The idea of degeneration had significant influence on science, art and politics from the 1850s to the 1950s. The social theory developed consequently from Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution. Evolution meant that mankind's development was no longer fixed and certain, but could change and evolve or degenerate into an unknown future, possibly a bleak future that clashes with the analogy between evolution and civilization as a progressive positive direction.

As a consequence, theorists assumed the human species might be overtaken by a more adaptable species or circumstances might change and suit a more adapted species. Degeneration theory presented a pessimistic outlook for the future of western civilization as it believed the progress of the 19th century had begun to work against itself.



One of the earliest scientists to advocate degeneration was Johann Friedrich Blumenbach and other monogenists such as Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, they were believers in the "Degeneration theory" of racial origins the theory claims that races can degenerate into "primitive" forms. Blumenbach claimed that Adam and Eve were white and that other races came about by degeneration from environmental factors such as the sun and poor dieting. Buffon believed that the degeneration could be reversed if proper environmental control was taken and that all contemporary forms of man could revert to the original Caucasian race.[1]

George Campbell, 8th Duke of Argyll claimed that modern savages were degenerate descendants from originally civilized peoples. He opposed evolution and followed cultural degeneration.[2]

By 1890 there was a growing fear of degeneration sweeping across Europe creating disorders that led to poverty, crime, alcoholism, moral perversion and political violence. Degeneration raised the possibility that Europe may be creating a class of degenerate people who may attack the social norms, this led to support for a strong state which polices degenerates out of existence with the assistance of scientific identification.

In the 1850s French doctor Bénédict Morel argued more vigorously that certain groups of people were degenerating, going backwards in terms of evolution so each generation became weaker and weaker. This was based on pre-Darwinian ideas of evolution, especially those of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who argued that acquired characteristics like drug abuse and sexual perversions, could be inherited. Genetic predispositions have been observed for alcoholism and criminality.

The first scientific criminologist Cesare Lombroso working in the 1880s believed he found evidence of degeneration by studying the corpses of criminals. After completing an autopsy on murderer Villela he found the indentation where the spine meets the neck to be a signal of degeneration and subsequent criminality. Lombroso was convinced he had found the key to degeneration that had concerned liberal circles.[3]

In Alexey Severtzov's typology of the evolution directions this term is used in an ethically neutral way; it denotes such an evolutionary transformation that is accompanied by a decrease in complexity, as opposed to aromorphosis (accompanied by increase in complexity, cp. anagenesis[4]), and idioadaptation (this term designates such an evolutionary transformation that is accompanied by neither a decrease nor increase in complexity, cp. cladogenesis) (see, e.g., Korotayev 2004).


There was an art movement called decadent art in the 1880s which had elements considered by critics as degenerate and a book was written about this by the Zionist Max Nordau. The book was called Entartung - rendered in English as Degeneration. Max Nordau's Degeneration attempted to explain all modern art, music and literature by pointing out the degenerate characteristics of the artists involved. In this fashion a whole biological explanation for social problems was developed.[5]

In the twentieth century, eradicating "degeneration" became a justification for various eugenic programs, mostly in Europe and the United States. Eugenicists adopted the concept, using it to justify the sterilization of the supposedly unfit. The Nazis took up these eugenic efforts as well, including extermination, for those who would corrupt future generations. They also used the concept in art, banning "degenerate" (entartete) art and music: see degenerate art.

For further information, see Daniel Pick's book Degeneration, or the work of Sander Gilman.

See also


  1. ^ Marvin Harris, The rise of anthropological theory: a history of theories of culture, 2001, p. 84.
  2. ^ Graham Richards, Race, racism, and psychology: towards a reflexive history, 1997, pp. 7-8
  3. ^ A. Herman op. cit. 110–113.
  4. ^ Aromorphoses in Biological аnd Social Evolution: Some General Rules for Biological and Social Forms of Macroevolution in Social Evolution & History (Vol. 8 No. 2, September 2009: 6-50).
  5. ^ A. Herman (1997). "The Idea of Decline in Western History". 110–113.


  • Korotayev, Andrey (2004). World Religions and Social Evolution of the Old World Oikumene Civilizations: A Cross-cultural Perspective (First Edition ed.). Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press. ISBN 0-7734-6310-0. 

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  • dégénération — [ deʒenerasjɔ̃ ] n. f. • XVe, rare av. déb. XVIIIe; bas lat. degeneratio « dégénération, dégénérescence » → dégénérer ♦ Vx Le fait de perdre les qualités naturelles de sa race; état qui en résulte. ⇒ dégénérescence. ⇒DÉGÉNÉRATION, subst. fém. A.… …   Encyclopédie Universelle

  • Degeneration — (lateinisch de , „ent “; genus, „Art“, „Geschlecht“) ist ein in der medizinischen Wissenschaft gebräuchlicher Oberbegriff für formale, strukturelle u. funktionelle Abweichungen von der Norm.[1] Der Begriff wird meist im Sinne einer… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Degeneration — De*gen er*a tion, n. [Cf. F. d[ e]g[ e]n[ e]ration.] 1. The act or state of growing worse, or the state of having become worse; decline; degradation; debasement; degeneracy; deterioration. [1913 Webster] Our degeneration and apostasy. Bates.… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • dégénération — DÉGÉNÉRATION. sub. f. État de ce qui dégénère. La dégénération des plantes, des animaux, des races, des espèces …   Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française 1798

  • degeneration — c.1600, from Fr. dégéneration (15c.) or directly from L.L. degenerationem (nom. degeneratio), noun of action from pp. stem of L. degenerare (see DEGENERATE (Cf. degenerate)) …   Etymology dictionary

  • degeneration — degeneration. См. дегенерация. (Источник: «Англо русский толковый словарь генетических терминов». Арефьев В.А., Лисовенко Л.А., Москва: Изд во ВНИРО, 1995 г.) …   Молекулярная биология и генетика. Толковый словарь.

  • degeneration — degeneration. = degeneracy (см.). (Источник: «Англо русский толковый словарь генетических терминов». Арефьев В.А., Лисовенко Л.А., Москва: Изд во ВНИРО, 1995 г.) …   Молекулярная биология и генетика. Толковый словарь.

  • Degeneration — (lat.), Rückbildung oder Reduktion, d. h. die Vorgänge bei dem normalen Zerfall von Körperteilen, z. B. des Schwanzes der Froschlarven (Kaulquappen); der Gegensatz ist nach der einen Richtung die krankhafte oder abnorme D., nach der andern die… …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

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