translated into English by Havelock Ellis. In his L'uomo delinquente (1876), Lombroso outlined a comprehensive natural history of the socially deviant person and detailed the stigmata of the person who was born to be criminally insane. These included a low, sloping forehead, hard and shifty eyes, large, handle-shaped ears, a flattened or upturned nose, a forward projection of the jaw, irregular teeth, prehensile toes and feet, long simian arms and a scanty beard and baldness. Lombroso also listed the features of the degenerate mentality, supposedly released by the disinhibition of the primitive neurological centres. These included apathy, the loss of moral sense, a tendency to impulsiveness or self-doubt, an unevenness of mental qualities such as unusual memory or aesthetic abilities, a tendency to mutism or to verbosity, excessive originality, preoccupation with the self, mystical interpretations placed on simple facts or perceptions, the abuse of symbolic meanings and the magical use of words, or mantras. 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 his later life, Lombroso developed an obsession with spiritualism, engaging with the spirit of his long dead mother.

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. Adopting some of Charcot's neurological vocabulary, Nordau identified a number of weaknesses in contemporary Western culture which he characterized in terms of ego-mania, i.e., narcissism and hysteria. He also emphasized the importance of fatigue, enervation and ennui. Nordau, horrified by the anti-Semitism surrounding the Dreyfus affair, devoted his later years to Zionist politics. 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. However, some of its preoccupations lived on in the world of eugenics and social Darwinism. 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.

Degenerationist devices

Pornocrates by Félicien Rops (1878)

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. Among the main examples are the symbolist literary work of Charles Baudelaire, the Rougon-Macquart novels of Émile Zola, Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde—published in the same year (1886) as Richard von Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis—and, subsequently, Oscar Wilde's only novel (containing his aesthetic manifesto) The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). In Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891), Thomas Hardy explores the destructive consequences of a family myth of noble ancestry. Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen showed a sensitivity to degenerationist thinking in his theatrical presentations of Scandinavian domestic crises. Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan (1890/1894), with its emphasis on the horrors of psychosurgery, is frequently cited as an essay on degeneration. A scientific twist was added by H.G. Wells in The Time Machine (1895) in which Wells prophesied the splitting of the human race into differently degenerate forms, and again, a little later, in his The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896). Joseph Conrad alludes to degeneration theory in his treatment of political radicalism in the 1907 novel The Secret Agent.

In her influential study The Gothic Body,[9] 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. In 1897, Bram Stoker published Dracula, an enormously influential Gothic novel featuring the parasitic vampire Count Dracula in an extended exercise of reversed imperialism. Unusually, Stoker makes explicit reference to the writings of Lombroso and Nordau in the course of the novel.[10] Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories include a host of degenerationist tropes, perhaps best illustrated (drawing on the ideas of Serge Voronoff) in The Adventure of the Creeping Man.

See also

  • Behavioral sink
  • Decadence
  • Declinism
  • Devolution
  • Dysgenics
  • Human extinction
  • Idiocracy
  • Last man
  • "The Marching Morons"
  • Societal collapse


  1. Herman, Arthur (1997) The Idea of Decline in Western History New York, London etc.: The Free Press. In Chapters 2 and 4, Herman provides a detailed description of the cultural context of degenerationist thought.
  2. Pick, Daniel (1989) Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, c.1848 - c.1918 Cambridge University Press. The definitive account of degeneration theory.
  3. Dowbiggin, Ian (1985) Degeneration and hereditarianism in French mental medicine 1840-1890: psychiatric theory as ideological adaptation (in) The Anatomy of Madness, Vol. One: People and Ideas edited by Bynum William F., Porter, Roy and Shepherd, Michael, London and New York: Tavistock Publications, pp 188-232. Scholarly overview of the psychiatric aspects of degeneration theory.
  4. Oppenheim, Janet (1991) "Shattered Nerves": Doctors, Patients and Depression in Victorian England New York, Oxford: OUP, see especially Chapter 8, pp 265-292, "Nervous Degeneration".
  5. Horn, David G. (2003) The Criminal Body: Lombroso and the Anatomy of Deviance London and New York: Routledge
  6. Knox, Robert (1850) The Races of Men: A Fragment London: Renshaw.
  7. Prichard, J.C. (1813) Researches into the Physical History of Man London: John and Arthur Arch. On page 238, Prichard writes: "...the primitive stock of men were probably Negroes, and I know of no argument to be set on the other side."
  8. Keeping America Sane: Psychiatry and Eugenics in the United States and Canada, 1880-1940 Pg 81
  9. Hurley, Kelly (1996) The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism and Degeneration at the Fin-de-siècle Cambridge and London: Cambridge University Press
  10. Subotsky, Fiona (2019) Dracula for Doctors: Medical Facts and Gothic Fantasies Cambridge University Press/The Royal College of Psychiatrists
  • Lawrence, Christopher (2010). "Degeneration". The Lancet. Retrieved 4 August 2014.
  • Degeneration, Nordau and Nietzsche
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