Subhumanity and Civilization


Around the turn of the century a combination of Darwinism and various theories of degeneration gained a foothold in Denmark. This led to intense discussions of eugenic measures meant to increase the childbearing of "the good stock" and to put a stop to the "progressive degeneration" - especially in the form of the mentally handicapped - that was thought to be a threat to civilization. And in fact the advocates of this did succeed, in the course of the twenties and thirties, in having restrictive internment and sterilization laws passed. One precondition of implementing these measures was the possibility of identifying those borderline cases between the abnormal and the normal who were considered particularly likely to "infiltrate" civilization and undermine it from within, unless they were deprived of their potential for contact with the surrounding world and their reproductive potential. This article discusses why, in the attack on the "unadaptable", it was considered necessary to choose a biological rather than a sociocultural theory of evolution as the foundation for the construction of a "civilization" which could only be upheld if culture was turned into something that could only be encompassed by the - hereditary - good brain.

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Rønn, E. M., (1993) “Subhumanity and Civilization”, Ethnologia Europaea 23(1), 55-74. doi:


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Edith Mandrup Rønn (University of Copenhagen)



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