Degeneration Theory

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During the later half of the 19th century and the beginning of the twentieth century, degeneration theory established a theoretical cause for mental illness. Degeneration theory, like many other theories of the time, has philosophical and religious roots. After popularized by Bénédict Augustin Morel, the theory integrated newly published writing about evolution, adopting many of Charles Darwin’s theories of generational changes in a species.

Scientist following Morel removed some of the obvious religious themes from degeneration theory while keeping the main tenants of the theory intact. The influence of degeneration theory spilled into political rhetoric and justified some of the horrific brutalism of the twentieth century.

Definition of Degeneration Theory:
An organism’s degeneration from a more complex state to a simpler, less differentiated states. Degeneration theory believed that biological devolution was a primary cause of mental illness.

​In Nazi Germany, evil movements justified their monstrous and hideous actions of removing and murdering human beings as a necessity to preserve the master race, protecting their “pure” blood from the poisoning destruction of degeneration attributed to other races, illnesses, and handicaps.

​Bénédict Augustin Morel and Degeneration Theory

Bénédict Augustin Morel​ was born in November 22, 1809 in Vienna. His early instruction was strongly influenced by religion. He developed his theory of degeneration “in dialogue with the philosophical and theological schools of the first half of the nineteenth century” (Liégeois, 1991).

Morel after medical schooling became the head physician at the Mareville Asylum near Nancy, France. He served as director at Mareville from 1848 to 1956. After Mareville, Morel was at the Saint-Yon asylum from 1856 to his death in 1873.

​Morel studied the mentally ill confined in the asylums, searching their family histories and examining external influences such as poverty and early physical illnesses. Morel saw mental deficiency as the end stage of a process of mental degeneration. He articulated his findings in Treatise on Degeneration (1857).

Morel’s Theory to Explain the Growing Population of Mentally Ill

Morel expressed concern about the growing population  of the mentally ill which he attributed to the appearance and increase of new clinical forms of mental illness. He emphasized the impact these changes on society, drawing attention to the growing number of crimes against property and persons, and suicides.

​The growing number of mentally ill meant there was a decreasing number of productive citizens. Due to this, Morel saw the degeneration of the population as an undeniable and serious danger. The illnesses he felt were inherited and incurable. From these observations, he constructed his theory of degeneration (Huertas, Rafael, & Winston, C. M., 1992).

Morel “raised his thesis on both the traditional notion of the hereditary transmission of mental illness and on the current evolutionist thought.” Morel suggested that “psychological disorders, and generally all abnormalities of human behaviour, were an expression of the abnormal constitution of the organisms of those individuals having these disorders…” Finally, Morel felt that “this abnormal constitution would be transmissible by hereditary means and subject to progressive evolution towards decay..” (1992).

The degenerative view was regarded as a “evolution in the wrong direction.” Degeneration was a process that “leaves the usual path of nature” (Hoff, 2008).

​Morel’s Six Classifications of Mental Illness

Morel’s degeneration theory had many philosophical, religious, political, and scientific implications. However, Morel’s main objective was providing a medical model for psychiatric treatment and diagnosis. “Morel himself applied his theory to clinical practice.” In a 1860 publishing, Morel proposed a classification of psychic illnesses which which utilized his theoretical principles contained in degeneration theory for psychiatric clinical work (Huertas & Winston, 1992). 

Morel described six groups of mental disorders. Four of the groups he considered that heredity played a limited or uncertain role (derangements of intoxication, derangements of  transformation, idiopathic derangements, and sympathetic insanities). The most important group was the hereditary insanities, which he suggested evolved from the first four.

Hereditary insanities, he hypothesized, most dominate cause was heredity. “These degenerative disorders grew worse with each succeeding generation and culminated in sterility” (Liégeois, 1991).

​The last group, dementia, represented the terminal stage of all mental disorders (1991).

​Morel’s Six Classifications:

1. Derangements of intoxication

2. Derangements determined by the transformation of certain neuroses: hysterical, epileptic, and hypochondriac types of insanity

3. Idiopathic derangements

4. Sympathetic insanities

5. Hereditary derangements

Morel divided hereditary insanities into four further classes:

  • ​​​​​​​Class 1: Heredity insanity due to simple exaggeration of nervous temperament.
  • Class 2: Delirium of feelings and acts, with apparent retention of intellectual faculties. First variety of intellectual, physical, and moral degenerates in human species.
  • Class 3: Hereditary insanities with limited intellectual existence. State of transmission towards idiocy. Second variety of intellectual, physical, and moral degeneration in the human species. 
  • Class 4: Hereditary insanities featuring absolute limitation of the intellectual faculties and morbid congenital anomalies. Third varieties of intellectual, physical, and moral degenerates in the human species.​

6. Dementias

The final degenerative state of all mental disorders.

​The Philosophical and Religious Foundation for Morel’s Degeneration Theory

At the core of Morel’s theory hides the theological doctrine of God’s creation of man. Man in the beginning was a divinely created being. The original sin began the first deviation from his perfect state. “Thus the original sin was the theological basis of degeneration theory” (Liégeois, 1991).

The Continued Develop of Degeneration Theory after Morel’s  Initial Introduction.

Valentine Magnan

Morel’s theory was further developed by Valentine Magnan (1835-1916). In 1885, Magnan published a small book on his adjusted theory of degeneration. While Magnan supported and maintained Morel’s theory of degeneration, he distinguished his own beliefs from Morel’s in significant ways. 

Historically, we must remember that between the time of Morel’s published work on degeneration and Magnan’s published work in 1885, Darwin published On the Origin of the Species (1859). Undoubtedly, Darwin’s evolution theories influenced Magnan’s work.

Magnan developed Morel’s ideas, but considerably departed from the religious undertones of the perfect man, created by god. Instead, Magnan introduced the “evolutionary idea of the struggle for life and survival, displacing the mystical/religious concepts in Morel’s work (essentially the myth of the ‘fallen angel’) and constructed a theory more in tune with the positivist orthodoxy of his times” (Huertas & Winston, 1992).

Max Nordau

In 1892, Max  Simon Nordau (1849-1923) published his best selling book Degeneration. Nordau drew upon the medical connotations of degeneration theory to a generalized cultural criticism. Accordingly, Nordau identified a number of weaknesses in contemporary western culture that he characterized in terms of ego-mania.

Degeneration Theory and Racism

While much of the theory of degeneration fell out of favor by the beginning of World War I, some of the remnants of the theory, such has the perfect man and social Darwinism, provided fodder for perversion by Nazi Germany.

Paul Hoff explains, “the nationalist socialist movement from its beginnings until the end of World War II used central ideas of degeneration theory, social Darwinism and eugenics to ‘scientifically’ justify their barbaric world view and—in the last consequence—the killing of people whose lives were defined as ‘unworthy’ (2008).

Sadly, the uniformed and stupid still hold to these theories, dismissing the medical history and foundational research, holding to the perversions, to justify biased hate and maltreatment of those they see as degenerate forms of humanity.

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Adriaens, Pieter R. & De Block, Andreas (2010). The evolutionary turn in psychiatry: a historical overview. History of Psychiatry, 21(2), 131-143.

Hoff, Paul (2008). Kraepelin and degeneration theory. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 258(2), 12-17.

Huertas, Rafael, & Winston, C. M. (1992). Madness and degeneration, I. History of Psychiatry, 3(12), 391-411.

Liégeois, Axel (1991). Hidden philosophy and theology in Morel’s theory of degeneration and nosology. History of Psychiatry, 2(8), 419-427.

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