Home >> Encyclopedia Americana, Volume 8 >> Deane to Democracy >> Degeneracy


mental, moral, physical, various, stigmata, normal and constitution

DEGENERACY. In every community there are individuals who fail to measure up to the physical norm and more especially to the mental and moral norm of the race. In a large number of cases this is due to the action of an unfavorable environment upon a normal consti tution, but in another extensive group the constitution, be it physical, mental or moral, is itself at fault. The three types of defects are inextricably fused with one another, but in certain individuals the mental and more espe cially the moral inadequacy predominates, and these are known as degenerates. The basis of most degeneracy, if not of all, is some lesion of the nervous system or sense organs. Mere con genital blindness and deafness is often sufficient to reduce their victim to a state of idiocy unless early measures of education are taken. On the other hand, the fundamental defects may be obscure and inaccessible to the pathological anatomist of the present day. The neuro-sen sory defects are often, but not always, accom panied by malformations of a more conspicuous character, known as stigmata. These include various distortions of the external ear, facial asymmetry, very early or very late closure of the cranial sutures, polydactylism and other digital anomalies and various signs of imper fect or abnormal development. Individual stigmata may be present in a person of normal mental and moral make-up, but the concurrence of a considerable number of stigmata is a fairly good sign of degeneracy.

The forms assumed by degeneracy are very various. The mental defect varies from utter idiocy, where the patient is unable to protect himself from immediate physical danger, through imbecility, where he is still incapable of carrying out the daily processes of dressing and undressing, washing, etc., to the various grades of feeble-mindedness, in which he is able to satisfy all his immediate personal needs, but cannot earn an independent liveli hood nor associate with his fellows on equal terms. These grades of deficiency naturally shade into one another by insensible gradations. Even the lowest of them is compatible with the high development of some one power of the mind, such as the mathematical or musical faculty.

Mental degeneracy brings of necessity in its train a greater or less degree of inability to perform the customary moral duties and to discern and avoid the temptations of evil con duct. There are also certain malformations

of the moral character which are less directly dependent on an atrophied mental development, and which indeed are consistent with a men tality .normal or even supernormal in most respects. These may take the form of a gen eral indifference to the claims of good and evil, with a consequent cold-blooded selfishness and brutality or of certain morbid and unnatural impulses. In the latter group of phenomena are included kleptomania (an unreasoning impulse to steal),pyromania (an unreasoning impulse to set fires), and the sexual perversions. These anomalies belong to that group of functional mental disorders known as psychasthenias, which are more or less intimately related with hysteria.

The causes of degeneracy are manifold. The racial poisons of alcohol, drugs and ve nereal diseases are responsible for a large pro portion of the cases, though in many cases alcoholism and drug habits may be symptoms rather than causes of degeneracy. Any factor which enfeebles the mother—poverty, illness or the like — may injure the mental and moral constitution of the child as well as its physical constitution. , However, the most important cause of degeneracy is in all probability the inherent inferiority of the stock. That certain forms of degeneracy exhibit a pedigree con forming to the Mendelian law is now an established fact. This hereditary quality of degeneracy, together with the fact that degen erates are often likely to have many children, owing to their immorality, makes the problem of degeneracy a most serious one. The so called Jukes family cost the taxpayers of New York State millions of dollars in the course of the 19th century. For this reason many States have enacted laws making it legal in certain cases to perform on degenerates operations designed to prevent their propagating their kind. There has been a large amount of con troversial literature, associated with the names of Nordau and Lombroso, designed to prove a connection between degeneracy and genius. This is for the most part too biased to be con vincing. There is no doubt, however, that the existence of a degenerate taint is not inconsis tent with genius. See ALCOHOLISM ; CRI M I NOL