Thomas Malthus

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Thomas Robert Malthus, FRS (February 13, 1766 – December 23, 1834), usually known as Thomas Malthus, although he preferred to be known as "Robert Malthus", was an English demographer and political economist. He is best known for his pessimistic but highly influential views on population growth.


Thomas Robert Malthus was born to a prosperous family, his father Daniel being a personal friend of the philosopher David Hume and an acquaintance of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The young Malthus was educated at home until his admission to Jesus College, Cambridge in 1784. There he studied many subjects and took prizes in English declamation, Latin and Greek, but his principal subject was mathematics. He earned a masters degree in 1791 and was elected a fellow of Jesus College two years later. In 1797, he was ordained and became an Anglican country parson.

Malthus married in 1804 and had three children. In 1805 he became Britain's first professor in political economy at the East India Company College at Hertford Heath, near Hertford in Hertfordshire, now known as Haileybury. His students affectionately referred to him as "Pop", or "Population" Malthus. One student in paticular, Graham Fischer, wrote a responsive essay concerning population growth and criticizing many of the ideas proposed by Thomas Malthus. It was later publicized by Dr. Tom Klein, a future professor of his. In 1818, he was selected as a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Thomas Robert Malthus refused to have his portrait painted until 1833 because of embarrassment over a hare lip. This was then corrected by surgery, and Malthus was then considered "handsome". Malthus also had a cleft palate (inside his mouth) that affected his speech. These cleft related birth defects were relatively common in his family. Malthus was buried at Bath Abbey in England.

Principle of population

Malthus' views were largely developed in reaction to the optimistic views of his father and his associates, notably Rousseau. Malthus's essay was also in response to the views of the Marquis de Condorcet. In An Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798, Malthus made the famous prediction that population would outrun food supply, leading to a decrease in food per person. (Case & Fair, 1999: 790). He even went so far as to specifically predict that this must occur by the middle of the 19th century, a prediction which failed for several reasons, including his use of static analysis, taking recent trends and projecting them indefinitely into the future, which often fails for complex systems.

"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."

This Principle of Population was based on the idea that population if unchecked increases at a geometric rate (i.e. 2, 4, 8, 16, etc.) whereas the food supply grows at an arithmetic rate (i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.).

Only natural causes (eg. accidents and old age), misery (war, pestilence, and above all famine), moral restraint and vice (which for Malthus included infanticide, murder, contraception and homosexuality) citation needed] could check excessive population growth. See Malthusian catastrophe for more information.

Malthus favored moral restraint (including late marriage and sexual abstinence) as a check on population growth. However, it is worth noting that Malthus proposed this only for the working and poor classes. Thus, the lower social classes took a great deal of responsibility for societal ills, according to his theory. In his work An Essay on the Principle of Population, he proposed the gradual abolition of poor laws. Essentially what this resulted in was the promotion of legislation which degenerated the conditions of the poor in England, lowering their population but effectively decreasing poverty.

Malthus himself noted that many people misrepresented his theory and took pains to point out that he did not just predict future catastrophe. He argued "...this constantly subsisting cause of periodical misery has existed ever since we have had any histories of mankind, does exist at present, and will for ever continue to exist, unless some decided change takes place in the physical constitution of our nature."

Thus, Malthus regarded his Principle of Population as an explanation of the past and the present situation of humanity as well as a prediction of our future.

Additionally, many have argued that Malthus did not fully recognise the human capacity to increase our food supply. On this subject Malthus wrote "The main peculiarity which distinguishes man from other animals, is the means of his support, is the power which he possesses of very greatly increasing these means."

Malthus' Population Predictions

Some claim that there is no specific prediction of Malthus regarding the future; that what some interpret as prediction was merely Malthus' illustration of the power of geometric (or exponential) population growth compared to the arithmetic growth of food production. Rather than a prediction of the future, the Essay is an evolutionary social theory. Eight major points regarding evolution are found in the 1798 Essay:

  • Population level is severely limited by subsistence
  • When the means of subsistence increases, population increases
  • Population pressures stimulate increases in productivity
  • Increases in productivity stimulates further population growth
  • Since this productivity can never keep up with the potential of population growth for long, there must be strong checks on population to keep it in line with carrying capacity.
  • It is through individual cost/benefit decisions regarding sex, work, and children that population and production are expanded or contracted.
  • Checks will come into operation as population exceeds subsistence level.
  • The nature of these checks will have significant effect on the rest of the sociocultural system—Malthus points specifically to misery, vice, and poverty. (See Frank W. Elwell, 2001, A Commentary on Malthus' 1798 Essay on Population as Social Theory, The Edwin Mellon Press for an extended exposition.)

It is this theory of Malthus—not some easily dismissed prediction—that has had huge influence on evolutionary theory in both biology (as acknowledged by Darwin and Wallace) and the social sciences (such as Spencer). Malthus's population theory has also profoundly affected the modern day ecological-evolutionary social theory of Gerhard Lenski and Marvin Harris. He can thus be regarded as a key contributing element of the canon of socioeconomic theory.


Sacred to the memory of the Rev Thomas Robert Malthus, long known to the lettered world by his admirable writings on the social branches of political economy, particularly by his essay on population.

One of the best men and truest philosophers of any age or country, raised by native dignity of mind above the misrepresentation of the ignorant and the neglect of the great, he lived a serene and happy life devoted to the pursuit and communication of truth.

Supported by a calm but firm conviction of the usefulness of his labors.

Content with the approbation of the wise and good.

His writings will be a lasting monument of the extent and correctness of his understanding.

The spotless integrity of his principles, the equity and candour of his nature, his sweetness of temper, urbanity of manners and tenderness of heart, his benevolence and his piety are still dearer recollections of his family and friends.

Born Feb 14 1766 Died 29 Dec 1834.

   References in popular culture

  • Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol was supposed to represent the (perceived) ideas of Malthus, famously illustrated by his answer he gives to why he refuses to donate to the poor and destitute: "If they would rather die they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population".
  • The final spoken line of Urine Town, the Musical is "Hail Malthus," before the final sung line ("That was our show!") and the curtain call.
  • In Robert A Heinlein's novel, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, the character "Prof" says to Mannie: "This planet isn't crowded; it is just mismanaged...and the unkindest thing you can do for a hungry man is to give him food. 'Give.' Read Malthus. It is never safe to laugh at Dr. Malthus; he always has the last laugh."