Thomas Malthus Essay On Population Pdf Creator

John Bellamy Foster is associate professor of sociology at the University of Oregon. He is the author of Marx’s Ecology (2000), and The Vulnerable Planet (1999, 2nd ed.). He is co-editor of Hungry for Profit (2000), Capitalism and the Information Age (1998), and In Defense of History (1996).

Since it was first published 200 years ago in 1798, no other single work has constituted such a bastion of bourgeois thought as Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population. No other work was more hated by the English working class, nor so strongly criticized by Marx and Engels. Although the Malthusian principle of population in its classical form was largely vanquished intellectually by the mid-nineteenth century, it continued to reemerge in new forms. In the late nineteenth century it took on new life as a result of the Darwinian revolution and the rise of social Darwinism. And in the late twentieth century Malthusianism reemerged once again in the form of neo-Malthusian ecology.

Today Malthus is commonly presented as an ecological thinker—counterposed to a classical Marxist tradition which (in large part because of its opposition to Malthus himself) is branded as anti-ecological. Hence, even some ecological socialists, such as Ted Benton, have gone so far as to argue that Marx and Engels were guilty of “a Utopian overreaction to Malthusian epistemic conservatism” which led them to downplay (or deny) “any ultimate natural limits to population” and indeed natural limits in general. Faced with Malthusian natural limits, we are told, Marx and Engels responded with “Prometheanism”—a blind faith in the capacity of technology to overcome all ecological barriers.1

It therefore seems appropriate, on the bicentennial of Malthus’ Essay on Population, to reconsider what Malthus stood for, the nature of Marx’s and Engels’ response, and the relation of this to contemporary debates about ecology and society. Contrary to most interpretations, Malthus’ theory was not about the threat of “overpopulation” which may come about at some future date. Instead, it was his contention that there is a constant pressure of population against food supply which has always applied and will always apply. This means that there is effectively no such thing as “overpopulation” in the conventional sense. Engels was perfectly correct when he wrote in 1844 that according to the logic of Malthus’ theory “the earth was already over-populated when only one man existed.” Far from being an ecological contribution Malthus’ argument was profoundly non-ecological (even anti-ecological) in nature, taking its fundamental import from an attempt to prove that future improvements in the condition of society, and more fundamentally in the condition of the poor, were impossible.

Malthus’ Essay on Population went through six editions in his lifetime (1798, 1803, 1806, 1807, 1817, and 1826). The 1803 edition was almost four times as long as the first edition while excluding large sections of the former. It also had a new title and represented a shift in argument. It was therefore in reality a new book. In the subsequent editions, after 1803, the changes in the text were relatively minor. Hence, the 1798 edition of his essay is commonly known as the First Essay on population, and the 1803 edition (together with the editions of 1806, 1807, 1817, and 1826) is known as the Second Essay. In order to understand Malthus’ overall argument it is necessary to see how his position changed from the First Essay to the Second Essay.

The First Essay

The full title of the First Essay was An Essay on the Principle of Population as it Effects the Future Improvement of Society; with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet and Other Writers. As the title indicates it was an attempt to intervene in a debate on the question of the future improvement of society. The specific controversy in question can be traced back to the publication in 1761 of a work entitled Various Prospects for Mankind, Nature, and Providence by Robert Wallace, an Edinburgh minister. Wallace, who in his earlier writings had demonstrated that human population if unchecked tended to increase exponentially, doubling every few decades, made a case in Various Prospects that while the creation of a “perfect government,” organized on an egalitarian basis was conceivable, it would be at best temporary, since under these circumstances “mankind, would increase so prodigiously that the earth would be left overstocked and become unable to support its inhabitants.” Eventually, there would come a time “when our globe, by the most diligent culture, could not produce what was sufficient to nourish its numerous inhabitants.” Wallace went on to suggest that it would be preferable if the human vices, by reducing population pressures, should prevent the emergence of a government not compatible with the “circumstances of Mankind upon the Earth.”

Wallace’s argument was strongly opposed by William Godwin in his Enlightenment utopian argument for a more egalitarian society, which he enunciated in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness. First published in 1793, it was followed by a second edition in 1795 and a third edition in 1797 (the year before Malthus’ essay appeared). In answer to Wallace, who had claimed that excessive population would result eventually from any perfect government, thus undermining its existence, Godwin contended that human population “will perhaps never be found in the ordinary course of affairs, greatly to increase, beyond the facility of subsistence.” Population tended to be regulated in human society in accordance with conditions of wealth and wages. “It is impossible where the price of labour is greatly reduced, and an added population threatens still further reduction, that men should not be considerably under the influence of fear, respecting an early marriage, and a numerous family.” For Godwin there were “various methods, by the practice of which population may be checked; by the exposing of children, as among the ancients, and, at this day, in China; by the art of procuring abortion, as it is said to subsist in the island of Ceylon…or lastly, by a systematical abstinence such as must be supposed, in some degree, to prevail in monasteries of either sex.” But even without such extreme practices and institutions, “the encouragement or discouragement that arises from the general state of a community,” he insisted, “will probably be found to be all-powerful in its operation.”

Malthus set out to overturn Godwin’s argument by changing the terrain of debate; rather than contending, like Wallace before him, that a “perfect government” would eventually be undermined by the overstocking of the earth with human inhabitants, Malthus insisted that there was a constant tendency toward equilibrium between population and food supply. Nevertheless, population tended naturally when unchecked to increase at a geometrical rate (1, 2, 4, 8, 16), while food supply increased at best at an arithmetical rate (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Under these circumstances attention needed to be given to the checks that ensured that population stayed in equilibrium (apart from minor fluctuations) with the limited means of subsistence. These checks, Malthus argued, were all reducible to vice and misery, taking such forms as promiscuity before marriage, which limited fecundity (a common assumption in Malthus’ time), sickness, plagues, and—ultimately, if all other checks fell short, the dreaded scourge of famine. Since such misery and vice was necessary at all times to keep population in line with subsistence any future improvement of society, as envisioned by thinkers like Godwin and Condorcet, he contended, was impossible.

Malthus himself did not use the term “overpopulation” in advancing his argument—though it was used from the outset by his critics.2 Natural checks on population were so effective, in Malthus’ late-eighteenth-century perspective, that overpopulation, in the sense of the eventual overstocking of the globe with human inhabitants, was not the thing to be feared. The problem of an “overcharged population” existed not at “a great distance” (as Godwin had said), but rather was always operative, even at a time when most of the earth was uncultivated. In response to Condorcet he wrote “M. Condorcet thinks that it [the possibility of a period arising when the world’s population has reached the limits of its subsistence] cannot .. be applicable but at an era extremely distant. If the proportion between the natural increase of population and food which I have given be in any degree near the truth, it will appear, on the contrary, that the period when the number of men surpass their means of subsistence [in later editions this was changed to “easy means of subsistence”—see note 2 above] has arrived, and that this necessary oscillation, this constantly subsisting cause of periodical misery, has existed ever since we have had any histories of mankind.” In the 1803 edition of his work on population he wrote, “Other persons, besides Mr. Godwin, have imagined that I looked to certain periods in the future when population would exceed the means of subsistence in a much greater degree than at present, and that the evils arising from the principle of population were rather in contemplation than in existence; but this is a total misconception of the argument.”

For Malthus, relatively low or stagnant population growth was taken as a sign of population pressing on the means of subsistence; while high population growth was an indication that a country was underpopulated. “In examining the principal states of modern Europe,” he wrote, “we shall find that though they have increased very considerably in population since they were nations of shepherds, yet that at present their progress is but slow, and instead of doubling their numbers every twenty-five years they require three or four hundred years, or more, for that purpose.” Nothing else, in Malthus’ terms, so clearly demonstrated the reality of a population that had reached its limits of subsistence.

Malthus’ only original idea in his population theory, as Marx emphasized, was his arithmetical ratio. But for this he had little or no evidence. He merely espoused it on the basis that it conformed to what, he claimed, any knowledgeable observer of the state of agriculture would be forced to admit. Indeed, if there was a basis at all for Malthus’ arithmetical ratio it could be found in his pre-Darwinian understanding of the natural world (as represented in his time by the work of thinkers such as Carolus Linnaeus and William Paley), in which he assumed that there was only limited room for “improvement” in plant and animal species.

Later on, it is true, it became common to see the so-called law of diminishing returns to land of classical economics as the basis for Malthus’ arithmetical ratio. But that theory—outside of the work of the gentleman farmer and political economist James Anderson, one of Malthus’ most formidable opponents—did not exist even in nascent form before the end of the Napoleonic wars and does not appear except in vague suggestions in any of the six editions of Malthus’ Essay. It therefore cannot be seen as the foundation for Malthus’ argument. As the great conservative economist Joseph Schumpeter remarked, “The ‘law’ of diminishing returns from land…was entirely absent from Malthus’ Essay.”

Malthus’ Essay on Population also appearedsome four decades before the emergence of modern soil science in the work of Justus von Liebig and others. Hence, along with his great contemporary David Ricardo, he saw the fertility of the soil as subject to only very limited improvement. Nor was soil degradation an issue, as Marx, following Liebig, was later to argue. For Malthus, the properties of the soil were not subject to historical change, but were simply “gifts of nature to man” and, as Ricardo said, “indestructible.”

The fact that Malthus offered no basis for his arithmetical ratio, as well as the admission that he was forced to make in the course of his argument that there were occasions in which food had increased geometrically to match a geometric rise in population (as in North America)—thereby falsifying his own thesis—did not pass by Malthus’ contemporary critics, who were unsparing in their denunciations of his doctrine. In the Second Essay (1806 edition) Malthus therefore resorted to sheer bombast in place of argument. As he put it, “It has been said that I have written a quarto volume to prove that population increases in a geometrical, and food in an arithmetical ratio; but this is not quite true. The first of these propositions I considered as proved the moment the American increase was related, and the second proposition as soon as it was enunciated.” As one of his contemporary critics responded, “These phrases, if they mean any thing, must mean that the geometrical ratio was admitted on very slight proofs, the arithmetical ratio was asserted on no evidence at all.”

All of this meant that the First Essay was a failure in that the argument was clearly insupportable. The logic of the argument (even if one accepted Malthus’ ratios) required that virtuous restraint from marriage either of a temporary or a permanent nature (and not attended by sexual liaisons of another sort) was an impossibility; and that virtuous limits to procreation within marriage were also impossible (Malthus never gave up his opposition to all forms of contraception). Such an argument could not stand in the face of reality, contradicting as it did the marriage pattern of the propertied classes in the England of that day. Hence, Malthus was eventually forced to concede in response to criticisms that some form of moral restraint (especially among the upper classes) was indeed possible—a moral restraint that he was nevertheless to define in extremely restrictive terms as “temporary or final abstinence from marriage on prudential considerations [usually having to do with property], with strict chastity during the single state.” For Malthus, the operation of such narrowly defined moral restraint was “not very powerful.” Still, once this was admitted his whole argument against Godwin and Condorcet lost most of its force.

The Second Essay

For this reason Malthus’ Second Essay, in which he admitted to the possibility of moral restraint, is a very different work from the First Essay. Reflecting this the title itself changed to: An Essay on the Principle of Population; or a View of its Past and Present Effects on Human Happiness; with an Inquiry into our Prospects Respecting the Future Removal or Mitigation of the Evils which it Occasions. No more is there any reference in the title to the question of “the future improvement of society” or to Godwin or Condorcet. The main thrust of the work in the Second Essay is an attack on the English Poor Laws, a theme which only played a subordinate role in the First Essay.

According to the great Malthus-scholar Patricia James (editor of the variorum edition of his Essay on Population), “it was the 1803 essay [the earliest edition of the Second Essay] which made the greatest impression on contemporary thought.” This was because of the severity of the attack on the poor to be found in that work. Although Malthus said in the preface to the Second Essay that he had “endeavoured to soften some of the harshest conclusions of the first essay” this related mainly to his introduction of the possibility of moral restraint (applicable chiefly to the upper classes). In relation to the poor (who, he believed, were incapable of such moral restraint) his essay was even harsher than before. And it is here, particularly in the 1803 edition, that the most notorious passages are to be found. Thus he wrote that, “With regard to illegitimate children, after the proper notice has been given, they should on no account whatever be allowed to have any claim to parish allowance…. The infant is, comparatively speaking, of no value to the society, as others will immediately supply its place.” In the same callous vein he wrote:

A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature’s mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders, if he do not work on the compassion of some of her guests. If these guests get up and make room for him other intruders immediately appear demanding the same favour…. The order and harmony of the feast is disturbed, the plenty that before reigned is changed into scarcity…. The guests learn too late their error, in counteracting those strict orders to all intruders, issued by the great mistress of the feast, who, wishing that all her guests should have plenty, and knowing that she could not provide for unlimited numbers, humanely refused to admit fresh comers when her table was already full.

This infamous passage, like the one quoted before it, was removed from later editions of the Essay. But the basic idea that it reflected—the claim that the poor were not entitled to the smallest portion of relief, and that any attempt to invite them to the “mighty feast” against the will of its “mistress” (who represented natural law) would only come to grief—remained the central ideological thrust of the Second Essay throughout its numerous editions. “We cannot, in the nature of things, “ Malthus wrote, “assist the poor, in any way, without enabling them to rear up to manhood a greater number of their children.” The essence of the Malthusian doctrine, Marx observed in 1844, was that “charity…itself fostered social evils.” The very poverty that “formerly was attributed to a deficiencyof charity was now ascribed to the superabundance of charity.”

One of the harsher implications of Malthus’ argument from its inception was that since there were limits to the means of subsistence for maintaining workers in any given period, any attempt to raise wages in general would only result in a rise of prices for this limited stock of provisions—it could not procure for the workers a larger portion of the necessities of life. This erroneous doctrine—which in its more sophisticated versions became known as the “wages fund doctrine”—was then used to argue that improvement in the general conditions of workers by such means as trade union organization was impossible.

Marx was therefore perfectly justified when he wrote that “what characterises Malthus is the fundamental meanness of his outlook.” Moreover, for Marx this meanness had a definite source. Fighting on behalf of the working classes against Malthusianism and its attacks on the poor, William Cobbett leveled the fiery accusation of “Parson!” against Malthus in 1819—an accusation of both class domination and narrow-minded moralistic subservience to the doctrine of the established Protestant church. In Cobbett’s own words, “I have, during my life, detested many men; but never any one so much as you…. No assemblage of words can give an appropriate designation of you; and, therefore, as being the single word which best suits the character of such a man, I call you Parson, which amongst other meanings, includes that of Borough-monger Tool.” Marx in Capital was later to pick up this criticism, pointing out that discussions of population in Britain had come to be dominated by Protestant parsons or “reverend scribblers,” such as Robert Wallace, Joseph Townsend, Thomas Chalmers and Malthus himself. It was the recognized task of such “parson naturalists” in the days before Darwin to provide natural law justifications for the established order. Malthus, as Marx observed, was lauded by an English oligarchy frightened by the revolutionary stirrings on the Continent, for his role as “the great destroyer of all hankerings after a progressive development of humanity.”

Nowhere perhaps were these narrow, parsonian values more evident than in Malthus’ view of women’s indiscretions. Thus he sought to justify the double standard imposed on women who were “driven from society for an offence [‘A breach of chastity’ outside of marriage, especially if resulting in an illegitimate birth] which men commit nearly with impunity” on the grounds that it was “the most obvious and effectual method of preventing the frequent recurrence of a serious inconvenience to the community.”

In attacking the English Poor Laws Malthus argued that while limitations in the growth of food impeded the growth of population, society could exist under either low equilibrium, relatively egalitarian conditions, as in China, where population had been “forced” to such an extent that virtually everyone was reduced to near starvation, or it could exist under high equilibrium conditions, such as pertained in England, where the aristocracy, gentry and middle class were able to enjoy nature’s “mighty feast”—though only if the poor were kept away—and where checks short of universal famine (and short of such practices as “exposure of infants”) kept population down. His greatest fear—which he helped to instill in the oligarchy of Britain—was that as a result of excessive population growth combined with egalitarian notions “the middle classes of society would…be blended with the poor.”

Such Malthusian fears (and the capitalist need to maintain a high rate of exploitation, i.e., the relative impoverishment of the masses) lay behind the eventual passage of the New Poor Law of 1834, which was aimed at ensuring that workers and the poor would look on exploitation in the workplace and even the prospect of slow starvation as in many ways preferable to seeking relief through the Poor Laws. Malthus responded to the issue of hunger and destitution in Ireland by arguing in a letter to Ricardo in August 1817 that the first object should not be provisions for the relief of the poor but the dispossession of the peasantry: “the Land in Ireland is infinitely more populated than in England; and to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of the population should be swept from the soil into large manufacturing and commercial Towns.”

One reason for the hatred that Cobbett and working class radicals directed against Malthus had to do with the fact that Malthus’ influence was so pervasive that it was not simply confined to middle-class reformers like John Stuart Mill, but even extended into the ranks of working-class thinkers and activists such as Francis Place. For Place, who adopted the Malthusian wages fund theory, birth control became a kind of substitute for class organization—though this was conceived by Place as being not in the interests of capital, but, in his misguided way, in the interests of the working class. The Malthusian ideology thus served from the first to disorganize the working-class opposition to capital.

It was because of this ideological service for the prevailing interests that, as Schumpeter said, “the teaching of Malthus’ Essay became firmly entrenched in the system of economic orthodoxy of the time in spite of the fact that it should have been, and in a sense was, recognized as fundamentally untenable or worthless by 1803 and that further reasons for so considering it were speedily forthcoming.” With the acknowledgement of moral restraint as a factor Malthus did not so much improve his theory, as Schumpeter further noted, as carry out an “orderly retreat with the artillery lost.”

More and more it was recognized that, as Marx stated, “overpopulation is…a historically determined relation, in no way determined by abstract numbers or by the absolute limit of the productivity of the necessaries of life, but by the limits posited rather by specific conditions of production…. How small do the numbers which meant overpopulation for the Athenians appear to us!” For Marx, it was “the historic laws of the movement of population, which are indeed the history of the nature of humanity, the natural laws, but natural laws of humanity only at a specific historic development” which were relevant. In contrast, “Malthusian man, abstracted from historically determined man, exists only in his brain.” As Paul Burkett has shown, Marx’s own political-economic analysis was to point to an inverse relation between workers’ wages and living conditions, on the one hand, and population growth, on the other—underscoring the kinds of relations that are now associated with demographic transition theory.

Social Darwinism

But while Malthus’ doctrine became increasingly insupportable on rational and empirical grounds, it received an added boost in 1859 as a result of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection. In chapter three of his book, entitled “The Struggle for Existence,” Darwin wrote,

A struggle for existence inevitably follows from the high rate at which all organic beings tend to increase. Every being which during its natural lifetime produces several eggs or seeds, must suffer destruction during some period of its life, and during some season or occasional year, otherwise, on the principle of geometrical increase, its numbers would quickly become so inordinately great that no country could support the product. Hence, as more individuals are produced than can possibly survive, there must in every case be a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life. It is the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms; for in this case there can be no artificial increase of food, and no prudential restraint from marriage.

Shortly after returning from his memorable five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle, Darwin, in 1837, had opened up his first notebook on what was then called the “transmutation of species.” In October 1838, as he later recounted in his Autobiography,

I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work.

Darwin’s claim to have derived inspiration from Malthus’ Essay on Population in developing the crucial notion of the “struggle for existence,” which was to underlie his theory of natural selection, was not missed by contemporary social theorists. For Marx it was significant that Darwin had himself (unknowingly) refuted Malthus by means of natural history. Thus in Theories of Surplus Value Marx wrote: “In his splendid work, Darwin did not realise that by discovering the ‘geometrical’ progression in the animal and plant kingdom, he overthrew Malthus’s theory. Malthus’s theory is based on the fact that he set Wallace’s geometrical progression of man against the chimerical ‘arithmetical’ progression of animals and plants.” A year later Marx wrote in a letter to Engels:

As regards Darwin, whom I have looked at again, it amuses me that he says he applies the “Malthusian” theory also to plants and animals, as if Malthus’s whole point did not consist in the fact that his theory is applied not to plants and animals but only to human beings—in geometrical progression—as opposed to plants and animals. It is remarkable that Darwin recognises among brutes and plants his English society with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, “inventions” and Malthusian “struggle for existence.” It is Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes.

Marx himself did not dispute the general accuracy of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, but clearly relished the irony of Darwin’s discovery of bourgeois society “among brutes and plants.” What was illegitimate from a Marxist standpoint was the attempt, as Engels wrote in the Dialectics of Nature, “to transfer these theories back again from natural history to the history of society…as eternal natural laws of society.”

This, however, is exactly what happened with the advent of the broad group of eclectic “theories” that we commonly classify as “social Darwinist”—but which had little in fact to do with Darwinism. These theories drew directly on Malthus, Harriet Martineau, Herbert Spencer, and various nineteenth-century racist thinkers (whose views were anathemas to Darwinism properly understood). In the United States the leading academic social Darwinist was William Graham Sumner who argued that, “The millionaires are a product of natural selection.” This was simply Malthus, refurbished with the help of the Darwinian-Spencerian lexicon, and used to justify race and class inequality. Needless to say, this view was extremely attractive to the likes of such robber barons as John D. Rockefeller, James J. Hill and Andrew Carnegie. Rockefeller told a Sunday school class that “the growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest…merely the working out of a law of nature and a law of God.” Internationally social Darwinism was used to justify the imperialist policy of mass violence and annihilation succinctly summed by Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—“exterminate all the brutes.”3

This general type of outlook is still prevalent within mainstream ideology, evident in the work of such influential establishment defenders as sociologist Charles Murray, author of the influential Reaganite tract, Losing Ground (a Malthusian-style attack on the welfare state), and coauthor (together with Richard Hernstein) of the no less influential work The Bell Curve (a psudoscientific, racist attempt to resurrect the old idea of a racial hierarchy in mental capacity—in order to attack affirmative action programs). What Marx called the “fundamental meanness” of Malthus’ doctrine has thus been carried forward into the present, and given a more racial overtone.


But it is in the wider realm of ecological theory—linked to a strategy of international domination—that Malthus has his greatest and most direct impact today. In the late 1940s Malthus’ long-dormant population theory was resurrected as part of new hegemonic ideology of imperial control—central to both the Cold War and the Green Revolution. A key role here was played by the wealthy Osborn family in the United States. Henry Fairfield Osborn of the American Museum of Natural History was one of the leading proponents of scientific racism and eugenics in the United States in the early part of the century. His nephew, financier Frederick Osborn, subsidized the International Congress on Eugenics (when his uncle was president), and was a key figure in the development of modern demographic policy, in conjunction with his wealthy colleagues in the Rockefeller Foundation and Milibank Fund. By the late 1940s open advocacy of racist views and eugenics lost much of its respectability as a result of the Holocaust. Nevertheless the general outlook persisted in more circumspect form, and was given renewed respectability by the likes of Henry Fairfield Osborn’s son, Henry Fairfield Osborn Jr., who wrote under the name of Fairfield Osborn, and who authored the best-selling ecological study Our Plundered Planet (1948). Fairfield Osborn rejected the explicit scientific racism of his father, turning instead directly to Malthus (with his more innocuous attacks on the poor and overpopulating masses). “Shades of Dr. Malthus! He was not so far wrong,” Osborn wrote in neo-Malthusian rather than classical Malthusian terms, “when he postulated that the increase in population tends to exceed the ability of the earth to support it.” Fairfield Osborn’s close associate, William Vogt, head of the Conservation Section of the Pan American Union, and author of the neo-Malthusian tract The Road to Survival (1948), was more explicit. Vogt argued that “one of the greatest national assets of Chile, perhaps the greatest asset, is its high death rate.” And in an infamous passage entitled “The Dangerous Doctor” he declared:

The modern medical profession, still framing its ethics on the dubious statements of an ignorant man [Hippocrates] who lived more than two thousand years ago…continues to believe it has a duty to keep alive as many people as possible. In many parts of the world doctors apply their intelligence to one aspect of man’s welfare—survival—and deny their moral right to apply it to the problem as a whole. Through medical care and improved sanitation they are responsible for more millions living more years in increasing misery. Their refusal to consider their responsibility in these matters does not seem to them to compromise their intellectual integrity…. They set the stage for disaster; then, like Pilate, they wash their hands of the consequences.

Through the Rockefeller Foundation and later the Ford Foundation, as Eric Ross has explained, neo-Malthusianism was integrated into U.S. policy, first in response to the Chinese revolution, and then as part of a more deliberate policy of counterrevolution in the countryside (a new period of primitive accumulation) under the rubric of the Green revolution.4 In 1948, Princeton’s neo-Malthusian ideologue Frank Notestein, who had been patronized by Frederick Osborn, was sent to China (where the Rockefeller family had extensive business interests) on behalf of the Rockefeller Foundation. He reported back that overpopulation was the chief reason for the revolution, which could be combated more effectively through contraception than land reform. It was quickly recognized, however, that a more drastic approach was needed. And during the years that Robert McNamara was president of the World Bank, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation launched the Green Revolution, the commercialization of land in the third world using the model of U.S. agribusiness—a ruthless form of “land reform” (i.e., land expropriation) which was legitimated by reference to Malthusian population tendencies.

By the late 1960s, with the development of the ecological movement, this emphasis on overpopulation came to be the main explanation for not only hunger in the third world, but all ecological problems (in a manner prefigured by Osborn and Vogt). Paul Ehrlich, the author of the best selling Population Bomb (1968), was to credit Vogt as the initial source for his interest in the population issue. The eugenicist Garrett Hardin, who became renowned within contemporary environmentalism for his article “The Tragedy of the Commons” and for his advocacy of “Lifeboat Ethics,” penned a piece “To Malthus” in 1969 in which he wrote,

Malthus! Thou shouldst be living in this hour:The world hath need for thee: getting and begetting,We soil fair Nature’s bounty

This resurrection of Malthus as an ecologist was an attempt to give ecology a conservative, pro-capitalist rather than revolutionary character, and required that Malthus’ actual argument be ignored. This was the same Malthus who had made a point of emphasizing that his argument did not have to do with the eventual overstocking of the earth with inhabitants but rather with the constant pressure of population on food supply (true throughout history); who had avoided the term “overpopulation” which made no sense within his strict equilibrium model; who was adamantly opposed to the use of contraceptives; who was the principal advocate within classical economics of the idea that the earth or soil was a “gift of nature to man” who in contrast to James Anderson in his own day had made no mention of the degradation of the soil; who subscribed to the view (enunciated by David Ricardo) that the powers of the soil were “indestructible” and who said that the peasantry should be “swept from the soil.” In spite (or in ignorance) of all of this Malthus was gradually converted, in neo-Malthusian thought, into an “ecological” thinker—the fountainhead of all wisdom in relation to the earth.

Malthus, we are frequently told, emphasized the scarcity of resources on earth and the limitations of human carrying capacity throughout his argument. Yet this flies in the face of the arguments of the real Malthus who wrote in his Essay on Population that “raw materials” in contrast to food “are in great plenty” and “a demand…will not fail to create them in as great a quantity as they are wanted.” Malthus, in contrast to Marx, had failed to take note of Lucretius’ materialist maxim “nil posse creari de nihilo,” out of nothing, nothing can be created. Nor did Malthus escape the pre-Darwinian notion that the capacity of organic life to change and “improve” was extremely limited. As Loren Eisely observed: “It is perhaps worth noting, since the biological observations of Malthus are little commented upon, that he recognized like so many others, the effects of selective breeding in altering the appearance of plants and animals, but regarded such alterations of form as occurring within admittedly ill-defined limits.”

There can be little doubt that the real aim of this neo-Malthusian resurrection of Malthus, then, was to resurrect what was after all the chief thrust of the Malthusian ideology from the outset: that all of the crucial problems of bourgeois society and indeed of the world could be traced to overprocreation on the part of the poor, and that attempts to aid the poor directly would, given their innate tendency to vice and misery, only make things worse. As Hardin put it in his essay, “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor,” any attempt to open up international granaries to the world population or to relax immigration restrictions in the rich countries would only create a situation where: “The less provident and less able will multiply at the expense of the abler and more provident, bringing eventual ruin upon all who share in the commons.” Charity for the poor would not help the poor, he argued, but would only hurt the rich.

For neo-Malthusians of this sort, like Malthus before them, the future improvement of society was therefore impossible, except in the form of the accumulation of wealth among the well-to-do. Malthus—himself an eighteenth-century Parson—would have fully understood the Vicar of Wakefield’s observation that, “the very laws of a country may contribute to the accumulation of wealth; as when those natural ties that bind the rich and poor together are divided.” But he would have disagreed with the Vicar’s (i.e., Goldsmith’s) anti-acquisitive and paternalistic philosophy, believing instead that the rich and poor are naturally opposed, and that the rich ought to concern themselves simply with their own aggrandizement. Over the last 200 years Malthusianism has thus always served the interests of those who represented the most barbaric tendencies within bourgeois society.

All of this is not to deny that there are radical, even revolutionary ecologists who have drawn inspiration from Malthus (though in this respect they are well-deceived). Nor is it to deny that population growth is one of the most serious problems of the contemporary age. But demographic change cannot be treated in natural law terms but only in relation to changing historical conditions. The demographic transition theory, which emphasizes the way in which population growth depends on economic and social well-being, is therefore a more reliable guide to these issues than Malthusianism. Even famines cannot be explained in terms of a shortage of food in relation to population, as Amartya Sen has definitively demonstrated, but in each and every case arises as a result of differential “entitlement” emanating from the nature of the capitalist market economy. Where threats to the integrity of the biosphere as we know it are concerned, it is well to remember that it is not the areas of the world that have the highest rate of population growth but the areas of the world that have the highest accumulation of capital, and where economic and ecological waste has become a way of life, that constitute the greatest danger.

The Necessity of Malthus

As Marx wrote, “The hatred of the English working class for Malthus—the ‘mountebank-parson,’ as Cobbett rudely called him…—was thus fully justified and the people’s instinct was correct here, in that they felt that he was no man of science, but a bought advocate of their opponents, a shameless sycophant of the ruling classes.” Although Marx has been criticized for the intemperance of his remarks with respect to Malthus, a close examination of both Malthus’ ideas and the subsequent development of Malthusianism in both its social Darwinist and neo-Malthusian phases can hardly produce any other conclusion. (It is no doubt for this reason that supporters of Malthus rarely examine his ideas closely—at least in public). Malthus represents the class morality (and the race and gender morality) of the capitalist system and in this sense Malthusianism is a historic necessity of capitalism. To censure Malthus, then, is not enough; it is also necessary to censure the system which brought him into being and which, through its own actions, perpetuates his memory.


Most citations contained in the original text of this article have been removed. For a complete set of notes please contact Vicki Larson at Monthly Review.

  1. Ted Benton, “Marxism and Natural Limits,” New Left Review, no. 178 (November-December 1989), pp. 58-59, 82. In referring to Malthus as an “epistemic conservative” Benton accepts at his word Malthus’ early rhetorical claim that he found the utopian visions of society offered by Condorcet and Godwin attractive, but was forced to reject them as incompatible with the human condition on earth (a rhetorical device common in Malthus’ time). Given the nature of Malthus’ class alliances and the character of his work as a whole it is clear that Malthus was being disingenuous here. He was an early ideologue of capitalism, not a disappointed representative of revolutionary Enlightenment thinking. For a critique of Benton see Paul Burkett, “A Critique of Neo-Malthusian Marxism: Society, Nature and Population,” Historical Materialism, no. 2 (Summer 1998), pp. 118-42. For a reply to the charge of Prometheanism see John Bellamy Foster, “Marx and the Environment,” in Ellen Meiksins Wood and John Bellamy Foster, ed., In Defense of History (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1997), pp. 149-62.
  2. Malthus was very consistent in avoiding references to the overpopulation of the earth in the modern sense, even correcting those few passages in his work where he had inadvertently left the impression that human population had surpassed the means of subsistence, changing this to “easy means of subsistence.” See Edwin Cannan, A History of Theories of Production and Distribution in English Political Economy from 1776 to 1848 (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1917), p. 108.
  3. See Sven Lindqvist, Exterminate All the Brutes (New York: The New Press, 1996).
  4. Eric B. Ross, “Malthusianism, Counter-revolution and the Green Revolution,” Organization & Environment, vol. 12, no. 1 (December 1998), pp. 446-450.

Title page of the original edition of 1798.

AuthorThomas Robert Malthus
PublisherJ. Johnson, London

Publication date


The book An Essay on the Principle of Population was first published anonymously in 1798,[1] but the author was soon identified as Thomas Robert Malthus. The book predicted a grim future, as population would increase geometrically, doubling every 25 years,[2] but food production would only grow arithmetically, which would result in famine and starvation, unless births were controlled.[2]

While it was not the first book on population, it was revised for over 28 years and has been acknowledged as the most influential work of its era. Malthus's book fuelled debate about the size of the population in the Kingdom of Great Britain and contributed to the passing of the Census Act 1800. This Act enabled the holding of a national census in England, Wales and Scotland, starting in 1801 and continuing every ten years to the present. The book's 6th edition (1826) was independently cited as a key influence by both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in developing the theory of natural selection.

A key portion of the book was dedicated to what is now known as Malthus' Iron Law of Population. This name itself is retrospective, based on the iron law of wages, which is the reformulation of Malthus' position by Ferdinand Lassalle, who in turn derived the name from Goethe's "great, eternal iron laws" in Das Göttliche.[3] This theory suggested that growing population rates would contribute to a rising supply of labour that would inevitably lower wages. In essence, Malthus feared that continued population growth would lend itself to poverty and famine.

In 1803, Malthus published, under the same title, a heavily revised second edition of his work.[4] His final version, the 6th edition, was published in 1826. In 1830, 32 years after the first edition, Malthus published a condensed version entitled A Summary View on the Principle of Population, which included responses to criticisms of the larger work.


Between 1798 and 1826 Malthus published six editions of his famous treatise, updating each edition to incorporate new material, to address criticism, and to convey changes in his own perspectives on the subject. He wrote the original text in reaction to the optimism of his father and his father's associates (notably Rousseau) regarding the future improvement of society. Malthus also constructed his case as a specific response to writings of William Godwin (1756–1836) and of the Marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794).

Malthus regarded ideals of future improvement in the lot of humanity with scepticism, considering that throughout history a segment of every human population seemed relegated to poverty. He explained this phenomenon by arguing that population growth generally expanded in times and in regions of plenty until the size of the population relative to the primary resources caused distress:

"Yet in all societies, even those that are most vicious, the tendency to a virtuous attachment is so strong, that there is a constant effort towards an increase of population. This constant effort as constantly tends to subject the lower classes of the society to distress and to prevent any great permanent amelioration of their condition".

— Malthus T.R. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Chapter II.[5]

The way in which these effects are produced seems to be this. We will suppose the means of subsistence in any country just equal to the easy support of its inhabitants. The constant effort towards population... increases the number of people before the means of subsistence are increased. The food therefore which before supported seven millions must now be divided among seven millions and a half or eight millions. The poor consequently must live much worse, and many of them be reduced to severe distress. The number of labourers also being above the proportion of the work in the market, the price of labour must tend toward a decrease, while the price of provisions would at the same time tend to rise. The labourer therefore must work harder to earn the same as he did before. During this season of distress, the discouragements to marriage, and the difficulty of rearing a family are so great that population is at a stand. In the mean time the cheapness of labour, the plenty of labourers, and the necessity of an increased industry amongst them, encourage cultivators to employ more labour upon their land, to turn up fresh soil, and to manure and improve more completely what is already in tillage, till ultimately the means of subsistence become in the same proportion to the population as at the period from which we set out. The situation of the labourer being then again tolerably comfortable, the restraints to population are in some degree loosened, and the same retrograde and progressive movements with respect to happiness are repeated.

— Malthus T.R. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Chapter II, p 19 in Oxford World's Classics reprint.

Malthus also saw that societies through history had experienced at one time or another epidemics, famines, or wars: events that masked the fundamental problem of populations overstretching their resource limitations:

The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.

— Malthus T.R. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Chapter VII, p 44[6]

The rapid increase in the global population of the past century exemplifies Malthus's predicted population patterns; it also appears to describe socio-demographic dynamics of complex pre-industrial societies. These findings are the basis for neo-malthusian modern mathematical models of long-term historical dynamics.[7]

Malthus made the specific prediction that world population would fall below a line going upward from its then current population of one billion, adding one billion every 25 years. He wrote:

If the subsistence for man that the earth affords was to be increased every twenty-five years by a quantity equal to what the whole world at present produces, this would allow the power of production in the earth to be absolutely unlimited, and its ratio of increase much greater than we can conceive that any possible exertions of mankind could make it....yet still the power of population being a power of a superior order, the increase of the human species can only be kept commensurate to the increase of the means of subsistence by the constant operation of the strong law of necessity acting as a check upon the greater power.

— Malthus T.R. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Chapter 2, p 8[6]

To date, world population has remained below his predicted line. However, the current rate of increase since 1955 is over two billion per 25 years, more than twice the Malthus predicted maximum rate. At the same time, world hunger has been in decline. The highest UN projection has population continuing at this rate and surpassing the Malthus predicted line. This high projection supposes today's growth rate is sustainable to the year 2100 and beyond.[citation needed]

Proposed solutions[edit]

Malthus argued that two types of checks hold population within resource limits: positive checks, which raise the death rate; and preventive ones, which lower the birth rate. The positive checks include hunger, disease and war; the preventive checks, abortion, birth control, prostitution, postponement of marriage, and celibacy.[8] Regarding possibilities for freeing man from these limits, Malthus argued against a variety of imaginable solutions. For example, he satirically criticized the notion that agricultural improvements could expand without limit:

"If the progress were really unlimited it might be increased ad infinitum, but this is so gross an absurdity that we may be quite sure that among plants, as well as among animals, there is a limit to improvement, though we do not exactly know where it is. It is probable that the gardeners who contend for flower prizes have often applied stronger dressing without success. At the same time, it would be highly presumptuous in any man to say, that he had seen the finest carnation or anemone that could ever be made to grow. He might however assert without the smallest chance of being contradicted by a future fact, that no carnation or anemone could ever by cultivation be increased to the size of a large cabbage; and yet there are assignable quantities much greater than a cabbage. No man can say that he has seen the largest ear of wheat, or the largest oak that could ever grow; but he might easily, and with perfect certainty, name a point of magnitude, at which they would not arrive. In all these cases therefore, a careful distinction should be made, between an unlimited progress, and a progress where the limit is merely undefined."

He also commented on the notion that Francis Galton later called eugenics:

"It does not... by any means seem impossible that by an attention to breed, a certain degree of improvement, similar to that among animals, might take place among men. Whether intellect could be communicated may be a matter of doubt; but size, strength, beauty, complexion, and perhaps longevity are in a degree transmissible... As the human race, however, could not be improved in this way without condemning all the bad specimens to celibacy, it is not probable that an attention to breed should ever become general".

— Malthus T.R. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Chapter IX, p 72[6]

In the second and subsequent editions Malthus put more emphasis on moral restraint. By that he meant the postponement of marriage until people could support a family, coupled with strict celibacy (sexual abstinence) until that time.[citation needed] "He went so far as to claim that moral restraint on a wide scale was the best means—indeed, the only means—of easing the poverty of the lower classes."[9] This plan appeared consistent with virtue, economic gain and social improvement.[citation needed]

Malthus emphasises the difference between government-supported welfare, and public charity. He proposed the gradual abolition of poor laws by gradually reducing the number of persons qualifying for relief. Relief in dire distress would come from private charity.[10] He reasoned that poor relief acted against the longer-term interests of the poor by raising the price of commodities and undermining the independence and resilience of the peasant.[citation needed] In other words, the poor laws tended to "create the poor which they maintain."[11]

It offended Malthus that critics claimed he lacked a caring attitude toward the situation of the poor. In the 1798 edition his concern for the poor shows in passages such as the following:

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. Increase the demand for agricultural labour by promoting cultivation, and with it consequently increase the produce of the country, and ameliorate the condition of the labourer, and no apprehensions whatever need be entertained of the proportional increase of population. An attempt to effect this purpose in any other way is vicious, cruel, and tyrannical, and in any state of tolerable freedom cannot therefore succeed.

In an addition to the 1817 edition he wrote:

I have written a chapter expressly on the practical direction of our charity; and in detached passages elsewhere have paid a just tribute to the exalted virtue of benevolence. To those who have read these parts of my work, and have attended to the general tone and spirit of the whole, I willingly appeal, if they are but tolerably candid, against these charges ... which intimate that I would root out the virtues of charity and benevolence without regard to the exaltation which they bestow on the moral dignity of our nature...[12]

Some, such as William Farr[13] and Karl Marx,[14] argued that Malthus did not fully recognize the human capacity to increase food supply. On this subject, however, Malthus had written: "The main peculiarity which distinguishes man from other animals, in the means of his support, is the power which he possesses of very greatly increasing these means."[15]

On religion[edit]

As a Christian and a clergyman, Malthus addressed the question of how an omnipotent and caring God could permit suffering. In the First Edition of his Essay (1798) Malthus reasoned that the constant threat of poverty and starvation served to teach the virtues of hard work and virtuous behaviour.[16] "Had population and food increased in the same ratio, it is probable that man might never have emerged from the savage state,"[17] he wrote, adding further, "Evil exists in the world not to create despair, but activity."[18]

Nevertheless, although the threat of poverty could be understood to be a prod to motivate human industry, it was not God's will that man should suffer. Malthus wrote that mankind itself was solely to blame for human suffering:

"I believe that it is the intention of the Creator that the earth should be replenished; but certainly with a healthy, virtuous and happy population, not an unhealthy, vicious and miserable one. And if, in endeavouring to obey the command to increase and multiply,[19] we people it only with beings of this latter description and suffer accordingly, we have no right to impeach the justice of the command, but our irrational mode of executing it."[20]

Demographics, wages, and inflation[edit]

Malthus wrote of the relationship between population, real wages, and inflation. When the population of laborers grows faster than the production of food, real wages fall because the growing population causes the cost of living (i.e., the cost of food) to go up. Difficulties of raising a family eventually reduce the rate of population growth, until the falling population again leads to higher real wages:

"A circumstance which has, perhaps, more than any other, contributed to conceal this oscillation from common view, is the difference between the nominal and real price of labour. It very rarely happens that the nominal price of labour universally falls; but we well know that it frequently remains the same, while the nominal price of provisions has been gradually rising. This, indeed, will generally be the case, if the increase of manufactures and commerce be sufficient to employ the new labourers that are thrown into the market, and to prevent the increased supply from lowering the money-price. But an increased number of labourers receiving the same money-wages will necessarily, by their competition, increase the money-price of corn. This is, in fact, a real fall in the price of labour; and, during this period, the condition of the lower classes of the community must be gradually growing worse. But the farmers and capitalists are growing rich from the real cheapness of labour. Their increasing capitals enable them to employ a greater number of men; and, as the population had probably suffered some check from the greater difficulty of supporting a family, the demand for labour, after a certain period, would be great in proportion to the supply, and its price would of course rise, if left to find its natural level; and thus the wages of labour, and consequently the condition of the lower classes of society, might have progressive and retrograde movements, though the price of labour might never nominally fall.[21]

In later editions of his essay, Malthus clarified his view that if society relied on human misery to limit population growth, then sources of misery (e.g., hunger, disease, and war, termed by Malthus "positive checks on population") would inevitably afflict society, as would volatile economic cycles. On the other hand, "preventive checks" to population that limited birthrates, such as later marriages, could ensure a higher standard of living for all, while also increasing economic stability.[22]

Editions and versions[edit]

  • 1798: 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.. Anonymously published.
  • 1803: Second and much enlarged edition: An Essay on the Principle of Population; or, a view of its past and present effects on human happiness; with an enquiry into our prospects respecting the future removal or mitigation of the evils which it occasions. Authorship acknowledged.
  • 1806, 1807, 1817 and 1826: editions 3–6, with relatively minor changes from the second edition.
  • 1823: Malthus contributed the article on Population to the supplement of the Encyclopædia Britannica.
  • 1830: Malthus had a long extract from the 1823 article reprinted as A summary view of the Principle of Population.[23]

1st edition[edit]

The full title of the first edition of Malthus' essay was "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." The speculations and other writers are explained below.

William Godwin had published his utopian work Enquiry concerning Political Justice in 1793, with later editions in 1796 and 1798. Also, Of Avarice and Profusion (1797). Malthus' remarks on Godwin's work spans chapters 10 through 15 (inclusive) out of nineteen. Godwin responded with Of Population (1820).

The Marquis de Condorcet had published his utopian vision of social progress and the perfectibility of man Esquisse d'un Tableau Historique des Progres de l'Espirit Humain (The Future Progress of the Human Mind) in 1794. Malthus' remarks on Condorcet's work spans chapters 8 and 9.

Malthus' essay was in response to these utopian visions, as he argued:

This natural inequality of the two powers, of population, and of production of the earth, and that great law of our nature which must constantly keep their effects equal, form the great difficulty that appears to me insurmountable in the way to the perfectibility of society.

The "other writers" included Robert Wallace, Adam Smith, Richard Price, and David Hume.

Malthus himself claimed:

The only authors from whose writings I had deduced the principle, which formed the main argument of the Essay, were Hume, Wallace, Adam Smith, and Dr. Price...

Chapters 1 and 2 outline Malthus' Principle of Population, and the unequal nature of food supply to population growth. The exponential nature of population growth is today known as the Malthusian growth model. This aspect of Malthus' Principle of Population, together with his assertion that food supply was subject to a linear growth model, would remain unchanged in future editions of his essay. Note that Malthus actually used the terms geometric and arithmetic, respectively.

Chapter 3 examines the overrun of the Roman empire by barbarians, due to population pressure. War as a check on population is examined.

Chapter 4 examines the current state of populousness of civilized nations (particularly Europe). Malthus criticises David Hume for a "probable error" in his "criteria that he proposes as assisting in an estimate of population."

Chapter 5 examines The Poor Laws of Pitt the Younger .

Chapter 6 examines the rapid growth of new colonies such as the former Thirteen Colonies of the United States of America.

Chapter 7 examines checks on population such as pestilence and famine.

Chapter 8 also examines a "probable error" by Wallace "that the difficulty arising from population is at a great distance."

Chapters 16 and 17 examine the causes of the wealth of states, including criticisms of Adam Smith and Richard Price. English wealth is compared with Chinese poverty.

Chapters 18 and 19 set out a theodicy to explain the problem of evil in terms of natural theology. This views the world as "a mighty process for awakening matter" in which the Supreme Being acting "according to general laws" created "wants of the body" as "necessary to create exertion" which forms "the reasoning faculty". In this way, the principle of population would "tend rather to promote, than impede the general purpose of Providence."

The 1st edition influenced writers of natural theology such as William Paley and Thomas Chalmers.

2nd to 6th editions[edit]

Following both widespread praise and criticism of his essay, Malthus revised his arguments and recognized other influences:

In the course of this enquiry I found that much more had been done than I had been aware of, when I first published the Essay. The poverty and misery arising from a too rapid increase of population had been distinctly seen, and the most violent remedies proposed, so long ago as the times of Plato and Aristotle. And of late years the subject has been treated in such a manner by some of the French Economists; occasionally by Montesquieu, and, among our own writers, by Dr. Franklin, Sir James Stewart, Mr. Arthur Young, and Mr. Townsend, as to create a natural surprise that it had not excited more of the public attention.

The 2nd edition, published in 1803 (with Malthus now clearly identified as the author), was entitled "An Essay on the Principle of Population; or, a View of its Past and Present Effects on Human Happiness; with an enquiry into our Prospects respecting the Future Removal or Mitigation of the Evils which it occasions."

Malthus advised that the 2nd edition "may be considered as a new work", and essentially the subsequent editions were all minor revisions of the 2nd edition. These were published in 1806, 1807, 1817, and 1826.

By far the biggest change was in how the 2nd to 6th editions of the essay were structured, and the most copious and detailed evidence that Malthus presented, more than any previous such book on population. Essentially, for the first time, Malthus examined his own Principle of Population on a region-by-region basis of world population. The essay was organized in four books:

  • Book I – Of the Checks to Population in the Less Civilized Parts of the World and in Past Times.
  • Book II – Of the Checks To Population in the Different States of Modern Europe.
  • Book III – Of the different Systems or Expedients which have been proposed or have prevailed in Society, as They affect the Evils arising from the Principle of Population.
  • Book IV – Of our future Prospects respecting the Removal or Mitigation of the Evils arising from the Principle of Population.

Due in part to the highly influential nature of Malthus' work (see main article Thomas Malthus), this approach is regarded as pivotal in establishing the field of demography.

The following controversial quote appears in the second edition:

A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature's mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders, if he does not work upon the compassion of some of her guests. If these guests get up and make room for him, other intruders immediately appear demanding the same favour. The report of a provision for all that come, fills the hall with numerous claimants. The order and harmony of the feast is disturbed, the plenty that before reigned is changed into scarcity; and the happiness of the guests is destroyed by the spectacle of misery and dependence in every part of the hall, and by the clamorous importunity of those, who are justly enraged at not finding the provision which they had been taught to expect. The guests learn too late their error, in counter-acting those strict orders to all intruders, issued by the great mistress of the feast, who, wishing that all guests should have plenty, and knowing she could not provide for unlimited numbers, humanely refused to admit fresh comers when her table was already full.

Ecologist Professor Garrett Hardin claims that the preceding passage inspired hostile reactions from many critics. The offending passage of Malthus' essay appeared in the 2nd edition only, as Malthus felt obliged to remove it.[24]

From the 2nd edition onwards – in Book IV – Malthus advocated moral restraint as an additional, and voluntary, check on population. This included such measures as sexual abstinence and late marriage.

As noted by Professor Robert M. Young, Malthus dropped his chapters on natural theology from the 2nd edition onwards. Also, the essay became less of a personal response to William Godwin and Marquis de Condorcet.

A Summary View[edit]

A Summary View on the Principle of Population was published in 1830. The author was identified as Rev. T.R. Malthus, A.M., F.R.S. Malthus wrote A Summary View for those who did not have the leisure to read the full essay and, as he put it, "to correct some of the misrepresentations which have gone abroad respecting two or three of the most important points of the Essay".[25]

A Summary View ends with a defense of the Principle of Population against the charge that it "mpeaches the goodness of the Deity, and is inconsistent with the letter and spirit of the scriptures".

See main article Thomas Malthus for more.

This was Malthus' final word on his Principle of Population. He died in 1834.

Other works that influenced Malthus[edit]

  • Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc. (1751) by Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790)
  • Of the Populousness of Ancient Nations (1752) – David Hume (1711–76)
  • A Dissertation on the Numbers of Mankind in Ancient and Modern Times (1753), Characteristics of the Present State of Great Britain (1758), and Various Prospects of Mankind, Nature and Providence (1761) – Robert Wallace (1697–1771)
  • An enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) – Adam Smith (1723–90)
  • Essay on the Population of England from the Revolution to Present Time (1780), Evidence for a Future Period in the State of Mankind, with the Means and Duty of Promoting it (1787) – Richard Price (1723–1791).

Reception and influence of the Essay[edit]


Malthus became subject to extreme personal criticism. People who knew nothing about his private life criticised him both for having no children and for having too many. In 1819, Shelley, berating Malthus as a priest, called him "a eunuch and a tyrant".[26] Marx repeated the idea, adding that Malthus had taken the vow of celibacy, and called him "superficial", "a professional plagiarist", "the agent of the landed aristocracy", "a paid advocate" and "the principal enemy of the people".[27]

In the 20th century an editor of the Everyman edition of Malthus claimed that Malthus had practised population control by begetting eleven girls.[28] In fact, Malthus fathered two daughters and one son. Garrett Hardin provides an overview of such personal comments.[24]

Early influence[edit]

The position held by Malthus as professor at the Haileybury training college, to his death in 1834, gave his theories some influence over Britain's administration of India.[29] According to Peterson, William Pitt the Younger (in office: 1783–1801 and 1804–1806), on reading the work of Malthus, withdrew a Bill he had introduced that called for the extension of Poor Relief. Concerns about Malthus's theory helped promote the idea of a national population census in the UK. Government official John Rickman became instrumental in the carrying out of the first modern British census in 1801, under Pitt's administration. In the 1830s Malthus's writings strongly influenced Whig reforms which overturned Tory paternalism and brought in the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.

Malthus convinced most economists that even while high fertility might increase the gross output, it tended to reduce output per capita. David Ricardo and Alfred Marshall admired Malthus, and so came under his influence. Early converts to his population theory included William Paley. Despite Malthus's opposition to contraception, his work exercised a strong influence on Francis Place (1771–1854), whose neo-Malthusian movement became the first to advocate contraception. Place published his Illustrations and Proofs of the Principles of Population in 1822.[30]

Early responses in the Malthusian controversy[edit]

William Godwin criticized Malthus's criticisms of his own arguments in his book On Population (1820).[31] Other theoretical and political critiques of Malthus and Malthusian thinking emerged soon after the publication of the first Essay on Population, most notably in the work of Robert Owen, of the essayist William Hazlitt (1807)[32] and of the economist Nassau William Senior,[33] and moralist William Cobbett. True Law of Population (1845) was by politician Thomas Doubleday, an adherent of Cobbett's views.

John Stuart Mill strongly defended the ideas of Malthus in his 1848 work, Principles of Political Economy (Book II, Chapters 11–13). Mill considered the criticisms of Malthus made thus far to have been superficial.

The American economist Henry Charles Carey rejected Malthus's argument in his magnum opus of 1858–59, The Principles of Social Science. Carey maintained that the only situation in which the means of subsistence will determine population growth is one in which a given society is not introducing new technologies or not adopting forward-thinking governmental policy, and that population regulated itself in every well-governed society, but its pressure on subsistence characterized the lower stages of civilization.

Marxist opposition[edit]

Another strand of opposition to Malthus's ideas started in the middle of the 19th century with the writings of Friedrich Engels (Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy, 1844) and Karl Marx (Capital, 1867). Engels and Marx argued that what Malthus saw as the problem of the pressure of population on the means of production actually represented the pressure of the means of production on population. They thus viewed it in terms of their concept of the reserve army of labour. In other words, the seeming excess of population that Malthus attributed to the seemingly innate disposition of the poor to reproduce beyond their means actually emerged as a product of the very dynamic of capitalist economy.

Engels called Malthus's hypothesis "the crudest, most barbarous theory that ever existed, a system of despair which struck down all those beautiful phrases about love thy neighbour and world citizenship".[34] Engels also predicted[34] that science would solve the problem of an adequate food supply.

In the Marxist tradition, Lenin sharply criticized Malthusian theory and its neo-Malthusian version,[35] calling it a "reactionary doctrine" and "an attempt on the part of bourgeois ideologists to exonerate capitalism and to prove the inevitability of privation and misery for the working class under any social system".

In addition, many Russian philosophers could not easily apply Malthus’ population theory to Russian society in the 1840s. In England, where Malthus lived, population was rapidly increasing but suitable agricultural land was limited. Russia, on the other hand, had extensive land with agricultural potential yet a relatively sparse population. It is possible that this discrepancy between Russian and English realities contributed to the rejection of Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population by key Russian thinkers.[36] Another difference which contributed to the confusion and ultimately the rejection of Malthus's argument in Russia was its cultural basis in English capitalism.[36] This political contrast helps explain why it took Russia twenty years to publish a review of the work and fifty years to translate Malthus's Essay.[36]

Later responses[edit]

Some 19th-century economists[who?] believed that improvements in finance, manufacturing and science rendered some of Malthus's warnings implausible. They had in mind the division and specialization of labour, increased capital investment, and increased productivity of the land due to the introduction of science into agriculture (note the experiments of Justus Liebig and of Sir John Bennet Lawes). Even in the absence of improvement in technology or of increase of capital equipment, an increased supply of labour may have a synergistic effect on productivity that overcomes the law of diminishing returns. As American land-economist Henry George observed with characteristic piquancy in dismissing Malthus: "Both the jayhawk and the man eat chickens; but the more jayhawks, the fewer chickens, while the more men, the more chickens." In the 20th century, those who regarded Malthus as a failed prophet of doom included an editor of Nature, John Maddox.[37]

Economist Julian Lincoln Simon has criticised Malthus's conclusions.[38] He notes that despite the predictions of Malthus and of the Neo-Malthusians, massive geometricpopulation growth in the 20th century did not result in a Malthusian catastrophe. Many factors have been identified as having contributed: general improvements in farming methods (industrial agriculture), mechanization of work (tractors), the introduction of high-yield varieties of wheat and other plants (Green Revolution), the use of pesticides to control crop pests. Each played a role.[39]

The enviro-scepticBjørn Lomborg presented data to argue the case that the environment had actually improved,[40] and that calories produced per day per capita globally went up 23% between 1960 and 2000, despite the doubling of the world population in that period.[41]

From the opposite angle, Romanian American economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, a progenitor in economics and a paradigm founder of ecological economics, has argued that Malthus was too optimistic, as he failed to recognize any upper limit to the growth of population — only, the geometric increase in human numbers is occasionally slowed down (checked) by the arithmetic increase in agricultural produce, according to Malthus' simple growth model; but some upper limit to population is bound to exist, as the total amount of agricultural land — actual as well as potential — on Earth is finite, Georgescu-Roegen points out.[42]:366–369 Georgescu-Roegen further argues that the industrialised world's increase in agricultural productivity since Malthus' day has been brought about by a mechanisation that has substituted a scarcer source of input for the more abundant input of solar radiation: Machinery, chemical fertilisers and pesticides all rely on mineral resources for their operation, rendering modern agriculture — and the industrialised food processing and distribution systems associated with it — almost as dependent on Earth's mineral stock as the industrial sector has always been. Georgescu-Roegen cautions that this situation is a major reason why the carrying capacity of Earth — that is, Earth's capacity to sustain human populations and consumption levels — is bound to decrease sometime in the future as Earth's finite stock of mineral resources is presently being extracted and put to use.[43]:303 Political advisor Jeremy Rifkin and ecological economist Herman Daly, two students of Georgescu-Roegen, have raised similar neo-Malthusian concerns about the long run drawbacks of modern mechanised agriculture.[44]:136–140[45]:10f

Anthropologist Eric Ross depicts Malthus's work as a rationalization of the social inequities produced by the Industrial Revolution, anti-immigration movements, the eugenics movement[clarification needed] and the various international development movements.[46]

Social theory[edit]

Despite use of the term "Malthusian catastrophe" by detractors such as economist Julian Simon (1932–1998), Malthus himself did not write that mankind faced an inevitable future catastrophe. Rather, he offered an evolutionary social theory of population dynamics as it had acted steadily throughout all previous history.[47] Eight major points regarding population dynamics appear in the 1798 Essay:[citation needed]

  1. subsistence severely limits population-level
  2. when the means of subsistence increases, population increases
  3. population-pressures stimulate increases in productivity
  4. increases in productivity stimulate further population-growth
  5. because productivity increases cannot maintain the potential rate of population growth, population requires strong checks to keep parity with the carrying-capacity
  6. individual cost/benefit decisions regarding sex, work, and children determine the expansion or contraction of population and production
  7. checks will come into operation as population exceeds subsistence-level
  8. the nature of these checks will have significant effect on the larger sociocultural system—Malthus points specifically to misery, vice, and poverty

Malthusian social theory influenced Herbert Spencer's idea of the survival of the fittest,[48] and the modern ecological-evolutionary social theory of Gerhard Lenski and Marvin Harris.[49] Malthusian ideas have thus contributed to the canon of socioeconomic theory.

The first Director-General of UNESCO, Julian Huxley, wrote of The crowded world in his Evolutionary Humanism (1964), calling for a world population policy. Huxley openly criticised communist and Roman Catholic attitudes to birth control, population control and overpopulation.


Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace each read and acknowledged the role played by Malthus in the development of their own ideas. Darwin referred to Malthus as "that great philosopher",[50] and said: "This is the doctrine of Malthus, applied with manifold force to the animal and vegetable kingdoms, for in this case there can be no artificial increase of food, and no prudential restraint from marriage".[51] Darwin also wrote:

"In October 1838 ... I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population ... it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species."

— Barlow, Nora 1958. The autobiography of Charles Darwin. p128

Wallace stated:

"But perhaps the most important book I read was Malthus's Principles of Population ... It was the first great work I had yet read treating of any of the problems of philosophical biology, and its main principles remained with me as a permanent possession, and twenty years later gave me the long-sought clue to the effective agent in the evolution of organic species.

— Wallace, Alfred Russel 1908. My life: a record of events and opinions.[52]

Ronald Fisher commented sceptically on Malthusianism as a basis for a theory of natural selection.[53] Fisher did not deny[citation needed] Malthus's basic premises, but emphasised the role of fecundity (reproductive rate), rather than assume actual conditions would not reduce future births.[54]John Maynard Smith doubted that famine functioned as the great leveller, as portrayed by Malthus, but he also accepted the basic premises:

Populations cannot increase geometrically forever. Sooner or later, a shortage of resources must bring the increase to a halt.

It was this insight, that led Darwin to the idea of natural selection and is a major underpinning of the Origin of Species.

Later influence[edit]

Malthusian ideas continue to have considerable influence. Paul R. Ehrlich has written several books predicting famine as a result of population increase: The Population Bomb (1968); Population, resources, environment: issues in human ecology (1970, with Anne Ehrlich); The end of affluence (1974, with Anne Ehrlich); The population explosion (1990, with Anne Ehrlich). In the late 1960s Ehrlich predicted that hundreds of millions would die from a coming overpopulation-crisis in the 1970s. Other examples of work that has been accused of "Malthusianism" include the 1972 book The Limits to Growth (published by the Club of Rome) and the Global 2000 report to the then President of the United StatesJimmy Carter. Science-fiction author Isaac Asimov issued many appeals for population-control reflecting the perspective articulated by people from Robert Malthus through Paul R. Ehrlich.

Ecological economistHerman Daly has recognized the influence of Malthus on his own work on steady-state economics.[45]:xvi

More recently[update], a school of "neo-Malthusian" scholars has begun to link population and economics to a third variable, political change and political violence, and to show how the variables interact. In the early 1980s, Jack Goldstone linked population variables to the English Revolution of 1640–1660[citation needed] and David Lempert devised a model of demographics, economics, and political change in the multi-ethnic country of Mauritius. Goldstone has since modeled other revolutions by looking at demographics and economics[citation needed] and Lempert has explained Stalin's purges and the Russian Revolution of 1917 in terms of demographic factors that drive political economy. Ted Robert Gurr has also modeled political violence, such as in the Palestinian territories and in Rwanda/Congo (two of the world's regions of most rapidly growing population) using similar variables in several comparative cases. These approaches suggest that political ideology follows demographic forces.

Malthus, sometimes regarded as the founding father of modern demography,[55] continues to inspire and influence futuristic visions, such as those of K. Eric Drexler relating to space advocacy and molecular nanotechnology. As Drexler put it in Engines of Creation (1986): "In a sense, opening space will burst our limits to growth, since we know of no end to the universe. Nevertheless, Malthus was essentially right."

The Malthusian growth model now bears Malthus's name. The logistic function of Pierre François Verhulst (1804–1849) results in the S-curve. Verhulst developed the logistic growth model favored by so many critics of the Malthusian growth model in 1838 only after reading Malthus's essay. Malthus has also inspired retired physics professor, Albert Allen Bartlett, to lecture over 1,500 times on "Arithmetic, Population, and Energy", promoting sustainable living and explaining the mathematics of overpopulation.

  • [Malthus] became the best-abused man of the age[56]
  • There is hardly a cherished ideology, left or right, that is not brought into question by the principle of population.

See also[edit]


  1. ^An Essay on the Principle of Population As It Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Goodwin, M. Condorcet and Other Writers (1 ed.). London: J. Johnson in St Paul's Church-yard. 1798. Retrieved 20 June 2015.  via Internet Archive
  2. ^ ab"Malthus' Principle of Population". BRIA 26 2 The Debate Over World Population: Was Malthus Right?. 26. Constitutional Rights Foundation (CRF). Winter 2010. Retrieved 2016-04-07. 
  3. ^Critique of the Gotha Programme,Karl Marx, Chapter 2, footnote 1, (1875)
  4. ^The fourth edition appeared in 1807 in two volumes. See Malthus, Thomas Robert (1807), An Essay on the Principle of Population, or a View of Its Past and Present Effects on Human Happiness, with An Enquiry into Our Prospects Respecting the Future Removal or Mitigation of the Evils Which It Occasions, I (Fourth ed.), London: J. Johnson , volume II via Google Books
  5. ^p. 18 in Oxford World's Classics reprint; p. 29 in the original text in Wikisource
  6. ^ abcOxford World's Classics reprint
  7. ^See, e.g., Peter Turchin 2003; Turchin and Korotayev 2006Archived February 29, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.; Peter Turchin et al. 2007; Korotayev et al. 2006.
  8. ^Geoffrey Gilbert, introduction to Malthus T.R. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Oxford World's Classics reprint. viii
  9. ^Geoffrey Gilbert, introduction to Malthus T.R. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Oxford World's Classics reprint. xviii
  10. ^Malthus T.R. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Chapter V, pp 39–45, in Oxford World's Classics reprint.
  11. ^By doing what appears good, we may do harm. Unintended consequences play a major role in economic thought; see the invisible hand and the tragedy of the commons.
  12. ^p607, cited in
  13. ^Eyler, John M (1979). Victorian Social Medicine: the ideas and methods of William Farr. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 978-0-8018-2246-9. 
  14. ^R. L. Meek, ed. (1953). Marx and Engels on Malthus. London: Lawrence & Wishart. 
  15. ^Quoted in Tellegen, Egbert; Wolsink, Maarten (1998). Society and Its Environment: An Introduction. Routledge. p. 16. ISBN 978-90-5699-125-8. Retrieved 2010-02-12.  
  16. ^Bowler, Peter J. (2003). Evolution: the history of an idea. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 104–105. ISBN 0-520-23693-9. 
  17. ^Malthus, Thomas (1959). Population: The First Essay. University of Michigan Press. p. 127. ISBN 978-0-472-06031-3. 
  18. ^Malthus T.R. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Oxford World's Classics reprint. p 158 Similarly, Malthus believed that "the infinite variety of admirably adapted to further the high purpose of the creation and to produce the greatest possible quantity of good." Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 1st ed., published anonymously, (St. Paul's Churchyard, London: J. Johnson, 1798), p. 73.
  19. ^Genesis I:28
  20. ^Malthus T.R. 1826. An Essay on the Principle of Population, Sixth Edition, App.I.6.
  21. ^Essay (1798), Chap. IV. Accessed from on 2010-02-13
  22. ^Essay (1826), I:2. See also A:1:17
  23. ^dates from Malthus T.R. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Oxford World's Classics reprint: xxix Chronology.
  24. ^ abHardin, Garrett (Spring 1998). "The Feast of Malthus". The Social Contract. The Social Contract Press. Retrieved 2015-01-10. 
  25. ^Thomas Robert Malthus, George Thomas Bettany, "A Summary View on the Principle of Population, p 36"
  26. ^Percy B. Shelley: "A philosophical view of reform." In The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. London: Gordian, 1829. (vol. 7, p. 32)
  27. ^Dupaquier J. (ed). 1983. Malthus past and present. New York: Academic Press. p. 258
  28. ^Fogarty, Michael P. 1958. Introduction to Malthus, Essay on the Principle of Population. Dent, London. vi
  29. ^Petersen, William. 1979. Malthus. Heinemann, London. 2nd ed 1999. p 32
  30. ^Petersen, William. 1979. Malthus. Heinemann, London. 2nd ed 1999. Chapter 9: Fertility
  31. ^Godwin, William (1820). Of Population: An Enquiry Concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind, Being an Answer to Mr. Malthus's Essay on That Subject. Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown. p. 648. Retrieved 2010-03-29. 
  32. ^A Reply to the Essay on Population, by the Rev. T. R. Malthus. For an annotated extract, see: Malthus And The Liberties Of The Poor, 1807
  33. ^Two Lectures on Population, 1829

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