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Social degeneration

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Social degeneration was a widely influential concept at the interface of the social and biological sciences in the 18th and 19th centuries.[1][2][3][4] During the 18th century, scientific thinkers including Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, and Immanuel Kant argued that humans shared a common origin but had degenerated over time due to differences in climate.[5][6][7] This theory provided an explanation of where humans came from and why some people appeared differently from others. In contrast, degenerationists in the 19th century 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 scientific racism, and a preoccupation with eugenics. 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.[8] 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.

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Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon was a French naturalist, mathematician, cosmologist, and encyclopédiste.

Eugenics

Eugenics

Eugenics is a fringe set of beliefs and practices that aim to improve the genetic quality of a human population. Historically, eugenicists have attempted to alter human gene pools by excluding people and groups judged to be inferior or promoting those judged to be superior. In recent years, the term has seen a revival in bioethical discussions on the usage of new technologies such as CRISPR and genetic screening, with a heated debate on whether these technologies should be called eugenics or not.

Bénédict Morel

Bénédict Morel

Bénédict Augustin Morel was a French psychiatrist born in Vienna, Austria. He was an influential figure in the field of degeneration theory during the mid-19th century.

Criminology

Criminology

Criminology (from Latin crimen, "accusation", and is the study of crime and deviant behaviour. Criminology is an interdisciplinary field in both the behavioural and social sciences, which draws primarily upon the research of sociologists, political scientists, economists, psychologists, philosophers, psychiatrists, social workers, biologists, social anthropologists, as well as scholars of law.

Cesare Lombroso

Cesare Lombroso

Cesare Lombroso was an Italian criminologist, phrenologist, physician, and founder of the Italian School of Positivist Criminology. Lombroso rejected the established classical school, which held that crime was a characteristic trait of human nature. Instead, using concepts drawn from physiognomy, degeneration theory, psychiatry, and Social Darwinism, Lombroso's theory of anthropological criminology essentially stated that criminality was inherited, and that someone "born criminal" could be identified by physical (congenital) defects, which confirmed a criminal as savage or atavistic.

Ethnic nationalism

Ethnic nationalism

Ethnic nationalism, also known as ethnonationalism, is a form of nationalism wherein the nation and nationality are defined in terms of ethnicity, with emphasis on an ethnocentric approach to various political issues related to national affirmation of a particular ethnic group.

Charles Maurras

Charles Maurras

Charles-Marie-Photius Maurras was a French author, politician, poet, and critic. He was an organizer and principal philosopher of Action Française, a political movement that is monarchist, anti-parliamentarist, and counter-revolutionary. Maurras also held anti-communist, anti-masonic, anti-protestant, and anti-Semitic views, though he was highly critical of Nazism, referring to it as "stupidity". His ideas greatly influenced National Catholicism and integral nationalism, with a major tenet of his views being that "a true nationalist places his country above everything".

Action Française

Action Française

Action Française is a French far-right monarchist political movement. The name was also given to a journal associated with the movement.

Alexis Carrel

Alexis Carrel

Alexis Carrel was a French surgeon and biologist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1912 for pioneering vascular suturing techniques. He invented the first perfusion pump with Charles A. Lindbergh opening the way to organ transplantation. His positive description of a miraculous healing he witnessed during a pilgrimage earned him scorn of some of his colleagues. This prompted him to relocate to the United States, where he lived most of his life. He had a leading role in implementing eugenic policies in Vichy France.

Devolution (biology)

Devolution (biology)

Devolution, de-evolution, or backward evolution is the notion that species can revert to supposedly more primitive forms over time. The concept relates to the idea that evolution has a purpose (teleology) and is progressive (orthogenesis), for example that feet might be better than hooves or lungs than gills. However, evolutionary biology makes no such assumptions, and natural selection shapes adaptations with no foreknowledge of any kind. It is possible for small changes to be reversed by chance or selection, but this is no different from the normal course of evolution and as such de-evolution is not compatible with a proper understanding of evolution due to natural selection.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Charles Robert Darwin was an English naturalist, geologist, and biologist, widely known for contributing to the understanding of evolutionary biology. His proposition that all species of life have descended from a common ancestor is now generally accepted and considered a fundamental concept in science. In a joint publication with Alfred Russel Wallace, he introduced his scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection, in which the struggle for existence has a similar effect to the artificial selection involved in selective breeding. Darwin has been described as one of the most influential figures in human history, and he was honoured by burial in Westminster Abbey.

Ernst Haeckel

Ernst Haeckel

Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel was a German zoologist, naturalist, eugenicist, philosopher, physician, professor, marine biologist and artist. He discovered, described and named thousands of new species, mapped a genealogical tree relating all life forms and coined many terms in biology, including ecology, phylum, phylogeny, and Protista. Haeckel promoted and popularised Charles Darwin's work in Germany and developed the influential but no longer widely held recapitulation theory claiming that an individual organism's biological development, or ontogeny, parallels and summarises its species' evolutionary development, or phylogeny.

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. Among the most notable proponents of this theory was Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. A gifted mathematician and eager naturalist, Buffon served as the curator of the Parisian Cabinet du Roi.[9] The collections of the Cabinet du Roi served as the inspiration for Buffon's encyclopedic Histoire Naturelle, of which he published thirty-six volumes between 1749 and his death in 1788.[9] In the Histoire Naturelle, Buffon asserted that differences in climate created variety within species.[6] He believed that these changes occurred gradually and initially affected only a few individuals before becoming widespread.[6] Buffon relied on an argument from analogy to contend that this process of degeneration occurred among humans.[6] He claimed to have observed the transformation of certain animals by their climate and concluded that such changes must have also shaped humankind.[6]

Buffon maintained that degeneration had particularly adverse consequences in the New World. He believed America to be both colder and wetter than Europe.[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.[6] Buffon also applied these principles to the people of the New World. He wrote in the Histoire Naturelle that the indigenous people lacked the ability to feel strong emotion for others.[6] For Buffon, these individuals were incapable of love as well as desire.[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.[9] In particular, Thomas Jefferson mounted a vigorous defense of the American natural world. 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.[10] Jefferson believed that he could permanently alter Buffon's views of the New World by showing him firsthand the majesty of American wildlife.[9] While serving as minister to France, Jefferson wrote repeatedly to his compatriots in the United States, pleading them to send a stuffed moose to Paris.[9] After months of effort, General John Sullivan responded to Jefferson's request and shipped a moose to France.[9] Buffon died only three months after the moose's arrival, and his theory of New World degeneration remained forever preserved in the pages of the Histoire Naturelle.[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. The anatomist and naturalist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach praised Buffon in his lectures at the University of Göttingen.[5] He adopted Buffon's theory of degeneration in his dissertation De Generis Humani Varietate Nativa. The central premise of this work was that all of mankind belonged to the same species.[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.[7] However, he also asserted that these changes could easily be undone and, thus, did not constitute the basis for speciation.[7] In the essay “Über Menschen-Rassen und Schweine-Rassen,” Blumenbach clarified his understanding of the relationship between different human races by calling upon the example of the pig.[11] He contended that, if the domestic pig and the wild boar were seen as belonging to the same species, then different humans, regardless of skin color or height, must too belong to the same species.[11] For Blumenbach, all people of the world existed as different gradations on a spectrum.[7] Nevertheless, the third edition of De Generis Humani Varietate Nativa, published in 1795, is famed among scholars for its introduction of a system of racial classification which divided humans into members of the Caucasian, Ethiopian, Mongolian, Malayan, or American races.[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. In particular, Blumenbach participated in fruitful intellectual exchange with another prominent German scholar of his age, Immanuel Kant. Kant, a philosopher and professor at the University of Königsberg, taught a course on physical geography for some forty years, fostering an interest in biology and taxonomy.[13] Like Blumenbach, Kant engaged closely with the writings of Buffon while developing his position on these subjects.[13]

In his 1777 essay “Von der verschiedenen Racen der Menschen,” Kant expressed the belief that all humans shared a common origin. He called upon the ability of humans to interbreed as evidence for this assertion.[13] Additionally, Kant introduced the term “degeneration,” which he defined as hereditary differences between groups with a shared root.[13] Kant also arrived at a meaning of “race” from this definition of degeneration.[13] He claimed that races developed when degenerations were preserved over a long period of time.[13] A group could only constitute a race if breeding with a different degeneration resulted in “intermediate offspring."[13] Although Kant advocated for a theory of shared human origin, he also contended that there was an innate hierarchy between existing races. In 1788, Kant wrote “Über den Gebrauch teleologischer Prinzipien.”[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.[5] Sweat emerged from the skin. Therefore, skin color indicated important distinctions between humans.[5]

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Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon was a French naturalist, mathematician, cosmologist, and encyclopédiste.

Jardin des plantes

Jardin des plantes

The Jardin des plantes, also known as the Jardin des plantes de Paris when distinguished from other jardins des plantes in other cities, is the main botanical garden in France. The term Jardin des plantes is the official name in the present day, but it is in fact an elliptical form of Jardin royal des plantes médicinales, which is related to the original purpose of the garden back in the 17th century.

Histoire Naturelle

Histoire Naturelle

The Histoire Naturelle, générale et particulière, avec la description du Cabinet du Roi is an encyclopaedic collection of 36 large (quarto) volumes written between 1749–1804, initially by the Comte de Buffon, and continued in eight more volumes after his death by his colleagues, led by Bernard Germain de Lacépède. The books cover what was known of the "natural sciences" at the time, including what would now be called material science, physics, chemistry and technology as well as the natural history of animals.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson was an American statesman, diplomat, lawyer, architect, philosopher, and Founding Father who served as the third president of the United States from 1801 to 1809. He was previously the nation's second vice president under John Adams and the first United States secretary of state under George Washington. The principal author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was a proponent of democracy, republicanism, and individual rights, motivating American colonists to break from the Kingdom of Great Britain and form a new nation. He produced formative documents and decisions at state, national, and international levels.

Notes on the State of Virginia

Notes on the State of Virginia

Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) is a book written by the American statesman, philosopher, and planter Thomas Jefferson. He completed the first version in 1781 and updated and enlarged the book in 1782 and 1783. It originated in Jefferson's responses to questions about Virginia posed to each of the thirteen states in 1780 by François Barbé-Marbois, the Secretary of the French delegation in Philadelphia, the temporary capital of the Continental Congress.

John Sullivan (general)

John Sullivan (general)

John Sullivan was an American general in the Revolutionary War winning several key battles most notably the Delaware crossing. He was a delegate in the Continental Congress where he signed the Continental Association, the third governor of New Hampshire, and a United States district judge of the United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire.

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach was a German physician, naturalist, physiologist, and anthropologist. He is considered to be a main founder of zoology and anthropology as comparative, scientific disciplines. He was also important as a race theorist.

University of Göttingen

University of Göttingen

The University of Göttingen, officially the Georg August University of Göttingen, is a public research university in the city of Göttingen, Germany. Founded in 1734 by George II, King of Great Britain and Elector of Hanover, and starting classes in 1737, the Georgia Augusta was conceived to promote the ideals of the Enlightenment. It is the oldest university in the state of Lower Saxony and the largest in student enrollment, which stands at around 31,600.

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher and one of the central Enlightenment thinkers. Born in Königsberg, Kant's comprehensive and systematic works in epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics have made him one of the most influential figures in modern Western philosophy.

University of Königsberg

University of Königsberg

The University of Königsberg was the university of Königsberg in East Prussia. It was founded in 1544 as the world's second Protestant academy by Duke Albert of Prussia, and was commonly known as the Albertina.

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. 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 concerns about the "decline" of public health in the urban life of the British working class, 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, were firmly rejected by Charles Darwin who, following James Cowles Prichard, 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 with the notion of atavistic retrogression, probably shaped by his experiences as a young army doctor in Calabria during the risorgimento.

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. 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. 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.

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.

Discover more about History related topics

Age of Enlightenment

Age of Enlightenment

The Age of Enlightenment or the Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries with global influences and effects. The Enlightenment included a range of ideas centered on the value of human happiness, the pursuit of knowledge obtained by means of reason and the evidence of the senses, and ideals such as liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, and constitutional government.

Social change

Social change

Social change is the alteration of the social order of a society which may include changes in social institutions, social behaviours or social relations.

Personal identity

Personal identity

Personal identity is the unique numerical identity of a person over time. Discussions regarding personal identity typically aim to determine the necessary and sufficient conditions under which a person at one time and a person at another time can be said to be the same person, persisting through time.

Urbanization

Urbanization

Urbanization refers to the population shift from rural to urban areas, the corresponding decrease in the proportion of people living in rural areas, and the ways in which societies adapt to this change. It is predominantly the process by which towns and cities are formed and become larger as more people begin living and working in central areas.

Crowd psychology

Crowd psychology

Crowd psychology, also known as mob psychology, is a branch of social psychology. Social psychologists have developed several theories for explaining the ways in which the psychology of a crowd differs from and interacts with that of the individuals within it. Major theorists in crowd psychology include Gustave Le Bon, Gabriel Tarde and Sigmund Freud. This field relates to the behaviors and thought processes of both the individual crowd members and the crowd as an entity. Crowd behavior is heavily influenced by the loss of responsibility of the individual and the impression of universality of behavior, both of which increase with crowd size.

William Cobbett

William Cobbett

William Cobbett was an English pamphleteer, journalist, politician, and farmer born in Farnham, Surrey. He was one of an agrarian faction seeking to reform Parliament, abolish "rotten boroughs", restrain foreign activity, and raise wages, with the goal of easing poverty among farm labourers and small land holders. Cobbett backed lower taxes, saving, reversing commons enclosures and resisting the 1821 gold standard. He opposed borough-mongers, sinecurists, bureaucratic "tax-eaters" and stockbrokers. His radicalism furthered the Reform Act 1832 and gained him one of two newly created seats in Parliament for the borough of Oldham. His polemics range from political reform to religion, including Catholic emancipation. His best known book is Rural Rides. He argued against Malthusianism, saying economic betterment could support global population growth.

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

Charles John Huffam Dickens was an English writer and social critic. He created some of the world's best-known fictional characters and is regarded by many as the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. His works enjoyed unprecedented popularity during his lifetime and, by the 20th century, critics and scholars had recognised him as a literary genius. His novels and short stories are widely read today.

Georg Simmel

Georg Simmel

Georg Simmel was a German sociologist, philosopher, and critic.

Humphrey Jennings

Humphrey Jennings

Frank Humphrey Sinkler Jennings was an English documentary filmmaker and one of the founders of the Mass Observation organisation. Jennings was described by film critic and director Lindsay Anderson in 1954 as "the only real poet that British cinema has yet produced".

Edwin Chadwick

Edwin Chadwick

Sir Edwin Chadwick KCB was an English social reformer who is noted for his leadership in reforming the Poor Laws in England and instituting major reforms in urban sanitation and public health. A disciple of Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, he was most active between 1832 and 1854; after that he held minor positions, and his views were largely ignored. Chadwick pioneered the use of scientific surveys to identify all phases of a complex social problem, and pioneered the use of systematic long-term inspection programmes to make sure the reforms operated as planned.

Henry Mayhew

Henry Mayhew

Henry Mayhew was an English journalist, playwright, and advocate of reform. He was one of the co-founders of the satirical magazine Punch in 1841, and was the magazine's joint editor, with Mark Lemon, in its early days. He is also known for his work as a social researcher, publishing an extensive series of newspaper articles in the Morning Chronicle that was later compiled into the book series London Labour and the London Poor (1851), a groundbreaking and influential survey of the city's poor.

Public health

Public health

Public health is "the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through the organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private, communities and individuals". Analyzing the determinants of health of a population and the threats it faces is the basis for public health. The public can be as small as a handful of people or as large as a village or an entire city; in the case of a pandemic it may encompass several continents. The concept of health takes into account physical, psychological, and social well-being.

Psychology and Emil Kraepelin

Degeneration theory is, at its heart, a way of thinking, and something that is taught, not innate. A major influence on the theory was Emil Kraepelin, lining up degeneration theory with his psychiatry practice. 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. For example, there might be an intergenerational development from nervous character to major depressive disorder, to overt psychotic illness and, finally, to severe and chronic cognitive impairment, something akin to dementia.[15] This theory was advanced decades before the rediscovery of Mendelian genetics and their application to medicine in general and to psychiatry in particular. Kraepelin and his colleagues mostly derived from degeneration theory broadly. He rarely made a specific references to the theory of degeneration, and his attitude towards degeneration theory was not straightforward. Positive, but more ambivalent. 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.

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. While Kraepelin and his colleagues may not have focused on this, it did not stop others from advancing the converse idea.

An early application of this theory was the Mental Deficiency Act supported by Winston Churchill in 1913.[16] This entailed placing those deemed “idiots” into separate colonies, and included those who showed sign of a “degeneration”. While this did apply to those with mental disorders of a psychiatric nature, the execution was not always in the same vein, as some of the language was used to the those “morally weak”, or deemed “idiots”. 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.[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”.

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". Considerations to the pervasiveness an allegedly superior condition were, during the nineteenth century, frighteningly reinforced the language and habits of destructive thinking.[17]

The "dark side" of progress

The idea of progress was at once a social, political and scientific theory. 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. The terms evolution and progress were in fact often used interchangeably in the 19th century.

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. 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.[2] This led to the emergence of a general theory of degeneration, never reduced to a concrete, simple theory or axiom. 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.[2] A broad outline of the theory, however, can be formulated, and it runs as follows.

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. The primary symptoms of the affliction were thought to be a weakening of the vital forces and will power of its victim. 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. The theory of degeneration was therefore predicated on evolutionary theory. The forces of degeneration opposed those of evolution, and those afflicted with degeneration were thought to represent a return to an earlier evolutionary stage. This can be seen socially when mixed race marriages started becoming more frequent as the 19th century progressed. 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. 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.[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.

The poetics of degeneration was a poetics of social crisis.[19] 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. Heightened debates converged with domestic and colonial social reform, cementing an offensive of a somewhat different order. It targeted the "dangerous" in paupered residuum and the growing population impoverished Indo-Europeans, the majority of whom were of mixed but legally classified as European.[18] The world, being more globalized than ever before, continued to have more “crises” similar to these had by the leading classes, deterring the other as the enemy or downfall of society.

By the end of the 1870s, Britain was foundering in severe depression, and throughout the 1880s class tensions, the suffragette movement, a socialist revival, swelling poverty and the dearth of housing and jobs fed deepening middle class fears.

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.

"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.

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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.

The role of women in furthering development of the concept of degeneration was reviewed by Anne McClintock, a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, who found that women who were ambiguously placed on the so-called "imperial divide" (nurses, nannies, governesses, prostitutes and servants) happened to serve as boundary markers and mediators.[19] 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.

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Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon was a French naturalist, mathematician, cosmologist, and encyclopédiste.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Charles Robert Darwin was an English naturalist, geologist, and biologist, widely known for contributing to the understanding of evolutionary biology. His proposition that all species of life have descended from a common ancestor is now generally accepted and considered a fundamental concept in science. In a joint publication with Alfred Russel Wallace, he introduced his scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection, in which the struggle for existence has a similar effect to the artificial selection involved in selective breeding. Darwin has been described as one of the most influential figures in human history, and he was honoured by burial in Westminster Abbey.

Bénédict Morel

Bénédict Morel

Bénédict Augustin Morel was a French psychiatrist born in Vienna, Austria. He was an influential figure in the field of degeneration theory during the mid-19th century.

Absinthe

Absinthe

Absinthe is an anise-flavoured spirit derived from several plants, including the flowers and leaves of Artemisia absinthium, together with green anise, sweet fennel, and other medicinal and culinary herbs. Historically described as a highly alcoholic spirit, it is 45–74% ABV or 90–148 proof US. Absinthe traditionally has a natural green color but may also be colorless. It is commonly referred to in historical literature as la fée verte. It is sometimes mistakenly referred to as a liqueur, but is not traditionally bottled with added sugar and is, therefore, classified as a spirit. Absinthe is traditionally bottled at a high level of alcohol by volume, but it is normally diluted with water before being consumed.

Cesare Lombroso

Cesare Lombroso

Cesare Lombroso was an Italian criminologist, phrenologist, physician, and founder of the Italian School of Positivist Criminology. Lombroso rejected the established classical school, which held that crime was a characteristic trait of human nature. Instead, using concepts drawn from physiognomy, degeneration theory, psychiatry, and Social Darwinism, Lombroso's theory of anthropological criminology essentially stated that criminality was inherited, and that someone "born criminal" could be identified by physical (congenital) defects, which confirmed a criminal as savage or atavistic.

Havelock Ellis

Havelock Ellis

Henry Havelock Ellis was an English physician, eugenicist, writer, progressive intellectual and social reformer who studied human sexuality. He co-wrote the first medical textbook in English on homosexuality in 1897, and also published works on a variety of sexual practices and inclinations, as well as on transgender psychology. He is credited with introducing the notions of narcissism and autoeroticism, later adopted by psychoanalysis.

Max Nordau

Max Nordau

Max Simon Nordau was a Zionist leader, physician, author, and social critic.

Jean-Martin Charcot

Jean-Martin Charcot

Jean-Martin Charcot was a French neurologist and professor of anatomical pathology. He worked on hypnosis and hysteria, in particular with his hysteria patient Louise Augustine Gleizes. Charcot is known as "the founder of modern neurology", and his name has been associated with at least 15 medical eponyms, including various conditions sometimes referred to as Charcot diseases.

Narcissism

Narcissism

Narcissism is a self-centered personality style characterized as having an excessive interest in one's physical appearance or image and an excessive preoccupation with one's own needs, often at the expense of others.

Hysteria

Hysteria

Hysteria is a term used colloquially to mean ungovernable emotional excess and can refer to a temporary state of mind or emotion. In the nineteenth century, hysteria was considered a diagnosable physical illness in women. It is assumed that the basis for diagnosis operated under the belief that women are predisposed to mental and behavioral conditions; an interpretation of sex-related differences in stress responses. In the twentieth century, it shifted to being considered a mental illness. Many influential people such as Sigmund Freud and Jean-Martin Charcot dedicated research to hysteria patients.

Dreyfus affair

Dreyfus affair

The Dreyfus affair was a political scandal that divided the French Third Republic from 1894 until its resolution in 1906. "L'Affaire", as it is known in French, has come to symbolise modern injustice in the Francophone world, and it remains one of the most notable examples of a complex miscarriage of justice and antisemitism. The role played by the press and public opinion proved influential in the conflict.

Eugenics

Eugenics

Eugenics is a fringe set of beliefs and practices that aim to improve the genetic quality of a human population. Historically, eugenicists have attempted to alter human gene pools by excluding people and groups judged to be inferior or promoting those judged to be superior. In recent years, the term has seen a revival in bioethical discussions on the usage of new technologies such as CRISPR and genetic screening, with a heated debate on whether these technologies should be called eugenics or not.

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. 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 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. 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, 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.[20] 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.[21] 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.

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Decadent movement

Decadent movement

The Decadent movement was a late-19th-century artistic and literary movement, centered in Western Europe, that followed an aesthetic ideology of excess and artificiality. The visual artist Félicien Rops's body of work and Joris-Karl Huysmans's novel Against Nature (1884) are considered the prime examples of the decadent movement. It first flourished in France and then spread throughout Europe and to the United States. The movement was characterized by a belief in the superiority of human creativity and pleasure over logic and the natural world.

Pornocrates

Pornocrates

Pornocrates, Pornokratès, La dame au cochon, or The Lady with the Pig is an 1878 painting by the Belgian artist Félicien Rops. It is part of the collection of the Musée provincial Félicien Rops in Namur, Belgium.

Félicien Rops

Félicien Rops

Félicien Victor Joseph Rops was a Belgian artist associated with Symbolism and the Parisian Fin-de Siecle. He was a painter, illustrator, caricaturist and a prolific and innovative print maker, particularly in intaglio. Although not well known to the general public, Rops was greatly respected by his peers and actively pursued and celebrated as an illustrator by the publishers, authors, and poets of his time and provided frontispieces and illustrations for Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly, Charles Baudelaire, Charles De Coster, Théophile Gautier, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Stéphane Mallarmé, Joséphin Péladan, Paul Verlaine, Voltaire, and many others. He is best known today for his prints and drawings illustrating erotic and occult literature of the period, although he also produced oil paintings including landscapes, seascapes, and occasional genre paintings. Rops is recognized as a pioneer of Belgian comics.

Fin de siècle

Fin de siècle

Fin de siècle is a French term meaning "end of century", a term which typically encompasses both the meaning of the similar English idiom turn of the century and also makes reference to the closing of one era and onset of another. Without context, the term is typically used to refer to the end of the 19th century. This period was widely thought to be a period of social degeneracy, but at the same time a period of hope for a new beginning. The "spirit" of fin de siècle often refers to the cultural hallmarks that were recognized as prominent in the 1880s and 1890s, including ennui, cynicism, pessimism, and "a widespread belief that civilization leads to decadence".

Charles Baudelaire

Charles Baudelaire

Charles Pierre Baudelaire was a French poet who also produced notable work as an essayist and art critic. His poems exhibit mastery in the handling of rhyme and rhythm, contain an exoticism inherited from Romantics, but are based on observations of real life.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson was a Scottish novelist, essayist, poet and travel writer. He is best known for works such as Treasure Island, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Kidnapped and A Child's Garden of Verses.

Richard von Krafft-Ebing

Richard von Krafft-Ebing

Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing was a German psychiatrist and author of the foundational work Psychopathia Sexualis (1886).

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was an Irish poet and playwright. After writing in different forms throughout the 1880s, he became one of the most popular playwrights in London in the early 1890s. He is best remembered for his epigrams and plays, his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the circumstances of his criminal conviction for gross indecency for consensual homosexual acts in "one of the first celebrity trials", imprisonment, and early death from meningitis at age 46.

Henrik Ibsen

Henrik Ibsen

Henrik Johan Ibsen was a Norwegian playwright and theatre director. As one of the founders of modernism in theatre, Ibsen is often referred to as "the father of realism" and one of the most influential playwrights of his time. His major works include Brand, Peer Gynt, An Enemy of the People, Emperor and Galilean, A Doll's House, Hedda Gabler, Ghosts, The Wild Duck, When We Dead Awaken, Rosmersholm, and The Master Builder. Ibsen is the most frequently performed dramatist in the world after Shakespeare, and A Doll's House was the world's most performed play in 2006.

Arthur Machen

Arthur Machen

Arthur Machen was the pen-name of Arthur Llewellyn Jones, a Welsh author and mystic of the 1890s and early 20th century. He is best known for his influential supernatural, fantasy, and horror fiction. His novella The Great God Pan has garnered a reputation as a classic of horror, with Stephen King describing it as "Maybe the best [horror story] in the English language." He is also well known for "The Bowmen", a short story that was widely read as fact, creating the legend of the Angels of Mons.

Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad was a Polish-British writer regarded as one of the greatest novelists to write in the English language. Though he did not speak English fluently until his twenties, he came to be regarded a master prose stylist who brought a non-English sensibility into English literature. He wrote stories and novels, many with a nautical setting, that depict trials of the human spirit in the midst of what he saw as an impassive, inscrutable universe.

Abhuman

Abhuman

Abhuman is a term used to distinguish a separation from normal human existence. This is different from inhuman, which typically connotes an ethical or moral separation from others.

Source: "Social degeneration", Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, (2022, November 25th), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_degeneration.

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References
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  2. ^ a b c Pick, Daniel (1989). Faces of Degeneration. Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/cbo9780511558573. ISBN 978-0-521-36021-0.
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