Europeans Came Up With the "Theory of Degeneracy" to Explain Why America Was So Crappy

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If you think America is unpopular in the world now, listen to some of the stuff they said about the country (and continent) in the late 1700s. European scientists came up with the “Theory of Degeneracy” to explain how terrible America was.

Georges-Louis Leclerc was a naturalist, and quite a good one. He guided many of the big names in science, including Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Charles Darwin. A prolific writer, he produced volume after volume of work on animals, plants, and minerals—and how they all influenced each other. Leclerc was one of the first scientists to take a serious look at how the environment shaped plants and animals.

He believed that the climate of the United States had a profound effect on the animals, plants, and inhabitants of the Americas. It’s easy to tell what effect he thought that was—he called his idea “The Theory of Degeneracy.” In the mind of Leclerc, and of other European naturalists, America’s sky was “nigardly,” and its land was “unprolific.” The water, according to one of Leclerc’s academic colleagues, was “death-dealing.” The entire combination made the living inhabitants of America stunted, infertile, and puny.


Not everything shrunk down. Theory of Degeneracy supporters were quick to talk about how all the animals and plants they liked were disgusting and small, but the animals they disliked were huge. Insects were giant. Reptiles were huge. One scientist believed that Louisiana had thirty-seven pound frogs.

Most of these naturalists maintained these ideas, despite the fact that they had never visited the United States—although it’s hard to blame them, considering the fact that they thought they might fall into death-dealing water and get eaten by forty pound frogs. Their insistence annoyed Americans, but the annoyance of Americans didn’t change much. It was only when scientists moved more freely between continents that the Theory of Degeneracy fell away—or at least got new justification.

[Source: Rain, by Cynthia Barnett]

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