Elof Axel Carlson | cont. | The Unfit: A History of a Bad Idea | 2001

French convicts, late 19th century.

Degeneracy Theory: Identifying the Innately Depraved and the Victims of Vicious Upbringing. Alongside masturbation criticism was moral degeneracy discourse. 1st scholarly proposal of degeneracy: Treatise on Physical, Intellectual, and Moral Degeneration in Humans and the Conditions Producing these Detrimental States, 1857, Benedict Augustin Morel. Morel’s Theory of Degeneration. “the clearest notion we can form of degeneracy is to regard it as a morbid deviation from an original type. This deviation, even if, at the outset, it was ever so slight, contained transmissible elements of such a nature that anyone bearing in him the germs becomes more and more incapable of fulfilling his function in the world and mental progress, already checked in his own person, finds itself menaced also in his descendants.” Inferior and superior degenerates, BOTH pathological. Morel’s theory adopted by social thinkers and physicians in 2nd half 19th century. Til 1890s, near universal agreement that damaging environment leads to defective offspring.

Environmental Theories of Degeneracy. Non-biological theories of degeneracies: Jean Esquirol, insanity from social conditions; Pierre Proudhon, founder of anarchism, poverty -> stupification and criminality.

Lombroso’s Theory of Innate Criminality. Biological theory of degeneracy. Army surgeon classifying soldiers, sought affective model. Skull-type correlation, atavistic Homo delinguens, borrowing from Darwin Descent of Man 1871. 1876 L’uomo dilenquent. Subtypes = “epileptoid” who are like epileptics, “mattoid” who are mentally imbalanced but functional and hide their pathology. Genius as a Pathology. Lombroso investigated “man of genius.” Epileptoid – Caesar, St. Paul, Mohammed, Petrarch, Swift, Peter the Great, Richelieu, Napoleon, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky. “Vertigo” – Marlborough, Faraday, Dickens. Very popular. Latter 19th century critics disputed: criminals were products of environments.

Nordau’s Theory of Degeneracy and Culture. Born Budapest, moved to Paris, physician, cultural critic. Conventional Lies of Our Civilization, 1884. Modeled on Morel and Lombroso, Degeneration 1895. Specified “pseudogeniuses,” writers of degenerate works [How could the WORKS be degenerate? How does he move from degenerate authors to degenerate WORKS?] – Ibsen, Nietzche, Wagner, Rodin, Verlaine, Mallarme. Like Morel, Nordau believed degeneracy worsened / generally was self-eliminating.

Zola’s Theory of Familial Degeneracy. 20 novels re degenerate families.

Degeneracy and Social Class. By beginning 20th century, consensus that unfit = products of environment that BROUGHT ABOUT hereditary degeneracy. 3 social classes were products of generations of neglect and abuse – tramps, paupers, criminals. 2 types could appear as degenerate offshoots anytime – feebleminded, insane. Consensus text, Dr. G. Frank Lydston, Diseases of Society and Degeneracy (1905), identified 20 causes of degeneracy, including alcohol: heredity and habit, defective physique, neglect of children, acquired diseases, brain injuries, alcohol, herding of criminals resulting in vicious examples to the naive, defective moral training, lack of education, unjust dispensation of laws, marriage among criminals, menopause, sexual perversions, anarchy, poverty, idleness, gambling, high cost of living, the stress of urban living, and the immigration of the ‘criminal refuse of the old world.'”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s