Degeneration theory - and degeneration - were widely influential concepts - especially in France - in the social and biological sciences between about 1860 and 1910. Degeneration theory started life in relation to earlier (late eighteenth century) ideas concerning ethnicity and the origins of the human races - as described by Blumenbach and other "natural history" writers. The meaning of degeneration was poorly defined but implied an organic change from more complex to simpler, less differentiated forms and applied to both physical (biological) and social systems. As the nineteenth century progressed, the popularity of the idea of degeneration reflected an anxious pessimism about the future of European/Western civilization. Something of a paradox rests with the fact that, at the very climax of its cultural and scientific achievements, several of Europe's leading writers and intellectuals should have become preoccupied with the details of its possible collapse.
Background to the Degeneration Concept
The concept of degeneration first arose in the context of an increasing awareness of social and historical processes in the European Enlightenment. Five main influences seem to have been involved. The first related to the extreme demographic upheavals - including urbanization - occasioned by the industrial revolution in the early years of the nineteenth century. The disturbing experience of social change - and urban crowds - entirely unusual in the agrarian eighteenth century - was recorded in the novels of Charles Dickens and by early writers on social psychology, including Gustav Le Bon and Georg Simmel. Secondly, the proto-evolutionary biology and transformatist speculations of Buffon, Lamarck and other natural historians - taken together with the Baron von Cuvier's catastrophic theory of history - played a decisive role in establishing a sense of the unsettled nature of human society. Thirdly, the activities of world trade and colonialism - the earliest European experience of globalization - confirmed a new awareness of the unusual fragility of western civilization. Fourthly, the enormous expansion of historical scholarship in the eighteenth 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 sources of historical decline. Fifthly, the brutal downfall of the French aristocracy in the revolution of 1789 demonstrated the very temporary nature of the customary relations of civilized discourse.
Degeneration theory achieved a detailed articulation in Benedict Morel's (1857) Treatise on Degeneration - a complicated piece of clinical commentary from an asylum in Normandy which coalesced - in the public imagination at least - with de Gobineau's (1855) Essay on The Inequality of the Human Races. Morel's concept of hereditary degeneracy was later amplified by Cesare Lombroso with the notion of atavistic retrogression in his exposition of the Italian school's concept of criminal anthropology. In England, degeneration received a scientific formulation at the hand of Ray Lankester in 1880, while Henry Maudsley maintained a rather ambiguous attitude to degeneration, being initially quite dismissive, but latterly more pessimistic, about degeneration in the British population.
In the fin-de-siècle period, Max Nordau scored an unexpected success with his bestselling Degeneration (1892) - an enormous work of cultural criticism and gloomy nostalgia. Sigmund Freud (who met Nordau when studying in Paris - and was decidedly unimpressed) was notably hostile to the degeneration concept which fell from popular and fashionable favour around the time of the First World War - although many of its preoccupations lingered in the writings of the eugenicists and social Darwinists. Oswald Spengler's (1919) The Decline of The West captured something of the degenerationist spirit in the aftermath of the war.
"What conception of dégénérescence was produced in Morel's famous treatise of 1857? The term was applied to patterns of heredity in societies and, specifically, to deviations from the 'normal type' of humanity....Morel pulled together a bewildering array of physical conditions, moral and social habits; from hernias, goitres and pointed ears....he explored disturbances of the intellectual faculties and the noxious tendencies of certain forms of romanticism which resulted in languorous desires, effeteness, reveries, impotence, suicidal tendencies, inertia, melancholy and apathy. For Morel, the human being was a unified ensemble, composed of matter and of spirit. Physical degeneration could not but lead to intellectual and moral collapse, and vice versa. Degénéréscence was the name for a process of pathological change from one condition to another in society and in the body...." Daniel Pick (1989) Faces of Degeneration.
"Any new set of conditions which render a species' food and safety very easily obtained, seem to lead to degeneration..." E. Ray Lankester (1880) Degeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism.
Development of the Concept
"The fall of civilizations is the most striking, and at the same time, the most obscure, of all the phenomena of history....every assemblage of men, however ingenious the network of social relations that protects it, acquires on the very day of its birth, hidden in the elements of its life, the seed of an inevitable death." Arthur de Gobineau (1855) Essay on The Inequality of the Human Races.
"Nordau argued that madness, suicide, crime and pathological literature symptomatized modern times - "We stand now in the midst of a severe mental epidemic; of a sort of black death of degeneration and hysteria...." Having borrowed various contemporary terms and ideas from the works of Morel, Lombroso, Maudsley, Taine, Charcot, and others, Nordau argued that modern society was witnessing a terrible crisis borne out of the growing division between the human body and social conditions...." Daniel Pick (1989) Faces of Degeneration.
The earliest uses of the term "degeneration" are to be found in the writings of Blumenbach and Buffon at the end of the eighteenth 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 are to be explained by environmental insults to a common ancestral stock.
The theory of degeneration found its first real articulation in the writings of Benedict Morel (1809-1873) - and especially in his Traité des dégénérescences physiques, intellectuelles et morales de l'espèce humaine (1857). 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 hereditarian line of defective parents infected by pollutants and stimulants; a subsequent generation prone to epilepsy, neurasthenia and hysteria; a third generation close to insanity; and a final generation doomed to congenital idiocy and sterility. Morel (in 1857) proposed a theory of hereditary degeneracy, bringing together environmental and hereditary elements in an uncompromisingly pre-Darwinian mix. Morel's contribution was further advocated by Valentin Magnan (1835-1916), who stressed the role of alcohol - particularly absinthe - in the generation of psychiatric disorders.
Morel's work was taken up - and greatly expanded in the post-Darwinian period - by the Italian medical scientist Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909). In his L'uomo delinquente (1876), Lombroso outlined a comprehensive natural history of the socially deviant person and he 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 ("as in Negroes and animals"); irregular teeth; large middle incisors; prehensile toes and feet and long simian arms; and a scanty beard and baldness. Lombroso, with his concept of atavistic retrogression, suggested an evolutionary reversion, complementing "hereditary degeneracy" - and his work with the medical examination of criminals in Turin resulted in his theory of criminal anthropology - a constitutional notion of abnormal personality - actually unsupported by his own scientific investigations.
In 1896, Max Nordau - an expatriate Hungarian Zionist living in Paris - published his extraordinary bestseller Degeneration (Entartung) which greatly extended the concepts of Benedict Morel and Cesare Lombroso (to whom he dedicated the book) to the entire civilization of western Europe - and transformed the medical connotations of degeneration to a generalized cultural criticism. Adopting some of Charcot's neurological jargon, Nordau identified a number of weaknesses in contemporary western culture - which he characterized in terms of "ego-mania" - i.e. narcissism and hysteria. Degeneration theory fell from favour around the time of the First World War, partly because of the increasing vogue for psychoanalysis - and psychoanalytic styles of interpretation - though many of its preoccupations lived on in the world of eugenics and social Darwinism.
Fin de Siècle Degenerationist Devices
Towards the close of the nineteenth century, in the fin-de-siècle, something of an obsession with decline, descent and degeneration invaded the European creative imagination. Among the main literary examples are Robert Louis Stevenson's The 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 in 1891. 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).
In her influential study The Gothic Body, Kelly Hurley draws attention to the literary device of the abhuman - 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 phantasy in which bloodthirsty aliens mount an invasion to take hold of British society. Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories included many degenerationist tropes, perhaps best illustrated in The Creeping Man.
- Herman, Arthur (1997) The Idea of Decline in Western History New York, London etc.: The Free Press
- Pick, Daniel (1989) Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, c.1848 - c.1918 Cambridge, London etc.: Cambridge University Press
- 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 W.F., Porter, Roy and Shepherd, Michael, pp 188-232 London and New York: Tavistock Publications
- Hurley, Kelly (1996) The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism and Degeneration at the Fin-de-siècle Cambridge and London: Cambridge University Press