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Malthus’ Theory of Population Essay


Malthus is a famous historian and political economist, whose works had a great influence on the economy, history and sociology. The main hypothesis of his works, described in his book called “An Essay on the Principle of Population” published in 1798 resulted loud resonance in the society and provoked a lot of reactions supporting and arguing his theory. The main point of the theory is that population growth exceeds the growth of food on the planet and this naturally leads to the deterioration of the situation and collapse. In his book Malthus disagreed earlier theories, put forward by Godwin, Condorcet, who formed their theories under the influence of the French Revolution.

Malthus’ theory contradicted their ideas of enlightenment and emancipation. Hypothesis set up by Malthus was simple for understanding but very dangerous if to trace its results and consequences. He stated that population of the Earth grew in arithmetic progression and amounts of food available on the planet grew in geometric progression. He found a lot of proofs for his hypotheses, giving big number of calculations, tables and diagrams, which became the result of deep research. “For the principle of population will still prevail, and from the comfort, ease and plenty that will abound, will receive an increasing force and impetus. The number of mouths to be fed will have no limit; but the food that is to supply them cannot keep pace with the demand for it; we must come to a stop somewhere, even though each square yard, by extreme improvements in cultivation, could maintain its man.” (Malthus, 45). Such a hypotheses led to terrifying conclusions. Lack of food will finally bring the mankind to collapse misery and poverty will turn humans to heartless and cruel animals, fighting for food. “In this state of things there will be no remedy; the wholesome checks of vice and misery (which have hitherto kept this principle within bounds) will have been done away; the voice of reason will be unheard; the passions only will bear sway; famine, distress, havoc and dismay will spread around; hatred, violence, war and bloodshed will be the infallible consequence.” (Malthus, 52).

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This theory had a big influence on the thought of the 19th century and it still has a big impact. Some agreed its pessimistic forecasts and called to follow Malthus’ idea to control the population in order to escape overpopulation. Such prominent economists as David Ricardo and Alfred Marshall admired his theory and developed it in their works. Hypotheses, put forward by Malthus had a big influence not only on different branches of science, but also on the whole political system of the country. For example, such political acts as Whig reforms, the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, national population Census were influenced by the Malthus’ concept. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, two main founders of the evolutionary theory, were influenced by the works of Malthus and took a lot of his idea for their theory. Other famous developers of the evolutionary theory, such as Ernst Mayr, Elliot Sober and Carl Zimmer also stated that Malthus’ theory was a revolutionary discovery, which had a great influence on the development of the evolutionary theory.

Personally I respect input made by Malthus and recognize the importance of his studies, but disagree the main principles of his theory. William Godwin, Robern Owen, William Hazlitt, John Mill and William Cobbett criticized Malthus’ model, giving a wide range of arguments against it. But the most essential critic of the theory was presented by two leaders of the communist teaching – Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels. They gave a lot of convincing arguments, which proved that not population had influence on the food production but vice versa, the increase of food production gave new opportunities for the population growth. Evolutionists, such as John Smith and Ronald Fisher also disagreed some points of Malthus’ theory. More and more modern scientists find Malthus’ concept to be wrong or even senseless as he didn’t take into account a lot of important factors.

Anthropologist Eric Ross is one of the most severe modern critics of this theory. More and more arguments against Malthus’ concept appear recently. Despite all his predictions, the growth of population didn’t result the catastrophe and the decrease of prices for food and services show the growth of the food amount, which contradicts the Malthus’ theory.

Those, who argue Malthus put forward several arguments. First of all they state that Malthus didn’t take into account all factors, which influence the population growth and thus his calculations can’t be 100% trustworthy. Double growth of the population during the period of 25 years predicted by Malthus didn’t come true and this is one of the most vivid evidences against his hypothesis. He himself called his calculations only approximate and those, who believed him were persuaded by the number of famines which took place some time after publishing the Essay. But the famines passed and no collapse occurred. In addition, if to believe this theory, the doubled population must soon weight more than the Earth itself. Statistics proves Malthus theory to be wrong, the growth of population he could observe in the 19th century didn’t develop with the same speed and calculations give by Malthus aren’t proved by the real facts (Flew).

Another argument consists of very simple but very exact numbers, which state that the growth of population results the growth of means to feed this population. Technological revolution, rapid industrial development prove that mankind has great potential to adopt the needs of growing population. It’s evident that Malthus underestimated the ability of the mankind to increase the means of subsistence. All the latest researches show that supply is overcoming the population and this number has a tendency to grow (Ross).

In his works, Malthus stated the man was immutable and created by God without the ability to change. Later discoveries, such as genetic diseases, mutations, human genome prove vice verse.

Now we know that Malthus was mistaken in this point of his theory and that human nature is changeable (Flew).

So, more and more arguments give convincing proves that Malthus was wrong in his pessimistic expectations. I believe that last doubts will disappear with the flow of time. From the other side, it’s worth to remember, that all the studies were made more than two centuries ago and Malthus didn’t possess the information we have now and thus we can not judge him even if we don’t share his views. Malthus not only underestimate the ability of the science to produce necessary amount of food for growing population, but also the ability of this very science to keep the growing of population under control. These are not the only, but the most important mistakes he did in his work.

I agree with the opinion of those, who don’t believe in simple mathematical model, which predicts collapse of the mankind but also appreciate Malthus input to the development of science.

Peterson, William (1999). Malthus, Founder Of Modern Demography (2nd ed.) Transaction.
Ross, Eric B. (1998) The Malthus factor: population, poverty, and politics in capitalist development. Zed Books, London.
A. Flew, Introduction to the Pelican edition of T. Malthus, Essay on Population
Malthus, Thomas “A Summary View of the Principle of Population” in Three Essays on Population (Mentor Books: New York, 1960).

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