Dark Degenerations: Life, Light, and Transformation beneath the Earth, 1840–circa 1900

Andrew Flack*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

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Focusing on Kentucky’s immense and world-famous Mammoth Cave, this essay considers contexts from across the nineteenth century in which subterranean darkness was envisaged as a driving force in the transformation of living things. In fact, the cave was the stage for several allied discourses of “dark degeneracy” that conjured images of both generative and destructive mutability, from the generation of animals without eyes to the apparent disintegration of some kinds of human bodies and minds through exposure to the darkness. In elucidating several parallel discourses of dark degeneracy, the essay offers a distinct contribution to several bodies of scholarship by highlighting an important and hitherto neglected manifestation of an intensifying nineteenth-century focus on the how of natural processes and a growing sense of the transformative significance of the apparent cohesion of malleable bodies with their wider environments. At the same time, it evidences the influence of Mammoth Cave in forging and contributing to late nineteenth-century debates about degeneration and shows how dominant sensory hierarchies framed both popular and scientific understandings of life in the deep darkness.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)331-351
Number of pages21
Issue number2
Early online date24 May 2022
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Andrew Flack is Senior Lecturer in Modern and Environmental History at the University of Bristol. School of Humanities, 11 Woodland Road, University of Bristol, Clifton, Bristol, BS8 1TB, United Kingdom; andrew.flack@bristol.ac.uk. Acknowledgments. I would like to acknowledge the support of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (grant reference AH/ V000756/1), as well as University of Bristol colleagues Hannah Charnock, Daniel Haines, and Lena Ferriday for their thorough and insightful reading of this manuscript. I also thank colleagues in attendance at the “Sensing the South” workshop (Mississippi State University, 2019) for their constructive comments as the ideas at the heart of this essay emerged into the light.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 History of Science Society. All rights reserved.


  • Darkness
  • subterranean
  • biology
  • zoology
  • History of science
  • cultural history


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