NEVER was a book more perfectly timed than Thomas Robert Malthus' "Essay on the Principle of Population." It appeared in 1798, in the midst of the Demographic Revolution, and in the land whose population was to increase at a faster pace in the coming "British century" than that of any country on the Continent. One hundred and fifty years before, Europe had a static population of approximately 100,000,000. One hundred and fifty years later the advanced nations of Western Europe were to face a problem of declining numbers. But in 1798, when Europe's population of about 187,-000,000 was beginning to multiply -- and, despite vast migrations, was to reach a total of 550,000,000 -- the principles of population increase propounded in the "Essay" had a terrifying importance.

In 1650 the population of the world had been approximately 500,000,000; in 1940 it was to be two billion. Half a billion of this growth came in the 150 years from 1650 to 1800, and more than a billion has come since then. The major characteristic of the whole period is the swarming of Europe. In 300 years the number of Europeans -- counting those of unmixed descent living abroad -- increased more than sevenfold. "Viewed in long-run perspective," writes Kingsley Davis, "the growth of the earth's population has been like a long, thin powder fuse that burns slowly and haltingly until it finally reaches the charge and then explodes." The most remarkable aspect of the increase in the population of the west which is called the Demographic Revolution is the growth of the English-speaking peoples; they multiplied from an estimated 5,500,000 in 1600 to 200,000,000 in 1940. In the last 150 years of statistical history the British Isles increased their population more than fourfold, while at the same time they contributed more than 17,500,000 people to the settlement of North America and the overseas Dominions.

From a study of the first edition of the "Essay," modern scholars believe that Malthus was addressing himself primarily to the problem of poverty, and that the question of population was secondary in his thoughts. He intended to examine the nature of poverty as Adam Smith had inquired into the nature of wealth. But he cast his book in the form of an answer to William Godwin and the social perfectionists, with the result that he infuriated both the theological conservatives and the social radicals at a single stroke. "For thirty years it rained refutations." Malthus was the most abused man of the age, says his biographer, James Bonar, put down as "a man who defended smallpox, slavery and child murder, who denounced soup kitchens, early marriage and parish allowances; who had the impudence to marry after preaching against the evils of a family; who thought the world so badly governed that the best actions do the most harm." As an expositor of the causes of poverty, Malthus came no closer to a convincing answer than do other distinguished exemplars of the one-track mind such as Henry George or Karl Marx. The monumental theory of population which he developed in the six revisions of his treatise is his major contribution.

As thousands who have never read Malthus know, he held that the growth of population tends to outrun the means of subsistence, and that unless this tendency is restrained it will plunge mankind into misery and chaos. Malthus presented the problem in his famous ratios: population increases by multiplication while the food supply increases by addition. Unless new land is added, he said, a nation can expect to produce each year just about as much food as it produced the previous year; but, as America showed, population might easily double each generation. Population, he continued, is brought into line with the food supply by certain checks. The ultimate check -- the blank wall against which population increase will finally run -- is famine. But other checks can operate before that one is reached -- poverty, malnutrition, vice and war. Delayed marriage with moral restraint is the sole means of escape from such grim sequences and (the conclusion that particularly outraged Godwin) any project to better society and alleviate want which weakens this impulse merely aggravates the evils it seeks to cure.


Modern scientists are inclined to avoid needless controversy by asking one question: How might the Malthusian hypothesis be rephrased so that it is subject to test by demographers? Perhaps, thus revised, it would run as follows: A large increase in population is to be expected, followed by a decline in the per capita consumption of food and an increasing death rate that will finally lead to famine; the only alternative is a postponement of marriage on a large enough scale to reduce fertility greatly. If this hypothetical statement is checked by the facts of demography, it is readily apparent that, except for the proviso about war, only one people in western civilization -- the Irish -- have fulfilled the reasonable expectations of Malthusianism. Viewing the scene 150 years after, modern demographers know that Malthus lived in a particular stage in the population cycle. Utilizing scientific resources unheard of in his day -- census enumerations, vital statistics and advanced methods in mathematics -- they are able to identify these stages and to show the vital changes in mortality or fertility that initiated them. Finally, they can project them into the future. But the very range of the modern methods of analysis and calculation that are employed to correct the work of this lone theorist, who wrote his first essay at a country seat far from documents and libraries, testifies to his achievement.

We know definitely that (aside from fluctuations due to war) the death rate has continued to fall since Malthus' time. In fact, we know that the increase in length of life, and not an assumed rise in the birth rate, was the cause of the great population revolution that led Malthus to propound his theory. As A. M. Carr-Saunders has shown, this decline in deaths started in England around 1730, the year the elder Malthus was born. The rate fell from 35 per thousand to 22 per thousand in 1820, three years after young Malthus brought out the fifth edition of his "Essay." One hundred and forty years passed from the first great downward break in English mortality around 1740 to the initial comparable break in the birth rate around 1880. Deaths continued to fall until they reached a low of 10 per thousand in the first decade of this century, and population continued to increase for the next 60 years, largely because of the lag between the two rates.

Lives were saved in England as elsewhere by the great changes in medical, sanitary and social practices. Thus scurvy became rare by 1750 chiefly because farmers, instead of allowing the ground to lie fallow in winter, introduced root crops which provided vegetables and also brought more fresh meat. Later the use of cotton spread cheap textiles among the masses. Once it had been the custom to sew children into leather skins at the beginning of winter; now increased cleanliness lowered the death rate. Sanitation and medicine slackened the epidemic diseases and infant deaths that had scourged England for centuries.

The sanitary and medical revolutions saved the lives of children; the Industrial Revolution kept them alive as adults. As Harold Wright has said:[i] "The population problem with which Malthus was especially concerned, the problem of feeding a rapidly increasing number of Englishmen on the produce of an island which remained the same size, was solved for a hundred years at least, by an immense increase in the production of manufactured goods and the exchange of these for food and raw materials from new continents. As numbers increased, food actually became cheaper; more emigrants were available to grow food abroad and more workmen were absorbed in Europe in the production of the agricultural machinery, steamers and railways which enabled the food to be produced and carried home for their consumption." In short, the Industrial Revolution delayed the population crisis of England for a hundred years. In multiplying up to these new limits, England and Western Europe created a denser industrial population than they could reasonably hope to support, once industrialization had spread over the globe. In all justice to Malthus it must be pointed out that he foresaw this possibility, and in the following little-noticed passage warned against the danger:

In the wilderness of speculation it has been suggested that Europe ought to grow its corn in America, and devote itself solely to manufacture and commerce as the best sort of division of the labour of the globe. But even on the extravagant supposition that the natural course of things might lead to such a division of labour for a time, and that by such means Europe could raise a population greater than its lands could possibly support, the consequences ought greatly to be dreaded. It is an unquestionable truth that it must answer to every territorial state in its natural progress to wealth, to manufacture for itself. . . . But when upon this principle America began to withdraw its corn from Europe and the agricultural exertions of Europe were inadequate to make up for the deficiency, it would certainly be felt that the temporary advantages of a greater degree of wealth and population had been very dearly purchased by a long period of retrograde movements and misery.[ii]

Though the Industrial Revolution thus gave Europe a respite from the dangers of overpopulation, this in itself was not a permanent adjustment to the challenge which Malthus had formulated. When the compensatory movement began, it took the course he advocated -- a sharp and continuing decline in births -- although it did not come about in the way he envisioned. Marriage rates, save in one area which we shall notice, remained high. The peoples of western culture avoided the population crisis by the movement variously known as Neo-Malthusianism, birth control, contraception or family limitation. If we say that the fall in deaths initiated the Demographic Revolution, we may say that the decline in fertility began the counter-revolution.

It was evident by 1850 that the birth rate was falling in France, the United States and Ireland. The evidence indicates that the high fertility of colonial America had started to decline by the time of the first census in 1790. From 1847 to 1914 France's birth rate declined from 27 to 19 per thousand; during the course of the First World War it dropped to 11, and then after a temporary rise resumed its downward course. It has declined with little or no change in the age of marriage or in the proportions of the married and single parts of the population. The decline has been due to the restriction of fertility within marriage. Apparently the practice of limiting the size of the family was initiated in France, and spread from this country to other nations of Western Europe.

In England the birth rate reached a high point in 1870. By 1880 English fertility was in full decline, and from 1870 to 1930, a short 60 years, it fell from 35 to 15 per thousand. The whole tone of English life was conducive to this transformation. Certainly no one in Britain was more "Victorian" than the Queen, and no one better represented the views of the British people on questions which, in the literal sense of the word, were domestic. In 1841 she wrote to the King of the Belgians: "I think, dearest uncle, you cannot really wish me to be the Maman d'une nombreuse famille for I think you will see with me the great inconvenience a large family would be to us all, and particularly to the country, independent of the hardship and inconvenience to myself; men never think, at least seldom think what a hard task it is for us women to go through this very often."

Why did the realistic Malthus fail to envisage this possibility of family limitation -- the most significant demographic movement in the modern world? To most liberal thinkers Malthus seems to serve two very different masters: utilitarianism and authoritarianism. The German demographer, Hans Meyerhoff, even holds that Malthus' work was nullified by his deference to tradition: "a mythological cuckoo's egg in the nest of exact science." This seems unjust, but after careful study, James A. Field has come to the conclusion that Malthus knew of the propaganda for birth control in his day and vigorously denounced any physical device for limiting family size.[iii] This deference to orthodox tradition -- the only instance in which the demographer deserved the epithet "Parson Malthus" so often hurled at him -- left contemporary agitators like Francis Place, Richard Carlike, Robert Dale Owen and Dr. Charles Knowlton in better command of the means of scientific prediction than Malthus. In Malthus' view, the prerequisite for marriage was "the prospect of being able to support a wife and six children." (Modern demographers calculate that three children per fertile family are adequate for population replacement and stability; six per family would have come close to doubling the population each generation.) There is no doubt of the sincerity of Malthus' advocacy of moral restraint, but we may note also that the radical writers of his day pointed out what so many clergymen, physicians and social workers emphasize now, namely, that if society wishes to make sexual continence a supreme value, early marriage must be made possible.

The history of Irish population is a tragic illustration of the Malthusian dilemma. Its motif was famine. In 1610, Sir Walter Raleigh began to grow potatoes from America on his Cork estate, and within two generations this had become the common food of Ireland. An oppressed, neglected people, provided with this new source of nourishment, married young and bred rapidly. By 1845 the population had doubled within the memory of living persons, and had reached a total of 8,300,000. As Sir James O'Connor wrote in his "History of Ireland": "The priesthood favored early marriages. The Irish policy favored sub-letting, and early marriages and sub-letting combined made for an over-rapid increase in population. Nearly three-and-a-half millions of the people lived in mud-cabins, badly thatched with straw, having each but one room and often without a window or a chimney." The blight which can rot potatoes in a few days appeared in America in 1844, and in the summer of 1846 swept Ireland like the Black Death and destroyed the food supply of the peasantry. In the five years from 1846 to 1851, 1,000,000 died; 21,770 deaths were reported due to starvation from 1841 to 1851, a cause always unlikely to be entered on official records.

The sequel was a mass exodus from Ireland. In a decade, one-fourth of the population migrated, mainly to the United States, and within two generations 5,000,000 had left. The Irish met the situation by postponing and foregoing marriage. The Irish birth rate for the mid-nineteenth century can only be estimated, but Carr-Saunders holds that it was probably nearer 40 than 30 per thousand before 1850, and began to fall about that time. It was 26.2 per thousand in 1871-81, and 21.1 per thousand in 1911-1926. Within this period the proportion of unmarried Irish women, aged 25 to 35, increased from 28 percent in 1841 to 53 percent in 1926. For a whole population to delay marriage for an appreciable length of time means, of course, that many will forego marriage entirely. In 1841, 15 percent of Irish women in the higher ages, 35-45, were unmarried; by 1926 this figure had risen to 29 percent. Thus, three-tenths of all Irish women now live through the reproductive period without marrying. For those who married, however, fertility remained as high as ever. In 1861, there were 130 children under five years of age for every 100 married women under 45 in Ireland; in 1926, the corresponding number was 131 children. In England, during the same period, the corresponding figure declined from 116 children per hundred married women to 71.

Irish population is now stabilized around 4,300,000, approximately half the number before the famine. Ireland now has the highest rate of celibacy in western culture, if not in the world; she contributes her sons and daughters to the priesthood and sisterhood of the Catholic Church the world over. In England, France and the United States there has been little or no decrease in the proportion of married people. That Ireland has thus reduced her birth rate by foregoing marriage is the product of a strange chain of economic circumstances, reinforced by the loyalty of her people to the Church. Her tragic story demonstrates the pattern of population reduction the western world might have followed had it heeded Malthus the moralist, not Malthus the scientist, and indicates how drastic are the measures required to enforce the Malthusian prescription.


Few students of the problem now expect to arrive at a general law of population growth applicable to all peoples at all times. Today the spirit of relativity pervades the domain of demography no less than that of physics. But Malthusianism is a thread in the fabric of all history that has been woven since Malthus published his thesis. Anyone disposed to deny that ideas have consequences might note the acute comment of Leonard T. Hobhouse. "The Malthusian theory," he wrote, "was one cause of the defeat of its own prophecies. It was the belief that population was growing too fast that operated indirectly to check it."

Malthusian theory is thought by demographers today to be most fruitful when examined in relation to successive stages of a world-wide demographic cycle, different phases of which are evident in various nations and regions. Frank W. Notestein and his associates at Princeton University, who have done most to explore this cycle, describe these stages as: first, potential growth; second, transitional growth (represented by Western European experience, a part of which Malthus witnessed); and third, incipient decline (uncharted in the Malthusian theory).

Professor Notestein estimates that approximately half the world's population is now in the stage of potential growth comparable to that of medieval Europe. With some variations the Near East, all Asia (outside Japan and the Soviet Union) and the least developed countries in Central and South America are in this pre-Malthusian stage. There is high fertility, but population is held stable by high death rates. These are the countries in which lives can be saved by medicine and sanitation only to be lost through poverty and famine in true Malthusian fashion. Though it is difficult to describe with any accuracy conditions in a nation which lacks a modern census and vital statistics, China may perhaps be taken as representative of the fluctuations and the essentially static demography of this stage. We know that modern sanitation and medicine have not yet reached the Chinese masses, and many scientists doubt if China's large population has for many centuries shown a permanent increase. However, since there is fluctuation around an equilibrium of high fertility and equally high mortality, China has a young population capable of large increase once the forces of death are restrained.

In the past, Chinese population growth apparently followed the cyclical path later experienced by the western world. At the beginning of each new dynasty, peace and order were maintained, there was an excess of births over deaths, an increasing division of labor, and cultural advancement. But though China reached a high stage of civilization, she did not develop technological resources as the west did later on, and hence the population continued to increase up to the saturation point. Then came famine, pestilence and finally war and revolution, bringing a new dynasty and temporarily reducing population pressure. This Malthusian cycle has occurred four times since the second century A.D. Today the potential of China lies dormant; her population pressure is not "felt," that is to say, it is not rationalized as a source of policy as in Japan.

In India the rudiments of sanitation, control of epidemics, improved communications, and the extension of law and order have brought a fall in mortality that produced a gain of 83,000,-000 in population in the two census decades from 1921-1941. India is thus mobilized for further increase, and there is no sign as yet that she will take the path of either France or Ireland.

Japan has entered the second phase of the cycle -- the Demographic Revolution introduced by a declining death rate. She has explored the possibilities of large-scale industrialization and is the one country which demonstrates that the Orient, too, can reduce fertility. Not only have Japanese death rates shown a marked decline, but in the recent period birth rates have turned downward. Significantly, Japanese vital statistics from 1920 to 1940 show a marked similarity to those in England and Wales from 1881 to 1901. During the interwar decades birth and death rates in Japan were about the same as those in England 40 years earlier, and declined at about the same pace. But it is important to remember that, as Professor Notestein says, "Modernization and urbanization in Japan have moved rapidly, but population growth has been of the type that implies a tripling of the population in a century, and more than half of the increase would come after the birth rate began to fall." Though Japan gave the world an example of rapid industrialization, the future trend of her population will depend on the extent to which her drastic defeat has curtailed her economic development. The demographic requisites for growth are still present in the Japanese population.

The U.S.S.R., bridging the huge land area between Europe and Asia, characteristically also links the differentials of east and west in population growth. It is now enjoying the fruits of the Demographic Revolution and is the one country capable of exploring the full possibilities of transitional growth. There has been great industrial expansion, and deaths have been brought under control by medical and sanitary progress. Industrialization was initially accompanied by a slight fall in fertility, but this seems to have been overcome, and national policy actively encourages large families. In addition, the age structure of the Soviet Union indicates that there will be an increase in the number of women in the reproductive ages during the next few decades. Frank Lorimer, in a reconstruction of the Russian census in his "Population of the Soviet Union," projects a gain of 70,000,000 from 1940 to 1970.

An ideology of expansion and an expansive demography often go together. Russia has reached the ascending phase of the cycle as Western Europe is entering the phase of incipient decline. In proportion to its base population, Russia's growth is no greater than, for example, the great increase in the population of Java under Dutch colonial rule, but Russia has an extra dimension -- the industrial realm -- to absorb her population growth. (Java has already reached the limits of density of an agricultural economy.) And the Soviet Union also has within her own borders the largest undeveloped area possessed by any major Power; Siberia is still Russia's greatest colony. There is hardly any doubt that the Soviet Union will undergo large demographic expansion. The great question for the rest of the world is whether it will be kept within her own boundaries.

When we discuss the third stage of the great cycle -- incipient decline -- we pass beyond Malthus; stabilization and falling population are unknown to Malthusianism. The countries of Central and northwest Europe were the first to enter the third phase. France, Sweden, Iceland, Austria, England and Wales face declining populations by 1970. Ireland, as we have seen, is replacing her population but not increasing it. Germany may well be added to this group because of war losses. Poland suffered the greatest deliberate sabotage of population of any country in recent times at the hands of the Nazis, but her population structure is such that recuperation is possible if economic conditions are at all favorable. Demographically speaking, these populations of Central and northwest Europe are reaching maturity. Low fertility reduces the proportions of young people; improved life expectancy increases the number of the aged. Since the majority of women in this region are now living past age 50, increased length of life will bring little added reproduction. In the United States, Australia and New Zealand a white woman may expect to live to the age of 67. Were it not for the chaos of war, western civilization would have the life goal of three score years and ten within its grasp, possibly within two decades.

On the projection of 1935-39 rates, the American population was expected to cease growth around 1980. But the United States has come out of World War II with unexpected gains in population. The large number of births so greatly exceeded war casualties that the American people are not yet faced with incipient decline.

But at this point in the analysis, we enter territory where modern demographers are inclined to set up only tentative guideposts. Knowledge of what can happen, and what is likely to happen if "natural" forces have their way, is a challenge to men to use their intelligence and their will to produce results more in keeping with their needs and desires. Some students see no real prospect of depopulation. The prospect of a declining phase in the population cycle is based on the projection of trends now current. But who can tell, it is asked, what social changes an awareness of these trends may bring into effect? We have seen that overpopulation can set in motion certain social and economic forces which check it. Will the fear of underpopulation do so? Is the present "birth strike" a revolt against some of the anomalies of industrialism and the economic order? Will it cease if more equitable and rational social institutions are developed? We may well leave this end of the population cycle open, admitting that in our own lifetime we shall probably not know whether a permanent decline in population has set in for the advanced countries in western civilization. Few experts believe that there can be any "automatic" tendency to equilibrium in population, on the side of checking population decline or on the side of arresting its growth. But consciousness of possible dangers makes a great difference in the affairs of men. Perhaps that is Malthus' most important lesson.

[i] Harold Wright, "Population." New York: Harcourt, 1923, p. 33.

[ii] T. R. Malthus, "An Essay on Population." Seventh edition. Everyman's Library, Vol. II, p. 111.

[iii]Cf. "Essay," Appendix, fifth ed., 1817, and sixth ed., 1826, II, 479.

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  • RUPERT B. VANCE, Kenan Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina; author of "All These People" and other works
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