Book review – An Essay on the Principle of Population: The 1803 Edition

Overpopulation. Is there another topic more likely to bring about an uncomfortable silence during a dinner party? Possibly one of the last taboos even of our era, one name is intimately linked with this topic: Thomas Robert Malthus, author of the much-maligned An Essay on the Principle of Population. Originally published in 1798, Yale University Press here republishes the second edition of 1803, which is much expanded. As a bonus, they throw in five essays to place this work in context and discuss its relevance today. Why would you read a book that is over 200 years old? For the same reason evolutionary biologists still read On the Origin of Species – you cannot really properly discuss, let alone criticise a subject without reading its foundational text, now, can you?

An Essay on the Principle of Population

An Essay on the Principle of Population: The 1803 Edition“, written by Thomas Robert Malthus, edited by Shannon C. Stimson, published by Yale University Press in March 2018 (paperback, 588 pages)

Not a facsimile reproduction, this reissue features a few typographical updates and some minor corrections, but by and large stays true to the original. It is not the first reissue, nor the most comprehensive. Cambridge University Press published a large two-volume “variorum” version in 1989 that reproduced the 1803 edition but also included additions made to subsequent editions. Even so, Yale’s version is more than adequate. The differences between the 1798 and 1803 edition were enormous, between subsequent editions not so much. As with any topic, I am always mildly shocked to see the vast body of scholarship on it, and two other recent books that are worth reading in this context are Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet and The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus: Rereading the Principle of Population.

Briefly, Malthus argued that human population growth is naturally inclined to overtake and outstrip our ability to produce enough food. The inevitable consequences will be misery in the form of malnourishment, famines, and increased mortality, especially among the poorer classes of society. His ideas caused an uproar when published in 1798 and have remained hugely influential ever since, impacting such luminaries as Charles Darwin and modern authors such as Paul Ehrlich who wrote The Population Bomb.

“Why would you read a book that is over 200 years old? For the same reason evolutionary biologists still read On the Origin of Species […]

Malthus argued that population checks came in the form of either positive checks (misery such as famine, infanticide, warfare, etc.) and preventive checks (moral restraint in the form of putting off marriage and delaying having children). A large part of his work consists of convincing the reader of the need to exercise moral restraint as the more humane option to keep population growth in check (remember, this was a time when contraception barely existed, and marriage was generally the necessary precursor to having lots of children). The first edition was based mostly on conjecture and arguments from first principles. Based on critique, he much expanded the second edition, adding two whole sections (books 1 and 2) based on extensive reading of literature and his own travels around parts of Europe. Here, he surveys checks to population in both the developing world and the Ancient World (amongst the Greeks and Romans), as well as the developed world.

Part of what landed Malthus in hot water was his opposition to the English Poor Laws that were operational at the time. This was a social benefit system for poor people with large families. He argued that this only exacerbated the problem of overpopulation. After all, why bother to carefully consider whether or not to have children and whether you can support them? Heck, why even stick around in a marriage that no longer contents you when the state will provide when you abandon your wife and children? Of course, his views also ran counter to Christian doctrine to go forth and people the Earth – ironic, given that Malthus was himself part of the clergy of the Church of England. Rather than relying on benefits, it was in the hands of the poor to improve their livelihood. Those unwilling to provide for themselves and their family had no right to demand benefits, whether monetary or otherwise, and Malthus strongly argued for the abolishment of the Poor Laws.

Much ink has been spilt in the subsequent two centuries to point out some of his errors. He got certain facts flat out wrong, and his expansion of the essay with a body of supporting material after publication runs the risk of cherry-picking data. It seems he ignored certain findings inconsistent with his claims. And, of course, he did not, and could not possibly, foresee how technological and scientific developments improved both our agricultural yields (e.g. the Green Revolution), as well as our overall health (e.g. vaccines). It is important to place this work in the context of its time. And that is where the introduction and the essays are invaluable, providing much-needed context, explaining the state of the world at the time, as well as the other key players and writings that Malthus was responding to.

“It is important to place this work in the context of its time. And that is where the introduction and the essays are invaluable […]”

Another area where the book is a product of its time is the text itself. It was written in a time of colonialism when the inhabitants of many parts of the world were thought of as “savages”, and Africa was a continent of “negroes”. The attitudes of that time colour this work. And, as was usual, the writing can be rather long-winded and narrative in style, with complex sentences running many lines, full of subclauses. The language employed is necessarily somewhat antiquated and at times quaint. Especially when discussing the “virtue of chastity” and “the passion between the sexes” I could not help but smirk sometimes. Nevertheless, once you get into the rhythm of the writing style of the time, I found Malthus’s essay surprisingly readable. Though I do think he could have compacted the first two books in a bunch of tables. Modern editors would have a field day with writing of this kind…

Of all the essays, especially Kenneth Binnmore’s contribution stood out for me, answering that all-important question: “Was he right or was he wrong?”. Malthus’s argument was one of cold and rational logic. Even though he got some of the particulars wrong, and some scenarios that he put forth were hypothetical more than anything else, Binnmore argues that his main point stands to this day. And I thoroughly agree with that assessment. We have bought ourselves time with our technological prowess and our population has much increased as a consequence – something for which Malthus made allowance in his argument – but it has come at a hefty price to the environment. Those who argue that this can go on forever, that infinite growth is an option, live in looney-land as far as I’m concerned.

As mentioned in my review of The Wizard and the Prophet, the contemporary discussion on how to tackle our environmental woes has split into two opposing camps of techno-optimists and those who champion green solutions such as sustainable development and green energy, but largely ignores overpopulation. Malthus’s call to curb population growth is thus as relevant as ever. How we should go about this is something I will write more about in my next review of Should We Control World Population? Meanwhile, Yale University Press is to be congratulated in again making available such an important text and adding valuable context with the essays included.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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