Thomas Malthus

QUESTION: How did Thomas Malthus influence Charles Darwin?


Charles Darwin was influenced by many writers, scholars, philosophers, and friends. One of his influences was Thomas Robert Malthus, a late-eighteenth century economist. Malthus wrote "Essay on the Principle of Population" (1798), which Darwin read and was inspired by. The central theme of Malthus' work was that population growth would always overpower food supply growth, creating perpetual states of hunger, disease, and struggle. The natural, ever-present struggle for survival caught the attention of Darwin, and he extended Malthus' principle to the evolutionary scheme.

Darwin considered that some of the competitors in Malthus' perpetual struggle would be better equipped to survive. Those that were less able would die out, leaving only those with the more desirable traits. Through his research, Darwin concluded that this ongoing struggle between those more and less fit to survive would produce a never-ending progression of changes in the organism. In its simplest form, this is evolution through natural selection.

Darwin had many other sources from which he developed his theory. Yet, if evolution was the machine, and natural selection was the engine, then Malthus' perpetual struggle for resources was the fuel. Prior to contemplating "Population," Darwin believed that populations grew until they were aligned with existing resources, and then stabilized. Thomas Malthus' work helped inspire Darwin to refine natural selection by stating a reason for meaningful competition between members of the same species.

Not surprisingly, Malthus, an ordained minister, believed that hunger and disease were aspects of life implemented by God to stop populations from exploding. Lacking these "positive checks" (as he called them), the world would quickly be overcrowded. He saw the competitive nature of life as a divine means to inspire men to work. Malthus disagreed with many of the more optimistic philosophers of the day who felt that any problem of humankind could be solved through social engineering. Malthus would probably be surprised to see how his essay became central to the type of naturalistic philosophy he disliked.

Learn More about Darwin's Theory of Evolution!

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