The ideas of Thomas Malthus, discussed in an earlier post, didn’t just inspire questionable public policy over the years; they became part of a larger conversation among influential thinkers that encompassed political justice, natural science and evolution.
Malthus’ famed essay was conceived in response to ideas expressed by Godwin on population and political justice. Godwin had an extremely optimistic view of humanity and its potential. He believed corruption and sin were never inherent in man, but rather learned as a result of past experiences. This view allowed for the possibility of eliminating both sin and corruption entirely, and developing a society where individuals are ruled by reason.
Malthus believed that his theory of population growth made this idea impossible. Limited resources meant population had to be controlled by some means and often those means led to war, poverty and many of the vices Godwin felt could be eliminated.
The debate didn’t stop there. Godwin responded to Malthus, Malthus responded to Godwin’s responses in future editions of the essay, and others weighed in over the years on the famous back and forth debate.
Possibly the most famous influence Malthus’ essay has had on the history of ideas is its role in Darwin’s theory of evolution. In his autobiography, Darwin attributes Malthus for the epiphany that turned into his world-changing theory.
By applying what Malthus said to all species, he found an explanation for why some animals survive and others go extinct. The necessity of adaptation becomes clearer in light of the need to survive in a competitive world of limited resources.
Malthus certainly wasn’t the only influence on Darwin’s theory of evolution, but he’s the one Darwin himself credits with being the catalyst for his ideas falling into place to make for a cohesive theory. By expressing his concerns about the relationship between population and food supplies for humanity, he helped inspire one of the most influential concepts in scientific history.
Although the scale of the problem has changed, the discussion today isn’t too far off the heated conversations Thomas Malthus inspired with the publication of “An Essay on the Principle of Population” in 1798.
Concern about the ever-growing number of people sharing the Earth has inspired an ongoing series inNational Geographic. Recent stories in the New York Times and Washington Post both name check Malthus, while making opposite arguments about the potential dangers of population growth. While the future remains in question, one thing we can count on is the conversation continuing.
Darwin, Malthus and the Theory of Natural Selection, by Peter Vorzimmer