The Daily Agenda for Friday, December 27

Jim Burroway

December 27th, 2013

“Exaggerated Human Nature”: 1895. Degeneracy theory was of the more powerful theories guiding psychiatry in the nineteenth century was. A kind of pseudo-scientific theory of evolution in reverse, Deteneracy theory held that the technological advancements of the nineteenth century was bringing about an entire race of coddled people who, without the benefit of natural seleciton, were producing offspring of a “de-generated” nature — that is, a nature that represents a reversion to a much more primitive state of human development. For proof, argued the Degenerists, all you had to do was to look at the teeming slums of the urban cities to see all the evidence you needed to prove the theory. Where there was once a fair and hardy people of industry and upstanding values in the farms and hamlets, now you see their sons and daughters in crowded tenements, drunk, filthy, and of low morals. And without the positive intervention of higher civilization, mankind was destined to “degenerate” into lower, more primative and savage orders of existence with each succeeding generation. According to Degeneracy theory, all sorts of things — intelligence, criminality, morality, educational attainment, just to name a few examples — were believed to be both hereditary and also capable to leaving a hereditary mark on future generations. A ne’er-do-well from a well-bred family was destined to pass his criminality on to his progeny along with his blue eyes and blond hair.

An abandoned building of the Norfolk State Hospital, via Flickr.

Dr. J.H. Mackay, superindendent of the State Hospital for the Insane in Norfolk, Nebraska, obviously had degeneracy theory in mind when he gave his address before the Missouri Valley Medical Association in Kansas City. That address was then published in the December 1895 edition of the journal Medical Arena where it received a much wider audience. Dr. Mackay began with the premise that all mental illness was an exaggeration of primitive human nature that mankind was destined to revert to unless something was done to reverse the degeneration of the generations.

Said a patient in the Norfolk (Nebraska) Hospital: “I am not insane; this man is not insane; that man is not insane. There is no such thing as insanity; it is simply an exaggerated form of human nature.” Insanity is a type of civilization, the offspring of humanity’s progress, the step-child of Nature, the penalty inflicted for brain-development. Indeed, it is in itself an abnormal form of brain-development, an exaggerated type of human nature. It is a little plant that has sprung from the footworn pathway traversed by the mighty cavalcade coming down the yast reaches of human civilization, human culture and human competition. It may be regarded as a proud flesh of the mind — a preternatural development or derangement of the protoplasmic cells. When the clock of civilization struck its sunrise hour, man everywhere was an unclad savage, drunken, greedy, treacherous and beastly. To flll his stomach and to flnd a comfortable place to sleep completed the apex of his ambitions and gratifications. It was his normal state. When he commenced to enlarge his cranial sphere, when he began to expand the hOrizon of his thought-realm, he started the development of a subtle, an inscrutable agency, which has developed rough corners, exaggerated eccentricities and uncontrollable proclivities. In the slow and leisurely peregrination or the mad stampede at times of humanity adown the corridors of the past, in the jostle, the clash, the strife, the crowd, the crush, the greed, the vices and the mistakes, do we wonder that here and there should occur exaggerations, €xcrescences and abnormal protuberances of the functions of the mind?

Mackay went on to list the various “atrophies or atavisms of growth and development” that were evidence of the degeneract phenomenon. Those atrophies incuded “pyromania, kleptomania, fanaticism, melancholia, dementia, hypocondriasis … and moral
strabismus that leads to crime and vice, and all the vagaries of the mind, perverted sexualisms and quasi, pseudo, rank, rancid, distorted and inflamed genius of our genus.” He continues:

Two-thirds of all the patients are sexual perverts. Homosexuality, sexual inversion, masturbation, urnings et id omnia genus ail nauseam are the rule. Personally, I believe there can be no brain disturbance without a lesion of the instrument of thought. I believe there can be no crime committed without the existence of an abnormal condition of the brain. There exists a moral obliquity, a weak corner or a perverted or depraved condition of the functions of the cells in every criminal.

Poor breeding was the culprit:

Two-thirds of all the patients in the Norfolk Hospital are scrubs, and frequently the runts of scrub families — driftwood, biped animal toadstools; fiat-chested, thin-legged, lop-shouldered, sway-backed, hump-shouldered, knock-kneed, bow-legged, loose-jointed, slab-sided, mud-moulded, squint·eyed, monkeyheaded assortment of nondescript, anthropoid allies, without energy, ambition or prospect. Two-thirds are foreigners who have drifted hitherward, croweded out of the walks of life and harboring a hereditary taint. A brother and sister from two different families are in the hospital. The brother and sister from one family are married. The sister had a child a few months after coming to the hospital. The brother’s wife also had a child about the same age. The mother and an aunt of these patients were insane. A father and his daughter, an uncle and his niece, are among the inmates of the asylum, and these have families at home.

And then there were the “men haters”:

There are men-haters among the women — women whose sexual system has been starved or perverted or abused; old maids with acquired or inherited sexual perversion, starvation or inversion; married women whose maternal instinct and sexual nature have been extinguished by hard work, poor diet, frequent child-bearing and nursing, and the dreary, monotonous, pleasureless, changeless grind of a quarter of a century, more or less, of married life. Little difference exists in the condition of the males. Religion is the great disturbing factor, or, at least, it is the predominating theme of their ravings.

And what should be done about them?

It goes without saying that to be effective any effort to improve the physical characteristics of our race must antedate the birth of the individual. We need laws to abridge the life of all monsters that do not conform to the type of man, to quarantine or prohibit the public exhibition of museum freaks. and to prevent, as far as possible, the birth of such. A judicious inspection by the state of all children before reaching puberty would serve the double purpose of discovering abnormal conditions of mind and body, and afford an opportunity for the application of means, as far as possible, to remedy them, and the segregation of those totally unsuited mentally or morally to propagate their species. In this way only can we hope to prevent insane and half-witted girls becoming pregnant. Rigid restraint, quarantining and unsexing of criminals. insane, rapists, imbeciles and those who spread specific diseases.

Degeneracy theory would have both its positive and negative aspects. It provided the “scientific” arguments in favor of universal education, public hygiene and sanitation, child labor laws, and tenement reform. But it also left a much darker mark when its theories led directly to the establishment of the Eugenics movement, which grew rapidly at the turn of the century and led to state-enforced sterilizations and, in its most extreme form in Nazi Germany, the wholesale slaughter of those deemed subhuman, racially tainted, and otherwise undesirable.

[Source: J.H. Mackay. “Exaggerated human nature.” Medical Arena 4, no. 12 (December 1895): 353-361. Available online via Google Books here.]

If you know of something that belongs on the agenda, please send it here. Don’t forget to include the basics: who, what, when, where, and URL (if available).

And feel free to consider this your open thread for the day. What’s happening in your world?

Ben in Oakland

December 27th, 2013

Fascism is fascism, whether in a nazi uniform, a black cassock, or a white physicians coat.

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