Thomas Malthus (1766-1834)

Glenn Everett, Associate Professor of English, University of Tennessee at Martin

Economist, famous for his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). Perhaps because of the Utilitarian climate of the times, his theory that population when unchecked would increase geometrically while food production could increase only arithmetically had tremendous influence. It followed logically from his thesis that people would rapidly outstrip the supply of food, and since birth control was immoral, only wars, famine, plague, and poverty made it possible for human life to continue. The Philosophical Radicals (the Utilitarians) and most especially many of the factory owners of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries combined this theory with the laissez-faire economics of David Ricardo and James Mill and the utilitarian calculus of Jeremy Bentham (and their own self-interest) to argue that increasing the comforts of the poor did them no favor: short-term comfort would rapidly give way to long-term misery.

Ultimately more important was the influence that Malthus had on Charles Darwin's Origin of Species (1859). When transferred from humankind to the natural world, Malthus' theory provided Darwin with the basis for his idea of natural selection, which he believed to be the mechanism by which some species and individuals survive while others do not. This essentially Malthusian explanation distinguishes Darwin's work from that of earlier evolutionists like Chambers, Cuvier, and his grandfather Erasmus Darwin.


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Last modified 4 October 2002