From bad to worse

Raymond Fancher

  • Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, c.1848-c.1918 by Daniel Pick
    Cambridge, 275 pp, £27.50, October 1989, ISBN 0 521 36021 8
  • Health, Race and German Politics between National Unification and Nazism 1870-1945 by Paul Weindling
    Cambridge, 641 pp, £55.00, October 1989, ISBN 0 521 36381 0

More than three centuries ago. Sir Thomas Browne noted ‘the humour of many heads to extol the days of their forefathers, and declaim against the wickedness of times present’. He added that these nostalgic declaimers seem always to have been present, and indeed one can find notable examples of them from virtually all periods of human history. Horace’s lament – ‘Our fathers, viler than our grandfathers, begot us who are even viler; we shall bring forth a progeny more degenerate still’ – is still echoed today by those who see society in dangerous decay from causes as diverse as Aids and abortion, pollution and punk rock, drugs and deficit spending. Because these attitudes have been expressed continuously across the centuries, Browne did not take them seriously, and argued that they merely indicated ‘the community of vice’ across all stages of history.

But still, there have been some historical periods when such attitudes were expressed particularly strongly, and some times and places truly worse to live in than others. Daniel Pick’s Faces of Degeneration shows how the general theme of human ‘degeneracy’ assumed particular prominence in European scientific, social and literary thought during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and Paul Weindling’s Health, Race and German Politics documents how many of these same ideas contributed to the nightmare of Nazi Germany.

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection set much of the context for the general discourse on degeneracy. At first, the theory had seemed to suggest that evolution proceeded in an inevitably progressive direction, slowly but surely transforming life forms from originally simple and ‘primitive’ ancestors to increasingly differentiated, complex, ‘higher’ and ‘more civilised’ organisms – with human beings naturally representing the pinnacle of the evolutionary hierarchy. Darwin himself expressed this view in 1859, declaring in the penultimate paragraph of On the Origin of Species: ‘We may look with some confidence to a secure future ... As natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.’

Increasingly, however, Darwin and his followers came to recognise that ‘evolution’ and ‘progress’ were not synonymous. The selective propensities of environment could operate in a multiplicity of ways, and the most adaptive inherited characteristics did not have to be the ‘highest’ or ‘most civilised’ ones. Further, heredity itself did not always proceed smoothly and ‘progressively’; the Darwinians worried especially about instances of ‘reversion’ or ‘atavism’, in which an inherited characteristic skipped one or more generations before reappearing. Although now accounted for by the Mendelian theory of recessive genes, these phenomena seemed to some late 19th-century biologists to represent a backwards form of hereditary transformation, the possible basis of regress instead of progress in evolution. Thus when Darwin wrote The Descent of Man in 1871, he now cautioned his readers that ‘progress is no invariable rule’. Edwin Ray Lankester, one of Darwin’s younger followers, soon called attention to the existence of parasites as apparent examples of regressively evolved life forms. Necessarily arising at a later date than their hosts – who have to pre-exist to provide the environment that selects and supports them – parasites seemed to offer a loathsome and terrifying model for the possible future course of evolution. Lankester’s 1880 book, Degeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism, expressed these fears while also bringing the first word of its title to general attention in Britain.

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