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The Biology of Evil (Level 6)


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 6
  • Convenor: to be confirmed
  • Assessment: a 1500-word essay (40%) and 2000-word essay (60%)

Module description

In enlightenment rhetoric, as developed by philosophers such as Descartes and Kant, evil is typically configured as a species of error, a failure or misapplication of the faculty of reason. As such, evil is treatable, indeed it may be ultimately eradicated, through the ever-widening influence of education and the light of reason. In the nineteenth century a new medical/biological model of evil became prominent. On this model evil is seen as some kind of bodily infection which needs to be isolated or destroyed before it further infects the greater populace.

In this module we first trace the rise of this new model of evil and its embodiment in the nineteenth-century discourse on degeneration. We then examine through case studies how elements of the discourse of degeneration were inflected in literature, philosophy and psychology.

Indicative syllabus

  • Survey of some pre-nineteenth-century conceptions of women and Jews
  • The new biologism: Darwin and Vogt
  • Degeneration: Lombroso, Nordau
  • Science meets literature I: Zola’s Nana
  • Science meets literature II: Stoker’s Dracula
  • Evil in literature: Baudelaire
  • Degeneration in art
  • Materialism as evil: Marx and Wagner
  • Nietzsche: health through degeneration
  • Freud and degeneration
  • Freud and the uncanny

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will:

  • have detailed knowledge of the rise of the medical/biological model of evil in the nineteenth century
  • be aware of the specialist principles and concepts deployed by thinkers such as Nietzsche and Freud in discourses on degeneration, and recognise some of their strengths and weaknesses.