More on the Malthusian Worldview

[This is the continuation of my series of posts on Thomas Malthus’ “An Essay on the Principle of Population,” first published in 1798. It is the direct sequel to “The Malthusian Worldview.” — If you want to understand my general take on worldviews and ideologies, please read: “Worldviews, Narratives, and Ideologies.” — The series on Malthus began with “What’s Wrong with the Malthusian Argument?” followed by “Malthus and His Geometrical and Arithmetical Ratios” as well as The Malthusian “Red Whale”.”]

My contention in this and the previous post is that there is a Malthusian worldview separate from the Malthusian argument. It is an intuitive account of how the world works. There are stories along the time axis, but also panoramic vistas that are more like pictures. Together they form a whole that a reader absorbs. Malthus thinks that this worldview both follows from his argument and supports it, which is to a certain extent circular. He sometimes even makes up missing evidence from his theory and then treats it as confirmation.

My further contention is that readers are led to accept the worldview. Malthus lays it out in great detail and hammers central elements in while the argument itself gets short shrift. Once you have gone along with the Malthusian worldview, your standard of proof becomes very sloppy. You already “know” it is so, all you need is a certain plausibility. Claims may change their meaning over and over, but you grant that this is only a slight imprecision. Maybe the argument was only meant in a loose sense and a necessary qualification was left out, maybe something is an extraordinary exception, but the worldview stays intact.

I would say that this technique explains much of the persuasiveness of the Malthusian argument, which as it stands is deficient in many ways, often even ludicrously so. Since this post is not about the argument, I will mostly not argue the case here. I will focus on the worldview.

In my previous post I described one major part of it, namely the expectation that “naturally” human populations have very high fertility. Malthus himself thinks it is even the maximum biologically possible. Implicitly he also assumes minimum mortality “when unchecked.” There can only be “positive checks” that kill people off. So once the “positive checks” come into focus, the worldview becomes one orgy of wars, extermination, catastrophes, and human suffering in general.

Maximum fertility and minimum mortality imply (almost) exponential growth forever and to infinity. But that is not possible in a finite world. What can only stop the escalation is that a population runs into a wall of steeply rising mortality. That’s where the “positive checks” come into play and the bloodbath begins.

Mostly Malthus thinks that the food supply serves as a binding constraint. Since the population stubbornly tries to grow beyond it, famine has to push it back down. So many have to starve to death that maximum fertility is effectively replacement fertility and the population stabilizes by brute force.

Once it has hit the upper bound, the population can only grow in lockstep with the food supply, but finds itself practically always at the brink of starvation. One consequence of this is that there are only a certain number of slots: one person can only be there because some other is kicked out of existence. Malthus has a blunt way of putting this later in his essay (cf. X.29, my highlight):

It has appeared, that from the inevitable laws of our nature, some human beings must suffer from want. These are the unhappy persons who, in the great lottery of life, have drawn a blank.

And since Malthus assumes a high rate of population growth, and comparably slow growth of subsistence, even if the population starts below the upper bound, it will be there soon. The growth of humankind over the past 100,000 years would take only about three centuries. Hence it must almost always have been at the brink of starvation. The only exceptions could be a short initial ramp-up and catastrophic events that occasionally dip the population below the upper bound dictated by the food supply.

The mental image is anchored by Malthus right in the Preface with what has almost become a slogan summing his argument up: (cf. P.3):

It is an obvious truth, which has been taken notice of by many writers, that population must always be kept down to the level of the means of subsistence; […]

Note how what should be the conclusion of his argument is simply presented as an “obvious truth” that needs no further proof. As he adds, the only relevant question is that “no writer, that the Author recollects, has inquired particularly into the means by which this level is effected”.

Any population is always (read the quote!) at the maximum size possible unless it tries to go beyond it and is “kept down” to the binding constraint dictated by the level of the means of subsistence. The population is hence always at the brink of starvation, and that is self-evident. Of course, Malthus knows this is not true, it cannot be literally true even according to his theory, and it was not so in his time and practically never. But still, it is an “obvious truth” you are asked to accept at the outset.

Since famines are perhaps not enough as an explanation, Malthus has many other ideas how a population can be “kept down to the level of the means of subsistence.” Here are a few quotes from the first edition with my highlights. The first is about the Barbarians of ancient times (cf. III.5):

But that these nations could not escape the general lot of misery arising from the want of subsistence, Europe, and all the fairest countries in the world, bear ample testimony. Want was the goad that drove the Scythian shepherds from their native haunts, like so many famished wolves in search of prey.

He goes on in this way although he has no evidence to base his account on other than a derivation from his theory (cf. III.6):

[…] A broader desolation extended all around them. Want pinched the less fortunate members of the society: and, at length, the impossibility of supporting such a number together became too evident to be resisted. […] Restless from present distress; flushed with the hope of fairer prospects; and animated with the spirit of hardy enterprize, these daring adventurers were likely to become formidable adversaries to all who opposed them. The peaceful inhabitants of the countries on which they rushed, could not long withstand the energy of men acting under such powerful motives of exertion. And when they fell in with any tribes like their own, the contest was a struggle for existence; and they fought with a desperate courage, inspired by the reflection that death was the punishment of defeat, and life the prize of victory.

Malthus then notes (cf. III.7):

In these savage contests many tribes must have been utterly exterminated. Some, probably, perished by hardship and famine. Others, whose leading star had given them a happier direction, became great and powerful tribes; and, in their turns, sent off fresh adventurers in search of still more fertile seats. The prodigious waste of human life occasioned by this perpetual struggle for room and food, was more than supplied by the mighty power of population, acting, in some degree, unshackled, from the consent habit of emigration.

And he goes on with this description (cf. III.8):

[…] but there appears to have been a most rapid succession of human beings; and as fast as some were mowed down by the scythe of war, or of famine, […] A prevailing hope of bettering their condition by change of place; a constant expectation of plunder; a power even, if distressed, of selling their children as slaves, added to the natural carelessness of the barbaric character, all conspired to raise a population which remained to be repressed afterwards by famine or war.

As I have noted in my previous post, Malthus knows that his worldview becomes more tenuous the closer he gets to his times and to Europe. Still as long as some example is far enough away, he paints a similar picture, though it is somewhat toned down. Here is his account of China (cf. IV.5, note the initial if-clause and the last sentence where he basically admits that he makes his evidence up):

If it be supposed true, the only way of accounting for the difficulty, with our present knowledge of the subject, appears to be, that the redundant population, necessarily occasioned by the prevalence of early marriages, must be repressed by occasional famines, and by the custom of exposing children, which, in times of distress, is probably more frequent than is ever acknowledged to Europeans.

When he finally arrives at home, Malthus has to concede that it is perhaps not so (cf. VII.19):

In every State in Europe, since we have first had accounts of it, millions and millions of human existences have been repressed from this simple cause; though perhaps in some of these States, an absolute famine has never been known.

But despite this, he immediately goes on to put the finishing touches on his picture of world history (cf. VII.20):

Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature. The power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction; and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague, advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and ten thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.

My point here is not criticize the underlying argument, something I have begun to do in previous posts and will pursue further. All I want to show is that there is a worldview here that Malthus hammers in. It is a grim world, where human populations always try to ram through a binding constraint, and then are stopped by brute force: by famines, by wars, by extermination, by epidemic diseases and what have you.

As Malthus announces right in the preface: this is an “obvious truth” that is generally acknowledged. His theory apparently only tries to elucidate the exact mechanism. So if the arguments are incomplete, unconvincing or simply false, it is maybe only a first stab. Something in that direction must be the case. Malthus perhaps did not get it perfectly right, but anyway the worldview stands!

As I said, I will not tackle the Malthusian argument here, only describe the worldview. But let me ask a few questions that are not too far-fetched:

(1) Malthus makes a claim that all this was always so. But is this true? Take the example of the Barbarians in ancient times. When they set out to conquer new lands they hit upon “the peaceful inhabitants of the countries on which they rushed.” Now, wait: Doesn’t the same also apply for them? Or were the inhabitants of the Roman Empire exempt from the forces that pushed the Barbarians forward? Even stranger: Wouldn’t it seem like the overflowing numbers in the Roman Empire should have driven the Barbarians out first, not the other way around?

(2) Was it because the Barbarians had reached maximum population size and were on the brink of starvation why they invaded other countries? Or was it because they were driven out by others and then had to find new lands to settle, which brought them into conflict with the people in the Roman Empire? If they were pushed forward by others, it is by no means obvious that the Barbarians were at maximum population size before. That could happen at any level.

(3) It is easy to commit a logical mistake here. Malthusians expect this from their critics, and many of them have obliged. To disprove that humankind was always in a famine or in some orgy of devastation and destruction, it is not necessary to show that it never was. The negation of “for all” is not “for all not,” but “there is at least one counterexample.” Of course, there were all kinds of calamaties in the past. But does this show that it was always so? Malthusians have it easy here: “Look, there were famines, wars, and pandemics, that proves the theory! How silly to doubt this.”

(4) Is it so that wars only start when a population has hit maximum population size? Or can’t people also start wars below it? How about epidemics? Do they only strike when a population is at a maximum or also when it is below?

(5) Is the only possible reason why there is a famine that a population is at maximum size? Suppose a population has a typical range for their harvests. They will plant enough to live on. Since there is some variation, they will also store some food for bad years. However, they will not produce food until they drop. There is a reasonable range here. Now, if some unforeseen event happens, eg. there is an extreme drought or a volcano erupts on the other side of the world, there can be a shortfall that the population cannot handle and they will suffer from a famine. If a meteor hit our planet, it could also happen to us. And many famines were the result of a breakdown of the social order, the economic system, disruptions of trade and so forth, eg. during wars or under Communist regimes. Does that show that the population was at maximum size? It could be at any size and the effect would be the same.

But if you have already accepted the Malthusian worldview that it was always so that population tries to break through the ceiling and is pushed back down with brute force, you would not even think of raising these questions. Do the examples really prove the theory? All you need is some confirmation for what you already “know.” The takeaway is that world history indeed was a continual “struggle for existence” and a “war of extermination.”

If that sounds somewhat Nazi to you, maybe there is a reason. Hitler firmly believed in such a worldview, which had come to him from Malthus via Darwin. I will explore this and other consequences of the Malthusian worldview in later posts.

— — —

Here’s an overview with all the articles and related ones in this series. There is also a short summary for each post, so you can follow the argument even if you don’t feel like reading everything. I will keep the list updated:

Synopsis: What’s Wrong with the Malthusian Argument?