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Degraded Men
by [?]

The man of science derives suggestive knowledge from the study of mere putrefaction; he places an infusion of common hay-seeds or meat or fruit in his phials, and awaits events; presently a drop from one of the infusions is laid on the field of the microscope, and straightly the economy of a new and strange kingdom is seen by the observer. The microscopist takes any kind of garbage; he watches the bacteria and their mysterious development, and he reaches at last the most significant conclusions regarding the health and growth and diseases of the highest organizations. The student of human nature must also bestow his attention on disease of mind if he would attain to any real knowledge of the strange race to which he belongs. We develop, it is true, but there are modes and modes of development. I have often pointed out that a steady process of degeneration goes on side by side with the unfolding of new and healthy powers in the animal and vegetable kingdoms. The great South American lizards grow strong and splendid in hue amid the rank freedom of pampas or forest; but their poor relatives in the sunless caves of Transylvania grow milky white, flabby, and stone-blind. The creatures in the Kentucky caves are all aborted in some way or other; the birds in far-off islands lose the power of flight, and the shrivelled wings gradually sink under the skin, and show us only a tiny network of delicate bones when the creature is stripped to the skeleton. The condor soars magnificently in the thin air over the Andes–it can rise like a kite or drop like a thunderbolt: the weeka of New Zealand can hardly get out of the way of a stick aimed by an active man. The proud forest giant sucks up the pouring moisture from the great Brazilian river; the shoots that rise under the shadow of the monster tree are weakened and blighted by lack of light and free air. The same astounding work goes on among the beings who are so haughty in their assumption of the post of creation’s lords. The healthy child born of healthy parents grows up amid pure air and pure surroundings; his tissues are nourished by strength-giving food, he lives according to sane rules, and he becomes round-limbed, full-chested, and vigorous. The poor little victim who first sees the light in the Borough or Shadwell, or in the noxious alleys of our reeking industrial towns, receives foul air, mere atmospheric garbage, into his lungs; he becomes thin-blooded, his unwholesome pallor witnesses to his weakness of vitality, his muscles are atrophied, and even his hair is ragged, lustreless, ill-nurtured. In time he transmits his feebleness to his successors; and we have the creatures who stock our workhouses, hospitals, and our gaols–for moral degradation always accompanies radical degradation of the physique.

So, if we study the larger aspects of society, we find that in all grades we have large numbers of individuals who fall out of the line that is steadfastly progressing, and become stragglers, camp-followers–anything you will. Let a cool and an unsentimental observer bend himself to the study of degraded human types, and he will learn things that will sicken his heart if he is weak, and strengthen him in his resolve to work gallantly during his span of life if he is strong. Has any one ever fairly tried to face the problem of degradation? Has any one ever learned how it is that a distinct form of mental disease seems to lurk in all sorts of unexpected fastnesses, ready to breathe a numbing and poisonous vapour on those who are not fortified against the moral malaria? I am not without experience of the fell chances and changes of life; I venture therefore to use some portion of the knowledge that I have gathered in order to help to fortify the weak and make the strong wary.