Stafford, Darryl

Historian laitos/Humanistinen tiedekunta

STAFFORD, DARRYL: NIGHTMARES OF ELOI AND MORLOCKS: Concepts of Degeneration Amongst the Late Victorians

Pro gradu -tutkielma, 84 s.
Yleinen historia
Huhtikuu 2009

This is an analytical work on the history of an idea. It is an examination of social degeneration theory within the context of late-Victorian Britain. Degeneration was a theory that developed, through a number of factors, as a pessimistic reaction to the previous optimistic understandings of evolution. The study observes how concepts of degeneration were blended with contemporary racial understandings forming ideas of a `national body' and racially deterministic analyses of social ills such as crime. The examination extends into a look into how degeneration was used in the language and understandings of social diagnoses.

The present study is largely indebted to the theoretical base formed from the previous studies by professors of history Daniel Pick and Richard A. Soloway. Pick's Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, c.1848-c.1918 and the background chapters in Soloway's Demography and Degeneration: Eugenics and the Declining Birthrate in Twentieth Century Britain both contributed heavily to the fundamental structures and background of this work. The study uses a wide variety of contemporary sources ranging from scientific texts of Charles Darwin, eugenicist Francis Galton, and evolutionary biologist Edwin Ray Lankester, to works of social commentary, notably Degeneration by German polymath Max Nordau.

This work explores themes such as, how ideas are manifested within specific historical contexts, how within the ethos or ideologies of a context the rational foundations of an idea can be exceeded, and, being a pessimistic idea, understanding the reactionary process when a group is of the assumption that things are getting worse.

The study reaches the conclusions that degeneration theory was largely built as a means of giving scientific credence to sentiments of social pessimism, anxiety, and nostalgia. Biology overextended its limits and became a useable metaphor to classify a number of problems beyond its relevance or capability. Thus an element of rationality was ironically lost through the attempts of a society, founded on rationalism, to conserve itself. This process was largely carried out through an infusion of misguided contemporary racial ideology or assumptions with scientific discourse.

Asiasanat: British History, Nineteenth Century, Late Victorian, Degeneration, Victorian Pessimism, Eugenics.