An Essay on the Principle of Population | Study Guide

Thomas Robert Malthus

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An Essay on the Principle of Population | Context


Population Control

In the biblical book of Genesis, God commands the first humans to "be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it." For much of Western history, the study of population has been based on the premise that it was humanity's destiny to fulfill this decree. In ancient and medieval Europe, population growth was slow and often abruptly halted by war, famine, and disease—forces Malthus would later mention as "checks" to population. Even outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, a large population was often seen as a good to be pursued: a populous nation was a powerful one. A few classical thinkers, such as the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE), considered the difficulties that might arise if a city's population grew too large. Aristotle's concerns, however, were rooted in the difficulty of governing a large populace, not of feeding it. The early Christian author Tertullian (c. 155–220 CE) likewise worried about overpopulation and saw war and disease as ways of "pruning" the overgrowth. In general, however, few in premodern times imagined humanity could ever grow to truly "fill the earth." Between the years 500 and 1450 the population of Europe barely doubled.

In the early modern era, however, things changed. Agricultural advancements, coupled with long periods of relative political stability, led to steady and rapid population growth in many parts of Europe. Wealthy but crowded European nations sent settlers to the Americas, where the colonists drove out native populations and set about clearing the land for intensive agriculture. Colonial populations soared, even as those at home continued to enjoy more modest growth. War and disease still took their toll, but even the worst outbreaks of the 17th and 18th centuries were far less deadly than their medieval counterparts. The Great Plague of London (1665–66), for example, is often described as the worst epidemic in England since the Black Death of 1348. It claimed an estimated 100,000 lives, while the Black Death killed roughly 2,000,000 in England alone.

Taking stock of these developments, several 18th-century philosophers suggested humanity was entering an age of continuous improvement. Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau proposed an optimistic view of humanity and its fate. He wrote that humanity had emerged from the "state of nature," an inherently good but limited state of existence, into an era where individuals were shackled by social institutions. Beyond this transitional period, Rousseau thought, l a future era of peace and equality in which humanity would reach its full potential.

Following in Rousseau's footsteps, English philosopher William Godwin wrote of an ideal future utopia in which humankind had outgrown the need for political institutions. Godwin did not deny that unchecked population growth might pose a threat to this utopia, but he saw the problem as very distant. It would take thousands of years, he wrote, before the human population strained against the limits of the food supply. By that time, Godwin asserted, humanity would have learned to place intellectual pleasures above those of the flesh. Diminishing sex drive would lead to lower rates of reproduction, and the population would stabilize. Malthus found both Godwin's and Rousseau's predictions implausible, given that they seemed to depend on fundamental changes in human nature.

England in 1798

Political Revolution

Two major revolutions marked the end of the 18th century in the West. The American Revolutionary War (1775–83) brought an end to British colonial control in North America. In the former colonies—now the United States—land was still plentiful and the population of settlers was rising at a prodigious rate. A few years later, the French Revolution (1789–99) began, sparking a debate throughout Europe as to what form of government was best. British thinkers disputed the merits and drawbacks of the French Revolution, which had abolished the aristocratic regime and raised commoners to leadership positions. England's leaders feared a similar uprising at home and worked—through both policy and propaganda—to quell dissent. From Malthus's point of view, the French and American Revolutions presented remarkable "natural experiments" in population growth. The United States was still thinly populated and had abundant natural resources; France, more densely populated, had suffered from a nearly decadelong spasm of political and economic chaos. One of Malthus's major motivations in the Essay is the desire to account for the varying population trends in England, America, and continental Europe.

Industrial Revolution

Meanwhile, a revolution of a different kind—the Industrial Revolution—was changing both the physical landscape and the population distribution of many European countries. In England, where the Industrial Revolution effectively began, new technologies and fuel sources enabled the production of manufactured goods in much greater quantities. As inventions such as the power loom and the spinning jenny (spinning frame with multiple spindles) became popular, industries such as weaving and spinning underwent fundamental changes. Previously performed by individuals at home—the "cottage industry"—textile work was now centralized into large factories, and many other traditional crafts followed suit. The rise of the factory model drove a trend of urbanization—the concentration of a population into dense, often overcrowded cities. Moreover, as the English population shifted from the country to the city, the workforce underwent a parallel shift from farming toward manufacturing. Malthus saw these changes as problematic for two major reasons. Firstly, the cramped and unsanitary nature of cities at the turn of the 19th century led to higher disease and mortality rates among their residents, especially the urban poor. Secondly, Malthus worried the decline of agricultural labor would worsen England's difficulties in maintaining an adequate food supply.

Religious Diversification

The late-18th century also witnessed a great diversification of religious belief. Increasingly, various Christian religions in addition to the established state religion of Anglicanism were tolerated. Their leaders became important voices in the social and moral debate. Catholicism, however, was still frowned on by mainstream English society in Malthus's time. From a statistical viewpoint, religious practice grew measurably more diverse. In 1760 non-Anglican Christians made up just 6 percent of the English and Welsh population. By 1800 this figure had doubled. Meanwhile, atheist and agnostic thinkers were increasingly tolerated in public forums, although their ideas were still viewed with suspicion by many Christian writers. Writing in this climate of relative diversity and tolerance, Malthus advanced his own speculative ideas about God's plan and the purposefulness of human suffering.

Contemporary Reactions to the Essay

Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population polarized readers. Many criticized the author for his seemingly cold-blooded portrayal of poverty as an unavoidable fact. Even those who agreed with his principles often found the clinical, detached tone of the work hard to reckon with. The Essay was repeatedly parodied, most notably in The Book of Murder! (1839), a work of anonymous anti-Poor Law propaganda. This frightful pamphlet satirically suggested gassing the children of the poor to relieve the distress caused by overpopulation. Malthus, it should be noted, never proposes anything like this in the actual Essay. For him, contraception, abortion, and infanticide all fall clearly under the heading of "vice." It has also been suggested that Ebenezer Scrooge, the miserly curmudgeon of English writer Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol (1843), was also based on Malthus. "If [the poor] would rather die," Scrooge at one point heartlessly declares, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

Despite many detractors, Malthus's ideas were influential in shaping British governmental policy after his death. In 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act slashed the aid traditionally provided to the poor. The move was "based on Malthusian reasoning that helping the poor only encourages them to have more children and thereby exacerbate poverty." Similarly, during the Irish Potato Famine (1845–49, failed potato crops led to starvation and spurred immigration out of Ireland), the British government adopted a stance of noninterventionism. Starvation, which Malthus had described as the last and most terrible "check" on population growth, was permitted to reduce population levels to match the scarce food supply.

Malthus's Legacy in the Modern Era

As the 19th century wore on, a lively debate emerged around Malthus's ideas, although many commentators still dismissed his theories as overly pessimistic. Abroad, German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels criticized Malthus with special severity, claiming he had mistaken the problems of capitalism (economic system based on private ownership and a competitive free market) for the fundamental problems of humanity. In a socialist society, they wrote, the "misery and vice" caused by widespread poverty were not inevitable, as Malthus had assumed. Rather, they were by-products of capitalism, a system that inevitably left some of the labor force unemployed (the so-called "reserve army of labor"). For Marx and Engels, Malthus's Essay was a textbook example of the tendency to explain features of a capitalist society as though they were laws of nature.

Malthus found a more sympathetic audience in British economist John Maynard Keynes. Best known for his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1935–36), Keynes was an advocate of government intervention to boost employment and active central banking to stabilize the economy. In laying down his recommendations for government's role in the economy, Keynes echoed Malthus's warnings not to mistake short-term prosperity for long-term security. In his view the late 19th century was an "economic Eldorado [mythic city of wealth]," an era of unprecedented wealth that would not necessarily last. He thus cautioned his readers not to treat the "advantages" of their time as "natural, permanent, and to be depended on."

Another notable thinker to be influenced by Malthus was Charles Darwin, the English scientist best known for developing the theory of natural selection. Decades before he wrote On the Origin of Species (1859), Darwin encountered Malthus's ideas in the context of the Poor Law debate. He later wrote of the profound impact Malthus's Essay had had on him in formulating the concept of survival of the fittest. In setting out a scenario of competition for scarce resources, Darwin applies Malthus's principle of population to the animal world. From there, his theory describes how the "winners" and "losers" are chosen. In a similar manner, Malthus's Essay surveys the effects of different types of legislation in determining who will thrive and who will starve.

Since Malthus wrote his Essay, advances in agricultural technology have challenged the proposition that the food supply can grow only at a fixed maximum rate (i.e., arithmetically). Throughout the 19th century, British agriculture modernized in such a way as to extract seemingly impossible yields from Great Britain's limited arable land. Sophisticated crop rotations, new breeds of livestock, and mechanization all played a role in this British Agricultural Revolution. In the mid-20th century, the Green Revolution seemed to many to represent a further, final disproof of Malthus's theories. New, high-yield varieties of staple crops and widespread use of fertilizers and pesticides led to a vast expansion of the food supply, particularly in developing countries. Although the exact increase is hard to quantify, both "revolutions" represent episodes of apparent geometric growth, i.e., growth that does not proceed at a constant rate but accelerates with each passing year. Malthus, understandably, held such growth to be unattainable given the more limited technological advancements of his time.

While there are several valid criticisms of Malthus's theories, the Essay also continues to be popularly misconstrued in much simpler ways. Sociologist Frank W. Elwell writes that compared to Malthus, "no comparable historical figure ... has been so thoroughly misunderstood in modern intellectual history." Numerous articles, both academic and general interest, present an oversimplified version of Malthus as a doomsayer predicting a Malthusian catastrophe or Malthusian tragedy. In this scenario, population growth severely outstrips food capacity and then is cut back by catastrophic famine. Because Malthus never proposes such a global disaster, refutations of his work on this ground miss the mark. Moreover, social scientists have increasingly recognized that geometric growth of the food supply cannot continue indefinitely. Eventually, population will "win" the race—if not with respect to food, then with respect to one of the many other resources that have become essential to life on Earth. Thus, even if some of its premises now seem dubious, Malthus's Essay remains important as a study of population growth under conditions of resource scarcity.

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