The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus


The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus –
Rereading The Principle of Population
By Alison Bashford & Joyce E. Chaplin
Princeton University Press – £34.95

Last week, I attended a book launch for Jeremy Griffith’s Freedom – The End of The Human Condition in London, at which Sir Bob Geldof gave a thoroughly masterful, opening talk. One of the many thought provoking issues he touched on, was global population being one of the major problems facing the world today.

I mention this, simply because I’m sure he’d be absolutely besotted with The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus – Rereading the Principle of Population by Alison Bashford and Joyce E. Chaplin.

A towering publication of prime intellect if ever there was one.

To substantiate as much, even the author of The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters, Anthony Pagden has described this book as: ”an entirely new way of reading the most famous book on population ever written. With remarkable force and erudition, Bashford and Chaplin show that no aspect of European history can be considered in isolation from the irrepressible European quest to understand – and master – the entire inhabited world. In their hands, Malthus emerges anew as a major intellectual presence.”

Indeed, published anonymously (in 1789), Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population was, unsurprisingly, oft misunderstood. There again, he did systematically argue that population growth tends to outpace its own means of subsistence, unless kept in check by such factors as disease, famine or war.

Or lowering the birth rate through such means as sexual abstinence!

Said reasoning is inadvertently touched upon in the book’s altogether centrifugal Introduction, where the authors write: ”Benjamin Franklin represents the significant case of British colonization of North America, the ensuing settler population growth, and the white population’s celebration of the consequent displacement of the indigenous population.”

To my mind, British and European colonization was nothing other than a calamitous appropriation of disease, famine and war combined. Lest it be said that maybe the ”white population” was celebrating the fact that they were already at the vanguard of Malthus’s doom-laden thinking?

Maybe not.

Either way, it’s a queer coincidence that millions of native Americans were systematically alienated: ”North America constituted Malthus’s primary example of just how rapidly population growth could occur, whenever land fit for agriculture was first exploited by Europeans. New world places and their native peoples were then analytically essential within editions of the Essay from 1803 onward. From selected studies of indigenous people, Malthus argued that population numbers were always kept within the limits of resources (the ”principle of population”) by epidemics, starvation, and human violence, and by deliberate measures to control births. And yet Malthus used his principle of population to conclude – against prevailing opinion – that for settler populations to extirpate or subsume indigenous ones was unjust” (my italics).

Herein lies colossal, perhaps comforting food for thought.

All too oft dismissed and diminished as a mere parson, the British moral philosopher and professor of political economy, Thomas Robert Malthus, was, for all intents and far too many perplexing purposes, a character of his own design and creation; facets, which the three parts of this overtly powerful book, does its best to unravel.

For instance, towards the end of chapter four (‘The Americas’), Bashford and Chaplin write: ”Malthus used the ”Americas” as a warning, as a demonstration of the moral hazards embedded in the primordial new world scenario. True, he displayed prejudices about Indians that most Europeans of his generation may have had; he was no worse than his white contemporaries: he exercised greater cultural and intellectual authority than they did. By placing predictions of Indian extinction so centrally within his principle of population, he gave new life to old ideas about Indian death, recycling some of the worst suppositions about new world peoples that had been generated since the sixteenth century.”

Primarily due to the subject matter, The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus isn’t exactly the most inspired of academic reading. That said, any book which tackles population growth head on, warrants commendable praise.

David Marx


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