Robert Malthus was born to a prosperous family, his father Daniel being
a personal friend of the philosopher David Hume and an acquaintance
of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The young Malthus was educated at home until
his admission to Jesus College, Cambridge in 1784. There he studied
many subjects and took prizes in English declamation, Latin and Greek,
but his principal subject was mathematics. He earned a masters degree
in 1791 and was elected a fellow of Jesus College two years later. In
1797, he was ordained and became an Anglican country parson.
in 1804 and had three children. In 1805 he became Britain's first professor
in political economy at the East India Company College at Hertford Heath,
near Hertford in Hertfordshire, now known as Haileybury. His students
affectionately referred to him as "Pop", or "Population"
Malthus. In 1818, he was selected as a Fellow of the Royal Society.
Thomas Robert Malthus
refused to have his portrait painted until 1833 because of embarrassment
over a hare lip. This was then corrected by surgery, and Malthus was
then considered handsome. Malthus also had a cleft palate (inside his
mouth) that affected his speech. These cleft related birth defects were
relatively common in his family. Malthus was buried at Bath Abbey in
Principle of population
Malthus's views were largely developed in reaction to the optimistic
views of his father and his associates, notably Rousseau. Malthus's
essay was also in response to the views of the Marquis de Condorcet.
In An Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798,
Malthus made the famous prediction that population would outrun food
supply, leading to a decrease in food per person. (Case & Fair,
1999: 790). He even went so far as to specifically predict that this
must occur by the middle of the 19th century, a prediction which failed
for several reasons, including his use of static analysis, taking recent
trends and projecting them indefinitely into the future, which often
fails for complex systems.
“ The power
of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence
for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the
human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation.
They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often
finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war
of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague
advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of
thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine
stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with
the food of the world. ”
This Principle of
Population was based on the idea that population if unchecked increases
at a geometric rate (i.e. 2, 4, 8, 16, etc.) whereas the food supply
grows at an arithmetic rate (i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.).
Only natural causes
(eg. accidents and old age), misery (war, pestilence, and above all
famine), moral restraint and vice (which for Malthus included infanticide,
murder, contraception and homosexuality) could check
excessive population growth. See Malthusian catastrophe for more information.
moral restraint (including late marriage and sexual abstinence) as a
check on population growth. However, it is worth noting that Malthus
proposed this only for the working and poor classes. Thus, the lower
social classes took a great deal of responsibility for societal ills,
according to his theory. In his work An Essay on the Principle of Population,
he proposed the gradual abolition of poor laws. Essentially what this
resulted in was the promotion of legislation which degenerated the conditions
of the poor in England, lowering their population but effectively decreasing
noted that many people misrepresented his theory and took pains to point
out that he did not just predict future catastrophe. He argued "...this
constantly subsisting cause of periodical misery has existed ever since
we have had any histories of mankind, does exist at present, and will
for ever continue to exist, unless some decided change takes place in
the physical constitution of our nature."
Thus, Malthus regarded
his Principle of Population as an explanation of the past and the present
situation of humanity as well as a prediction of our future.
have argued that Malthus did not fully recognise the human capacity
to increase our food supply. On this subject Malthus wrote "The
main peculiarity which distinguishes man from other animals, is the
means of his support, is the power which he possesses of very greatly
increasing these means."
Some claim that there is no specific prediction of Malthus regarding
the future; that what some interpret as prediction was merely Malthus's
illustration of the power of geometric (or exponential) population growth
compared to the arithmetic growth of food production. Rather than a
prediction of the future, the Essay is an evolutionary social theory.
Eight major points regarding evolution are found in the 1798 Essay:
is severely limited by subsistence
When the means of subsistence increases, population increases
Population pressures stimulate increases in productivity
Increases in productivity stimulates further population growth
Since this productivity can never keep up with the potential of population
growth for long, there must be strong checks on population to keep it
in line with carrying capacity.
It is through individual cost/benefit decisions regarding sex, work,
and children that population and production are expanded or contracted.
Checks will come into operation as population exceeds subsistence level.
The nature of these checks will have significant effect on the rest
of the sociocultural system—Malthus points specifically to misery,
vice, and poverty. (See Frank W. Elwell, 2001, A Commentary on Malthus'
1798 Essay on Population as Social Theory, The Edwin Mellon Press for
an extended exposition.)
It is this theory of Malthus—not some easily dismissed prediction—that
has had huge influence on evolutionary theory in both biology (as acknowledged
by Darwin and Wallace) and the social sciences (such as Spencer). Malthus's
population theory has also profoundly affected the modern day ecological-evolutionary
social theory of Gerhard Lenski and Marvin Harris. He can thus be regarded
as an element of the canon of socioeconomic theory.
The influence of
The influence of Malthus's theory of population was substantial. Michael
H. Hart published a book called The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential
Persons in History in 1978 which placed Malthus at number 80 in this
worldwide ranking. Ironically, Malthus did not make the top 100 Greatest
At Haileybury, Malthus
developed a theory of demand supply mismatches which he called gluts.
Considered ridiculous at the time, his theory was a precursor to later
theories about the Great Depression, and to the works of admirer and
economist John Maynard Keynes.
fertility had been considered an economic advantage, since it increased
the number of workers available to the economy. Malthus, however, looked
at fertility from a new perspective and convinced most economists that
even though high fertility might increase the gross output, it tended
to reduce output per capita. Malthus has been widely admired by, and
has influenced, a number of other notable economists such as David Ricardo
(whom Malthus knew personally) and Alfred Marshall.
early convert was British Prime Minister, William Pitt The Younger.
In the 1830s Malthus's writings strongly influenced Whig reforms which
overturned Tory paternalism and brought in the Poor Law Amendment Act
Concerns about Malthus's
theory also helped promote the idea of a national population Census
in the UK. Government official John Rickman was instrumental in the
first modern British Census being conducted in 1801.
Malthus was proud
to include amongst the earliest converts to his population theory the
leading creationist and natural theologian, Archdeacon William Paley
whose Natural Theology was first published in 1802. Both men regarded
Malthus' Principle of Population as additional proof of the existence
of a deity.
Malthus's own opposition to contraception, his work was a strong influence
on Francis Place (1771–1854), whose Neo-Malthusian movement was
the first to advocate contraception. Place published his Proofs on the
Principle of Population in 1822.
of man’s “Struggle for existence” had decisive influence
on Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution. Other scientists related
this idea to plants and animals which helped to define a piece of the
evolutionary puzzle. This struggle for existence of all creatures is
the catalyst by which natural selection produces the “survival
of the fittest”, a phrase coined by Herbert Spencer (Spiegel 282).
Darwin, in his book The Origin of Species, called his theory an application
of the doctrines of Malthus in an area without the complicating factor
of human intelligence. Darwin, a life-long admirer of Malthus, referred
to Malthus as "that great philosopher" (Letter to J.D. Hooker
5th June, 1860) and wrote in his notebook that "Malthus on Man
should be studied". Wallace called Malthus's essay "...the
most important book I read..." and considered it "the most
interesting coincidence" that both he and Darwin were independently
led to the theory of evolution through reading Malthus.
Thanks to Malthus,
Darwin recognized the significance of intra species competition between
populations of the same species (e.g. the lamb and the lamb), not just
interspecies competition between species (e.g. the lion and the lamb).
Malthusian population thinking also explained how an incipient species
could become a full-blown species in a very short time frame. The significance
of Malthus's influence on Darwin was perhaps best highlighted by Robert
M. Young (Darwin's Metaphor: Nature's Place in Victorian Culture, 1965),
Professor of Psychotherapy and Psychoanalytic Studies at Sheffield University,
Founder of UNESCO,
evolutionist and Humanist, Julian Huxley wrote of "The Crowded
World" in his Evolutionary Humanism (1964), calling for a World
Population Policy. Huxley was openly critical of Communist and Roman
Catholic attitudes to birth control , population control and overpopulation.
Today world organizations such as the United Nations Population Fund
acknowledge that the debate over how many people the Earth can support
effectively started with Malthus. Julian's brother, Aldous Huxley, author
of Brave New World, also seems to have been influenced by Malthusian
theories on population. In Brave New World, the popular form of birth
control is known as the Malthusian Belt. It is mentioned frequently
by the females in the novel including the female protagonist Lenina
Karl Marx's social
determinism has its roots in Malthus’s theory as well. Marx however
rejected Darwin’s biological determinism and instead embraced
social determinism (in other words one’s decisions are made as
a direct reaction to one’s circumstances). He saw social ills
as caused by unjust or faulty institutions and social arrangements in
large part caused by capitalism.
to have considerable influence to this day. One famous recent example
of this is Paul R. Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb. Ehrlich predicted,
in the late 1960s, that hundreds of millions would die from a coming
overpopulation crisis in the 1970s, and that by 1980 life expectancy
in the United States would be only 42 years. Other famous examples are
the 1972 book The Limits to Growth from the self-styled Club of Rome,
and the Global 2000 report to the then President of the United States
of America. Science fiction author Isaac Asimov issued many appeals
for population control reflecting the perspective articulated by people
from Thomas Malthus through Paul R. Ehrlich.
More recently, a
school of "neo-Malthusian" scholars has begun to link population
and economics to a third variable, political change and political violence,
and to show how the variables interact. In the early 1980s, James Goldstone
linked population variables to the English Revolution and David Lempert
devised a model of demographics, economics, and political change in
the multi-ethnic country of Mauritius. Goldstone has since modeled other
revolutions by looking at demographics and economics and Lempert has
explained Stalin's purges and the Russian Revolution in terms of demographic
factors that drive political economy. Ted Robert Gurr has also modeled
political violence using similar variables in several comparative cases.
These approaches compete with explanations of events as a result of
political ideology and suggest that political ideology is really a creation
that follows demographic forces.
Malthus is widely
regarded as the founder of modern demography. Malthus had proposed his
Principle of Population as a universal natural law for all species,
not just humans. Instead, today, his theory is widely regarded as only
an approximate natural law of population dynamics for all species. This
is because it can be proven that nothing can sustain exponential growth
at a constant rate indefinitely.
continues to openly inspire and influence even futuristic visions, such
as those of K Eric Drexler relating to space advocacy and molecular
nanotechnology. As Drexler put it in Engines of Creation: "In a
sense, opening space will burst our limits to growth, since we know
of no end to the universe. Nevertheless, Malthus was essentially right."
Malthus has also
inspired retired physics professor, Albert Bartlett, to lecture over
1,500 times on "Arithmetic, Population, and Energy", which
promotes sustainable living and explains the mathematics of overpopulation.
The Malthusian growth
model now bears Malthus' name. The logistic function of Pierre Francois
Verhulst results in the well known S-curve. Yet the logistic growth
model favored by so many critics of the Malthusian growth model was
created by Verhulst in 1838 only after reading Malthus's essay.
model of food supply is almost universally rejected as it can be clearly
demonstrated that food supply has kept pace with population for the
past two centuries (see below).
as professor at the British East India Company training college, which
he held until his death, gave his theories considerable influence over
Britain's administration of India through most of the 19th century,
continuing even under the Raj after the company's dissolution in 1858.
The most significant result of this influence was that the official
response to India's periodic famines, which had been occurring every
decade or two for centuries, became one of not entirely benign neglect:
the famines were regarded as necessary to keep the "excess"
population in check. In some cases even private efforts to transport
food into famine-stricken areas were forbidden. However, this "Malthusian"
policy did not take account of the enormous economic damage done by
such famines through loss of human capital, collapse of credit structures
and financial institutions, and the destruction of physical capital
(especially in the form of livestock), social infrastructure and commercial
relationships. The presumably unintended consequence was that production
often did not recover to pre-famine levels in the affected areas for
a decade or more after each disaster, well after the lost population
had been regained. Malthusian theory also influenced British policies
in Ireland during the 1840s, in which relief measures during the Irish
Potato Famine (1845-1849) were neglected and mass starvation was seen
as a natural and inevitable consequence of the island's supposed over-population.
Although it is popularly
assumed that Malthus's pessimistic views gave economics the nickname
"the Dismal Science", the phrase was actually coined by the
historian Thomas Carlyle in reference to laissez-faire economic theories
Criticisms of Malthus
William Godwin responded to Malthus's criticisms of his own arguments
with On Population (1820).
and political critiques of Malthus and Malthusian thinking emerged soon
after the publication of the first Essay on Population, most notably
in the work of the reformist industrialist Robert Owen , the essayist
William Hazlitt (Malthus And The Liberties Of The Poor, 1807) and economists
John Stuart Mill and Nassau William Senior (Two Lectures on Population
, 1829), and moralist William Cobbett. Also of note was True Law of
Population (1845) by politician Thomas Doubleday, an adherent of Cobbett's
The highpoint of opposition to Malthus's ideas came in the middle of
the nineteenth century with the writings of Karl Marx (Capital, 1867)
and Friedrich Engels (Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy, 1844),
who argued that what Malthus saw as the problem of the pressure of population
on the means of production was actually that of the pressure of the
means of production on population. They thus viewed it in terms of their
concept of the labor reserve army. In other words, the seeming excess
of population that Malthus attributed to the seemingly innate disposition
of the poor to reproduce beyond their means was actually a product of
the very dynamic of capitalist economy.
Engels called Malthus's
hypothesis "...the crudest, most barbarous theory that ever existed,
a system of despair which struck down all those beautiful phrases about
love thy neighbour and world citizenship."
After the Russian
famine of 1921 and the Soviet-made 1932-1933 famine of Holodomor, which
resulted from maldistribution rather than overpopulation, the official
Soviet spokesman at the 1954 United Nations conference on population
in Rome, T.V. Ryabushkin claimed "...In a socialist country...the
problem of excessive population no longer arises...the Malthusian theory
is completely wrong..."
Evolutionists John Maynard Smith and Ronald Fisher were both critical
of Malthus's hypothesis, though it was Fisher who referred to the growth
rate r (used in equations such as the logistic function) as the Malthusian
parameter. Fisher referred to "...a relic of creationist philosophy..."
in observing the fecundity of nature and deducing (as Darwin did) that
this therefore drove natural selection. Smith doubted that famine was
the great leveler that Malthus insisted it was.
Economists of the 19th century were well aware that improvements in
the division and specialization of labor, increased capital investment,
and other factors had rendered Malthus's warnings ever more implausible.
Even in the absence of any improvement in technology or increase of
capital equipment, an increased supply of labor may have a synergistic
effect on productivity that overcomes the law of diminishing returns.
As American land economist Henry George observed with characteristic
piquancy in dismissing Malthus, "Both the jayhawk and the man eat
chickens; but the more jayhawks, the fewer chickens, while the more
men, the more chickens." Many 20th century economists, such as
Julian Lincoln Simon, have also criticised Malthus's conclusions. They
note that despite the predictions of Malthus and the Neo-Malthusians,
massive geometric population growth in the 20th century has not resulted
in a Malthusian catastrophe, largely due to the influence of technological
advances (see below) and the expansion of the market economy, division
of labor, and stock of capital goods. Such arguments are echoed by skeptical
environmentalist, Bjørn Lomborg. Malthus is thus regarded by
some such as British physicist John Maddox as little more than a failed
prophet of doom.
To date, the most sustained and trenchant critique of Malthusian doctrine
and its influence on policy is from anthropologist Eric Ross. In The
Malthus Factor: Population, Poverty, and Politics in Capitalist Development,
Ross depicts Malthus's work as a pseudo-scientific rationalization of
the social inequities produced by the Industrial Revolution, anti-immigration
movements, the eugenics movement, the various international development
Recent research and significant empirical evidence have showed most
of Malthus's predictions to be unrealized. For example, the population
has continued to grow, yet the prices of resources and food relative
to wages has decreased, indicating the supply of food (and resources)
has grown relative to population size. This paradox can be easily resolved
because Malthus made four assumptions which were further elucidated
by history after his death.
First, it is widely
acknowledged that population growth is almost never exponential, but
instead influenced by so many factors that no simple mathematical model
can describe it. Demography since Malthus's time show that population
growth rates flatten and then invert as a function of economic prosperity.
Malthus lived in the time when England went through a geometric growth
before birth rates in that country flattened.
Second, the growth
of food production has never been restricted to the rudimentary processes
Malthus described. Twentieth-century researchers have provided documentation
of the process of agricultural intensification (pioneered by economist
Ester Boserup) by which production can be raised in response to population
increases and market demands. Production has also been expanded by societal
and technological advances in agriculture such as the Neolithic Revolution,
British Agricultural Revolution, and the Green Revolution, food supply
has outgrown population and is expected to continue doing so by the
Food and Agriculture Organization. A review of the most recent edition
of USDA Agricultural Statistics reveals that the yield of corn has grown
from 113.5 to 160.5 bushels per acre between 1995 and 2004. This represents
a 3.5% average annual compound rate of growth. Similar results are reported
for wheat -- with growth rates varying by type of wheat. (Tables 1-3
and 1-36) However this growth has been based heavily on a finite resource,
petrochemicals, and may yet prove unsustainable. This growth has also
been based upon exhaustion of certain soil resources, such as creation
of the barren central highland plateau of Madagascar, which by definition
cannot be repeated. (Some debate exists on the extent to which Genetically
Modified Crops will contribute to continued agricultural growth.) However,
the market economy - defined as mutually beneficial exchange between
decentralized actors - is responsible for increases
in productivity, and is internally sustainable. Likewise, Malthus clearly
underestimated the power of the human capacity to increase the means
of human subsistence on Earth. For example, Malthus did not fully understand
the additional leeway built into the agricultural system - diets composed
of different kinds of foods can have a wide range of different land-use
Third, Malthus assumed
that technology would be held constant, even while population was growing
at an exponential rate.
And fourth, historical
demography has shown that famines have never killed sufficient numbers
of people to qualify as "Malthusian" checks on population.
The demographers S. C. Watkins and J. Menken studied historical famines
(Population and Development Review 1985), and found that even in the
most severe cases, the population deficit created by famine is made
up in just a few years. Thus, the populations of India, Ethiopia and
the Sahel are far larger today than when these places suffered famines
that were described as "Malthusian." Amartya Sen (Poverty
and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, Clarendon Press,
1981), has demonstrated that famines are not defined by food availability
declines, but rather by the collapse in food entitlement, namely the
ability of the poor to purchase sufficient food.
Malthus argued that as wages increase within a country, the birthrate
increases while the death rate decreases. His reasoning was that high
incomes allowed people to have sufficient means to raise their children
such as feeding and clothing them thus resulting in greater desire to
have more children which increases the population. In addition, high
incomes also allowed people to be able to afford proper medication to
fight off potentially harmful diseases thus decreasing the death rate.
As a result, wage increases caused population to grow as the birthrate
increases and the death rate decreases. He further argued that as the
supply of labor increases with the increased population growth at a
constant labor demand, the wages earned would decrease eventually to
subsistence where the birthrate is equal to the death rate resulting
in no population growth. However, the world generally has experienced
quite a different result than the one Malthus predicted with his theory.
During the late 19th and early 20th century, the population increased
as did the wages, with the spread of the industrial revolution. Malthus
assumed a constant labor demand in his assessment of England and in
doing so he ignored the effects of industrialization. As the world became
more industrialized, the level of technology and production grew causing
an increase in labor demand. Thus, even though labor supply increased
so did the the demand for labor. In fact, the labor demand arguably
increased more than the supply, as measured by the historically observed
increase in real wages globally with population growth.
Sacred to the memory of the Rev Thomas Robert Malthus, long known to
the lettered world by his admirable writings on the social branches
of political economy, particularly by his essay on population.
One of the best
men and truest philosophers of any age or country, raised by native
dignity of mind above the misrepresentation of the ignorant and the
neglect of the great, he lived a serene and happy life devoted to the
pursuit and communication of truth.
Supported by a calm
but firm conviction of the usefulness of his labors.
Content with the
approbation of the wise and good.
His writings will
be a lasting monument of the extent and correctness of his understanding.
The spotless integrity
of his principles, the equity and candour of his nature, his sweetness
of temper, urbanity of manners and tenderness of heart, his benevolence
and his piety are still dearer recollections of his family and friends.
Born Feb 14 1766
Died 29 Dec 1834.