Degeneration: / A Chapter in Darwinism

Sir E. Ray Lankester

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Edwin Ray Lankester was a pioneering zoologist working at the turn of the 20th century. He developed the science of parasitology, and worked in palaeontology and evolution. He strongly supported Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Lankester was a friend of the writer H G Wells. He had been Wells’s teacher and collaborated with him on The Outline of History (1920). He was an energetic writer on science for laypeople, helping to establish popular science as a genre with his ‘Science from an easy chair’ articles in the Daily Telegraph from 1907. 

Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871) caused a major furore, particularly the controversial proposal that the human species had evolved from apes. However, Darwin’s argument was that evolution was a process of the success of developments through survival. In 1880 Lankester published Degeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism, in which he proposed the idea of an evolutionary degeneration, the result of adaptation to less demanding environments. Thus evolution was not necessarily ‘improvement’. This concept can be seen in Wells’s The Time Machine (1895). Lankester, citing the example of lizards that evolved into snakes, proposed that ‘Any new set of conditions which render [a species’s] food and safety very easily obtained, seem to lead to degeneration’. It was a theory he felt was equally applicable to the human species. Both Wells and Lankester used this idea to campaign for social and educational reform as a way of avoiding the long-term degeneration of the human species.