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The idea of degeneration goes back to the 18th century, and 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.
By the mid 18th century, naturalists such as Carl Linnaeus recognised a large number of species, each with its own place in nature and with adaptation to a particular geographical location. Both points made the story of Noah's Ark seem untenable, with its prospect of organisms migrating from one point over vast stretches of hostile territory. From 1749 onwards Buffon published a series of volumes of his Natural History in which he proposed that creatures had arisen by divinely ordained laws, separately in the old world and in the Americas. Where humans and families of animals were found in both continents, he suggested that they had migrated from the old world at a time when the world was warmer and routes were open, but had changed to suit the new conditions by degeneration from the ideal type. For an example of this "degeneration of animals", he described the cat family, in which the lion was distinct from the cougar, and the leopard from the jaguar, but differed even more from each other. From this he concluded "that these animals had one common origin and that, having formerly passed from one continent to another, their present differences have proceeded only from the long influence of their new situation." He wavered as to whether truly new species were produced by this process, and it is unclear as to whether this concept can be thought of as an early theory of evolution.
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.
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,
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), 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.
Max Nordau's book Entartung (1892) was rendered in English as Degeneration. Nordau blamed modern social phenomena for creating pathological conditions under which unacceptable art was produced. The artists who produced such art were diagnosed as "degenerate," which was a medical term referring to certain mental states caused by social forces.
The Nazis also used the concept of degeneration in art, banning "degenerate" (entartete) art and music: see degenerate art.