The Influence of Thomas Malthus [Article]

Malthus is one of those cardinal figures in intellectual history who state definitely for all time, things apparent enough after their formulation, but never effectively conceded before [. . .] Probably no more shattering book than the Essay on Population has ever been, or ever will be, written’

– H.G. Wells, Anticipations, Of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought

H.G. Wells wrote these words in 1901, in Anticipations, his bestselling collection of future predictions. Thomas Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population was enormously influential in Wells’ time, just as it had been for all previous generations since its first publication in 1798.

An_Essay_on_the_Principle_of_Population Thomas MalthusThomas Malthus brought to the forefront of public debate, something that had never really been considered in any comprehensive detail before: that reproduction and population growth were crucial factors in trying to govern, understand, or plan for the future of society. Or, as Wells put it in Anticipations: “all dreams of earthly golden ages must either be futile or insincere or both, until the problems of human increase were manfully faced”.

With Malthus, the science of demography was born. The issues surrounding overpopulation (in fact, the very term “overpopulation”) can be traced back to Thomas Malthus. These are concerns which have only grown as the world’s population has crept ever upwards. Episode 7 of Words To That Effect explores lots of these issues, and more.

Click below to have a listen.

Read more about Episode 7: Overpopulation from Malthus to Manila

Today, while Thomas Malthus’ famous Essay is not nearly as widely read as it once was, his influence lives on both directly and indirectly. Terms like “Malthusian”, “Malthusianism”, and “Neo-Malthusianism” still regularly crop up in articles about population, overpopulation, birth control, and related subjects. Malthus’ central idea was that populations increase exponentially while food production increases arithmetically. That is to say, there was no way humanity could continue to produce enough food to feed a rapidly expanding population. Malthus, in 1798, could not foresee the massive advances in food production in the coming two centuries, and in this respect his pessimistic predictions were incorrect.

But there is much more to Malthus’ ideas than this. There is a hugely complicated relationship between population growth, the rise of cities, the environment, birth control, food production, and so much more. Malthus was the first thinker to truly highlight and detail these issues. Today, in an age of megacities, freely available birth control, and genetically modified crops, the issues may have mutated but the same fundamental ideas and questions are there. Should a government have the power to regulate the number of children its citizens may have? In an age of abundance, why do so many millions go hungry? How is human population growth contributing to environmental destruction and climate change, and what can we do to change this?

Thomas Malthus’ Controversial Ideas

Thomas Malthus’ ideas were extremely controversial at the time, especially as they related to the Poor Laws, or the ways in which the poor were provided for in Britain at the time. Malthus maintained that relief for the poor would, in the long term, simply allow for the creation of more poverty (although, it must be said, he did update and modify these ideas in later decades). Contemporaries who weighed in on the debate included influential thinkers such as William Godwin, Robert Owen, and John Stuart Mill, while Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels would later strongly oppose Malthus’ theories. But whether pro- or anti- Malthus, the Essay was discussed and debated throughout the 19th century and beyond.

EugenicsEugenics_congress_logo (Thomas Malthus)

The eugenics movement was centred around the concept of perfecting humanity by promoting desirable, and limiting undesirable, reproduction. The multifaceted and hugely popular movement was certainly influenced in part by Malthus’ ideas. Population growth and the fear of supposedly “lower” races outbreeding their superiors was at the core of much eugenic thinking. The image here shows the optimistic and utopian thinking of what was, ultimately, a deeply flawed and dangerous idea.

Thomas Malthus and Evolutionary Theory

Malthus was also a crucial influence on Charles Darwin. Darwin took Malthus’ ideas on the struggle of populations to survive when faced with a limited food supply, and extrapolated it to all species and across a massive time span. It was this key idea, that certain species would adapt to survive in the struggle for life, that led to Darwin’s development of evolution through natural selection. Human understanding of the world would never be the same after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. In fact, Wells’ pronouncement above, that no more shattering a book has ever been written, could be far more readily applied to Darwin’s work.

(History tends to forget about Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discover of evolution by natural selection, but, as might be expected, he too read and was influenced by Malthus).

Thomas Malthus in the 20th & 21st Century

In Aldous Huxley’s brilliant dystopian novel, Brave New World, birth control is a strict necessity as population size is strictly enforced and people are now bred, as required, in factories. So, the women carry around contraceptives in a belt. This belt is named, in a nod to Malthus, the “Malthusian Belt”.

This is just one small example, but the influence of Malthus was felt throughout the 20th century and continues right up to today, in economics, sociology, politics, and, of course, population studies. And, as discussed in the podcast episode, in literature. From Charles Dickens to Dan Brown, and plenty in between, Malthus’ influence on culture, politics, and science may sometimes be indirect, but it is most certainly there. Many of his ideas may now be outdated, but Malthus undoubtedly changed the way we think about the world.

Thomas Malthus Portrait

You can read the full text of An Essay on the Principle of Population at the Darwin Online site here

For more on 18th century literature and culture, have a listen to Words To That Effect Episode 10 on Robinson Crusoe.

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