There have been elements of degenerationist thinking for many centuries, although the term only arose in the 19th century in a specific context of evolutionary theory. Many ancient cultures understood their times as degenerate remnants of a golden age. For example, traditional Chinese history spoke of the golden age of the philosopher-king who is said to have ruled China with exemplary wisdom in ancient times. The name and dates of the philosopher-king differ according to which school of Chinese philosophy one consults, but they all agree that subsequent ages are ages of decline. Egypt, India, Greece, and Rome all had variations of the myth that current ages are degenerate survivals from a long-lost golden age. For example, Hesiod, the Greek poet and contemporary of Homer, outlined the classical Greek view of a golden age of gods and men living in harmony, which was followed by the silver, bronze, and iron ages, each one successively more grim for humans. The Christian religion continued this myth with the story of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and all subsequent humanity living with the consequences of their sin.
Variations of these mythologies of degeneration held the field with little change until the 19th century, when a new crop of degeneration theories arose. The Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1887) became an influential proponent of the idea that most of the ideas and trends characteristic of modern civilization were harbingers of a leveling barbarism. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) took Burckhardt’s pessimism further, seeing the degeneracy as endemic to European civilization as a whole.
But it was developments in science that stimulated the most original variations on the old theme of degeneration. Evolution, particularly as it was expressed in the first half century after Darwin, was overwhelmingly progressionist in tone, being widely regarded as a process whereby organisms, including humans, move from simple to more complex forms of organization. When this was applied to human evolution, many people assumed that this meant history operated in a linear progression from backward states toward civilization. Furthermore, this progression upward was widely held to be a permanent condition.
The scientific variation of degeneration theory was, on the surface at least, a respectable enough idea: While most species move from the simple to the more complex, some move in the opposite direction toward more simple, or degenerate, forms. This idea was applied for a while to the study of ants and microorganisms and had a brief vogue in the 1870s before falling away in the face of the overwhelming consensus that evolution involved progress.
It was in the application of degeneration theory to human evolution that it had found a more congenial home. Degenerationism soon found an important role in the non-Darwinian brands of evolutionism now known as Social Darwinism. It was suggested, for instance, that the races held to be the most primitive, the Fuegians, Bushmen, and Australian Aborigines, had all at some time degenerated from more advanced forms. Social Darwinists were prone to appeal to the White races to adopt some attitude or other so as to avoid a similar fate. Variations of degenerationism also had a brief vogue among supporters of eugenics, and among those who studied criminology. The Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso (1836-1909) was particularly influential in this area. Another early exponent of aspects of degenerationism was the German biologist Anton Dohrn (1840-1909). Dohrn’s legacy, it has to be said, was far wider than his digression into degenerationism; he made important contributions to several areas of experimental biology. But degenerationism among scientists declined as Social Darwinism and eugenics declined as credible aspects of evolutionary theory.
In the English-speaking world, the most comprehensive 19th-century attempt at a theory of degeneration came from Phillip Gosse (1810-1888). In Omphalos (1857), Gosse, who was a biblical literal-ist, divided time into what he called diachronic, or historical time, and prochronic, or unreal or virtual, time. Gosse argued that even 20 minutes after the Creation, the Garden of Eden would have shown signs of the passage of time that in real time had not taken place. In this way, the trees would have had annual rings commemorating years that had not passed, and Adam would have sported a navel from a birth that had not taken place. This bedrock of prochronic time, Gosse argued, was a necessary foundation for subsequent diachronic time to proceed from.
Gosse’s book failed entirely to convince people, even other Christians concerned with the consequences of evolutionary theory. It was soon recognized that the arguments in Omphalos were unscientific in that they were quite untestable.
Gosse’s book had been motivated in part by his religious orthodoxy, but his failure to harmonize religion and science did not deter other defenders of religious orthodoxy from employing variations of degeneration theory to support their religious beliefs. For instance, a noteworthy minority of 19th-century missionaries spoke in degenerationist terms with regard to subject peoples. Not only were the “savages” degenerate by virtue of beings descended from the sin of Adam, as all humans were thought to be, but they shared an extra helping of degeneracy by virtue of their very savagery. Unlike the Christians, savages had degenerated still further into devil worship, cannibalism, and all the other horrors that confronted the missionaries. Classified in this way, the missionaries were able to see their role as entirely beneficent and kindly.
While degenerationism came and went within two generations in the areas of science and religion, perhaps its most long-lasting legacy can be found in literature. Two early examples would include Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), which explored the notion of an evolutionary duality in man, with modern man being confronted with an atavistic, inner-savage alter ego, and H. G. Wells’s hugely influential The Time Machine (1895), which told of a future world where most humans have degenerated into Morlocks, living a spectral existence as toilers and providers for the ruling Eloi. The cultural pessimism that is so influential in much of contemporary literature and social theory is a direct descendant of the degenerationism of the 19th century.
- Bowler, P. (1992). The non-Darwinian revolution. Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Gosse, E. (1970). Father and son. London: Penguin Books. (Original work published 1907)
- Gosse, P. (1998). Omphalos: An attempt to untie the geological knot. Woodbridge, CT: Ox Bow Press. (Original work published 1857)
- Herman, A. (1997). The idea of decline in Western history. New York: Free Press.