Beginning in ancient Greece, beliefs surrounding inequality amongst humans, specifically between men and women show evidence of a necessity humans as a species have to divide and classify with a sense of oneupmanship. Aristotle’s interpretation of men women and their differences can be seen in many of his works and set a precedent which racially charged 19th century thinkers latched onto and reinvigorated as degeneration theory. This is most clearly seen through Kant and his work on the sexes, where his distinctions between the mental comprehensions between men and women reflect the work of Aristotle and further in Darwins evolution theory which “in itself contains the very notion of biological regression.”The true rhetoric and theories of degeneration that still resound and hold influence for our current cultural environment however began in 1857. Prior to the publication of Darwins theory of evolution the nineteenth century saw the publication of Morel’s Traité Des Dégénérescences Physiques, Intellectuelles Et Morales De L’espèce Humaine Et Des Causes Qui Produisent Ces Varietes Maladives.
Morel’s main interest was psychiatry, whilst also being influenced by a multitude of pre-darwinian evolutionary theories he produced his work detailing the degeneration and biological regression of the human race, its causes and the indications. Morel believed that psychological disorders were a result of physical disorders or abnormalities. He used this against his belief that the perfect human does exist in order to develop his ideas about degenerates and their impact on the rest of society. The racial aspect of degeneration became involved through Morel’s attempt to study hereditary causes of these psychological problems, developing his character and showcasing Morel as the antagonist to Darwin, with the two paralleling theories.
As a pious catholic Morel developed a list of factors which produce the deviations he was studying, developed from the Manichean ideas concerning pathogens. The most significant to degeneration theory was his notion that humans are retrogressive as a result of their hereditary and the current social milieu, (associated commonly with Lamarck), and that regressions occur as steps away from the perfect human. This lay the foundations for the later concept that the mixing of different races caused social degeneracy. While degeneration theory and Evolutionism were paralleled, Morels theory, in conjunction with that of Darwins spurred the popularity of degeneration theory in the nineteenth century, provoking thoughts of cultural and social decline by way of these degenerates having a place in Victorian society. This along with Morel’s success in psychiatry influenced and affected our cultural environment more than we know.
Morel’s advancements lead to the discovery of more cases of psychological deviances being reported. This in turn with their new found categorisation by way of degeneration theory influenced literature, art and other victorian cultural distinctions. Most significantly gothic literature which is still present and considered to be classic in the modern day. Gothic works such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), George Du Maurier’s Trilby (1894), Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (1894) and The Three Impostors (1895), and Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897) were all popularised during the Fin de siècle period. During which Evil is commonly recognised as a deviation or a disease residual amongst the social outclasses, defined by both a secularism and the increasing interest in biology as a science.
This saw people of different races to that of the white European, Jews, women and the insane classed biologically as degenerates through various social structures. In this way, theories of devolution were the desired hypothesis of the modernist fears of the European middle-classes, giving credence to the idea that the infection associated with an array of ‘deviated’ peoples is something best isolated. These societal fears mark the way in which ideas of degeneracy were not limited to constructing notions of inferiority in colonised races as distinct from imperial ones.