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QUESTION: Who is Thomas Malthus?


Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) was a British scholar and minister of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Malthus was ordained as a Minister of the Church of England in 1788. He is most famous for his "Essay on the Principle of Population" (1798). In this work, Malthus proposed several ideas that were contradictory to the optimistic social philosophies of the time. His work was alternately applauded and criticized by various groups, though his influence on Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection was considerable. In the end, Malthus is best remembered for his contribution to Darwin's evolutionary theories than for anything else.

In "Population," Thomas Malthus proposed that populations, both human and animal, grow at an exponential rate. That is, populations grow through repeated multiplication. At the same time, he stated that food supplies can only grow at an arithmetic rate. That is, food supplies grow through repeated addition. This means that populations will always grow far faster than the food required to support them. Malthus believed that so-called "positive checks" (such as plagues and starvation) and "preventive checks" (such as birth control measures and delayed marriage), worked to keep population growth and food growth in balance.

Malthus proposed that famine and disease were natural consequences of population increases. He believed that these occurrences were inevitable. Malthus decided that to prevent worldwide catastrophe, the poor should not be encouraged to have large families, but should instead be encouraged to have smaller families, through direct or indirect means. He generally discouraged the notion of social services that supported the poor.

Thomas Malthus' opinions regarding the struggle to survive helped to inspire Charles Darwin in his development of the Theory of Natural Selection. Darwin noted that the population-food imbalance postulated by Malthus would lead to competition between offspring. He considered that some of those offspring would be better equipped for the struggle than others, and so would flourish. This "survival of the fittest" became the central theme to Darwin's developing theory.

While his theories may seem morbid or cold-hearted, recall that Malthus lived during times of great overpopulation in a small, island nation. The threat of overcrowding to the British at this time was no small matter. By today's standards, his attitude may seem uncaring. Yet, at the time, his was the first serious study of the social conditions of the poor.

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