As he put it, “It has been said that I have written a quarto volume to prove that population increases in a geometrical, and food in an arithmetical ratio; but this is not quite true.The first of these propositions I considered as proved the moment the American increase was related, and the second proposition as soon as it was enunciated.” As one of his contemporary critics responded, “These phrases, if they mean any thing, must mean that the geometrical ratio was admitted on very slight proofs, the arithmetical ratio was asserted on no evidence at all.”All of this meant that the was a failure in that the argument was clearly insupportable.Nevertheless, population tended naturally when unchecked to increase at a geometrical rate (1, 2, 4, 8, 16), while food supply increased at best at an arithmetical rate (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).
Godwin, have imagined that I looked to certain periods in the future when population would exceed the means of subsistence in a much greater degree than at present, and that the evils arising from the principle of population were rather in contemplation than in existence; but this is a total misconception of the argument.”For Malthus, relatively low or stagnant population growth was taken as a sign of population pressing on the means of subsistence; while high population growth was an indication that a country was underpopulated.
“In examining the principal states of modern Europe,” he wrote, “we shall find that though they have increased very considerably in population since they were nations of shepherds, yet that at present their progress is but slow, and instead of doubling their numbers every twenty-five years they require three or four hundred years, or more, for that purpose.” Nothing else, in Malthus’ terms, so clearly demonstrated the reality of a population that had reached its limits of subsistence.
Wallace, who in his earlier writings had demonstrated that human population if unchecked tended to increase exponentially, doubling every few decades, made a case in that while the creation of a “perfect government,” organized on an egalitarian basis was conceivable, it would be at best temporary, since under these circumstances “mankind, would increase so prodigiously that the earth would be left overstocked and become unable to support its inhabitants.” Eventually, there would come a time “when our globe, by the most diligent culture, could not produce what was sufficient to nourish its numerous inhabitants.” Wallace went on to suggest that it would be preferable if the human vices, by reducing population pressures, should prevent the emergence of a government not compatible with the “circumstances of Mankind upon the Earth.”Wallace’s argument was strongly opposed by William Godwin in his Enlightenment utopian argument for a more egalitarian society, which he enunciated in his .
First published in 1793, it was followed by a second edition in 1795 and a third edition in 1797 (the year before Malthus’ essay appeared).
Malthus’ only original idea in his population theory, as Marx emphasized, was his arithmetical ratio. He merely espoused it on the basis that it conformed to what, he claimed, any knowledgeable observer of the state of agriculture would be forced to admit.
Indeed, if there was a basis at all for Malthus’ arithmetical ratio it could be found in his pre-Darwinian understanding of the natural world (as represented in his time by the work of thinkers such as Carolus Linnaeus and William Paley), in which he assumed that there was only limited room for “improvement” in plant and animal species.
Malthus himself did not use the term “overpopulation” in advancing his argument—though it was used from the outset by his critics.2 Natural checks on population were so effective, in Malthus’ late-eighteenth-century perspective, that overpopulation, in the sense of the eventual overstocking of the globe with human inhabitants, was not the thing to be feared.
The problem of an “overcharged population” existed not at “a great distance” (as Godwin had said), but rather was operative, even at a time when most of the earth was uncultivated. Condorcet thinks that it [the possibility of a period arising when the world’s population has reached the limits of its subsistence] cannot .. If the proportion between the natural increase of population and food which I have given be in any degree near the truth, it will appear, on the contrary, that the period when the number of men surpass their means of subsistence [in later editions this was changed to “easy means of subsistence”—see note 2 above] has arrived, and that this necessary oscillation, this constantly subsisting cause of periodical misery, has existed ever since we have had any histories of mankind.” In the 1803 edition of his work on population he wrote, “Other persons, besides Mr.
In the late nineteenth century it took on new life as a result of the Darwinian revolution and the rise of social Darwinism.
And in the late twentieth century Malthusianism reemerged once again in the form of neo-Malthusian ecology.