Arsène Dumont studied law and, after reading the results of the 1880 French census, resolved to devote his life to the study of the causes of low fertility, or, in his preferred formulation, depopulation. Dumont never married or held an official position and supported his research with personal resources in the forlorn hope of obtaining a university position. His closest professional affiliation was with the French anthropological society. When his wealth was exhausted, he committed suicide.
Although Dumont resorted to official statistics to describe fertility and mortality as immediate causes of low population growth, his originality consisted in using an ethnographic approach to probe for its psychological and social causes. His method involved evaluating the moral climate of village communities in various regions of France rather than looking at individual behavior. He would describe features of the environment, local production and occupations, and the appearance and lifestyle of the inhabitants and use that information to interpret their reproductive behavior and test various theories. The village ethnologies thus assembled served as raw material for three books in which Dumont presented his theory on the causes of fertility decline. The best known of these works was Dépopulation et Civilisation (1890).
Dumont rejected the eugenic theories of his day, which attributed low fertility to biological mechanisms. The pursuit of "individual idealism" in democratic societies, in which men could climb the social ladder and improve their standard of living, was the mechanism leading to fertility decline. Dumont used the arresting metaphor of "social capillarity" to describe that phenomenon. In the same way that oil ascends the wick of a lamp, molecule by molecule, to burn and produce light, the social matter climbs, individual by individual, toward the higher life of art, politics, and science, and in this process children represent an impediment. If democratic societies wanted to survive, they had to control this socially destructive process.
Dumont was visualizing a balance between the benefits of modern life and their deleterious effects on reproduction. An objective of policy would be a birthrate of twenty-five per thousand and three births per marriage, close to replacement-level fertility in the prevailing mortality conditions. Local economic development would stimulate fertility and discourage migration to the cities.
Although his views were not popular in his time, Dumont influenced subsequent demographers, including the British social historian Joseph A. Banks, who applied the notion of social capillarity to the tendency of the middle classes in Britain to reduce the size of their families so that their children could rise on the social scale.
Banks, Joseph A. 1954. Prosperity and Parenthood: A Study of Family Planning among the Victorian Middle Classes. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Dumont, Arsène. 1890. Dépopulation et Civilisation: Étude Démographique. Paris: Lecrosnier et Babé. Reissued, with a biographical and critical introduction by André Béjin. Paris: Economica, 1990.
——. 1898. Natalité et Démocratie: Conférences Faites à l'École d'Anthropologie de Paris. Paris: Schleicher.
——. 1901. La Morale Basée sur la Démographie. Paris: Schleicher Fréres.
Etienne VAN DE Walle