Thomas Malthus Research Paper

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In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the British scholar Thomas Malthus developed theories about economics and the dangers of population growth that countered the prevailing European view of an improving society. His ideas continue to inspire thinking in ecology and environmental studies, such as the concepts of “carrying capacity” and “global commons.”

Thomas Robert Malthus, the British scholar who provided one of the first warnings of the dangers of overpopulation, put the “dismal” in the “dismal science” of political economy. Malthus’s simplistic mathematical models and common-sense observations made his dire predictions about a crowded, starving world a popular fear for generations after his 1798 An Essay on the Principle of Population.

Malthus was born of well-to-do English parents. He studied mathematics at Jesus College, Cambridge, taking holy orders, and eventually becoming the first professor of political economy in England at the East India College. In answer to the inevitable question posed to the “father” of population control, he had three children, two of whom survived to adulthood.

Malthus’s fame, ironically, arose from his anonymously published 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. Malthus’s essay is best understood as a critique of French Enlightenment ideas of progress promulgated by, amongst others, his father, William Godwin, and Condorcet. Where these philosophes saw inevitable progress, Malthus saw vice, misery, and starvation. After making some general observations about the fecundity of plants and animals compared to the relative scarcity of the means of subsistence, Malthus went on to offer a mathematical illustration to ground his thoughts on overpopulation. Malthus claimed that whereas population can increase geometrically (e.g., 1, 2, 4, 8, 16 . . .) agriculture is limited to arithmetic increases (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 . . .). The result of these differing mathematical limits was that unchecked population would inevitably outrun the food supply. The first edition of An Essay on the Principle of Population was indeed a grim document, a stinging tonic to Enlightenment optimism whereby the iron laws of human nature and agricultural productivity trapped humankind in a vicious circle of starvation. By the second edition of his essay in 1803 Malthus offered the meager hope that perhaps humans might shape their destiny through delay of marriage—the only safe (morally and physically) means he could conceive of to prevent conception. Yet overall the Reverend Malthus’s population sermon remained the same: moral restraint was the only possible check to humanity’s natural tendency to succumb to animal passion, vice, and despair.

Long a mainstay of economic doctrine, Malthus’s influence on the life sciences was, if anything, more pronounced. Both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace credited Malthus with providing the mechanism for their near simultaneous co-discovery of evolution by natural selection. Malthus’s claims for fecund parents and limited natural resources seemed the ideal engine to drive natural selection. Malthus’s links between social class and wanton breeding was also a mainstay of later social Darwinians who shared some of Malthus’s prejudices against the lower classes and assistance to the poor.

In the environmental sciences Malthus was no less influential. His population ideas seem directly linked to the later idea of “carrying capacities.” In a more popular vein, Malthus provided the intellectual impetus for a Cold War generation of “neo- Malthusians” who once again saw a growing population as the portent of doom. Garrett Hardin was a rigorous hard-hearted cynic in the Malthusian vein whose classic essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968) noted the ecological pitfalls of unchecked population growth, puncturing the optimism of 1960s liberalism as gleefully as Malthus debunked the Enlightenment. Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) enjoyed the popular force of Malthus’s original essay through its striking mathematical predictions and evocative metaphor of exploding numbers of babies in an increasingly unstable world. In the twenty-first century, there are more than six times as many humans on the planet as the billion souls who so troubled Malthus at his death in 1834, and the debate he began remains contentious. Ironically, for this most influential of population control advocates, his intellectual progeny were numerous.


  1. Appleman, P. (Ed.). (1976). An essay on the principle of population: A Norton critical edition. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company Inc.
  2. Ehrlich, P. (1968). The population bomb. New York: Ballantine Books.
  3. Hardin, G. (1968). The tragedy of the commons. Science, 162, 1243–1248.
  4. Malthus, T. R. (1798). An essay on the principle of population. London: J. Johnson.
  5. Vorzimmer, P. (1969). Darwin, Malthus, and the theory of natural selection. Journal of the History of Ideas, 30, 527–542.

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