Author : Edwin Ray Lankester(1847 - 1929)

Title : Degeneration, A Chapter In Darwinism (1880)

Keywords: Darwin, evolution, darwinism, degeneration, language, t h huxley, the lost world (doyle), progress, survival of the fittest, atavism, zoology, biology, parasites.

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This extract is from Lankester’s Degeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism, originally a lecture given in Sheffield in 1879 and published in 1880. The book is a scholarly investigation into zoological and botanical examples of degeneracy, that is, mainly lower types which have grown from a state of independence into one of parasitism - Lankester’s oft-quoted definition of degeneration was ‘a gradual change of the structure in which the organism becomes adapted to less varied and less complex conditions of life’ (p. 32).

In non-zoological terms, the most arresting parts of Lankester’s work are the final six pages and ‘Note D’ (pp. 74-5). Here, Lankester connects that which he has stated in the preceding fifty pages - concerning tadpoles, water-fleas, barnacles, ascidians, sea-acorns, and marine worms - to human societies, whose degeneracy may well be occasioned by a collapse into ‘a contented life of material enjoyment accompanied by ignorance and superstition’ (p. 61) .

The fourth ‘Note’ also examines the possibility of the degeneration of language. It is important to bear in mind however that although Lankester does indeed force a link between biology and human society, he does so only as an afterword, perhaps designed only to make his spoken lecture - easily construed by some as dry - a little more relevant to those sitting in the audience. It would be left to later writers to indiscriminately use such ideas and make concrete the potentiality for human and social degeneracy.


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