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Thomas Malthus (1766-1834)

Malthus was a clergyman and political economist whose controversial views on population growth made him a pivotal figure throughout the 1800s and beyond. His theories were outlined in his 1798 book, An Essay on the Principle of Population. They greatly influenced economics and social demography, and also impacted on Charles Darwin’s development of evolutionary theory, and emerging birth control and eugenic movements.

Malthus was born into a wealthy family. He was educated at home before studying at Cambridge University, where he became the institution’s first Professor of History and Political Economy. British society became increasingly industrialised and urbanised with a rapidly growing population, and Malthus grew concerned by his perception of a consequent decline in living conditions. He saw this as the inevitable consequence of the inability of resources to keep up with a rising population, but blamed the irresponsibility of the ‘lower classes’. Malthus proposed a population could only remain within its resource limitations by ’postive’ and ‘preventative’ checks. ‘Positive’ checks, such as disease, war and starvation, raised death rates. ‘Preventative’ checks, such as birth control, late marriage and celibacy, lowered the birth rate.

Malthus’s ideas were seen by many as harsh and uncaring, but his work influenced several major social changes in Britain. Most notable was the reform of the Poor Laws in 1834 to introduce the grim regime of the workhouse. Darwin read Malthus’s work in 1838 and was struck by Malthus’s observation that animals and plants produce more young than could survive. This creates a ‘struggle for existence’, which fitted with Darwin’s natural selection theory.

 

Related links

Bibliography

T Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population (Oxford paperbacks, 2008)

B Dolan, (ed.), 'Malthus, Medicine and Morality: Malthusianism After 1798', Clio Medica, 59 Wellcome Institute Series in the History of Medicine (Rodopi B.V., 2000)

Glossary:

Eugenics

The study of human improvement by selective breeding, founded in the 1800s by English scientist Sir Francis Galton. Widely discredited after its use by the Nazi regime.