Thomas Robert Malthus

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Thomas Robert Malthus


English Economist

Thomas Malthus was one of the most important English economic theorists of the early nineteenth century. He is best known for his influential work, An Essay on the Principle of Population, first published anonymously in 1798, but reissued in six editions by 1826. Malthus further developed the laissez-faire (French for "let things alone") views of economist Adam Smith (1723-1790), who promoted the capitalist principles of self-interest and free competition in the marketplace. Malthus's book proved valuable for Charles Darwin (1809-1882) as he began to formulate his concept of natural selection through the struggle for existence. Though Malthus's population principle has been largely discredited, fears of overpopulation periodically stir new interest in his ideas.

Malthus studied at Cambridge University, graduating with honors in math. Thereafter Malthus joined the Anglican clergy and became priest over a parish in Surrey in 1796. His book on population brought him sufficient renown to be named the first professor of political economy in Britain (and probably in the entire world) at the East India College in 1805. Malthus later published other economic works, including Principles of Political Economy (1820).

Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population was a polemical work directed against the over-weening optimism of two Enlightenment thinkers: William Godwin (1756-1836) and Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794). Condorcet argued in his work Progress of the Human Mind (1793) that human progress would ultimately result in universal happiness, virtue, and economic equality. Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) was similarly utopian. Godwin was an anarchist who believed that humans would progress in their struggle against vice and sickness to such an extent that they would ultimately become immortals who ceased reproducing.

These views were, according to Malthus, completely unrealistic. He set out to refute them by showing that poverty, misery, and many evils in society are not the result of irrational institutions, as Condorcet and Godwin believed, but are rooted in nature. Malthus's population principle rested upon two statements: 1) human population (as with other organisms) tends to increase geometrically, that is, in a series 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc.; 2) the food supply can at best only increase arithmetically, that is, in a series of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, etc. Malthus provided statistics to try to establish these statements. The deduction is then obvious: The increase in food supply can never keep pace with the increase in population.

Overpopulation is, according to this view, an ever-present specter in human society that can never be overcome. If there is not some other check on population growth, such as war or disease, poverty and starvation are inevitable. Faced with the stark horror of this picture of society, Malthus suggested only late marriages of the prudent as means to overcome poverty caused by overpopulation. He remained pessimistic about ultimate solutions to the problem.

Malthus's essay was instrumental in leading both Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) to their idea of natural selection as the driving force behind the evolution of biological organisms. Darwin recognized that if organisms reproduced far beyond their abilities to survive, this would cause intense competition, especially between members of the same species. Since the organisms better adapted to their environments would survive at a greater rate than those less well adapted, this would allow better variants to propagate their characteristics.

Darwin acknowledged Malthus's influence on his theory in Origin of Species (1859); Darwin had read Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population some twenty years earlier as he was developing his initial ideas about natural selection. Later, in Descent of Man (1871), Darwin explicitly espoused the validity of the Malthusian population principle for human populations. Malthus's ideas spread widely because of the spread of Darwinism, and many social theorists in the late nineteenth century, often referred to as Social Darwinists, built their view of human society on the Malthusian population principle embedded in the Darwinian theory of the struggle for existence.

Two factors have discredited Malthus's population principle. First, population growth has been checked in most industrialized societies through the use of birth control. Secondly, agricultural productivity has increased much more rapidly than Malthus thought possible, sustaining a population today that Malthus would have considered impossible.


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Thomas Robert Malthus

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