Who Is Thomas Malthus?

Who Was Thomas Malthus?

Thomas Robert Malthus was a famous 18th-century British economist known for the population growth philosophies outlined in his 1798 book An Essay on the Principle of Population.

In it, Malthus theorized that populations would continue expanding until growth is stopped or reversed by disease, famine, war, or calamity. He is also known for developing an exponential formula used to forecast population growth, which is currently known as the Malthusian growth model.

Key Takeaways

  • Thomas Malthus was an 18th-century British philosopher and economist noted for the Malthusian growth model, an exponential formula used to project population growth.
  • The theory states that food production will not be able to keep up with growth in the human population, resulting in disease, famine, war, and calamity.
  • A noted statistician and proponent of political economy, Malthus founded the Statistical Society of London.
  • Malthus' theories were later used to justify British colonial policies that aggravated the Irish Potato Famine.
  • The theory is now considered to be largely discredited, as industrialized farming techniques have allowed food production to scale much faster than Malthus anticipated.
Thomas Malthus

Understanding the Ideas of Thomas Malthus

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, philosophers broadly believed that humanity would continue growing and tilting toward utopianism. Malthus countered this belief, arguing that segments of the general population have always been invariably poor and miserable, which effectively slowed population growth.

After observing conditions in England in the early 1800s, Malthus argued that the available farmland was insufficient to feed the increasing world population. Malthus specifically stated that the human population increases geometrically, while food production increases arithmetically. Under this paradigm, humans would eventually be unable to produce enough food to sustain themselves.

These conclusions inspired the description of economics as a "dismal science." Originally coined by Thomas Carlyle, the term was used to describe Malthus' conclusions regarding the inevitability of overpopulation and famine.

Famous naturalist Charles Darwin partially based his natural selection theory on Malthus' analysis of population growth. Furthermore, Malthus' views enjoyed a resurgence in the 20th century, with the advent of Keynesian economics.

Malthus' Early Life and Education

Thomas Malthus was born on Feb. 13, 1766, to a prominent family near Guildford, Surrey. Malthus was home-schooled before he was accepted to Cambridge University's Jesus College in 1784. There he earned a master's degree in 1791 and became a fellow two years later. In 1805, Malthus became a professor of history and political economy at the East India Company's college at Haileybury.

Malthus became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1819. Two years later, he joined the Political Economy Club, along with economist David Ricardo, and Scottish philosopher James Mill. Malthus was elected among the 10 royal associates of the Royal Society of Literature in 1824. In 1833, he was elected to both the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques in France, as well as Berlin's Royal Academy. Malthus also co-founded the Statistical Society of London in 1834. He died in St. Catherine, near Bath, Somerset in 1834.

Published Works of Thomas Malthus

Malthus' most famous work was his Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798 and later enlarged in following editions. This contained his famous argument that human populations tend to grow faster than agricultural output, resulting in famines or crises due to overpopulation. However, later editions acknowledged that "moral restraint" could slow population growth.

However, Malthus was a prolific essayist and exchanged many letters with contemporary economists. His other publications included:

  • The Present High Price of Provisions (1800), where Malthus criticized England's Poor Laws and argued that aid to the poor would encourage them to have more children than they would otherwise.
  • Observations on the Effect of the Corn Laws (1814), where Malthus argued in favor of importing corn from abroad rather than support the protectionist Corn Laws.
  • Principles of Political Economy (1820), perhaps Malthus' second-most famous work. This volume framed Malthus' debate on free trade with the economist David Ricardo, who had written a book by the same title.

When Malthus joined the faculty as a professor of history and political economy at the East India Company's college at Haileybury, this marked the first time the term "political economy" was introduced in academic circles. 

Criticism of Thomas Malthus

Malthus' theory of population was criticized by later economists and is now considered to be discredited. A major source of contention is the misuse of Malthus' theory of population to support genocidal policies in Ireland and India. Although Malthus was not alive by the time of the Irish Potato Famine, contemporary politicians leaned on his theories to blame Irish overpopulation rather than British colonial policies.

Malthus' theories were further disproved by later advances in science and technology that allowed agricultural output to scale much faster than the original theory predicted. Industrial farming techniques, chemical fertilizers, and genetic modifications have allowed food production to scale upwards, while birth control and educational improvements offer a brake on population growth.

In India, which boasts the world's second-biggest population, the Green Revolution helped feed the growing population in the state of Punjab. In western economies like Germany, which was battered during World War II, population increases did not hamper development.

What Did Malthus Predict About Population Growth?

Malthus predicted that natural population growth would tend to outpace agricultural output, ultimately resulting in famines and other catastrophes until the population falls back below a sustainable level. This relative abundance causes a new increase in fertility, resulting in a long cycle of overpopulation and population collapse.

How Did Thomas Malthus Influence Charles Darwin?

Darwin's theory of natural selection is partially based on Malthus' population theories, in that limited resources place competitive pressures on different species and members of the same species. Darwin's innovation was recognizing that over a long time frame, those competing species could evolve adaptations to improve their rate of survival.

What Is the Malthusian Growth Model?

The Malthusian growth model is a mathematical equation for population growth. It holds that the rate of growth is proportionate to the current population. This is functionally equivalent to exponential growth, where the size of the population doubles at predictable intervals.

The Bottom Line

Thomas Malthus was an 18th-century British economist best known for his theory that human populations tend to outgrow their agricultural resources, resulting in famines and other disasters. These theories have largely been discredited by innovations in agricultural technology, but they remain influential in the fields of evolutionary biology.

Article Sources
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  1. Encyclopedia Britannica. "Thomas Malthus."

  2. American Council on Science and Health. "Irish Potato Famine: How Belief in Overpopulation Leads to Human Evil."

  3. Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance. "Revisiting the Impacts of the Green Revolution in India."

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