Malthus with Hindsight

Over the years I've read and heard a lot of opinion about Thomas Robert Malthus and his work. I've even been called a neo-Malthusian myself. If you're scratching your head wondering what a neo-Malthusian is, so am I. Aside from Wikipedia entries, a google search for "neo Malthusian theory" turned up this webpage as the top hit. Reading that webpage, I couldn't help but think that this must be some sort of crude caricature --- certainly not representative of my thinking.

A common tactic of adversarial discourse is to over-simplify and distort anothers thesis in order to create a strawman argument that is more easy to undermine. In order to make a sound judgement, I figured that I had no option but to read the original work.

We can freely obtain the text of AN ESSAY ON THE PRINCIPLE OF POPULATION, AS IT AFFECTS THE FUTURE IMPROVEMENT OF SOCIETY WITH REMARKS ON THE SPECULATIONS OF MR. GODWIN, M. CONDORCET, AND OTHER WRITERS thanks to Rod Hay and others at McMaster University. This text clearly has the odd typo but I take it on faith that there are no substantive errors in the transcription from the original work.

The first thing that must be acknowledged is that the main intent of Malthus was to provide evidence that contradicts speculations made by Godwin, Condorcet and others regarding the future improvement of society. Since all these men, including Malthus, were writing more than 200 years ago, we are now in some sort of a position to judge the merit of their speculations.

It is important not to judge men (or women) out of the context of their times. Thus we cannot say that Malthus was against contraception simply because the word never appears in his manuscript. Mathus wrote 162 years before the pill. We cannot judge what position Malthus might have taken had he the benefit of those 162 years of hindsight. Certainly, Malthus was capable of squarely facing difficult matters in a non-judgemental manner

"The law in China which permits parents to expose their children ..."

Cognitive Dissonance

In his preface, Malthus says that he would not
"believe what he wishes, without evidence, or refuse his assent to what might be unpleasing, when accompanied with evidence"
Malthus recognised the trap of cognitive dissonance and aimed to use the scientific method to avoid it.

Did he live up to his own evidentary standards? With regard to his main thesis, "the principle of population", he certainly did. Unfortunately, Malthus also considered a great many questions for which there was little or no natural evidence to guide inquiry. When evidence was not available, one way or the other, Malthus often drew upon religious dogma to argue an opinion. This muddied his very good science.

Thomas Jefferson went through an exercise in which he removed from the bible all the portions that were nonsense. After doing so, little was left. The modern scientist could similarly eliminate much material from Malthus's essay and be left with a much more brilliant work. Malthus made almost all his mistakes when he argued from religious belief.

A trained, modern scientist should be well equipped to sort out the good stuff. I prefer to avoid further consideration of Malthus's religiously motivated material. That still leaves plenty of good science to talk about.

Algebraic Growth

Malthus proposed, that at best, the productivity of land might increase algebraically. Specifically, increasing linearly with respect to time. With the benefit of hindsight, there have been times when crops have improved faster and other times when improvement has stalled. New branches of science sometimes advance geometrically (Moores law for computing) but eventually saturation sets in and a limit is reached. Often scientific theory enables a determination of the limit of growth --- but not always. Certainly, it is not possible for scientific advances to be turned on like a tap. Although there are calls for a new green revolution, it is not clear that such a thing can be achieved. Certainly, the old green revolution did not put an end to poverty.

To this day, there are many who have made the mistake of inferring unlimited progress from a partial improvement. Malthus explicitly rejected such false logic.

All things considered, linear algebraic growth may be a less than generous characterization for the increased productivity of the land over the 200+ years since Malthus conjectured. But linear algebraic growth is not necessary for the theory of Malthus to hold true. All that is necessary is that productivity cannot indefinitely increase at a geometric rate.

Geometric Growth

Malthus never claimed that population would grow geometrically, only that it could grow geometrically if idealized conditions persisted. Data, in as much as it was available back then, lead him to conclude that the population was growing relatively slowly in Europe whereas
In the United States of America, where the means of subsistence have been more ample, the manners of the people more pure, and consequently the checks to early marriages fewer, than in any of the modern states of Europe, the population has been found to double itself in twenty-five years.
Malthus argued that growth rate would change as the means of subsistence changed.
Impelled to the increase of his species by an equally powerful instinct, reason interrupts his career and asks him whether he may not bring beings into the world for whom he cannot provide the means of subsistence. ... Will he not lower his rank in life? Will he not subject himself to greater difficulties than he at present feels? Will he not be obliged to labour harder? and if he has a large family, will his utmost exertions enable him to support them? May he not see his offspring in rags and misery, and clamouring for bread that he cannot give them? And may he not be reduced to the grating necessity of forfeiting his independence, and of being obliged to the sparing hand of charity for support?
Further, Malthus recognized that cultural preferences would influence such decisions.
"The labourers of the South of England are so accustomed to eat fine wheaten bread that they will suffer themselves to be half starved before they will submit to live like the Scotch peasants."
This is far more sophisticated than the crude caricature with which Malthusian's are branded nowadays. Indeed, it much more closely parallels the modern ecological theory of Colinvaux, which characterizes fertility according to the number of children that a couple thinks they can afford.

Modern experience shows, very much, that in many nations people have reduced their fertility to below replacement levels. Further, this has been achieved by a deliberate choice to maintain a high standard of living, not through force of war, disease or famine. This conforms with the analysis of Malthus, except for two details.

First, Malthus did not foresee the education of the masses,

this essay tends to place in a strong point of view the improbability that the lower classes of people in any country should ever be sufficiently free from want and labour to obtain any high degree of intellectual improvement.
although he certainly desired it.

Second, Malthus could not foresee the development of effective modern methods of contraception --- a totally forgivable oversight.

Testing Malthus

The test of Malthus's theory is not whether population has grown geometrically. And it's not whether agricultural output has grown linearly.

The correct test is whether or not systemic poverty has been eradicated.

Population Pushers

Malthus observed, in his time, that
Nothing is so common as to hear of encouragements that ought to be given to population. If the tendency of mankind to increase be so great as I have represented it to be, it may appear strange that this increase does not come when it is thus repeatedly called for. The true reason is that the demand for a greater population is made without preparing the funds necessary to support it.
Malthus was not only an honest observer, he was prescient. Nowadays in Canada, the people have reduced fertility levels to below replacement. Yet still, religious and plutocratic dogma calls for increased population. Even in these recessionary times, when employment opportunities are so poor for our young, the powers-that-be continue to drive population upwards by the importation of people from crowded, uneducated nations where people do not have access to modern contraception.

Malthus characterized the push for population growth, without previously securing the additional sustenance, as being

"... vicious, cruel, and tyrannical, ..."
The Pope pushes population growth out of religious conviction. Suffering on earth is the price to be paid in order to maximize the number of souls who, as the Pope envisions, will ultimately endure an eternity in heaven.

In Malthus time and now,

"... rulers, and the rich of a state, ... force population [growth], and thereby lower the price of labour ... but every attempt of the kind should be carefully watched and strenuously resisted by the friends of the poor, particularly when it comes under the deceitful garb of benevolence, and is likely, on that account, to be cheerfully and cordially received by the common people."
That warning, from more than 200 years ago, accurately portrays the fundamental deceipt of a modern call to grow the population in order to grow the economy. "Vicious, cruel, and tyrannical" growth in "the deceitful garb of benevolence".

Poverty, not Famine

Malthus certainly was concerned about famine but poverty was more primary to his thesis. He rightly understood that famine was a consequence of the most extreme poverty
"... the lower classes of [Chinese] people are in the habit of living almost upon the smallest possible quantity of food and are glad to get any putrid offals that European labourers would rather starve than eat. ... A nation in this state must necessarily be subject to famines."
Malthus thought it would be difficult to cause the same sorry state in South of England because:
"The labourers of the South of England are so accustomed to eat fine wheaten bread that they will suffer themselves to be half starved before they will submit to live like the Scotch peasants."
The main point of Malthus's argument was that population growth would always cause some level of privation (not necessarilly culminating in the collapse of society due to disease or famine) and that privation would prevent the "perfection of society". More than two hundred years later, there are billions living in poverty. There are billions either uneducated or mal-educated. Regrettabley, these are not the indicators of decent society, let alone perfect society.

Some modern writers focus on the danger of famine or some other catastrophic cause for the collapse of modern civilization --- like running out of oil. Such things were not the message of Malthus. Malthus was much more "evolutionary" than revolutionary in his theorizing. (The Theory of Evolution was still unformulated in his time.) Rather than investing his stock on big, punctuated events --- for the good or for the bad --- Malthus was patiently calculating the steady grinding of a machine that slowly and relentlessly exerts its pressure.

Malthus did not foresee the great leap in agricultural productivity that was enabled by the internal combustion engine and petro-chemical fertilizers. But, consistent with the power of population, such advances did not eliminate privation. Two hundred years after Malthus, the clock is still ticking. The race is not yet run. But Malthus seems to have the inside track.

In my view, Malthus has proved far superior to many modern writers who have recklessly speculated upon the collapse of civilization. Malthus was more honest about the inequitable behavior of our species when we are confronted by the difficulty of subsistence.

"a part of the society must necessarily feel a difficulty of living, and this difficulty will naturally fall on the least fortunate members."

The Status of Women

Malthus observed
It has been positively observed by those who have attended to the bills of mortality that women live longer upon an average than men, and, though I would not by any means say that their intellectual faculties are inferior, yet, I think, it must be allowed that, from their different education, there are not so many women as men, who are excited to vigorous mental exertion.
That seems like a pretty accurate reflection upon mortal reallity and the treatment of women of that time. There is nothing that I could add except to say that nowadays those women who belong to the upper classes have better educational opportunites and they have proved Malthus correct, their intellectual faculties are NOT inferior and nowadays many women are formidable forces in the arena of mental exertion. Women still retain their lifespan advantage.


Before Francis Galton developed his conception of eugenics, Malthus also commented on the improvement of plants and animals by husbandry. Malthus identified the fundamental flaw
"By endeavouring to improve one quality, he may impair the beauty of another."
He desired improved human happiness but was wary
"Every the least advance in this respect is highly valuable. But an experiment with the human race is not like an experiment upon inanimate objects."
To this day, such caution puts Malthus head and shoulders above those who wrecklessly overstep the bounds of present-day knowledge on the vain-glorious premise that science and technology will, somehow, come to their rescue.

The Hunter Gatherers

Both Godwin and Malthus understood that the administration of property is at the heart of inequality. Thus, Godwin was drawn to consider the hunter gather lifestyle. Godwin wrote:
"There is a principle in human society, by which population is perpetually kept down to the level of the means of subsistence. Thus among the wandering tribes of America and Asia, we never find through the lapse of ages that population has so increased as to render necessary the cultivation of the earth."
Malthus rejoins that:
This principle, which Mr Godwin thus mentions as some mysterious and occult cause and which he does not attempt to investigate, will be found to be the grinding law of necessity, misery, and the fear of misery.
A modern understanding of the hunter gatherer lifestyle finds both men to be somewhat correct and somewhat in error.

First, there are a great many lifestyles among wandering tribes. Some wander and graze herds, as well as hunt and gather and plant. Others use slash and burn farming and hunt and gather from a temporary settlement before moving on when local game becomes depleted. I don't believe for a second that we have anything more than the foggiest idea of the many ways that our ancestors lived before the great agricultural revolution.

Consider the Waorani who live in the Amazon Jungle. They live by a combination of hunting, gathering, and itinerate farming. They settle for a time, build shelters, then move on when game becomes difficult to find. Staged farming is done at several locations, so that a crop is always available, wherever they are. These people have minimal personal property and what property they have is shared. There is an apparently happy delegation of labour between men and women. Indeed, they don't have a concept of "work". There is a high degree of equality between members within their community. On the other hand, in order to keep their territory they must fight other communities. 70% of males were killed in spearing raids. The missionaries that made "first contact" were all killed. Even after their partial incorporation into "civilized" society, the Waorani are beset by violent territorial issues

In a cross-cultural study, Ember and Ember (2004) find that warfare is strongly predicted by an expectation of resource scarcity. They also find that warfare causes a subsequent period marked by violent behaviour. Thus, we might think of the Waorani as frequently fighting because of their anticipation of scarcity and previous experiences of either raiding or being raided. Raids are the means of population control, not hunger. Serious scarcity never really eventuates. Malthus was correct to say "the fear of misery". But, except for violent punctuations, not correct to say "the grinding law of necessity, misery".

Other hunter gatherers, like the Kalahari bushmen or (formerly) some aboriginal tribes of Australia, were more sparsely distributed. Neither grinding poverty nor inter-group violence can be blamed as the major control upon population for people occupying such niches. More likely, population is controlled by the need to frequently move (which greatly reduces the rate at which children can be produced) and, perhaps, by intermittent drought. Sharing is the common characteristic of such hunter gatherers.

The obvious truth is that sharing and selfishness are both inate human characteristics. So are cooperation and violence. Circumstance determines which characteristics must be deployed for the purpose of suvival.

Neither Godwin nor Malthus should be faulted for their pre-evolutionary thinking. Neither should we think that we have figured out any more than a rough scheme of things.

The Ultimate Prediction

More than 200 years ago, Malthus wrote:
"The lower classes of people in Europe may at some future period be much better instructed than they are at present; they may be taught to employ the little spare time they have in many better ways than at the ale-house; they may live under better and more equal laws than they have ever hitherto done, perhaps, in any country; and I even conceive it possible, though not probable that they may have more leisure; but it is not in the nature of things that they can be awarded such a quantity of money or subsistence as will allow them all to marry early, in the full confidence that they shall be able to provide with ease for a numerous family."
The lower classes of people in Europe are better educated. Football hooligans aside, drinking habits have improved.

Malthus may have been wrong about the matter of leasure. High under employment has seen to that. But that just serves to underscore the main point: How many young people of Europe "marry early, in the full confidence that they shall be able to provide with ease for a numerous family"?

Systemic poverty still dogs billions of people. Insecurity is rampant. So far, Malthus has been proved correct. Regardless of 200 years of remarkable scientific and technical progress, the power of population has not been subdued.

There is hope. The power of population is not inevitible. Perhaps humanity will come to understand the obvious, some time in the next 200 years.

And I'm not a neo-Malthusian, they've taken a wrong turn. Neither am I a Malthusian, although I find great merit in the some parts of his work.