Nordic Decay: The reception and application of degeneration theory and the concept of atavism in Scandinavian psychiatry, criminology, and eugenics, 1880-1922
By Rebecka Klette
During the last decades of the nineteenth century, the prospect of degeneration emerged as the spectre haunting European civilisation, eventually permeating Scandinavian debates concerning perceived racial deterioration, insanity, and criminality. My thesis focuses on two medico-evolutionary concepts, which were at the centre of discourses of degenerationism: degeneration and atavism. Dégénérescence, defined by French psychiatrist B.A. Morel as ‘a morbid deviation from an original type’, denoted both a progressive decline from a higher to a lower type, and a deviation from the norm of the genus or racial type. The word ‘atavism’ – derived from the Latin atavus, meaning grandfather – referred to the reappearance of certain physical and psychological characteristics in an organism which, although not visible in the immediate parentage, could be traced to a remote ancestor. The term was notably adopted by Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso in his description of ‘the born criminal’, which came to inform psychiatric and criminologist debates in Scandinavia. While British, Italian, French, and German degeneration theories have beenthoroughly explicated, little scholarly attention has been given to the influences and transnational exchanges of degenerationist knowledgebetween the Scandinavian countriesand the rest of Europe.
This thesis examinesthe reception of the concepts of degeneration and atavismin Scandinavia, and how they were disseminated,critiqued, and put into practicewithinthe disciplines of psychiatry, criminology, and eugenics. This involves tracingthe routes of dissemination of degenerationist knowledge, identifying the key figures responsible for the circulation of the concepts, and the importance of translation in conceptual history. In adopting degenerationist frameworks, Scandinavianresearchersdid not passively importor accept the assumptions of international theorists, but critically engaged with — and contributed to — an ongoing transnationaland cross-disciplinary research field on the causes and mechanisms of degeneration,evolutionary regression, and morbid heredity.This will allow me to outline the unique characteristics of several theories on degeneration and atavism within Scandinavian research networks, and how these conceptualisations and critiques influenced each other across disciplines, institutions, and national borders.
I am especially interested in the psychiatric diagnosis Insania degenerativa, which appeared in Scandinavian nomenclatures from the 1890s and up until the mid-1920s. This form of mental disorder was vaguely described as any form of insanity which arose from a hereditary predisposition, and was characterised by its atypical, relapsing-remitting disease course, as well as symptoms such as OCD, moral insanity, sexual perversions, and so on.
This thesis will continue to broaden the transnational scope of degeneration studies by juxtaposing the notion of late nineteenth-century British, French, German, and Italian degenerationist thought as closed systems of knowledge with a wider, more inclusive network of mutual contributions between European and American psychiatrists,anthropologists, sociologists, andeugenicists.
Bio: Rebecka Klette is a doctoral candidate in History at Birkbeck College, University of London. Her PhD thesis, funded by a Wellcome Trust Doctoral Studentship and supervised by Prof. Joanna Bourke, is entitled ‘Nordic Decay: The reception and application of degeneration theory and the concept of atavism in Scandinavian criminal anthropology, psychiatry, and eugenics, 1880-1922’.