Population Thought, History of

views updated


This article discusses European thinking on human population from the early modern period to the end of the nineteenth century. Later developments are treated in the article entitled "Population Thought, Contemporary."

European traditions of population thought began to take their definitive modern form in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Some components that came together to bring about this transformation had much longer histories. Rudimentary census lists, for example, appear in Egypt as early as the eleventh century b.c.e.; developed subsequently in many places, their use remained no more than an adjunct of taxation and conscription for nearly three millennia. Reasoned accounts of population size and growth appear in treatises on government as early as the fourth century b.c.e. Plato and Aristotle, observing that republics and monarchies differ in their aims and capacities, argued that each type of government has an optimum population size. They proposed, in other words, that means used to regulate human numbers should be consistent with moral and political systems. By the Middle Ages, systematic theology carried this a step further. Theologists of the time argued that population size and growth can only be influenced by humans in accordance with God-given laws of nature (lex naturalis). As divine law cannot be apprehended directly, the role of the Church is to interpret scriptural evidence (lex divina) so that princes may rule legitimately (lexcivilis). In this doctrine, the divine right of kings determines population movements either directly by policies of war, colonization, and trade, or indirectly by provoking divine judgment (epidemics, infertility, famines).

The Church's claim to sole authority collapsed in the sixteenth century, but the quest for a cohesive system uniting natural principles and human government remained. With the Reformation, the competition of religions undermined the supposed natural and divine legitimacy of kings. The foundations of human society and government could begin to be located more directly in the population of a state as a whole, or in ideas of natural law binding a ruler to the people. Humanist writers from Niccolo Machiavelli (1469–1527) to Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) took a crucial step: in different ways, they faced up to the realpolitik that states often do not act in conformity with morality and nature. In their search for principles of effective and legitimate government, population obtained a twofold, generative, role and became integral to the modern theory of the state. First, population came to be seen as the natural source of a state's power in the sense that human fecundity produces the people that are the source of productive energies for all purposes; and second, a population was understood as the collective entity of individuals and groups whose interaction generates a political and moral community. In this view, power no longer resides in the natural and divine sanctions a prince imposes on his subjects, but in the members of that population acting individually and collectively. The quest for principles of legitimate government and conformity with nature thus converged on the problem of how to control, or at least manage, the generative capacities inherent in a population. Put another way, the relative greatness of states–including the size and growth of their population–depends on effective membership: whether people act (or can be constrained to act) cohesively.

An important point in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century writings was that the generative capacities of population are not necessarily positive, especially as they may lead to conflict. On one hand, larger, more populous states may decimate smaller ones. On the other, a large population does not necessarily make for a secure state. People commonly differ in their actions and interests. A governing elite composed of competing nobles, and sometimes merchant families, will form shifting alliances, each able to draw on a wider multitude of common people. Such competing memberships were difficult to control in a large population and, as Machiavelli observed, usually tended toward dissent and sedition. Internal struggles acted, in turn, as a drain on the exchequer. Hence states, even when well-endowed with people and other natural resources, could be defeated in war and surpassed in trade by less-endowed but more cohesive neighbors.

As princes turned to merchants for loans, an active body of mercantilist writings grew up. These writings urged that deficient state revenues could be made good only where policies promoted trade. Mercantilist writers argued that the greatness of states depends on a large population, and governments could achieve this by encouraging people into occupations and places where greater profits could be made. Trade would then flourish and growth would be sustained as more land came into cultivation, producing more raw materials for manufacture, raising merchants' profits, employment, and tax revenues. Once again, the size and growth of a population depend on how well its members are ordered: The second generative role of population takes priority over the first.

An important implication of this priority was that bad government was itself a major check on population. Where princes were badly advised, weak, or corrupt, people would feel insecure, and conflicts would inevitably ensue. Members would form themselves into opposing factions, or ally themselves with other states. Even authors sympathetic to republics like Jean Bodin (1530–1596), Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Charles de Secondat baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755) regarded a just sovereign or prince as best able to direct people's conflicting capacities. The idea that the generative powers of population and its growth are never entirely within princely control here became an important argument against tyranny. Rulers must attend justly to the needs of the population, otherwise the population will not grow and may even decline. Where, in contrast, a sovereign's rule was acceptable, then positive effects of cohesive membership would come to the fore. Merchant, political, and religious arguments agreed, advising princes to promote population growth by inducements to marriage, procreation, immigration, increased production and trade, and justice ensuring continued loyalty. But Giovanni Botero (1540–1617) speculated that in such circumstances there could conceivably be too many people relative to subsistence.

The Emergence of Population Arithmetic

One of the far-reaching changes induced by early modern reflection on population membership was the altered role of measurement. The need to recognize the members of a population and, if possible, control their aggregate dynamics made more systematic knowledge of human numbers desirable, and stimulated lines of questioning leading far beyond the ancient problems of raising armies and state revenue. Humanist and scientific developments were closely allied in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, opening the order of nature to question by direct, numerical observation. These developments were synthesized in Francis Bacon's (1561–1626) influential program for the systematic reform of knowledge. Methods of scientific observation were not, however, considered directly applicable to problems of government until the first essay in "population arithmetic," John Graunt's (1620–1674) Natural and Political Observations (1662). Graunt's work, written explicitly to carry out Bacon's program, showed how merchant accounting arithmetic could be combined with direct observation and the humanist methodology of language and rhetoric to develop a natural history of populations. Scientific approaches to population begin with Graunt, and his candor and critical approach to the quality of quantitative evidence are still considered outstanding. Many fundamentals of population research were treated cohesively and quantitatively by Graunt for the first time, including ratios of births, deaths, and sexes, the structuring of a population by age, urban and rural differences, proportionate changes over time in causes of death, and possible implications of all of these factors for the greatness of states.

For Graunt, scientific measurement belonged to natural history, but its applications embraced policy. The order of nature is intrinsically mathematical, and recurring balances in human numbers belong to this order. This approach enabled his political framework to remain outwardly conventional: population arithmetic, by revealing proportions and disproportions in the members of the body politic, would help princes to rule in conformity with natural and divine balances. Graunt also made clear, however, that population policy is not solely for princes to decide: His method showed pointedly how all readers may make calculations of their own. Rulers and citizens alike were thus enjoined to examine evidence of the quantitative impact of epidemics, the implications of unhealthy urban conditions for reproduction, and other problems of personal and collective concern. This evidence could be used to identify problems needing good government, and to ascertain whether a prince's policies really did anything to help people. For the first time, the search for unifying principles of legitimate government and laws of nature was posed in terms of sustained numerical observation and analysis.

Population arithmetic was not, however, integrated easily into government or daily life. The attitudes of the ancien régime, or of European government generally before the end of the eighteenth century, stressed deference to hereditary rights and the divine basis of monarchy, both strongly backed by religious teaching. This attitude prevailed in the eighteenth century, and in many places well into the nineteenth. Princes, while often conscious of the need to improve institutional capacities of government, remained wary of the implications of population arithmetic. Vital data were sensitive, as they indicated the capacities of states and the efficacy of governments. Where states made sustained attempts to collect these data, as in Prussia, Sweden, and France, access to the results was restricted.

Graunt's persuasive rationale nonetheless enabled individuals' quantitative inquiries (frequently critical of contemporary regimes) to be tolerated within this broadly authoritarian world view. His work was taken up enthusiastically across the whole range of contemporary opinion: by royalists and republicans; priests, dissenters, and atheists; merchants and ministers of state; physicians and philosophers; surveyors and tradesmen. Contemporary mathematical and scientific elites were involved in Holland (Jan DeWitt [1625–1672], Johannes Hudde [1628–1704], Christian Huygens [1631–1699], Nicolaas Struyck [1687–1769]), England (Abraham De Moivre [1667–1754], Edmund Halley [1656–1742], Richard Price [1723–1791]), France (Georges Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon [1707–1788], Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet [1743–1794], Jean le Rond D'Alembert [1717–1783], Joseph Louis Lagrange [1736–1813], Pierre Simon de LaPlace [1749–1827], Antoine Laurent Lavoisier [1743–1794]), America (Benjamin Franklin [1706–1790] Thomas Jefferson [1743–1826]), Germany (Gottfried-Wilhelm Leibniz [1646–1716]), Sweden (Pehr Wargentin [1717–1783]), and Switzerland (Leonhard Euler [1707–1783], Jacob Bernoulli [1654–1705]). Population thought continued to develop significantly in advance of institutional realities until the nineteenth century.

Elements of Population Theory in the Ancien Régime

During the period historians have called the long eighteenth century (1660–1830), individual inquiries made for lively, if inconclusive, debates. Demographers and statisticians have sometimes dismissed the period as one of confusion and even stagnation, yet the end of this era witnessed the two restatements of Graunt's project that still shape most people's understanding of population: T. R. Malthus's Essay and the promulgation of statistics as a universal basis of government and national development. Both depended on the foundation laid in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Given that good government and the population trends depend on a state's ability to balance the divergent capacities of populations, discussion turned to the implications of population arithmetic: Which specific proportionalities should a state maintain, and what means are best suited to this objective? Graunt's arithmetic implied not only that particular balances but also ratios of relative improvement or decline could be specified. Differing ratios, in turn, implied different population sizes and structures, and recourse to different mechanisms of control. Much further work was necessary for these implications to be formulated explicitly. Three developments of population arithmetic on which Malthus and statistics depended emerged in the century and a half following Graunt. Population arithmetic became central to separate developments in the calculus of probability, in attempts to conceptualize relations between labor and wealth, and in registration as an administrative procedure in many institutions.

Pioneers of mathematical probability–including Huygens, Leibnitz, and Bernoulli–found in Graunt's mortality arithmetic instances of what was later called the "law of large numbers." They conceived probability as a general method of social reasoning that could reduce the uncertainty of moral, political, and economic affairs to a single workable logic. Sex ratios, smallpox vaccinations, and life expectation provided the only empirical series with which to explore this logic. Their ambitions, although not realized, gave rise to the first and enduring formal model of population, the life table, which quickly passed into the wider literature on population arithmetic. In the most widely read application, Johann Peter Süssmilch's (1707–1767) Die Göttliche Ordnung (1765), age structures of death provided new and formidable evidence of God's laws indispensable to improved government.

Süssmilch's great volume, together with Jean-Baptiste Moheau's (1745–1794) treatise of 1778, mark the arrival of essays in population arithmetic on a scale that would now be called general social theory. Written in the service of powerful princes like Frederick II and Louis XVI, their works brought quantitative evidence to bear on the main traditions of political theory. More particularly, these thinkers set out to refute the contention of major eighteenth-century works critical of princely rule, like those of Montesquieu, Victor Mirabeau [1715–1789], and Jean-Jacques Rousseau [1712–1778], that prevailing monarchies fostered depopulation. Interestingly, arithmeticians like Moheau could disagree with Montesquieu over forms of government and their effects, but were in substantial accord that population growth or decline depended on the moral and political condition of citizens. In principle, only state policies that were consistent with natural rights to personal liberty, security, and livelihood would promote population growth.

Major economic contributors, notably François Quesnay (1694–1774), Du Pont de Nemours (1739–1817), and Anne Robert Jacques Turgot (1727–1781), could likewise disagree over the virtues of princely rule while developing Montesquieu's lead that ancien régime policies of taxation, trade, labor, and war had crippling effects on the security of ordinary citizens, and hence on their willingness to marry and have children. Moheau, like Montesquieu, considered that the dire effects of bad government on population proceeded largely via moeurs, that is, customs of marriage, procreation, inheritance, and other aspects of family life through which economic factors acted on social status. Where insecurity became entrenched in customs, the decline of reproduction could take centuries to reverse. Debates over depopulation were also prominent in Britain, addressed variously to ancient populations (David Hume [1711–1776], Robert Wallace [1773–1855]) and modern (Richard Price, William Wales [1734–1796], and Arthur Young [1741–1820], among many others). The republican Richard Price, the most formidable English probabilist and practitioner of population arithmetic in the later eighteenth century, came down firmly on the side that argued that modern populations were decreasing.

The numerical approach employed in these controversies was sometimes called "political arithmetic," following the phrase coined in the 1670s by Graunt's friend, William Petty (1623–1687). As the phrase suggests, the natural historical component of Graunt's method was dropped, and with it the need for practitioners to present calculations and evidence in a way that would enable readers to evaluate them independently. What remained were the multipliers and other proportional devices merchants used to abridge accounts in the absence of full information. Without doubt, the arithmeticians faced a serious difficulty. The general importance of population arithmetic could only be broached in terms of general population totals necessary to calculate vital and economic measures. Careful proposals for national censuses were duly put forward, notably by Sébastien le Prestre de Vauban (1633–1707), but not enacted. Without them, only the partial enumerations provided by parish records, bills of mortality, lists of annuitants, and local censuses, were extant. Petty therefore made multipliers central to his approach, and their use greatly expanded in the eighteenth century. In effect, political arithmetic made a virtue of necessity by aiming at reasonable orders of magnitude rather than systematic accounting. Typical methods took the number of households (usually estimated, or derived from a local list) and multiplied it by a postulated average household size; or the proportion of births to population in a local census would be applied to estimates of annual births at wider levels of aggregation. As late as 1814, LaPlace could argue that multipliers were superior for government purposes to the inaccurate figures any census would provide.

As a reliable aid to the economics and health of population, however, political arithmetic was always open to question. Petty's predominant interest lay in economic policy, and he used population multipliers to attempt pioneering estimates of national income, the distribution of labor, and surplus productive capacity. Like mercantile writers before him, he treated a growing population as conducive to the national wealth that is the possession of the prince and the elite. His methods were viewed critically in his own time by Gregory King (1648–1712) who, in gaining privileged access to tax records and applying Graunt's scrutiny to them, initiated the empirical study of national income and its distribution. King's arithmetical analyses were not prepared for publication, and were known only in brief excerpts given by Charles Davenant (1656–1714). The interrelation of population and economy as a unified system begins properly with Richard Cantillon (1697–1734), who turned his back on political arithmetic in two major respects: first, although quantitative (i.e., proportional) reasoning was instrumental to his logic, analysis of numerical records was secondary, and merely illustrative; second, the natural resource of a state is identified primarily not with population but with land, and secondarily with manufactures and trade. In his account, which shaped later work by Adam Smith (1723–1790), T. R. Malthus (1766–1834), Quesnay, and Turgot, Cantillon argued that population growth tends naturally to rise to the limits of subsistence; what checks it directly are those moeurs pertaining to age at marriage and procreation that regulate social status, and which make men and women attentive to their economic situation. Cantillon also broke new ground by developing his account of economics and moeurs within a clearly articulated social structure, divided simply into a small class of proprietors and a multitude of laborers. Proprietors, in their differing tastes for goods and services, determine the demand for labor, the way resources in land are utilized, and the balance of manufactures and raw materials in trade. His analysis made the relationship of subsistence and population central while retaining merchants' characteristic view that such factors become important to a nation's wealth chiefly as a support to trade.

Early economic writings, from mercantilism through political arithmetic to Cantillon, had generally assumed that populations would continue to grow while workers' wages remained at subsistence level. In other words, the ideal of a well-ordered polity in which a cohesive and growing population generates rising profits, taxes, and trade presupposed the brute fact that producers' wages would be kept at a minimum. A sophisticated discourse on population and agricultural economy that questioned this premise grew up in France after Cantillon. This discourse considered the condition of the poor to be a major source of depopulation and recognized its potential as a source of disorder. Physiocratic authors following Quesnay developed an analysis of economic classes that finally gave preeminence to relations between agricultural resources and population. Merchants might assume the natural capacity of population to increase whenever demand for labor rises, but the consequences for producers could not be taken for granted. The Physiocrats therefore reasserted the principle that legitimate government is based on populations endowed with natural rights, notably producers with rights to economic liberty and material security. For Turgot, every man has a fundamental right to work and to basic support, if not to indiscriminate charity. As the benefits of a growing population would nonetheless accrue chiefly to upper classes, Jacques Necker (1732–1804) argued that government has a critical role to play in ensuring justice.

The conceptual shift that made land the intrinsic source of wealth and state power thus did not devalue population. Rather, it focused attention more closely on population and resources within the state considered as a more or less fixed domain. If, as many writers seriously believed, countries well-endowed with resources like France and England were losing population, then the role of subsistence in limiting human numbers could not be put down to brute material want. Explanations continued to point to bad government as the key problem, but examined its implications in terms of variations in the demand for labor and of wages, in relations between mortality and living conditions, and in the strong role of custom in determining acceptable minimal living standards. Population arithmetic, carefully applied at the local level by Jean Muret, John Heysham (1753–1834), Vauban, and Antoine Deparcieux (1703–1768), among others, demonstrated convincingly that a range of factors (including infant mortality, epidemics, and emigration) exercised a major check on particular parishes. Such factors underlined the vulnerability of the poor.

A considerable body of British essays in the later eighteenth century by Smith, James Steuart (1712–1780), Young, Joseph Townsend (1739–1816), and others shared French concern over the moral and economic condition of the poor. Adam Smith, for example, took the view that population was in general kept down by high mortality as an inevitable consequence of economic adjustments. Increased demand for labor might improve living standards for a time, but it also tended to increase reproduction; in the absence of continuing improvements in land management or technology, the supply of labor could then exceed demand, and the infants of poor people without jobs would die. Turgot, in contrast, is indicative of more hopeful Enlightenment ideals that gained ground in continental writings. One of the first to formulate the law of diminishing returns, he strikingly did not consider its application important to population, at least in France. Population growth tends to rise or fall with changes in subsistence levels, but the crucial issue is to ensure that producers always make a small profit for themselves. Without this margin, people would choose not to marry, or would emigrate or remain indigent. Population then declines. In contrast, economic adjustment in a justly-governed population should follow a virtuous natural cycle in which producers' modest margin or profit sustains population growth, encouraging more land into cultivation, increasing subsistence, and driving down the price of provisions, thus enabling benefits to spread ever more widely.

Population and the Emergence of the Modern Nation-State

Thus, by the late eighteenth century a growing body of theory had emerged in which alternative proportional logics were used to explain how population levels rise and fall systematically in relation to political, economic, and moral values. Ironically, the debates over depopulation that did so much to stimulate interest belonged to an era that was later shown to have experienced population growth. Contemporaries would certainly have appreciated the irony. Reflecting the ideology of Enlightenment, many analysts viewed history as a progressive application of human reason. As rational government implied comprehensive and reliable information, the absence of national enumerations became a recurring issue from the 1740s.

Necker, as minister of finance to Louis XVI, was one of several senior officials who found their plans to improve national enumerations frustrated by the conservatism of the ancien régime. The arithmeticians, economists, and philosophes prominent in debates included local officials who were well aware of the limitations of the estimates they provided. In Prussia, rational government's basis in population knowledge became integral to cameralism (a prevalent political theory emphasizing bureaucratic management of the state's property) in writings put forward by government ministers like Johann Heinrich Gottlob von Justi (1720–1771) and Ewald Friedrich von Hertzberg (1725–1795). "Statistics" was proposed by Gottfried Achenwall (1719–1772) in 1768 as a general term and program of government, acquiring its specifically numerical associations in works by L. Schloezer (1735–1809), John Sinclair (1754–1835), Jacques Mourgue (1734–1818), Jacques Peuchet (1758–1830), and others at the turn of the eighteenth century. In England the need for censuses was argued as early as Petty, and reached parliamentary debate by the 1750s; censuses remained unacceptable, however, as they implied enfranchisement of dissenting religious and political opinion. Thus, even as population became the focus of sustained discussion of glaring differentials in living conditions and rights, the old order persisted in its attitude toward vital data as secrets of state.

Population knowledge remained integral to the theory of the state, however, erupting with the revolutions of the late eighteenth century. In the United States, the census was written into the constitution as a mechanism of apportioning political representation. In France, proposals impossible for Necker to effect in 1784 were redeveloped by Lavoisier and quickly passed by the National Assembly in 1791. Arguments for enumeration spread widely in the first decades of the nineteenth century, reiterating seventeenth- and eighteenth-century ideals. Following the French Revolution, natural rights of equality and liberty were linked directly to the need to establish public records detailing vital and civil status (for example, in relation to property). Yet the old order was not silenced so easily. Attempts to establish a general statistical office in France were taken over by Napoleon for imperial purposes, and then abandoned in 1812. American enumerations became the basis of political compromises in which Southern states counted slaves for congressional representation without having to enfranchise them. Statistics as a new governmental norm was adopted by established monarchies as well as new republics, often as a concession to reform, with controlled access to records. By the time Louis-Philippe re-established the French statistical bureau in 1833, national offices had spread to Prussia (1805), Bavaria (1808), Tuscany (1818), Holland (1828), Austria (1829), Belgium (1831), Saxony (1831) and the smaller German states, to be followed shortly by Norway (1833) and England (1837).

The continuity of population measures carried over from the ancien régime was strong, the "new" vital statistics drawing its ratios and life table techniques directly from population arithmetic. The re-birth of population arithmetic as statistics, however, radically altered its scope and potential influence. Censuses, registrations, and related statistical inquiries reconstituted the state as an empirical domain bounded and structured by its population. The early nineteenth century witnessed an explosion of enumerations detailing national production, commerce, health, and other factors to which population data were integral. The humanist and scientific ideal that population arithmetic is a critical foundation of government at last achieved centralized institutional form, and population statistics accordingly became a major platform for proposed social reforms. Three implications of this reconfiguration of population thinking deserve note.

First, the conduct and scale of enumerations gave them a much-vaunted objective value. Population arithmetic was no longer applied to partial records underwritten by the presumed rationality of enlightened opinion. Statisticians, applying mathematical procedures to uniformly collected, comprehensive enumerations, claimed that their methods and results possessed an empirical value both unique and completely general. On one hand, ratios or frequencies were measures of material facts in which local variations and other biases were averaged out among the great mass of data. On the other, the explosion of compilations on seemingly all topics meant that states, provinces, and localities could now be examined in their specificity as discrete empirical domains, in each of which population characteristics could be revealed in relation to other variables in exhaustive detail. This methodology was supposed to guarantee that data at whatever level stood above subjective estimates and political interests. Regularities repeatedly observed in national populations were taken to be instances of general and deterministic social laws comparable to those of the natural sciences.

Second, population statistics became integral to the growing professional ideology of government. New statistical bureaus were able to draw on a considerable body of experience from institutions like hospitals, insurance companies, prisons, the military, and some manufacturing. Even as the ancien régime had continued to view population arithmetic with caution, these institutions were developing comprehensive registration systems for local administrative purposes. In hospitals, registration functioned beyond clinical purposes as an encompassing regimen of patient and staff discipline, and as evidence securing financial support. Vital records kept by insurance companies provided a corporate data base on which actuarial observation and experience grew. The influence of nationally prominent physicians and actuaries like Benjamin Gompertz (1779–1865), Louis Villermé (1782–1863), John Finlaison (1783–1860), William Farr (1807–1883), Joshua Milne (1776–1851), Rudolph Ludwig Karl Virchow (1821–1902), and Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Parent-Duchâtelet (1790–1836) generalized the experience of reasoning quantitatively in terms of limited institutional domains to the national level.

Third, the finite empiricist approach implied a major reconfiguration of the way natural and political dimensions of population are related. From Machiavelli to Turgot, thinkers assigned primacy to the second of the two generative capacities of population that sixteenth- and seventeenth-century authors made fundamental to population thought: population as the source of political and moral community. In this way of thinking, nature would be amenable as long as human government observed inherent principles, whether conceived as matters of divine or natural right, moral tradition, or inherent balances between trade, people, and subsistence. A just government would enable population to grow in proportion to a state's needs. The emphasis on a cohesive, growing membership as essential to internal and external security as well as trade, is a reminder that in the ancien régime the limits of states and populations were not assumed to be fixed. Population arithmetic, however, notably failed to define the population balances proper to cohesive government with any precision.

However, once states, populations, and resources began to be conceived in finite, empirical terms, the room available to states for maneuver began to appear seriously circumscribed. The unhealthy environments, excess reproduction, limitations of technology and ecology that statistics documented constituted endemic constraints that the best efforts of a government might not be able to remedy. Not only resource imbalances but also manifest disproportions among class, ethnic, and regional identities (often attributed at the time to inherent natural characteristics), likewise came to be understood as a quantitatively demonstrable reality. In short, the way was opened to reexamine the potential power of the first generative role of population enunciated by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century thinkers: the capacity of population as a natural force to act on other resources independently of governmental control.

The Emergence of Demography

The six editions Malthus prepared of his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798–1826) belong to the early period of statistics' rise. In his work, finite population reasoning attained its most influential general statement. Malthus's analysis depended on prevailing premises of late-eighteenth-century population reasoning: that population tends to rise automatically with subsistence; that its growth, although a positive force for a time, can exceed the demand for labor, with dire consequences for the poor; that the way people respond to imbalances of population and subsistence depends on prevailing moral values; that civil liberty is essential to moral and national improvement; and that governments have a role to play in assisting the poor. The "principle of population" reformulated these ideas in a closed, deterministic framework. Malthus postulated that the constant passion of the sexes, if unchecked, tends to increase population geometrically; the maximum growth of agricultural production is, in contrast, limited to an arithmetical rate by the law of diminishing returns. The natural capacities of population and subsistence thus tend inevitably to conflict. Human societies are likely to experience high rates of mortality and suffering unless some means is available to check population. The window of hope Malthus offered was "moral restraint": the practice of delayed marriage and strict abstinence outside marriage. Malthus saw moral restraint not only as a response to threatened impoverishment, but as opening opportunities for the laboring poor to retain a higher standard of living instead of continued childbearing. In later editions of the Essay, Malthus wrote a comprehensive survey of historical and modern societies that showed the extent to which each relied on moral restraint, or was subject to the "positive checks" of disease, famine, and war. As he saw the evidence, moral restraint was commonly practiced only in northwest Europe, and even there insufficiently. Malthus famously opposed any use of contraception.

Malthus's principle quickly met with controversy, reflecting his apparent reversal of three established tenets of Western thought on population. First, the inherent quantitative regularity of nature was no longer assumed to be benign, or at least reasonably responsive to just government. Malthus argued in his first edition that God imposes suffering as a "partial evil" to induce men to foresighted action. Restraint of passion is difficult and means of subsistence are scarce because God meant to focus men's minds on moral behavior; only the higher classes of society, however, can be expected to show prudence at any given point in time. A second and parallel reversal, particularly with regard to preceding French population thought, was that any right to subsistence is not natural, but earned. Third, it followed that the role of the state in assisting the poor must be limited strictly to measures that encourage prudence. Malthus here emphasized education together with restricting assistance to the very poor on terms that proscribe procreation. The severity of Malthus's system is a compound of the strictures of his morality, limitations placed on state intervention, and the determinism of his laws.

All three aspects had been substantially rejected by the third quarter of the nineteenth century. The changes in European government informed by population statistics increased rather than reduced the scope for state intervention, while social changes encouraged the spread of contraception and revealed the limitations of deterministic laws. Malthus's Essay remains important in the study of pre-industrial family systems in Europe, although his postulated upper limit for agricultural output is insufficient. More influential in the history of population thought, however, are two refinements Malthus introduced. Since Graunt, the unity of natural principles and human government devolved on knowledge and just management of the inherent proportional regularity of population. Malthus, agreeing that the generative capacities of population require control if civil society is to be maintained, showed first that this central theme of modern population thought could be narrowed to a single issue: the quantitative regularity of individuals' decisions to marry and have children. Second, as E. A. Wrigley has observed, Malthus constructed a homeostatic model in which the primacy of these decisions becomes the crucial arbiter of the dynamics of population and subsistence. Reproductive checks are not just individuals' moral response to hard times, but part of a series of adjustments to potential or actual economic recession. Moral restraint checks population increase, enabling the demand for labor to rise. Rising demand in turn stimulates wages to rise, and the need for moral restraint lessens. An oscillation may then begin as marriage age falls, population growth resumes, and diminishing returns again drive down the demand for labor. Or, people may continue to exercise moral restraint, locking in their improved incomes. Malthus's system revealed that previous proportional logics in which population increase simply perpetuates economic growth apply only to one phase in a cycle.

"Demography" as a general term was introduced by Achille Guillard (1799–1876), who defined the field as population statistics in its broadest sense, giving pride of place to the vast body of data emerging from the new state statistical bureaus. Noting that the scale of compilations was particularly suited to probabilistic analysis, he nonetheless inclined to the prevailing period view that a science of population is anchored not in abstract mathematics, but in comprehensive enumeration and the law-like relationships that it describes. Indeed, historians have remarked that the enduring importance of nineteenth-century population thinking lies in the program established for recording mass vital and social characteristics. This way of reasoning was in practice more reliant on models like the life table than Guillard allowed. Nor did its practitioners' belief that classification and enumeration are a purely empirical exercise reflect their strategic use of the program to change the way society and its problems are defined. Population statistics, in developing occupational, cause of death, and other standard classifications, and tabulating them with age/sex structures, vital rates, and other measures, successfully named and codified a tremendous range of hitherto unspecified populations and population characteristics. New quantitative entities were brought into existence not as mere physical distributions, but as normative social phenomena. Statistical reformers like Villermé, Farr, and Adolphe Quetelet (1796–1874) followed Malthus in considering constants found in such data as evidence of inevitable moral and natural causes. Passionately committed to using population thinking to improve human government, these men used the new capacity to codify and distinguish subpopulations to identify problem groups, particularly amongst the poor. Their work greatly enlarged the view that the quantitative regularity of population legitimizes specific policies and interventions. Population differentials became staple formulae underlying laissez faire, socialist, and cooperative proposals.

The Problem of Determinism

In its earliest appearance, then, demography aspired to incorporate deterministic analysis into its empirical and governmental roles. The attempt to formulate general laws on the basis of crude quantitative regularities provoked debates that lasted throughout the nineteenth century. These may be grouped into four related developments.

First, vital statisticians used public data sources to construct new measures of health and the strength of the state, or "indices of salubrity." These statisticians, for example, argued that life tables demonstrated determinant laws of mortality at national and local levels. The main approach refined classifications and measures of mortality and localized them to specific urban, occupational, class, and other groups. Mortality differences were then attributed to variations of income, moral traits, or social and environmental conditions which new data sources provided on these groups. Like Malthus, vital statisticians saw individual moral choice as a crucial arbiter of demographic change, but considered hygiene a precondition. Many reformers, like Virchow, Parent-Duchâtelet, and Farr, argued that people have a right to good health; public provision of sanitation, instruction, and urban planning are necessary if individuals are to take control of their lives. Statistics on the impact of epidemic and endemic diseases, and of age, sex, and occupational patterns of mortality, provided an overpowering rationale for sewerage, piped water, factory reform, and other public works. For some vital statisticians, like Villermé, the association between poverty and high mortality supported a Malthusian view that a residual population of suffering and improvident poor would always remain. The moral and physical character of this residuum, like the positive checks that controlled its numbers, was regarded as natural, and began to be attributed to heredity. New classification schemes enabled a line of social demography from Quetelet to Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) to isolate populations of suicides, prostitutes, and criminals, and to argue that deviant groups are inevitable and statistically normal elements of all societies. As concern mounted in the later nineteenth century regarding fertility declines and continuing high levels of infant mortality, new reproductive indices were developed by James Mathews-Duncan (1826–1890), Jacques Bertillon (1851–1919), and József KoÕrösi (1844–1906). Such measures were widely interpreted as indicating a decline in morality (especially of mothers) and the loss of national strength.

Second, Malthus's "principle" proved to be too broad, and the function of moral restraint too narrow, to be useful as general laws. Although methods were developed–by Ernst Engel (1821–1896) and Frédéric LePlay (1806–1882), for example–that explored the equilibrium of poverty and population in data on laborers' family budgets, population statistics remained largely unintegrated with economic theories of population. Instead, all manner of alternative laws to Malthus's proliferated. A diverse body of population thought from his contemporaries Thomas Rowe Edmonds and Archibald Alison (1792–1867) to demographers at the end of the century, like Emile Levassure (1828–1911) and Paul Leroy-Beaulieu (1843–1916), considered technological improvements, increased division of labor, and resulting economic growth capable of postponing subsistence crises indefinitely. Revisionist hypotheses from Nassau William Senior (1790–1854) to Arsène Dumont (1849–1902), and including those of neo-Malthusian writers, reasoned that workers would control their fertility to preserve living standards more readily than Malthus believed possible. By the end of the century, the decline in fertility was widely accepted as proof. A differing continuity with eighteenth-century population thought characterized other writers, notably Jean-Baptiste Say (1767–1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), who argued that unequal distribution of income remained a major check on population. Alternatively, for Karl Marx (1818–1883) such inequalities increased population size. Marx reasoned that each stage of society has its own population laws. In capitalist modes of production, population is regularly stimulated to exceed the demand for labor; the resulting surplus ensures that employment is insecure, wages low, and capital accumulation is confined to the upper classes. These and other deterministic hypotheses of nineteenth-century economic demography could not be reconciled, and by the turn of the century began to be bypassed by the new marginal analysis that did not require specific hypotheses about population growth.

Beneath the period passion for laws lay the deeper fascination with the stability of population series which, since Huygens's reading of Graunt, made population arithmetic the proving ground of probability theory. Public sources of mass population data opened up an apparently limitless horizon in which instances of the "law of large numbers" could be explored. A third attempt to develop deterministic laws of population was Quetelet's "social physics." Quetelet showed how error theory used by astronomers to reconcile observational variations could be used to express the regularity long observed in mortality and other vital series. For Quetelet, all material and moral aspects of society took the form of normal distributions around a hypothesized "average man," the statistical composite of all that is good in a given population. Changes over time in average tendencies reveal natural laws of social development, which Quetelet regarded as material, supra-individual forces. His ambition was to expand population thinking into an all-embracing, probabilistic social science, in effect reversing Malthus's attempt to show that the fundamental unity of nature and society comes down to individual agency. Variation, instead of being determined by singular moral choices, became deviance from aggregate natural forces. The role of a science of society based on population was to identify central tendencies and policies that allow causes thus established to take their course. Social physics implied laissez faire. Quetelet's program acquired immense prestige, but had very few applications and produced no general theory of development. Its importance in population thought owes, rather, to two very different critical responses it generated. These two responses may be considered a fourth development of the problem of determinism, which focused in different ways on the statistics of variation.

Wilhelm Lexis (1837–1914), Georg Friedrich Knapp (1842–1926), and other population theorists of the German historical school, in demonstrating that Quetelet's supra-individual statistical forces are imaginary, showed that the critical problems of explanation lie in patterns of variation, not central tendencies. Objecting strongly also to Malthus, these writers argued that quantitative regularities may be considered only indicative of natural laws, as they deal with distributions of events, not causes. Variations are at base historical and cultural; the nature of society, as a union of free persons, depends as much on people's differences as similarities.

This reassertion of the theme that population is fundamentally a common community did not prevail in demography. Health and economy predominated in the programmatic compilation of mass population data, and the importance of studying variation as a cultural and mathematical question appeared technically difficult and secondary. It is noteworthy, however, that the need to standardize data for comparative purposes led to eight international statistical congresses in the second half of the nineteenth century, in which officials from state statistical bureaus, vital statisticians, and economists agreed on protocols not only on matters like cause of death classification, but criteria detailing linguistic, religious, ethnic, and other populations. With the rise of nationalism and imperial conflicts, such criteria became controversial as grounds constituting rights of distinctive cultural groups. Henceforth population data on cultural variation appeared to question the legitimacy of modern states, just as population arithmetic had troubled the ancien régime. Congress criteria were ignored outside of Austria-Hungary, Russia, and in areas under British colonial administration.

The study of variation developed, instead, as population thinking became a common ground of theories of biological and social evolution. The second critical response to Quetelet, associated particularly with the work of Francis Galton (1822–1911), embraced the search for supra-individual forces, attributing them to heredity. The decisive role Malthus had assigned to reproduction was reinterpreted as the cornerstone of eugenics, the doctrine that social development depends on scientific control of human breeding. Malthus's idea that the pressure of population generates a struggle for existence influenced evolutionary theory even before Charles Darwin (1809–1882) developed his ideas of natural selection on the basis of the "principle of population." Herbert Spencer's (1820–1893) paper of 1852, for example, and a wide range of scientific and social opinion later called "Social Darwinism," saw population density as stimulating competition in which the socially and biologically fittest would dominate. For Spencer, the development of human intelligence was a part of this process, and would lead to declines in fertility, resolving Malthus's dilemma. Darwin, in emphasizing intra-species competition, drew further on Malthus's stress on the strategic role of marriage (or, in species terms, of mating). Reflecting on the problem of moral restraint, Darwin realized that controls over which members of a species are allowed to reproduce determines natural selection, as dominant members will be more likely to pass genetic characteristics to future generations. Evolution was generally conceived in terms of species and race progress, but Darwin conceded the point of William Rathbone Greg (1809–1881) and Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913) that in modern society the poor and improvident outbreed frugal and virtuous members of society, which in time could bring about degeneration. Similar hereditarian concerns were often expressed by demographers, from the vital statistics of Farr to the economics of Leroy-Beaulieu and Adolphe Landry (1874–1956). The decline of fertility in late nineteenth-century Europe appeared to add force to such concerns. Advanced civilizations again came to be associated with depopulation. Eugenicists went further: as fertility declines were much greater in the middle and upper classes, they concluded that a larger and larger proportion of the population was being produced from inferior genetic stock.

The view that laws of heredity determine social relations, however, presupposed simple answers to a difficult question that Darwin and modern genetics have yet to resolve: Which traits are transmitted through the selective effect of marriage on reproduction? Galton recognized that Quetelet's reformulation of error theory could be used to open up a new evolutionary demography: the possibility of defining genetic types by quantifying the range and variability of traits. The concepts of statistical correlation and regression he pioneered have, with time, become principal means of associating fertility and mortality trends with social and economic variables. But Galton's own applications, developed and extended by Karl Pearson (1857–1936), were vitiated by his assumption that social class is indicative of genetic worth. Although discredited by later developments, eugenics nonetheless exercised a continuing influence on twentieth-century occupational and other classification schemes.


The generative capacities of population and knowledge of them have occupied a critical position in attempts to define and govern human society since the sixteenth century. The prevailing view into the early nineteenth century conceived population primarily in terms of membership of a state, the fruits of members' interaction (moral, political, and economic), and the natural rights inherent in such association. In this view population trends, although subject to divine and natural forces outside human control, depend on the limitations and strengths of individual will and collective human government. In the course of the nineteenth century, a sustained but inconclusive effort was made to constitute a deterministic science of population based on systematic quantitative measurement. Major achievements of this era include the pervasive role population thinking acquired in public institutions; the myriad populations, trends, and differentials its methodology constructed; and the instrumental role it began to play in improving public health. Population statistics provided effective means of demonstrating major economic, social, and cultural divisions in society, and of differentiating and sometimes stigmatizing subpopulations. The traditional view of population as based in common membership, although reaffirmed at times, generally receded as much greater energy went into trying to identify determinants of enduring population differences. With this shift, nineteenth-century population thinking brought to the fore generative capacities of population, notably reproduction and its relation to other natural resources, which had previously been secondary to cohesive membership. As the century proceeded, the implications of statistical trends for government were increasingly seen in evolutionary and biological terms, with extreme interpretations (depopulation, degeneration, the disappearance of national cultures) leading to calls for selective action in favor of some populations over others. The need to reconcile concepts of population based in common membership with those emphasizing potential natural constraints, particularly of fertility, remained pressing as population thinking entered the twentieth century.

See also: Bertillon, Jacques; Botero, Giovanni; Cantillon, Richard; Condorcet, Marquis de; Darwin, Charles; Demography, History of; Dumont, Arsène; Eugenics; Euler, Leonhard; Farr, William; Galton, Francis; Gompertz, Benjamin; Graunt, John; King, Gregory; Kőrösi, József; Landry, Adolphe; Literature, Population in; Malthus, Thomas Robert; Marx, Karl; Mill, John Stuart; Moheau, Jean-Baptiste; Petty, William; Quetelet, Adolphe; Süssmilch, Johann.



Botero, Giovanni. [1589–1596] 1956. The Reason of State, trans. P. J. Waley and D. P. Waley. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

——. [1588] 1956. The Greatness of Cities, trans. R. Peterson. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Cantillon, Richard. 1755. Essai sur la nature du commerce en général. Paris. [Written originally in English between 1730 and 1734; only the French translation survived. English transl: Essay on the Nature of Commerce in General. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2001.]

Condorcet, Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de. [1767–89] 1994. Arithmétique politique: textes rares ou inédits, ed. B. Bru and P. Crépel. Paris: l'Institut national d'études démographiques.

Franklin, Benjamin. 1755. "Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind and the Peopling of Countries." Reprinted in Population and Development Review 11(1) 1985: 107–112.

Graunt, John. 1662. Natural and Political Observations Made upon the Bills of Mortality. London. (Reprinted 1973 in The Earliest Classics: Pioneers of Demography, ed. P. Laslett. Farnborough, Hants: Gregg International.)

Guillard, Achille. 1855. Eléments de statistique humaine ou démographie comparée. Paris: Guillaumin et Cie.

Hume, David. 1752. "Discourse Concerning the Populousness of Ancient Nations." In Political Discourses. Edinburgh: Sands, Murray and Cochran.

King, Gregory. 1696. Natural and Political Observations and Conclusions upon the State and Condition of England. (Reprinted 1973 in The Earliest Classics: Pioneers of Demography, ed. P. Laslett. Farnborough, Hants: Gregg International.)

Malthus, T. R. 1986. Works, ed. E. A. Wrigley and D. Souden. London: William Pickering. Vol. I: An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798); Vol. II: An Essay on the Principle of Population (1826, with variants from the 2nd ed. of 1803).

Moheau, M. 1778. Recherches et considérations sur la population de la France. (Reprinted 1994, ed. E. Vilquin. Paris: Institut national d'études démographiques and Presses Universitaires de France.)

Montesquieu, C. L. Secondat, Baron de. 1964. Oeuvres Complètes. Paris: Seuil.

Petty, William. 1690. Political Arithmetic. (Reprinted 1899 in The Economic Writings of William Petty, ed. C. H. Hull. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.)

Spencer, Herbert. 1852. "A Theory of Population, Deduced from the General Law of Animal Fertility." Westminster Review 57: 468–501.

Steuart, James. 1770. Principles of Political Oeconomy. Dublin: James Williams.

Süssmilch, Johann Peter. 1765 Die Göttliche Ordnung. Berlin: Realschule. French transl., L'Ordre Divine, traduction orignale, avec des études et commentaires rassemblés par Jacqueline Hecht. trans. J. Hecht, 3 Vols. Paris: Institut national d'études démographiques, 1979.

Wallace, Robert. 1753. A Dissertation on the Numbers of Mankind in Ancient and Modern Times. Edinburgh.


Bourguet, Marie-Noëlle. 1989. Déchiffrer la France. La statistique départmentale à l'époque napoléonienne. Paris: Editions des archives contemporaines.

Desrosières, Alain. 1993. La politique des grands nombres. Histoire de la raison statistique. Paris: Éditions La Découverte.

Dupâquier, Jacques, and Michel Dupâquier. 1985. Histoire de la Démographie. Paris: Libraire Académique Perrin.

Glass, David V. 1973. Numbering the People. Farnborough, Hants: Saxon House.

Hacking, Ian. 1990. The Taming of Chance. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

Hecht, Jacqueline, 1987. "Johann Peter Süssmilch: A German Prophet in Foreign Countries." Population Studies 41(1): 31–58.

Hutchinson, Edward Prince. 1967. The Population Debate: The Development of Conflicting Theories up to 1900. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Kreager, Philip. 1991. "Early Modern Population Theory: A Reassessment." Population and Development Review 17(2): 207–227.

——. 1992. "Quand une population est-elle une nation? Quand une nation est-elle un état? La démographie et l'émergence d'un dilemme moderne, 1770–1870." In Population: 1639–1656. Paris: Institut National D'Études Démographiques

MacKenzie, Donald A. 1981. Statistics in Britain 1865–1930. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Porter, Theodore M. 1986. The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 1820–1900. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rohrbasser, Jean-Marc, and Jacques Véron. 2001. Leibniz et les raisonnements sur la vie humaine. Paris: Institut national d'études démographiques.

Spengler, Joseph J. 1942. French Predecessors of Malthus. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Stangeland, Charles. 1966. Pre-Malthusian Docrines of Population (1966). New York: A. M. Kelly.

Szreter, Simon, ed. 1991. "The General Register Office of England and Wales and the Public Health Movement 1837–1914." Special issue of Social History of Medicine 4(3): 401–537.

Teitelbaum, Michael S., and Jay M. Winter, eds. 1989. Population and Resources in Western Intellectual Traditions. In Population and Development Review, Suppl. to Vol. 14.

Wrigley, E. A. 1989. "The Limits to Growth: Malthus and the Classical Economists." Population and Development Review, Suppl. to Vol. 14.

Philip Kreager

About this article

Population Thought, History of

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article