What came to be known in the later nineteenth century as "positivist" criminology involved a rejection of so-called classical penology.
The latter approach—developed by the influential Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria (author of a famous treatise on crimes and punishments of 1764) and the great early-nineteenth-century English "utilitarian" systematizer Jeremy Bentham—was committed to viewing each subject as a potentially reasonable being, who could calculate right and wrong and the personal price to be paid in the event of social transgression.
Sometimes the label degenerate was used with anti-aristocratic innuendo, but most importantly it was taken to refer to specific subgroups among the socially disadvantaged, the casual poor, or new immigrants, the "residuum" and "outcast" of the cities (or sometimes remote "uncivilized" rural hinterlands), the white or black "trash" so often conjured in American hereditarian thought.Titles such as Degeneration amongst Londoners (1885) or Evolution by Atrophy in Biology and Sociology (1899) typified significant intellectual tendencies across fin-de-siécle Europe.Labels and diagnoses of "dégénérescence" multiplied still further in Charles Samson Féré's series of works on criminality, pathological emotions, and neuropathic families, and in the Viennese physician Richard von Krafft-Ebing's frequently reissued Psychopathia Sexualis (1886).During the period of the Third Republic (1870–1940), the celebrated French psychiatrist Valentin Magnan further developed Morel's pioneering work, elaborating the technical vocabulary and removing the most conspicuous traces of Morel's Catholicism in which degeneration was seen in terms of sin and "the fall."No single degenerationist text, Morel's included, produced shock waves—or a clash with orthodox religion—quite on the scale of Darwin's Origin, but the argument and themes of the Traité certainly did have enduring importance within social and scientific thought for the remainder of the century, and beyond.
Ideas about degeneracy powerfully informed a new tradition of thought on crime and punishment, which challenged assumptions about free will and thus brought it into conflict with the traditional views of human responsibility deployed by lawyers and churchmen.Increasingly the notion of "degeneration" became enmeshed with the great English naturalist Charles Darwin's famous account of how evolution occurred through natural selection.