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Vol. IV • 1981

Historical Sketch: Robert Thomas Malthus (1766-1834)
Ian Taylor

During the last one hundred years an enormous number of books have been written about Darwin, and doubtless there will be another flood of publications this centennial year of his death. They all acknowledge that Darwin based his theory upon the combined ideas of men before him. Two names are invariably mentioned, Robert Thomas Malthus and Charles Lyell. A third, Alfred Russel Wallace, is cited as co-discoverer of the theory but then is quickly eclipsed and forgotten by the towering image of Darwin. There are other names of lesser importance. Each contributed part of an idea while succeeding names built upon them until the synergist Darwin brought it all together. The contributions of Lyell and Wallace are fairly well known among creationists, but interestingly that of Malthus is hardly ever mentioned. Nevertheless his one work, for which he finds a place in history, was highly influential to both Darwin and Wallace.

Robert Malthus was born the sixth child of seven in 1766 in England. His only distinguishing features would seem to be that he was born with a hare lip and cleft palate, although this was alleged not to have seriously impaired his speech or social life. After graduating with a degree in mathematics from Jesus College, Cambridge, he entered the Anglican church and became ordained a few years later. He was an academic by inclination and returned to Cambridge University for the next ten years When almost forty he was married then appointed professor of modern history and political economy at Haileybury College where he spent a quiet life lecturing and writing until he died in 1834.

Following the French revolution in 1789 a number of early socialists began to advocate the type of government they thought would lead to Utopia. Among them was Condorcet who said that the happy human state would result from all men being given equal opportunity. Malthus wrote a rebuttal in 1798 entitled "Essay on the principle of Population" in which he pointed out that a Utopia of this sort would be self-defeating since with the approach of ideal conditions the resulting idleness would lead to an unbridled birthrate such that the burden of population would soon outstrip the food supply. He expressed himself in the famous principle:

Malthus suggested that the population was increasing every twenty-five years at the geometrical rate of 1, 2,4, 8,16, 32,64, 128, 256... while the food supply was increasing during the same time at the arithmetic rate of 1,2, 3,4,5,6, 7,8, 9.. The population in his example is seen to double every 25 years while the food supply, expressed in say, tons of wheat or acres of cultivated land, increases by only a uniform increment each generation. Malthus pointed out that in three centuries the ratio of population to food supply would be 4,096 to 13. The figures rivet the attention ano the spectre of starving humanity standing cheek by jowl on every available square foot of dry land becomes imminent.

It was evident to Malthus that there must be factors limiting population growth and he suggested in his first (1798) edition of the "Essay" that it was subsistence itself which limits the population by what he called "misery and vice." The picture he proposed was that the population level was always pressing against the food supply. Misery in the form of famine, plague, etc. was nature's way of providing the limitation. Vice, on the other hand, was man's contribution to limiting the population. As examples of human vice Maithus included contraception, infanticide, and warfare. One of the ironies of modern times is that the term "Malthusian" has become a euphemism among advocates of birth control and there is even a device on the British market named after Malthus. He would surely turn in his grave! Maithus himself rather loosely suggested abstinence by later marriage as the solution to the population problem.

The "Essay" was severely criticised for its depressing view and the fact that Malthus saw man as a bestial brute whose passions were only kept in check by misery. In short, he had not credited man with any measure of dignity. He collected more data and published a second expanded version of the "Essay" in 1803 in which he introduced two other factors: "preventive check" and "positive check." The former limited the birth rate and the latter enhanced the death rate by shortening or removing lives. By "preventive check" Malthus did not mean contraception but moral or self restraint. However, this factor had the effect of vitiating the very principle with which he first set out because it now stood as a buffer between men and misery. Man no longer seemed the brute beast that Malthus had earlier claimed. In spite of the contradiction, the brute image of man still remained steadfast in his mind. This is evident from some of his recommendations which appeared in subsequent editions of the "Essay":

This somewhat bourgeois approach to social problems might be unexpected today coming from an ordained Anglican minister, but sadly in nineteenth century England it was not so unusual. There were a few objections from more orthodox Christians. However, the principal reason no action was taken upon Malthus' recommendations to limit population was simply that the factories needed a vast supply of cheap labour.

Charles Darwin read the "Essay" containing the recommendation in 1838 and comments in his notebook:

Alfred Russel Wallace also read the "Essay" and drew the same conclusion in 1858. Recent investigations raise the possibility that in fact it was Wallace's original revelation and upon receipt of a letter from Wallace in 1858, Darwin merely claimed to have thought of it earlier. In any event, it is seen that the "Essay" forms a vital part of the theory of evolution.

Malthus has been eulogized as "the father of social science" and has a great following. It has also been argued that his principle is "as sure as the multiplication table." Who then would find objection to it? The following objections have been pointed out by a number of authors, including Karl Marx. Because they touch at the very roots of Darwin's theory, however, it is somehow considered unethical, even heresy, to mention them. Frequent objections include the following:

  1. The first national census in Britain was taken in 1801, three years after Malthus wrote his "Essay". Thus he had no reliable statistics to work with to determine either population levels or rates of increase. His geometric rate of increase was purely a theoretical assumption. All that can properly be said is that populations will tend to expand to fill the available space.
  2. There was no way to determine cultivating acreage, or indeed, cultivated acreage so that his arithmetic increase can also only have been an assumption.
  3. The principle precludes the possibility of obtaining the evidence to prove it. If the population can never exceed the food supply it can never be known in fact that it is the food supply which checks the population. For instance, other factors could check the population before the limit of the food supply is reached and Malthus conceded "moral restraint" as one of these factors.
  4. The principle contains an internal contradiction. In focusing his attention on the human population Malthus had overlooked the obvious objection that if humans multiply geometrically then why don't all the plants and animals which provide for human subsistence. The whole equation then becomes spurious as are all the numbers which at first might appear to be so convincing. In practice, neither men, plants nor animals multiply geometrically. Their rate of increase depends upon the respective checks imposed by the environment upon their expansion. The entire ecosystem including man is, or was as we are now beginning to find out, in a very delicately balanced harmony far removed from the depressing "eat or be eaten" struggle for survival envisioned by Malthus.

The final irony in all this Malthusian pseudo-science is that Malthus intended to show that human society could never progress upward to perfection whereas Darwin took this same principle to show that by evolution not only human society but all living things have always progressed upward becoming more perfect. The lesson in all this is that Darwin and others who reject both God and the promise of his providence and intervention have found in the Malthus principle a terrifying spectre of tragedy and despair that has driven them into unspeakable ethical and absurd scientific propositions. This in spite of the obvious weaknesses and deficiencies in Malthus argument.

Barges unloading supplies at dock of medieval European town.     (15th century woodcut)

"Historical Sketch: Robert Thomas Malthus"
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