A. The Charge. Degeneracy takes many forms, including necrophilia, incest, pedophilia, bestiality, and serial murder. Yet homosexual degenerates seem to be the only such group to have the effrontery to insist that their perversion be accepted as somehow “normal.” This appalling demand must be firmly resisted.
As Peter Watson, a young Australian politician, remarked in 2012: “Yes, I am homophobic. Homosexuals disgust me with their decadent attitudes to life and their life styles. They are really bad for our society and they need to be dealt with by the powers to be. The homosexuals are the true social degenerates.”
B. Historical Background. The idea of degeneration is related to the idea of decline, Yet instead of emphasizing the historical and cultural factors that were thought to spell civilizational decline, the concept of degeneration has focused on biological determinants that ostensibly decree the deterioration of the human organism. The unfortunates who were subject to this process were termed “degenerates.” At the height of the idea’s popularity, in the later decades of the nineteenth century, such deviant figures as the alcoholic, the criminal, the nymphomaniac, and the homosexual were stigmatized as degenerates. Thus degeneracy was an umbrella concept, yet one in which same-sex behavior always occupied an important place.
The scientific or pseudo-scientific underpinnings of the concept are summed up in the theory of devolution. Devolution or backward evolution is the notion that a species can change into a more rudimentary form over time. The notion presumes that there is a preferred hierarchy of structure and function, and that evolution must mean progress to more advanced organisms. This may include the idea that some modern species that have lost functions or complexity must be degenerate forms of their full-fledged ancestors.
Broadly speaking, the idea of devolution rests upon the assumption that evolution requires some sort of purposeful development towards "increasing complexity." Yet modern evolutionary theory requires no such presumption, and the concept of evolutionary change is independent of either any increase in complexity of organisms sharing a gene pool.
The concept of devolution or degenerative evolution enjoyed its heyday in the nineteenth century, when many biologists believed that evolution exhibited some kind of direction. One of the first biologists to suggest devolution was the Englishman Ray Lankester, who explored the possibility that evolution by natural selection may in some cases lead to devolution, an example he studied was the regressions in the life cycle of sea squirts. Lankester presented his ideas of devolution in his book Degeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism (1880). He was a critic of progressive evolution, pointing out that higher forms existed in the past which have since degenerated into simpler forms. Lankester argued that "if it was possible to evolve, it was also possible to devolve, and that complex organisms could devolve into simpler forms or animals."
The latter decades of the nineteenth century saw a growing fear of degeneration sweeping across Europe creating, it was thought, disorders that led to poverty, alcoholism, moral perversion, and political unrest. The discourse of degeneration raised the possibility that Europe might be perversely nourishing a class of degenerate individuals whose very marginality caused them to be in open revolt against established social norms. This anxiety fostered support for a strong state which ride herd on degenerates, identifying them and segregating them from the rest of the population.
In the 1850s, a French physician Bénédict-Auguste Morel strongly maintained that certain groups of people were degenerating, going backwards in terms of evolution, so that each generation became weaker and weaker. Morel’s thinking relied on pre-Darwinian ideas of evolution, especially those of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who held that acquired characteristics such as drug abuse and sexual perversions could be passed on to succeeding generations.
Working in the 1880s, the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso believed he found clear evidence of degeneration in studying the corpses of criminals. After completing an autopsy on one murderer he found an indentation where the spine meets the neck which he interpreted as a sign of degeneration and subsequent criminality. He also maintained that criminal types could be identified by a particular configuration of the feet.
During the twentieth century the growing panic about degeneration served to rationalize various eugenic programs in Europe and the United States - to terrible effect. These programs involved the sterilization of those who were supposedly unfit to reproduce. For their part, the Nazis took up these eugenic efforts, seeking to exterminate all those who might corrupt future generations.
In 1892 the Hungarian journalist Max Nordau published a book entitled Entartung (rendered in English as Degeneration) that was widely influential for a time. Nordau blamed modern social phenomena for creating pathological conditions under which unacceptable art was produced. The writers and artists who created such work he diagnosed as "degenerate.” Nordau even produced photographs of such figures as Baudelaire and Verlaine with the implication that their very appearance revealed their fallen state.
The Nazis applied the concept of degeneration to the aesthetic sphere, banning "degenerate" (entartete) art and music. By 1937 the concept of degeneracy was firmly entrenched in Nazi policy. On June 30 of that year Josef Goebbels put Adolf Ziegler, the head of the Reichskammer der Bildenden Künste (Reich Chamber of Visual Art), in charge of a six-man commission authorized to confiscate from museums and art collections throughout the Reich any art works deemed ultramodern, degenerate, or subversive.
In a series of rapid campaigns some 5,000 works were seized, including 1,052 by Emil Nolde, 759 by Ernst Heckel, 639 by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and 508 by Max Beckmann, as well as smaller numbers of works by other artists, including Ensor, Matisse, Picasso, and Van Gogh. The Entartete Kunst exhibit offered a seletion of these, featuring over 650 paintings, sculptures, prints, and books from the collections of thirty-two German museums. The exhibition of these works was intended to incite further revulsion against the "perverse Jewish spirit" ostensibly penetrating German culture It opened in Munich on July 19, 1937 and remained on view until November 30 before traveling to eleven other cities in Germany and Austria.
In the early twenty-first century one might have thought that the discourse of degeneration was completely passé, at least in respectable circles. Yet it is not, or not quite. In 2012 the British economic historian Niall Ferguson published a book entitled The Great Degeneration. Alarmingly, he detects the symptoms of decline all around us today: “slowing growth, crushing debts, aging populations, anti-social behavior. How has Western civilization gone astray?” The answer, Ferguson maintains, is that “our institutions - the intricate frameworks within which a society can flourish or fail - are degenerating. Representative government, the free market, the rule of law and civil society: these were once the four pillars of Western European and North American societies.”
Degeneration is occurring, it seems, but not degenerates. That is perhaps an advance, at least rhetorically. Not many, though, would agree with the British historian's pessimistic diagnosis of the state of our civilization.
C. Response. The science underlying the concept of degeneration has always been dubious. The Nazi espousal further tainted the notion. In consequence, the expressions “degeneration” and “degenerate” are rarely encountered these days (the example of Niall Ferguson is a partial exception).
Popular culture supplies another recent instance, though not a very significant one. In a play on words, homophobes decry Ellen DeGeneres, the popular lesbian comedian and celebrity (prominent from 1994, when she received her first television show), by dubbing her “Ellen Degenerate.” Whimsically cited by her admirers, this persiflage doesn't cut the mustard.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. J. Edward Chamberlain and Sander L. Gilman, eds., Degeneration: The Dark Side of Progress, New York: Columbia University Press, 1985; Daniel Pick, Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, c. 1848-c. 1918, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.