An Essay on the Principle of Population | Study Guide

Thomas Robert Malthus

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An Essay on the Principle of Population | Chapter 3 | Summary



Malthus next considers how population and subsistence interact in "the rudest state of mankind"—that of hunter-gatherers, or "savages." In such societies, he argues, the population is necessarily sparse, but it nonetheless tends to match or exceed the food available. Misery, rather than vice, is the main "check" on population in this situation.

In nomadic herding cultures, Malthus says, poverty and food scarcity were continually present. These, he contends, are the factors that drove the "race of Barbarians" to conquer much of the Northern Hemisphere under the banners of Attila the Hun (d. 453) and Genghis Khan (1162–1227). Even though they were constantly "mowed down" by war or famine, the populations of these societies inevitably sprang back until they could barely feed themselves. Here, as with the hunter-gatherers, Malthus chalks up the effects of population growth to misery and vice: "The commission of war is vice, and the effect of it misery, and none can doubt the misery of want of food."


Malthus's characterization of "savages," like his definition of "vice," can be jarring to modern sensibilities. In categorizing Native Americans as hunter-gatherers, Malthus is ignoring or overlooking the sheer variety of civilizations that existed in North America prior to European conquest. Some of the greatest agricultural societies, it is true, lived far from the English settlements or were conquered before English colonization began. The Aztecs, for example, developed an innovative irrigation technique called the chinampa or floating garden, but Malthus would have had few resources for learning about it. In other cases, however, English contact with sedentary, agricultural tribes was frequent and sustained. Members of the Powhatan Confederacy, for instance, were already settled in present-day Virginia when Jamestown was built in 1607. They cultivated corn, squash, and beans, though hunting was another major food source.

Malthus's dichotomy of hunter-gatherer "Indians" and farmer Europeans may also owe something to the dynamics of colonization. As European settlers pressed westward, they drove the Powhatan population away from the choicest farmland and left them more reliant on hunted and gathered food. A similar chicken-or-egg problem is evident in Malthus's thinking about the "misery" that keeps population growth low among Native Americans. Malthus sees poverty, food scarcity, and poor health as inherent, preexisting facts of a "savage" state of life. Looking back, however, it seems clear the spread of previously unknown diseases, such as smallpox, accounted for much of the "misery."

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