Depicting Decay: The Reception and Representation of Degeneration Theory in Punch, 1869-1910

Rebecka Klette has recently completed an MA in Victorian Studies at Birkbeck, University of London, and is currently finalising her phd research proposal to be submitted to Birkbeck in 2016, concerning the reception and incorporation of degeneration theory into Scandinavian racial biology, literature, cultural debate, and satire, 1870-1930. You can find her academic page here.

As an aspiring researcher into the relationship between European satirical print culture and scientific/cultural debate, I have spent the past years knee-deep in dusty Punch-editions, researching satirical pictorial representations of the topic this blogpost concerns: degeneration theory. While degenerationism as a theme in literature has been extensively studied, little attention has been given to representations of degeneration in pictorial and satirical print culture. By examining responses to degeneration theory in Punch, I will aspire to delineate how degenerationist rhetoric was appropriated for satirical purposes, subsequently becoming integrated into public discourse and language.

During the late 19th and early 20th century, satire played an integral role in the mediation, production, and dissemination of scientific, political and cultural ideas. Geoffrey Cantor has argued that ‘periodicals rather than books provided the main means of dissemination’ of scientific discoveries and debates during the nineteenth century, increasingly shaping public perceptions of novel theories and scientific controversies.[1] By studying degenerationism as a discursive phenomenon in political cartoons, one may gain insight into the educated public’s attitudes towards evolutionary and degenerationist debates, as well as outline how degeneration evolved (devolved?) into a cultural concept that resisted characterisation, but not wide application. The periodical as a medium possessed certain advantages over the book: publishing daily, weekly or monthly for only a threepence, the periodical could keep up with current scientific debate and successfully convey, support or ridicule new ideas and theories to a wider readership.[2] However, the periodical displayed an ambivalent stance towards science, simultaneously expressing admiration for scientific progress, and fear that this progress would succumb to abuse and hubris. That a satirical periodical could make sober arguments regarding the scientific credibility of evolution theory and degeneration theory enabled the wide diffusion of the theory to all levels of society, allowing Punch to undertake a form of critique that had earlier been reserved for scientific journals.

 When degeneration as a concept first appeared in Punch, it was often satirically appropriated as a rhetorical weapon against Darwin’s evolutionary theory, by applying a ‘slippery slope’-argument to the theory: if evolutionism was true, and if evolution did not necessarily possess a positive telos, regression would be as likely as progression. One such example can be found in the 1869 ‘The Genealogy of the Gorilla; Or, Can a Race Degenerate?’,[3] in which the narrator of the article, a Gorilla, describes how his race has descended from Man, rather than inversely. Citing degenerative forces such as ‘progress [improving] them all away’, material progress, over-consumption, and Science put ‘into sordid hands’, the gorilla recounts the fall of man, ‘whose last degenerate race bred ours.’ The article thus juxtaposes the the mid-nineteenth cult of eternal progress with the dystopian fear of the decay and extinction of the British race, which would come to pervade the century’s close. For evolution theory destabilised the integrity of the human subject, and through degeneration theory, the human species threatened to return to its evolutionary cradle, ‘till the brow made its last retreat, / the jaw its last advance; the hair / Grew shag, eye-teeth turned fangs, and feet / of climbing hands a hinder pair,’ rendering ‘apehood […] their end.’ Many Punch-articles expressed stern suspicion regarding evolution theory, often depicting Darwin himself as an ape, as well as attacking the associated notion of ‘the survival of the fittest’ (coined by Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer). Satirical criticism of this kind lingered well into the beginning of the twentieth century: in ‘Apey Thoughts’ (1900),[4] a monkey is found tearing the article on Darwin’s Origin of Species out of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, furiously exclaiming ‘Descended from us? These degenerate / creatures, / with their hideous, human, expressionless / features? / Great heavens! this DARWIN a monkey / would be, / But, please you, the devil a monkey is he!’ Degeneration theory therefore appeared to have become associated with human hubris: by humorously positing the notion that modern humanity could be the result of degeneration, rather than evolution, the human species was rendered unstable, as prone to evolve as to devolve.

Articles in Punch often remarked upon the fact that evolutionist and degenerationist theories did not appear to coincide with empirical evidence: in 1893, the article ‘The Darwinian Theory Exemplified’[5] questions natural selection, by referencing rare zoo animals: if these noble creatures were, indeed, examples of ‘the survival of the fittest’, why were they facing extinction? Similarly, degenerationist claims that degeneration entailed bodily as well as mental deterioration were put into question: as one notice in 1904 states, ‘when everyone is crying out “Physical Degeneration,” it is pleasant to read that, at Birkenhead, some burglars have carried off from a furniture shop a safe weighing two hundredweight.’[6] The same author, Walter Emanuel, later points to contradictions between the proposed theory and statistical findings, mockingly proclaiming that:

According to the late Dr. LOMBROSO, the criminal is a creature whose characteristics approach those of the anthropoid ape. But apes have enormously long arms, while some investigations made in France have shown that the majority of prisoners have arms which are rather shorter than the average. On the other hand, as a criminal points out, the arm of the Law is notoriously long. This reminder has re-created a painful impression in the Temple.[7]

From the articles outlined above, it is clear that degeneration theory was not accepted without objections and scepticism, questioned in much the same way evolution theory and phrenology had previously been. However, while degeneration theory did always not celebrate a wholeheartedly open welcome within scientific debate, it gained vast momentum within cultural debate. This may be explained by contemplating the very heritage of the concept: degeneration theory owed more to Lamarckianism than Darwinism, replacing slow evolution eons ago with a quicker transformation over generations, acquiring environmental traits which were later transferred to the offspring. Degeneration thus became a question about environment as well as heredity, emerging as a viable explanatory model for the perceived deterioration of culture. It was within satirical cultural criticism that degeneration truly gained authority, fuelled by Max Nordau’s 1892 polemic Degeneration, targeting perceived degenerate elements in modern society such as the Aesthetic movement.

Satirical depictions of degenerate aesthetes, however, preceded Nordau’s publication: Punch cartoonist George Du Maurier had, as early as the 1870s and 1880s, emphasised the degenerate physiognomy of the aesthetic body, as seen in the four following cartoons, ‘Ye Aesthetic Young Geniuses’ (1878),[8] ‘Affiliating an Æsthete’ (1880),[9] ‘Perils of Aesthetic Culture’ (1879),[10] and ‘An Æsthetic Midday Meal’ (1880),[11].

1. Ye Aesthetic Young Geniuses

2. Affiliating an aesthete

3. Perils of Æsthetic Culture

4. An aesthetic midday meal



Here, all the visual markers of degeneration is visible: sunken cheeks, pathologically pale and delicate skin,

5. Nincompoopianahollow eyes, and a weak, fragile and malformed physique. ‘Nincompoopiana – The mutual admiration society’ (1880), another of George du Maurier’s many anti-aesthetic cartoons, emblematises the Aesthetic ideal of male beauty: ‘Oh, look at his grand head, poetic face, with those flowerlike eyes, and that exquisite sad smile! Look at his slender willowy frame, as yielding and fragile as a woman’s.’ It is the physiognomy of the degenerate, weakened by stimuli and hereditary degeneration: the fragile, feminine body of the sexually deviant. Degeneration theory thus not only encompassed physical deterioration, but also the decay of healthy sexuality and gender roles. Through degeneration, men became more feminine, and women more masculine; or as F.C. Burnand defined the state of masculinity and femininity at the Fin de Siécle: ‘New men, new manners. New women – no manners.’[12] One 1909 article, ‘Our Nervy Degenerates’,[13] describes a ‘New’ man refusing to play golf, whimpering ‘Ugh! Horrible! Couldn’t do it – it’s like stroking velvet the wrong way!’, while ‘Cinderella Fin De Siécle’ (1890)[14] blatantly refuses the help from her fairy god mother in order go go to the ball (i.e., conform to gender expectations), instead choosing to spend her time with books and mathematical calculations. The detrimental consequences of these sexual inversions on the next generation are shown to be disconcerting: one cartoon depicts a masculine-looking mother and an effeminate father expressing their concerns over the physical appearances of their children, the ‘Mater’ stating: ‘Do you know, Robert, it sometimes strikes me that in gait and general appearance our boys are not quite so manly as I could wish! I wonder6. Mysteries of heredity why? You’re not an effeminate-looking person, as far as I can judge!’, and the ‘Pater’ responding ‘H’m – at any rate you’re not, my love.’[15] Similarly, in ‘Responsibilities of Heredity’ (1880),[16] an odd-looking son ‘suddenly dissatisfied with his Stature, his Personal Appearance, and the Quality of his Intellect’, reprimands his parents for ever marrying and conceiving him – the degenerated state of the parents has, through the laws of heredity and degeneration, led to physical and mental inadequacy in the offspring.

7. Responsibilities of Heredity

In conclusion, I have in this blog post tried to delineate how Punch helped popularise and shape the perception of degeneration theory in the public mind, as an active producer of the discourse of degeneration theory, rather than a passive mediator of knowledge. I have also argued that, while degeneration theory as a plausible scientific concept was under constant debate, even in Punch, it was widely appropriated as a cultural concept to adress the worrisome prospect of cultural, physical and sexual deterioration.


[1] Geoffrey Cantor and others, ‘Introduction’, Culture and Science in the Nineteenth-Century Media, ed. by Geoffrey Cantor and others (Hants & Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, 2004), pp. xvii-xxv (p. xviii); Gowan Dawson and others, ‘Introduction’, in Science in the nineteenth-century periodical, ed. by Geoffrey Cantor and others (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 1-36 (p 17).

[2] Dawson and others, p. 8; Cantor and others, p. xvii.

[3] Percival Leigh, ‘The Genealogy of the Gorilla; Or, Can a Race Degenerate?’, Punch (September 11, 1869), p. 102.

[4] Menzies, ‘Apey Thoughts’, Punch (April 18, 1900), p. 279.

[5] Anon, ‘The Darwinian Theory Exemplified’, Punch (May 13, 1893), p. 219.

[6] Walter Emanuel, ‘Charivaria’, Punch (August 17, 1904), p. 124.

[7] Walter Emanuel, ‘Charivaria’, Punch (October 27, 1909), p. 295.

[8] George Du Maurier, ‘Ye Aesthetic Young Geniuses’ in’The Rise and Fall of the Jack Spratts. Part III’, Punch (September 21, 1878) p. 122.

[9] Du Maurier, ‘Affiliating an Æsthete’, Punch (June 19, 1880), p. 287.

[10] George Du Maurier, ’Perils of Æsthetic Culture’, Punch (May 10, 1879), p. 210.

[11] George Du Maurier, An Æsthetic Midday Meal, Punch (July 17, 1880) p. 23.

[12] F. C. Burnand, ‘Fin De Siècle’, Punch (February 23, 1895), p. 87.

[13] Frederick Henry Townsend, ‘Our Nervy Degenerates’, Punch (June 02, 1909), p. 385.

[14] Arthur a’Beckett, ‘Cinderella Fin De Siècle’, Punch (December 27, 1890), p. 301.

[15] Anon, ‘Mysteries of Heredity’, Punch (January 21, 1888), p. 30.

[16] George du Maurier, ‘Responsibilities of Heredity’, Punch (April 17, 1880), p. 174.


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