The reception and application of degeneration theory and the concept of atavism in Scandinavian racial sciences, literature, cultural debate, and satire, 1880-1922

Year of award: 2016


  • Rebecka Klette

    Birkbeck, University of London

Project summary

I will examine how degeneration theory, as both a scientific and cultural concept, was received and disseminated in Scandinavia through racial biology and anthropology, literature, cultural debate, and satire. I will contend that it may be viewed as a prism reflecting the relationship between 19th and early 20th century science and culture which is popularising science through periodicals, satire, and literature. I will examine the unique character of Scandinavian degeneration theory which strongly emphasises heredity over environment as the main cause of degeneration. I will also juxtapose the notion of late 19th century British, French, German, and Italian degenerationist thought as closed systems of knowledge. 

I will focus on the time period 1880-1922, as the spectre of degeneration began to emerge in Scandinavian debate in the 1880s. The study will conclude with the founding of the Swedish National Institute for Eugenics in 1922, which positioned Scandinavia at the forefront of European research into the mechanisms of racial heredity.