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. I started it with “What’s Wrong with the Malthusian Argument?” and then followed up with “Malthus and His Geometrical and Arithmetical Ratios” as well as The Malthusian “Red Whale”.”]

Before I continue with my discussion of the Malthusian argument itself, I would like to insert a few posts that explain why I think it is important to address it. At first glance, this may seem like a moot point. “An Essay on the Principle of Population” is an old book. You will not find a Malthusian literalist today who thinks that Malthus was 100% right. There are simply too many predictions that have not checked out. The most glaring contradiction is that modern industrial societies obviously do not behave as expected.

That is no surprise in my view because the Malthusian argument has no merit. It was wrong from the start. There are weak readings where it has an internal logic that is consistent, but which are irrelevant as an explanation for human beings. And there are strong readings that if true would be very interesting, yet are false. All in all, the Malthusian argument is only the semblance of a scientific theory. Its force stems from something else:

It is a worldview.

And Malthus is very good at conjuring it up. He is an excellent narrator, but a lousy scientist. His arguments are not unimportant because they convince you that the Malthusian worldview is self-evident. Once you have absorbed the big picture, the proofs only have to sound plausible. You help Malthus along and fix any problems that arise because you assume that the worldview is beyond a doubt. He may have gotten the details wrong, but basically his argument stands.

That’s also why Malthusians are unfazed by obvious contradictions. You may be able to corner them on some specific point, and they will concede a problem. However, then they shrug this off as a rare exception or an inaccuracy that can easily be fixed. Their ideological repair mechanisms kick in and cognitive dissonances are removed. What remains is a feeling that the theory may have a few minor exceptions, but as a the rule it is still a deep insight.

Now when I say “Malthusians,” it may seem as if I talk about a few people who are in a cult and whom you never meet in real life. But that is not so. Even those who think they are critical and try to refute the Malthusian argument are quite regularly under the spell of the Malthusian worldview themselves. They labor to bend it together with the evidence. This then leads to some quibbles with the original argument, but for the most part even most critics accept it as valid.

The Malthusian worldview has been ubiquitous for the past two hundred years, and still is with us. It is so common and normal that you cannot see it for that reason. That’s why I call the Malthusian argument, or rather the Malthusian worldview, a part of our culture. It is all over the place.

When I speak of Malthusians I hence think of all those who more or less subscribe to the Malthusian worldview, not necessarily the specific arguments and also often with some qualifications. I will try to convince you that it is no exaggeration that “We are all Malthusians.” This will take more than just one post, which can only scratch the surface. But you have to start somewhere.

Here is a first stab:

A central or maybe even the central tenet of the Malthusian worldview is that human beings “in the wild” have as many children as possible. That is our human nature. Since this is obviously not so in the world we know, and it was not so in the world either that Malthus and his readers knew, there are all kinds of explanations how something extraordinary has happened that keeps humans from acting their true nature out. It is a concession to handle contradictions that are too blatant. However, as soon as Malthusians move away from examples that they have experience with, they revert to their worldview.

That is already so with Malthus himself. When he speaks of societies in the distant past of far away, he is confident that they had or have as many children as possible. When it is about societies moderately far away or not that far back in time, Malthus still assumes that they have and had lots of children. Once he arrives at home and in his time, the caveats have grown to a proportion that Malthus can easily explain also very slow population growth, stagnation, and even shrinkage. Nonetheless, Malthus thinks this is only an oddity. Once you relax conditions, massive fertility will come to the fore. The natural law still applies, it is only latent.

Now, this view is basically what I would say most people today also believe. You have to add even more caveats to fix the contradictions with what we know about our societies. But then the general assumption is that cavemen had as many children as they could, it was also so in the distant historical past, in ancient times, in the Middle Ages, it is so for hunter-gatherers who have kept their lifestyle until now. Actually, it was always so before about 1800, which is regularly called a “Malthusian world.” And it is still the case in Africa. So, the bottom line is that apart from an extraordinary situation since 1800, first in Europe, then also elsewhere, people had very many children. That is natural.

If you view it this way, modern industrial societies are puzzling. Human beings suddenly behave in an “unnatural” way. Something has gone wrong! And so a search for reasons ensues. I assure you that you get a dose of this every day if you are broadly interested in any issues that are only remotely related. It shoots like mushrooms from the ground. There are many usual suspects to explain what seems like a huge enigma:

Women work and get an education, and that’s it. Our societies are hostile to families with children. We are too egoistical. Policies keep people from having many children. The Nazis had an explanation that will perhaps not surprise you: The Jews are behind it. But it could also be the “Sexual Revolution,” the pill, “cultural Marxists,” womens’ liberation, political correctness, rising irreligiosity, stressful living conditions or genetic degeneration as the founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, thought, and what have you.

However, all this relies on the tenet of the Malthusian argument, enshrined in the Malthusian worldview, that human beings have as many children as possible if they can, and that that is our human nature. This is again reinforced by another part of our culture:

Charles Darwin got the idea for his theory of natural selection from reading “An Essay on the Principle of Populaton”. He assumed that Malthus had proved the point for human beings. Not only that, already Malthus treats it as obvious that all species of animals and plants have as many descendants as possible. He grants that human reason can work against this instinctual behavior, but only for well-to-do and educated people like himself. The poor cannot do this, they just keep on multiplying no matter what. Charles Darwin just picked up on this.

If not directly from Malthus, then certainly indirectly via Darwin, the claim about maximum natural fertility became de rigueur. Since human beings are a species of animals, it seems even stronger, and the deviation in modern industrial societies even weirder because people go not only against human nature, but also against biology. How come there is this singular exception to a rule that holds everywhere, for any species, and at all times?

If you wanted to interject at some point “But how could it be different!” or “That is obviously so for all other species, why not humans?” I would say you prove my point: The claim is a part of our culture, practically everybody believes it. And the reason we react like this — I don’t count myself out here! — can be traced back to Thomas Malthus and the worldview he conjured up.

I will explain later in this series why and how it can be different, and why this probably also holds for many species apart from humans. But this is not intuitive because we have imbibed the Malthusian worldview. Actually, once you begin to get over it, the baffling thing is that you should exclaim: “How could it be so, this is totally stupid!”

As I have remarked above, I can only scratch the surface here, but I will explore this more deeply in further posts. What I will also try to explain is how the Malthusian argument has not only shaped our culture, but also how it has had and still has an impact that cannot be overestimated. The consequences of the Malthusian worldview have often been horrible. In its mildest forms, they are annoying and plague our culture.

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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?