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Malthusian Menace

published May 2016
Why Malthus makes for bad science policy
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If by fiat I had to identify the most consequential ideas in the history of science, good and bad, in the top 10 would be the 1798 treatise An Essay on the Principle of Population by English political economist Thomas Robert Malthus. On the positive side of the ledger, it inspired Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace to work out the mechanics of natural selection based on Malthus’s observation that populations tend to increase geometrically (2, 4, 8, 16…), whereas food reserves grow arithmetically (2, 3, 4, 5…), leading to competition for scarce resources and differential reproductive success, the driver of evolution.

On the negative side of the ledger are the policies derived from the belief in the inevitability of a Malthusian collapse. “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,” Malthus gloomily predicted. His scenario influenced policy makers to embrace social Darwinism and eugenics, resulting in draconian measures to restrict particular populations’ family size, including forced sterilizations.

In his book The Evolution of Everything (Harper, 2015), evolutionary biologist and journalist Matt Ridley sums up the policy succinctly: “Better to be cruel to be kind.” The belief that “those in power knew best what was good for the vulnerable and weak” led directly to legal actions based on questionable Malthusian science. For example, the English Poor Law implemented by Queen Elizabeth I in 1601 to provide food to the poor was severely curtailed by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, based on Malthusian reasoning that helping the poor only encourages them to have more children and thereby exacerbate poverty. The British government had a similar Malthusian attitude during the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, Ridley notes, reasoning that famine, in the words of Assistant Secretary to the Treasury Charles Trevelyan, was an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population.” A few decades later Francis Galton advocated marriage between the fittest individuals (“What nature does blindly, slowly, and ruthlessly man may do providently, quickly and kindly”), followed by a number of prominent socialists such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, Havelock Ellis and H. G. Wells, who openly championed eugenics as a tool of social engineering.

We think of eugenics and forced sterilization as a right-wing Nazi program implemented in 1930s Germany. Yet as Princeton University economist Thomas Leonard documents in his book Illiberal Reformers (Princeton University Press, 2016) and former New York Times editor Adam Cohen reminds us in his book Imbeciles (Penguin, 2016), eugenics fever swept America in the early 20th century, culminating in the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, in which the justices legalized sterilization of “undesirable” citizens. The court included prominent progressives Louis Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the latter of whom famously ruled, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” The result: sterilization of some 70,000 Americans.

Science writer Ronald Bailey tracks neo-Malthusians in his book The End of Doom (St. Martin’s Press, 2015), starting with Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 best seller The Population Bomb, which proclaimed that “the battle to feed all of humanity is over.” Many doomsayers followed. Worldwatch Institute founder Lester Brown, for example, declared in 1995, “Humanity’s greatest challenge may soon be just making it to the next harvest.” In a 2009 Scientific American article he affirmed his rhetorical question, “Could food shortages bring down civilization?” In a 2013 conference at the University of Vermont, Ehrlich assessed our chances of avoiding civilizational collapse at only 10 percent.

The problem with Malthusians, Bailey writes, is that they “cannot let go of the simple but clearly wrong idea that human beings are no different than a herd of deer when it comes to reproduction.” Humans are thinking animals. We find solutions—think Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution. The result is the opposite of what Malthus predicted: the wealthiest nations with the greatest food security have the lowest fertility rates, whereas the most food insecure countries have the highest fertility rates.

The solution to overpopulation is not to force people to have fewer children. China’s one-child policy showed the futility of that experiment. It is to raise the poorest nations out of poverty through democratic governance, free trade, access to birth control, and the education and economic empowerment of women.

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22 Comments to “Malthusian Menace”

  1. Simon Says:

    Apart from being reallly bad long term predictors anyway,the problem is that we are evolutionarily predisposed to take “doom” thinking seriously via system 1 thought.Non-doom just provokes “meh,not a lion then” responses

  2. Leo Says:

    >>For example, the English Poor Law implemented by Queen Elizabeth I in 1601 to provide food to the poor was severely curtailed by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, … << – sounds Logical if you use a time machine. I stopped reading there as it is just ideology not even basic math. Within jus one Generation (mine) the world population doubled – that's the mother of all hockeysticks! With just 2-3 billon humans, no onne would have to worry about CO2, plastic waste, fisheries or whatever. It's just arithmetics NOT wishful thinking …

  3. Mark LaJoie Says:

    Eventually, birth rate will balance with death rate. We can do this ourselves, dynamically, by controlling population, or it will be done for us, when a static equilibrium is achieved: Both rates will be zero and we will be extinct.
    History would indicate that we are too stubbornly stupid to be reasonable.
    Have a nice day!

  4. Travis Knowles Says:

    Conspicuously missing from this essay, and most others that downplay human population as a problem, is any mention of energy. Yes, humans are thinking animals, but without the enormous energy bubble provided by fossil fuels—unknown to Malthus before the first British coal seams were tapped—human ingenuity alone would never have resulted in the exponential growth of populations, technology, and medicine that brought us here. And no combination of alternative energy sources can sustain that same level of energy input indefinitely, if we do the energy math honestly. Fossil energy has become so taken for granted in contemporary developed nations that these invisible “energy slaves” never enter our mind. Cornucopian predictions of continued growth always cite human ingenuity, yet never credit energy. I agree with all of the solutions you offer in the last paragraph, but to these must be added putting the brakes on growth mania. Malthus is still lurking out there beyond Hubbert’s pimple, somewhere. In this sense, he may not have been so much wrong as ahead of his time.

  5. a morom Says:

    Travis Knowles says: “Cornucopian predictions of continued growth always cite human ingenuity, yet never credit energy.”

    I’d add to that Detrich Dorner’s observations in the Logic of Failure and Jacques Ellul’s observations in The Technological Society and Technological Bluff and Levitt and Dubblin in Freakonomics who essentially not that we use energy to gain an ever deepening control of nature. Harnessing ever increasing power becomes increasingly reliant on fortuitous outcomes due to the need to manipulate ever more variables of ever increasing complexity. Eventually you have a Chernoybl meltdown of one sort or another.

    Try “winning” a game of Sim City sometime.

  6. Victor Says:

    Could anybody explain to me what is the problem, at the population biology level, with eugenics? Obviously the major problem is the definition of the “fittest” Is there any body that will freely define him/herself as not suitable for reproduction?

  7. skeptonomist Says:

    Malthusian doom has been avoided temporarily by the exploitation of fossil fuels, which enormously increased the efficiency of food production and transportation and also other things such as shelter manufacture. This and other technological advances is where the “thinking” has come in, not in any deliberate limit of reproduction by individuals. Of course those who advocated acting (or not acting) in the short term on Malthusian predictions were wrong, but that does not mean there are not Malthusian limits in the long term.

    Now it seems that use of fossil fuels must be ended essentially because of pollution. It is not certain that a substitute will be found which does not have equally bad or worse disadvantages. There will also be other limits – arable soil, water, the availability of many other materials as well as the capacity of the environment for pollution. It is actually possible that a kind of Malthusian doom is already upon us, in an uncontrollable rise in temperature. The human species is likely to survive, but there could be major population crashes (which are very common in nature).

    Do humans magically reduce their own population when they become more prosperous, against their own instincts? The standard of living in the world keeps increasing, but so does the population. There have always been rises and falls of population of various human groups, the causes of which are unknown, but there is always another group which arises to keep total population growing.

    Why is it claimed that China’s deliberate population limit was a failure? Have they now fallen far behind India (for example) in material progress? This is a bizarre claim.

  8. Dave Rockwell Says:

    Currently a significant percentage of humanity is malnourished and living one disaster away from starvation. This is a fairly typical situation whenever civilization has expanded enough to make resources scarce; and now it is global. We can’t just go find empty land. We are forced to compete. In the theory of humane stabilization of the world, prosperity by technological and benign political means would spread worldwide, and population growth would come to a halt, perhaps between ten and fifteen billion. And somehow we would maintain this population burden without destroying the ecosystem upon which we are utterly dependent. I like the Titanic metaphor here: as we load the ship more and more heavily, it will require better load management, until finally the water is lapping at the rails, and we cannot afford even a small iceberg or a slightly larger wave lest we be swamped. Some of course would be saved from this boat sinking. But so much of great value would have been needlessly lost. (Look at the Great Extinction that seems to be happening now.) At some point we must consider ourselves to be a natural species like any other – a member, however toxic, of a great system. It might not be possible to manage ourselves as we manage other species’ populations; but if we could, we should hold our noses against the implied insult and just do it.

  9. OldNassau Says:

    “Humans are thinking animals. We find solutions—think Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution.” So why do people fixate on fossil fuels? Think (Scientist name) and the Energy Revolution. Or the Energy Consumption Revolution. Example: Light. Fire – Gas Lamps – Edison’s tungsten filaments – incandescent – florescent – LED’s. Or transportation: travois – wheel – rail – air – 3D printer. Always more product for less energy.

  10. Hans Says:

    “Currently a significant percentage of humanity is malnourished and living one disaster away from starvation.”

    That’s simply wrong. Despite the population explosion we produce more food now per capita than ever before. Obese people now outnumber the hungry. We live in the safest times ever. The number of destitute people have more than halved in the last two decades. China’s once child policy has resulted in a lack of family support for their elders. Developed nations are turning to sustainable power. All these facts can be found on the ‘net, and all of them happened despite population increases. The doomsayers are either not reading the article properly (simply stopping where they disagree, as one claimed above) or don’t understand it.

  11. Randall Says:

    The “thinking animal” referenced in the last two paragraphs is not necessarily doing any thinking in this regard.
    There are huge cultural and political issues, and superstitions of all kinds, which accompany the food insecurity those “fertile” societies.
    I believe that in that final sentence “access to birth control, and the education and economic empowerment of women” is to be found the key.
    I also fear that real change will likely be preceded by a near-global catastrophe… maybe climate change?.

  12. Bart Nedelman Says:

    There always exists the religious proclivity to claim a god will provide, such as with solutions for global warming. I have a few friends (2 or 3)that make this claim, to which I remind them of Nedelman’s Fourth Law of Thermodynamics: “Entropy will claim your sorry ass long before any god does.” While this does not always go over well,it does ask them to consider rational alternatives to problems.

  13. Alan Harris Says:

    “…the wealthiest nations with the greatest food security have the lowest fertility rates, whereas the most food insecure countries have the highest fertility rates.”

    Sounds like a recipe for extinction of the wealthy class.

  14. Reg Ernst Says:

    Virtually every problem facing mankind today whether it be economic, environmental, or social can be traced to too many humans chasing too few resources. At what point do we say that the carrying capacity of the earth has been reached? If developing countries such as Mexico, Vietnam, and many others had half their current population, they would likely be quite wealthy. Humans have been compared to a cancer on the earth; if you analyze the impact we have had on it, the analogy may not be too wrong. Currently, misery and suffering remains the fate of those who are economically challenged.

  15. Syd Foster Says:

    ‘“…the wealthiest nations with the greatest food security have the lowest fertility rates, whereas the most food insecure countries have the highest fertility rates.”

    Sounds like a recipe for extinction of the wealthy class.’

    High mortality in poor societies, longer expected life-spans in affluent societies, mean that raising living standards for all including and especially education for women will see the world population stabilise. Empowerment of women through education and economic freedom (liberation from domestic servitude) is the key to well-being for all of us.

  16. Mark R Allen Says:

    So far, no one has mentioned fresh water and the increasing demands made upon the supply by all human projects. The earth is water poor (yes, it is) and there is no way to get more unless we start ice mining throughout the solar system.

    Florida’s biggest aquifer is almost empty because of over- building. The great midwestern aquifer that maintains the grain belt is running to low. The Bay of California is a dead zone because the Colorado River only dribbles in because of all the dams. The Tigris and Euphrates have been over damed so Iraq and Kuwait receive only a small portion of the fresh water the system previously provided.

    Besides providing the entire world with beavers, how do we deal with the problem of too many mouths to wet and the unhealthy by-products of human projects?

  17. Dr. K Says:

    This article refers to eugenics, but does not clearly explain that it was—a pseudoscience that relied on incompetent methods of data collection. Eugenicists treated illiteracy as a symptom of mental deficiency; other “symptoms” included undesirable social behavior such as prostitution or alcohol abuse. Persons institutionalized for various reasons were all swept into the “unfit” category, requiring sterilization. Although the eugenics advocates of the early 20th century claimed Malthus, Galton and others as their inspirations, many were merely racist and classist fanatics, seeking to confirm their own prejudices. Others failed to understand the deep flaws in their understanding of scientific method. When trying to think seriously about population issues, eugenicists may serve as a bad example, but should otherwise be disregarded.

  18. Jim Stovall Says:

    Population growth is a problem. Is that redundant all over again? We have a conservative party in the U.S and in Rome (still living in the Middle Ages) that opposes birth control, including the day-after pill. We can raise a lot of food using an excess of antibiotics and chemicals, plus a plethora of additives in the soil. We could do a lot of good things to combat hunger. In some nations fruit trees can be found on every corner. People still use a labor intensive approach to agriculture in many places. We shall always need a measure of larger farms to supplement our food needs without stirring a silent chemical spring (Rachael Carson). What about global warming? I’m behind controlling population via education. Without reference to the smart/wealthy first world countries in their populations, people of the lesser countries can think if taught and led. I’m Babelling. Perhaps I am hoping to stir some more thinking on the matter as have the good comments above. ZPG has some rich merits and I have been steeped in it for decades. So what has happened to that approach?

  19. tpaine Says:

    What if our fear of rising C02 levels, which fears direct our political and economic policies, are themselves derived from the belief in the inevitability of a Malthusian collapse?

  20. Frank C. Griffin Says:

    Answer to the authors solution. Either it’s is a joke or the author lives in a fantasy world …

  21. Ken Luzleu Says:

    Just as we cannot argue for the existence of a god because religion is a force for good (and I love M.S.s courses on rational, sceptical thinking) it cannot now be argued that because Malthusian-inevitable-collapse reasoning has led to some bad social policies that it is therefore incorrect

  22. Thomas P Says:

    Shermer brings up Norman Borlaug. He might not have noticed that Borlaug in, for example, his Nobel lecture clearly is a neo malthusian.

    I think Shermer also misrepresent Malthus. Malthus didn’t predict any collapse, he wanted to explain why starvation didn’t disappear even in the face of improved agriculture. He also suggested the only solution was a reduction in birthrates. Malthus suggested abstinence while we got contraceptives, but that is close enough for me. (Wiping out natives in America and exporting Europe´s surplus population there also helped for a while)

    One can even argue that Malthus thesis encouraged acceptance of contraceptives is it became understood that more people wasn’t always better. His most lasting impact, however, has to be as an inspiration for Darwin.

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