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IdiocyA Cultural History$
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Patrick McDonagh

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9781846310959

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: June 2013

DOI: 10.5949/UPO9781846315367

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‘The sins of the fathers’: idiocy, evolution and degeneration

‘The sins of the fathers’: idiocy, evolution and degeneration

(p.257) Chapter 11 ‘The sins of the fathers’: idiocy, evolution and degeneration
Liverpool University Press

This chapter traces the evolution of the idea of degeneration in relation to idiocy, which, in its earlier manifestations, is confined to specific individuals, but eventually becomes — in worst-case scenarios — a feature of society: a loss not simply of individual vitality, or the vitality of a particular familial line, but of the vitality of the entire Anglo-Saxon race. The first intimations of this change appear in the 1850s, but even those notions of degeneracy that draw on the theory of natural selection are attached to older ideas of moral decrepitude that had long been instrumental in defining a particular discourse around idiocy. In the years immediately before Darwin's The Origin of Species appeared, the moral discourse had been revitalized by writers such as the American reformer, teacher, and asylum builder Samuel Gridley Howe, whose ideas were quickly reproduced in Britain.

Keywords:   degeneration, idiocy, degeneracy, natural selection, moral decrepitude, Samuel Gridley Howe

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