For Charles Darwin’s colleague Alfred Russell Wallace, the nineteenth was ‘the wonderful century’ (see Mike Jay and Michael Neve [eds.], 1900: A Fin de Siècle Reader [London: Penguin, 1999]: pp. 33-4), an age of material and scientific growth. Yet instead of a future characterized by expanding knowledge, improving health and moral progress, a variety of Victorian commentators in the late nineteenth century began to fear the spectre of degeneration. It was a word filled with connotations of decline, decadence, deviancy, disruption, disarray, and pessimism. Degeneracy represented the shadow side of philosopher Herbert Spencer’s optimistic imagining of evolution: it was the very opposite of received ideas of progression, a minus narrative that failed signally to provide a happy ending. Instead, it predicted the rise of disease, insanity, feebleness, idiocy, sterility, and extinction.

Others feared that the downward course may already have begun. The scientist Lord Kelvin’s ineluctable second law of thermodynamics called into question the infinite life of the sun and accordingly (so it was felt) of an ever improving humanity. Social campaigners and reformers such as W. T. Stead (1849-1912) and William Booth (1829-1912) suggested that rapid industrialisation and urbanisation were not only giving rise to a stunted, feeble-minded town population but were swelling the ranks of ‘the unfit’. Darwin’s follower, the formidable scientific campaigner Thomas Huxley, spoke at various times of inevitable progress and of likely degeneration, whilst also warning about the contemporary tendency mistakenly to confuse evolution and ethics. The zoologist Edwin Ray Lankester (1847-1929) wondered whether ‘the white races of Europe’ might be parasitically ‘tending to the condition of intellectual barnacles’ (Lankester, Degeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism [London: Macmillan, 1880]: pp. 59, 60) [Degeneration, A Chapter In Darwinism (1880) ]

Max Nordau, author of Degeneration, a succès de scandal of the 1890s, sought to pinpoint the insidious forces of modernity itself. He feared that enervation, hysteria, egotism and fatigue, were all on the rise. His ideas claimed widespread critical currency in Britain in particular because they were perceived to provide a catch-all explanation for the nation’s ailing industrial sector, lacklustre middle class birth-rates, urban and rural poverty, and the apparently lethargic performance of troops against the Boer soldiers (often dismissed in turn as simple farmers and herdsmen) during the South African war of 1899-1902. Throughout the latter decades of the nineteenth century, degeneration came to be an umbrella term which seemed to give coherence to many elements of fin de siècle culture. It was regularly invoked by contemporary commentators as the cause of the supposed increases in recidivistic criminal behaviour, homosexuality, insanity, prostitution, and poverty.

From the opening pages of Degeneration, Nordau unleashed an incoherent tirade, full of invective [Degeneration 1895]. He positioned himself as sane in an otherwise insane world. The subjects of his scathing attacks were quick to respond. The writers William James and Bernard Shaw, for example, pointed out that Nordau’s incendiary announcements on degeneracy seemed curiously self-reflective. Was he not a degenerate himself quipped some of his critics.

Under Nordau’s tutelage, the theory of degeneration threatened to collapse entirely under the weight of its own contradictions. Nordau disliked the phrase fin de siècle, regarding it as ‘fashionable term [which] has the necessary vagueness which fits it to convey all the half-conscious and indistinct drift of current ideas.’ Such a turn of phrase, he declared, meant precisely nothing ‘and receives a varying signification according to the diverse mental horizons of those who use it’ (Nordau, Degeneration [London: Bison, 1993]: p. 3) [Degeneration 1895]. Yet on the other hand, Nordau deployed the term ‘degeneration’ indiscriminately, weakening its technical currency as a clear medicio-psychiatric diagnosis. With little or no fixed point of reference or meaning, it came to stand for a whole system of discrete ideas. Its appeal lay precisely in its ability to be manipulated, altered, and adapted. The theories contained in the French doctor and alienist, Bénédict Augustin Morel’s important Treatise on the Degeneration of the Human Species (1857) for example, were quickly disseminated into wider areas of thought. In the process, Morel’s theories were diluted and used to support more general arguments to which they bore only the most superficial relevance.

During the second half of the century, theories of degeneracy were worked into ideas about ethnology, race and gender. They featured in discussions of ‘the New Woman,’ in explorations of zoology, in art criticism, and many other fields. Many of the fictional representations of degeneracy explored moral failing, vice and temptation. These include Bram Stoker’s Dracula in his 1897 novel of the same name, Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), and Edward Hyde in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886).

Darwin himself, whose pioneering work had made apparent the scientific potential of retrogression as well as evolution, had vacillated repeatedly about introducing any sense of morality into his theory of natural selection. He warned against applying too literally ideas of ‘highness’ and ‘lowliness’ in relation to, for example, sightless animals in the darkest caves. However, he could never bring himself fully to accept the possibility that the most adaptive characteristics enabling a species to achieve success were not necessarily the ‘highest’ or most ‘civilised’ ones. Despite his hesitancy in placing a value of worth on different species, Darwin’s followers paid little heed to his pleas for semantic caution, deferred judgment, and the exclusion of morals [Body and Will (1883)].

There was no question that the kaleidoscopic phenomena of degeneration fascinated and appalled in equal measure at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. In one sense, it simply reflected contemporary interest in the abnormal or that which defied description. In another sense, the proliferation of theories that came to be linked to degeneration fit neatly into the Victorian preoccupation with nomenclature - with naming, identifying, and categorizing all aspects of society. The boundaries that separated good from evil, progress from decay were now delineated with apparently scientific precision. The ‘data’ generated by scientists, urban explorers, and social commentators was comforting to some for it provided an often detailed portrait of a world previously inaccessible and thus unknown. To others, it merely confirmed their worst fears about crime, deviancy, and all that came to be embodied in ‘outcast London’.

There is no question that degeneration operated as a powerful discursive tool during this period. The ‘enemies’ of conventional society could simply be diagnosed as degenerate. The danger posed by their deviancy or immorality was thus nullified. If the end product of the interminable march of degeneracy was believed to be known, then proactive steps could - and were - taken to avert it. Francis Galton’s and Karl Pearson’s eugenics was not a project to improve or hasten evolutionary processes, but one that aimed to prevent racial degeneracy.