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Social Degeneration

( Originally Published 1915 )

Nature of Social Degeneration. Social degeneracy is often discussed but rarely defined. Nordau's large book upon degeneration lacks definiteness as to what is social degeneration. His thesis is that the nervous diseases that curse society to-day, the literary and artistic monstrosities which appear ever and again, and the moral and religious crazes which arise from time to time are symptoms of degeneracy.

Morel made a learned study of individual degeneracy and its causes and results, but it has a bearing only as individual de-generation affects society. Social degeneration as such he does not treat. So, many others with Morel, for example, Ferι, Talbot, Lange, and a host of geneticists and eugenists, have written extensively upon certain aspects of degeneracy in the individual. Only indirectly do these studies bear upon the question of social degeneration.

Ward in his Pure Sociology touches the question of race degeneration. He treats it from the analogical point of view, drawing the parallel between the extinction of the highly specialized forms of animal and plant life, like the dinosaurs and the giant sequoias, respectively, and races and nations, citing as examples the conquest of Troy by Greece, the yielding to Spain in the fifteenth century of the torch of civilization borne by Italy up to that time. To Ward, " race and national degeneration are nothing more than this pushing out of the vigorous branches or sympodes at the expense of the parent trunks." He makes the term degeneration synonymous with decadence.

We know what biological degeneracy is. It is the degeneracy of the individual in one or more of a number of ways. Genetically it may be described as a variation from the type in the direction of less complexity of physical organization, with the result that the organism is illy adapted to meet the conditions of life. In the parasite it is adaptation of the organism in order that the creature may the more easily adjust itself to the struggle for existence in accordance with the law of parsimony, or least effort, and a consequent simplification of structure. It is doubtful whether the plants and animals which have succeeded the old, highly specialized forms are degenerations from the latter. Rather they seem to be cases of arrested development of unspecialized forms better adapted to the conditions of existence under a suddenly and greatly changed environment. So the races and peoples which occupy highlands or those which are found in out-of-the-way places like the interior of Africa or of Australia are probably cases of arrested development rather than degenerate races. If social degeneration is to be interpreted in this way, then examples are to be found in the decadent Roman Empire, the Italian city states in the days of their decadence, and in the Spain of today.

Social degeneration is the breaking up of the coordination existing between the various social elements, individuals and the subgroups which cooperate in the social process, — by the growth of so many antisocial elements that social unity is destroyed. This comes about by the growth of degeneracy among the individuals who make up society. Therefore, individual degeneracy has a direct bearing upon social degeneration, for degenerate individuals are either unsocial, or antisocial and are unable to cooperate in the aims and purposes of society.

Social degeneration, then, arises from the decline of the individual who fails to perform his part in the social activity. This causes a breakdown in the social mechanism and a decline in social activity. So long as each individual may be replaced by another as he fails or declines, society may be perpetuated, if not destroyed by outside influences. Just as a diseased member of the body may eventually destroy the individual, so a diseased part of society may be the cause of the destruction of the whole body. Social degeneration, then, is an evidence of social disease.

Degeneration through Intemperance. Wherever intemperance of any kind exists social degeneration certainly and physical degeneration probably will result. The parent who is given over to the excessive use of intoxicating liquors may not beget drunkards, but he probably will hand down to his children the enfeebled germ plasm which made him a drunkard, still further weakened by his excesses, and thus he may be the cause of the development of epilepsy, or imbecility, in his off-spring. Continue this to a sufficient degree and society finally becomes extinct. On the other hand, the sober, industrious, temperate people, the stock being untainted with degeneracy, not only give forth the ideas which are the motors of development and normal progress, but perpetuate a stock which increases in vigor and is able to seize and use the opportunities for advancement. Under this law temperate people eventually possess the material wealth of the community, control the social forces, and discover the truth, essential to social advance. Hence, it is not merely the sapping of the physical vitality of the race that constitutes the principal effect of intemperance ; it is the destruction of normal cooperative society. Intemperance is against all normal progress and therefore involves decay.

There is no doubt that intemperance is often the result of degeneracy in the individual. The enfeebled intellect has no restraining power. It drifts as a ship without a rudder. The feebleminded, the epileptic, and the insane, as well as the neuro-path in general, often find in alcohol a substitute for the emotional satisfaction furnished normal beings in other ways a crutch for their unstable nerves. Dr. Branthwaite studied 2277 inebriates as to their mental condition and found 16.1 percent insane, 62.6 percent imbeciles, degenerates, and epileptics in a marked degree, defective but to a less degree manifesting defectiveness in eccentricity, silliness, dullness, senility, or periodical fits of ungovernable temper, while but 37.4 per cent were of average mental capacity. He estimated that at least 62 per cent of these cases were inebriate by reason of their mental condition.1 Of the 774 men committed to the Iowa State Institution for Inebriates in 1906-1908 the parents of 13 were defectives and of 94 were diseased. The fathers of 26 and the mothers of 21 were tuberculous and the mothers of 11 and the fathers of 12 had heart disease. One or both of the parents of 427 of them were intemperate in the use of liquor. In the two years 1910-1912 the figures are even more striking. Of 665 inmates of that institution 8 had defective fathers or mothers, 116 diseased fathers or mothers, while 250 had fathers or mothers who were intemperate. The parents of only 88 were known to be nonusers of liquor.

On the other hand we are uncertain how great is the influence of liquor in producing inheritable degeneracy. In an investigation made for the American Medico-Psychological Association published in 1903, 5145 insane persons were investigated. Thirty per cent were total abstainers, while the insanity of twenty-four per cent was considered due directly to the influence of liquor. Dr. Billings in commenting upon these and other figures of like nature said, " In any case where there is a tendency to psychic or nervous instability or abnormal action either inherited or acquired, the excessive use of alcohol may act as the exciting cause like a torch to inflammable material, but the same result may be produced with any excess creating a strain on the nervous system." 2 Professor Hodge of Clark University conducted some experiments upon cocker spaniel puppies, 1896-1898, to determine the effect of alcohol upon them. He carefully controlled the experiments so that they would be as nearly free from error as possible. He came to the following conclusions :

(1) On the side of general intelligence the alcoholic dogs were in nowise inferior to their mates.

(2) The alcoholic dogs manifested extreme timidity when the others showed no signs of it. Commenting upon this characteristic Dr. Hodge said, " Fear is commonly recognized as a characteristic feature in alcoholic insanity, and delirium tremens is the most terrible fear-psychosis known."

(3) The reproductive capacity of the non-alcoholic dogs was much greater, and the viability of the progeny of the non-alcoholic dogs was 90.2 percent, while of the puppies of the alcoholic dogs it was 17.4 percent .3

The author, while admitting that the experiments were too few to serve as a basis for very definite general conclusions, says, " Possibly the most important of our results relates to the vigor and normality of offspring."

These experiments were with dogs, not with human beings. An investigation by Demme, however, throws some light upon the human problem of degeneracy and alcohol. Demme found that in the progeny of 10 alcoholic families, 17 per cent were normal, the rest suffering either from physical deformities, idiocy, epilepsy, or early death, while in the 10 non-alcoholic families, 88.5 percent were normal. Twenty-five out of 51 children in the former families and only 3 out of 61 in the latter were non-viable.

Degeneracy of other sorts is closely connected with intemperance. Thus, Koren estimated 37 percent of the pauperism in this country due directly or indirectly to drink.1 Devine says more than 16 percent of pauperism is due directly to drink? Koren found intemperance the principal cause of crime in over 21 per cent of 13,402 convicts investigated.3 Dugdale found that 45 percent of 176 habitual criminals were from intemperate families, and 42 per cent were habitual drunkards.' Sullivan estimates that 6o per cent of homicidal offenses in England and a slightly smaller percentage of crimes of lust are caused by alcohol.

The very close relation of alcoholism and degeneracy has often been remarked. Some writers think that their influence is reciprocal. Sometimes alcoholism is the result and at others the cause of degeneracy'

Goddard has recently reported on the most careful and extensive study yet made of feeblemindedness. He sums up an analysis of his inquiry as to the relation of alcohol to feeble-mindedness thus, " It looks evident that alcohol almost doubles the number of feebleminded children in a family. But are we sure that alcohol is a cause and not merely a symptom? " He points out that while " the percentages are very high for the feebleminded children of alcoholic parents and at first glance it appears that alcohol has greatly increased the number of feebleminded, yet the argument is not complete." In these investigations he properly points out they were dealing only with feebleminded children of alcoholics. To make the case complete, the normal children of alcoholic parents in otherwise normal families should be investigated. On the basis of his study he concludes that alcohol instead of being a cause of feeblemindedness, so far as his studies show, is simply a symptom of degeneracy, that it occurs for the most part " in families where there is some form of neurotic taint, especially feeble-mindedness." So far as the evidence goes on the influence of alcohol in producing physical degeneracy the findings are negative. All we can say is that the evidence is not conclusive that the intemperate use of alcohol by drunken parents directly affects the germ plasm in such a way as to produce that form of degeneracy which we call feeblemindedness.1 Goddard's figures, seem to show that some degeneracy is caused by drink ; they do not make it absolutely certain.

This conclusion leaves untouched the problem of whether alcohol in any way either directly or indirectly affects man's relations to his fellows so that he becomes pseudo- or anti-social. Doubtless there are many cases where drink has induced pauperism. The wages or savings have been spent for drink. The family has come to want. Indirectly, doubtless, by inducing irregular habits of industry, inefficiency in industry and business, drink has contributed to dependency. The associations connected with the saloon have frequently been the means whereby the sturdy independence of the worker has been undermined and his descent to social parasitism has been started.

The same is true with respect to alcohol's relation to criminality. Some crimes are incited by drink. Alcohol seems to paralyze the higher inhibitory brain centers and thereby favors the formation of habits clearly antisocial in their results. It seems to incite brutal and lustful passions at the same time that it perverts the judgment. Socially it seems to stimulate fellowship, for drinking is closely connected with the love of companionship. Nevertheless, really it makes for lawlessness and the breaking up of society into antagonistic groups, by its close alliance often, especially in temperance countries, with criminal groups. Alcohol is ever indissolubly linked up with antisocial and vicious activities. Without a doubt, from the standpoint of social degeneration, drunkenness bears a heavy share of responsibility.

The Effect of Immorality. — Leading to sexual excesses, immorality saps the physical, intellectual, and vital strength of a community, thus dissipating the energy which ought to be used in social action. As society develops by the enlargement of activities on one hand and the accurate adjustment of its organs or parts on the other, immoral influences destroy normal functions and lead to decay.

Immorality, while often it is bound up in a tangled skein with intemperance, is at least as fruitful a source of degeneracy as intemperance in the use of alcohol. This stands out in such degenerate families as those of the Jukes, the Rooneys, the Ishmaels, and the Zeros. Whether they are intemperate or not, they are usually immoral. They may not be criminals, but they are immoral. The most hideous thing about the awful stories of these families is the frightful depths to which they descend in their sexual relations.

Immorality, considered as indiscriminate sexual relationships, operates to produce degeneracy through the spread of disease. Goddard found out of 40 children in what he calls the Hereditary Group of feebleminded, from io matings where the parents were syphilitic, 42.4 percent were feebleminded, 4.9 percent normal, 27.7 per cent died in infancy, and 10 percent were miscarriages. In this group, however, there was feeblemindedness in the parents. The terrific proportion of these children who died in infancy or miscarried — nearly two fifths as compared with an average of 12.9 percent of all classes of feeble-minded is significant.1 No conclusive study of the relation of syphilis to epilepsy has yet been made. It is suspected, however, that they are closly connected. Recent studies in the Wisconsin Psychiatric Institute show that nearly a fifth of the male inmates of the Wisconsin Hospital for the Insane are insane because of syphilis. Goddard does not believe that syphilis is a potent cause of feeblemindedness, although he admits his cases do not prove that it is not.

Moreover, the share of vice in producing human misery is appalling. To say nothing of the cost of treating those afflicted with the so-called social diseases and the loss of time and decrease of physical and mental efficiency by the victims of these diseases, consider the unhappiness, domestic discord, and ruined homes incident to vice. The most important cause of divorce after desertion, which is a symptom rather than a cause and probably is usually preceded by unfaithfulness, is marital infidelity.1 There immorality strikes at the very foundation of social life. The family relations are broken up. The most important center for the development of helpful social relations — the home — is destroyed. Children are thrown into new relationships and forced to new adjustments often with disaster to them. Instead of promoting social coordination and that social control which makes for cohesion and social progress, there arises disorder through disregard of social bonds. Pauper-ism, crime, and vice flourish as the result. Society comes to lack that close-knit coordination and orderly functioning which is necessary to social progress.'

Hereditary Influences. — The influence of heredity on individual life has not yet been fully determined. The studies already made indicate that through physical heredity one generation influences the next to a great extent. Disease is probably not transmitted from parent to offspring, but the characteristics of physical structure conducive to the development of the disease are probably handed down from generation to generation through the germ plasm. It may even happen that certain poisons may so affect the somatoplasm and the germ plasm of the parent, that the germ plasm has less resistance to that poison, such as alcohol, for example, in a future generation. The consensus of opinion among biologists and pathologists to-day is that disease germs as such cannot be transmitted through the germ plasm from parent to child.3 Recent studies have supplied some evidence to show that one thing which is probably invariably inherited according to the Mendelian law is feeblemindedness.4 If so, then the presence of that defect in the stock tends to social degeneration, for the feebleminded are unable to perform their social duties and thus the social group is injured and progress is by so much impeded. It is also true that many old families like the Edwards, or the Dwights, show the perpetuation of a strong, vigorous stock, mentally and physically, and also show an increase in social adaptation and influence.

Examples, however, like that of the Jukes family,' the Smoky Pilgrims, or the Tribe of Ishmael, show how disease, vice, and crime may be transmitted socially from generation to generation, for the transmission of social characteristics comes through early contact, training, and environment. If a family group is criminal and vicious their children are liable to be the same through early association. Certain it is that not only families, but whole communities, become weakened and degenerate, growing worse from generation' to generation — an evolution down-ward so to speak — by reason of a bad social heritage of customs, ideals, traditions, etc., which are socially disintegrating. It thus sometimes happens that a hardy stock or race gradually declines, degenerates, and even becomes extinct on account of the failure to receive and use accumulated social achievements. To such as these Lowell refers in his " Interview with Miles Standish " :

"They talk about their Pilgrim blood,
Their birthright high and holy
A mountain stream that ends in mud
Methinks is melancholy."

However, just to the extent that we ward off disease and develop a higher degree of physical and mental life, to that extent will social life be improved, for a high type of social life comes essentially from the association of high-grade normal individuals.

While the two kinds of inheritance — inheritance through the physical transmission of characteristics by means of the germ plasm, and the transmission from one generation to an-other by social means of communication, example, ideals, etc., of the mental and social possessions must be kept clearly separated in our thought, yet both work together in the process of evolution and of degeneration. Poor physique, poor mentality biologically transmitted, bears very directly upon the kind of social product in the way of ideals, customs, traditions governing men's relations with each other which a group will furnish and use. The feebleminded, the insane, the epileptic, and the neuropathic do not make good members of society, but on the contrary contribute to its stock elements which are unable to associate together in any helpful and constructive way. They add to the social burden which society must bear — a very costly burden upon the labor and thought of the social. More-over, they contribute directly to the pauper and criminal classes which set up ideals and generate customs and habits which eat like a canker into the very vitals of society.

On the other hand, there is an increasing amount of evidence that social conditions have a great deal to do with the production of physical and mental weakness. We know that bad housing conditions, poverty, bad habits and customs, unsanitary factories and dwellings, and social neglect of certain poisons break down the physical efficiency of people, destroy ideals of correct home life, cut the root of ambition and of hope, divide society into suspicious and warring classes, put a strain upon the minds of some which ends in insanity and makes impossible the realization of ideals of cleanliness and health.1 'Whether these conditions affect the germ plasm by which some forms of degeneracy like feeblemindedness are transmitted we do not know, but the fact that this defect and bad social conditions are so often found together, and the further fact that these conditions reduce the physical efficiency of people both physically and mentally, lead to the natural presumption that they may also affect the germ plasm and thus cause defect. That, however, remains to be determined.

The Non-social Being. — There are survivals of the wolfish disposition in men. This disposition manifests itself more in the attempt of the individual to associate on his own terms with his fellows rather than in refusal to associate. The predatory instinct is evinced to a high degree in many members of society. It is a survival into modern society of the barbaric " passion for domination," as Mallock has called it. Very few, if any, however, reach such an unsocial condition that they are willing to have society destroyed and all social intercourse cease. They lack the wide social interest which considers the welfare of all the people in the group. They form groups within society. Such social degeneration is exemplified by the societies of beggars, criminals, and predatory exploiters of the people who mask under the guise of legality in their financial operations. They are social within their own little group ; they are anti-social when the whole society of which they are naturally a part is considered. Thus, there are very many individuals who fail to perform their social part in a community, either through weakness or viciousness. And wherever each individual fails in this respect society is rendered degenerate.

Social Causes of Degeneration. When discussing the influence of individual degeneracy in producing social degeneration it was suggested that anything that breaks down the workings of the social organism or renders ineffective the social machinery leads directly to degeneration. We have very many causes that work to destroy normal social action. They may do nothing more than retard progress in general, though they may so seriously affect organs as to eventually destroy the whole group. An example is furnished by the effect of accidents on the adjustment of social relations in industrial life through dangerous occupations. The explosion in a mine may kill a hundred people and thus destroy the earning capacity of a hundred families. These families may resort to various expedients for support, but there can never be the independent, normal, social life that existed before. Homes are broken, individuals die through want or excessive toil, others become sick and hope-less, and some go down to vice or crime. Society may push on through normal agencies and overcome the evil effects arising from such accidents, but the social maladjustment thus engendered must be overcome or society will perish. A hundred cases similar to this, like the influence of disease from social groupings, unsanitary surroundings, improper employment of men, women, and children, enforced idleness through the shifting of industrial life, and conditions which produce a high death rate, all have a decided effect in producing social degeneration. If all such defects should be massed at a given time, and also vital causes should arise through lack of the food supply, a community must grow weaker and weaker until there is no social feeling, thought, or will power, no social cooperation. The same effect is produced if the sum total of social maladjustment, though scattered over long periods of time, has a cumulative effect, so impoverishing the normally social individuals with the burden of taxation necessary to support the defective and delinquent, or of so burdening them with social duties made heavy because some refuse or are unable to bear them.

Social Types. — Each social group has its own type which determines its degree of progress. The ideal of such a social group is ever above the average of what is actually achieved. Through the momentum of social forces this ideal gradually changes and consequently the social type varies from one period to another. Whenever the agencies which are at work to maintain the social standard or to improve the environment cease to act, the social life reverts to the old type, and the acquired characteristics of generations disappear. This may occur by the loss of the proper ideal or the failure to put forth sufficient will power to approximate the ideal. Luxury, idleness, or shiftlessness destroys the thinking and working forces of society and causes it to lose its acquired characteristics.

Separate groups have widely different views of the right and wrong of social action and put in practice far different social usages. The ideals of the Bantu negroes, the Thlinklets, the Ainu, and the Sioux are very different and their social types vary, and yet how widely different is any one of these from the social ideal and practice of the civilized American. Degeneration is a breakdown of not only the social ideals of the group, but of the typical social relationships already achieved. What would be social degeneration for a highly civilized people might represent advancement of a tribe of Sioux Indians.

The Survival of Society. — The hope of society consists in making the social relationships ever more complex and more closely coordinated. But in order to accomplish this it is necessary to bring each succeeding generation into ever increasing control of the accumulated products of civilization. In the general order of society the fit must be given ample opportunity to demonstrate their strength and the unfit must be gradually eliminated. But the elimination of the unfit is a social process and refers not so much to individuals as to characteristics. It is therefore essential that the strong should protect the weak and give them an opportunity to overcome their weakness. While protecting the weak, nevertheless, society must take measures to make certain that their weakness is not transmitted from generation to generation. In the case of defectives, for example, who transmit their defect by reproduction, they must be segregated or be so treated otherwise that they cannot pro-duce their kind. The criminals must be put apart where their bad example and influence cannot contaminate others. The whole community must therefore be trained in industry, sanitation, domestic habits, and social life in order to perpetuate its normal growth. Vice and crime must be suppressed, poverty relieved, and pauperism prevented. More than this, all must be given the advantages of an education which will fit them for an honest, independent individual life and prepare them for their social duties. Society thus has the power, through the selection of ideals and types and the ordering of social activities, to perpetuate itself. The strong must give opportunities of improvement to the weak and teach the weak to use them to their best advantage. This must be done constantly because there is no state of automatic society running from generation to generation. The nearest approach to a social continuum corresponding to the germ plasm in the body consists of the traditions, customs, and ideals of a society. They, however, seem to be very much more easily affected both for ill and for good than the biological bearer of physical characteristics, the germ plasm. All efforts for the improvement of society must be as perpetual as the taking of food for the nourishment of the body. Society's work is never finished because society itself is never completed. The hopeful part of it is that while acquired physical characteristics cannot be transmitted by heredity, acquired social qualities, ideals, traditions, and customs are the major part of our social heritage.


BOOTH, CHARLES. Labor and Life of the People of London.

DARWIN, CHARLES. Descent of Man.

ELLWOOD, C. A. The Social Problem, Chap. I.

ELY, R. T. "Social Progress and Race Improvement," in Evolution of Industrial Society.

GODDARD, HENRY H. Feeblemindedness; Its Causes and Consequences, 1914, Chaps. I, IX, X.

PATTEN, SIMON N. Heredity and Social Progress.

PEARSON, KARL. National Life from the Standpoint of Science, pp. 14-34, 41—57. Ross, E. A. Social Control, Chaps. XXV—XXVII.

WARD, LESTER F. Pure Sociology, p. 227.

WARNER, Amos G. American Charities, Rev. Ed., 1908, Chaps. III and IV.

WEISMANN, A. Y. L. Studies in the Theory of Descent.


1. Criticize the definition of social degeneration given in the text by formulating a better and giving reasons for the points of difference.

2. Distinguish between social degeneration and individual degeneracy.

3. Pick out one case of degeneracy in an individual and trace its history, seeking to find out the causes, its heritability, and some of its social consequences, like drunkenness, illegitimacy, disease, etc.

4. Show how, even if intemperance cannot be inherited, the use of alcohol to excess produces social degeneration.

5. State the objections to sterilization of degenerate persons.

6. Give the arguments in favor of that method of treating degenerates.

7. What other methods can be suggested to adequately deal with the problem of such a degeneracy as feeblemindedness, if, as recently stated by the Vineland, New Jersey, authorities, there are thirty thousand such in New York, eighteen thousand in Pennsylvania, fourteen thousand in Massachusetts, over nine thousand in Michigan, and eight thousand (estimated) in New Jersey?

8. Why should not degenerates be kept in poorhouses?

9. Why should they not be left at large in the families of the country?

10. Suggest a plan by which marriage laws might be made to prevent the spread of degeneracy.

11. What is a moron? What is the danger of having him at large in society?

Outlines Of Sociology:
Poverty - Its Causes And Remedies

Charities And Charity Organization

Crime - Its Causes And Prevention

Social Degeneration

Administration Of Charitable And Correctional Affairs

Field Of Investigation

Methods Of Investigation

Social Philosophy

Science Of Society

Read More Articles About: Outlines Of Sociology

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