In 1956, Richard D. Walter wrote a peculiar article in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences called What Became of the Degenerate? A Brief History of a Concept, in which he reviews the use of the term degenerate as a biological and social concept. Most of the literature on this topic was produced in the late 19th and early 20th century.
In the field of sociology the topic of social degeneration was treated by Max Nordau in his famous book Entartung [Degeneration] (1892). Naturally, when this term is used in a social context there is room for vigorous debate. Nicholas Murray Butler, who wrote an introduction to a book called Regeneration, a reply to Max Nordau (1896), considered Nordau himself “an abnormality and a pathological type.”
The subject of degeneration was also important to the early 20th century eugenicists in books such as Charles Wicksteed Armstrong’s The Survival of the Unfittest (1929).
Walter concludes that “though the original concepts of Morel, Lombroso, and Nordau have become obsolete, the phenomena that degeneracy attempted to explain are still of great current interest and far from completely understood. In today’s concepts of the etiology of psychiatric disease, the old dichotomy of nurture versus nature still appears under more subtle terms, though today’s emphasis is upon nurture. This also applies to the subject of criminology, as well as the larger areas termed race and culture.”
In a 1902 textbook of zoology the authors can still write on the topic of human degeneration:
Human degeneration. It is not proposed in these pages to discuss the application of the laws of animal life to man. But each and every one extends upward, and can be traced in the relation of men and society. Thus, among men as among animals, self-dependence favors complexity of power. Dependence, parasitism, quiescence favor degeneration. Degeneration means loss of complexity, the narrowing of the range of powers and capabilities. It is not necessarily a phase of disease or the precursor of death. But as intellectual and moral excellence are matters associated with high development in man, dependence is unfavorable to them.
Degeneration has been called animal pauperism. Pauperism in all its forms, whether due to idleness, pampering, or misery, is human degeneration. It has been shown that a large part of the criminality and pauperism among men is hereditary, due to the survival of the tendency toward living at the expense of others. The tendency to live without self-activity passes from generation to generation. Beggary is more profitable than unskilled and inefficient labor, and our ways of careless charity tend to propagate the beggar. That form of charity which does not render its recipient self-helpful is an incentive toward degeneration. Withdrawal from the competition of life, withdrawal from self-helpful activity, aided by the voluntary or involuntary assistance of others these factors bring about degeneration. The same results follow in all ages and with all races, with the lower animals as with men.
One can only wonder what the authors would think about contemporary society in light of such phenomena as the “withdrawal from the competition of life” and “charity which does not render its recipient self-helpful.”