To start, just a quick summary of this site’s comment policy, which I’ve now added to the About page. No personally abusive comments directed towards me or other commenters, please. And no content of a racist, misogynist or otherwise prejudiced character, even if wrapped in a cloak of researcherly authenticity. Comments of this nature will be removed, and individuals with repeat infractions will be permanently barred. Final decision on the rules rests with me, with no discussion entered into. Well, at least there’s somewhere where I have sweeping executive powers. Though I’m hoping for political office along those lines in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex when it gets going. OK, enough said.

So now let’s get down to today’s business with a quiz question: Charles Darwin wrote “fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement X”. The work in question had a profound influence on Darwin’s thought: “Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work…” But what is X?

X was equally influential on Alfred Russel Wallace, co-originator of the theory of evolution by natural selection, who wrote: “But perhaps the most important book I read was X….It was the first great work I had yet read treating of any of the problems of philosophical biology…and twenty years later gave me the long-sought clue to the effective agent in the evolution of organic species.”

Darwin, and to a lesser extent Wallace, would surely be up there on many lists of the most influential scientists of all time. So you might expect the author of the mysterious X to be similarly feted. But that’s hardly the case. Karl Marx wrote of Thomas Malthus and his Essay on the Principle of Population, for that book is indeed the X in question, that it is “the great destroyer of all hankerings after human development”. There are plenty of people around today who’d say much the same of Marx, but that doesn’t seem to have helped rehabilitate Malthus. Things have moved on in the realm of ‘philosophical biology’, so I doubt contemporary evolutionary scientists find much need to read him. But every generation of social and political scientists seems to feel the obligation to disinter his remains, give them a good kicking, and then pronounce him buried once and for all.

Darwin’s thinking itself fell into eclipse in the early part of the twentieth century, prompting zoologist H.J. Muller to grumble “one hundred years without Darwinism are enough”. Which leads me to offer the following provocation: two hundred and nineteen years without Malthus are enough.

Let me explain why. First of all, it’s worth saying that while Malthus’s writing on population is virtually the only part of his work that gets discussed today, he was also a pioneering economist who was among the first to write about economic booms and busts, and the relative merits of protecting local markets or opening them up to wider competition – topics he debated lengthily with another founding father, David Ricardo. It was, in a sense, the original debate about localism and globalism, and it was one that Malthus lost both intellectually and politically. But with the economics of 2008 and the politics of 2016 ringing in our ears today, it seems to me that Malthus’s key economic concerns, if not necessarily his actual economics, are up for grabs again. Are open private markets, with their boom-bust cycles and their vast global flows of people and goods, the best way of securing human wellbeing? The number of people who think so in the world today seems to be diminishing.

Well, perhaps I’ll come back to Malthus’s economics in a later post. For now, let me follow the crowds and say a few words about his thinking on population.

The basics of the issue are simply stated. Malthus postulated that if otherwise unchecked the natural increase in the population of a species tends to outrun the resource base it needs to support itself, leading to misery and famine – a cruel way indeed for population and resources to return to equilibrium. It’s easy to see why this excited the interest of Darwin and Wallace. Overpopulation was a natural felling mechanism, selecting those individuals best able to cope with contemporary conditions. Played out over deep time, the result is evolution from one species to another.

But, the objection routinely goes, people aren’t just natural creatures subject to natural selection. We’re social creatures, and we make our own reality. So if the food supply starts diminishing we figure out ways to increase it, like inventing agriculture. Agriculture, however, can readily be assimilated to the ‘natural’, as part of humanity’s extended phenotype. So those who claim that Malthusian limits don’t apply to humans are effectively assigning our species the status of permanent evolutionary winners. Hmmm, well our species is still a latecomer in the evolutionary parade. And Malthus himself was writing only three lifetimes ago, not even an eye-blink in evolutionary time. Has humanity beaten evolution, and proven Malthus wrong? It’s far too soon to tell.

Henry George was a relatively early objector to Malthus along these lines of self-creating human exceptionalism:

“Both the jayhawk and the man eat chickens; but the more jayhawks, the fewer chickens, while the more men, the more chickens.”

Much latter-day anti-Malthusianism scarcely advances beyond George’s comment, while usually falling short of his aphoristic brio. But there’s a problem with it. George should have written “Both the jayhawk and the man eat chickens; but the more jayhawks, the fewer chickens, while the more men, the more chickens, though the fewer jayhawks”. In other words, humanity doesn’t just conjure extra chickens out of nowhere with a snap of its high-tech fingers. It does it mostly by drawing down on extra resources at the expense of the biota as a whole, and perhaps ultimately at its own expense. It’s not a completely zero-sum game. It’s possible to imagine ways that people might raise more chickens without significant extra detriment to the rest of the biota. But not many. If you look at biotic relationships holistically instead of dyadically as George did, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that humanity (well, some of humanity anyway) has escaped the Malthusian crunch by passing the buck on to other species, creating ‘overpopulation’ crises among them from exogenous habitat loss. Kind of a ‘referred’ Malthusian crisis that hasn’t affected its progenitors – yet.

Maybe as a result of falling human fertility rates and further technical developments, we’ll continue to evade the crunch. In that circumstance, how many other species we might carry through with us is pretty unclear, and its implications dependent on how dark green or biocentric you like your environmental philosophy. Mine, I have to confess, is quite light in hue, and I don’t especially hanker after a world undisturbed by the hand of humanity. Even so, I can’t help feeling that something must be philosophically and indeed spiritually wrong when our modern lives seem to be causing a mass extinction event on a geological scale. Nor does it seem wholly plausible to me that we will ultimately evade the evolutionary cliff that we’re so busy shepherding our fellow creatures over.

But are we facing a human Malthusian crisis right now? For the most part, the answer seems to be ‘no’. I’ve shown, for example, in my various recent projections of food production in a more populous future UK that it’s relatively easy to grow a lot of food for a lot of people using simple farming techniques – though the figures are a little too close for comfort to my liking, and it wouldn’t take much of a disturbance, perhaps just a small climate change tipping point for example, to pitch us into a crisis.

Well, it’s impossible to say whether a date with Malthus looms in the future (and what a truly unappealing prospect such an evening would be). What interests me more in the here and now is the way that members of my own particular tribe, the social scientists, seek to banish the very possibility of a future Malthusian crisis through what strikes me as an essentially superstitious practice, a touching of the talisman, which if it were observed by an anthropologist from another planet might well give them pause to wonder why Homo academicus var. social scientiensis goes to such irrational lengths to avoid the taboo of Malthusian constraint.

The talisman invoked by the social scientists to steer clear of the Malthusian taboo has the structure of a three-card trick. First up are the economists, who argue that as resource constraints loom, input prices increase, and this stimulates people to find lower cost substitutes. I won’t dwell on the problems with this line of reasoning. But I like this comment from David Fleming: “Every civilisation has had its irrational but reassuring myth. Previous civilisations have used their culture to sing about it and tell stories about it. Ours has used its mathematics to prove it”1.

The second card is the strongest in the hand, and it belongs variously to the historians, sociologists and political economists. Humans, they point out, are social creatures, so the trajectory of Malthusian crisis is never experienced simply as ineluctable natural constraint, but always as some kind of human conflict whose details can’t just be read off from the resource constraint itself. This is undoubtedly true. But social scientists being social scientists, they do like to push the logic of that argument a long way towards an emphasis on the social basis of resource constraint – to the extent of arguing, for example, that the whole idea of ‘scarcity’ is something of a fiction worked on the unsuspecting masses by the ideology of capitalism2. Well, I think there’s some truth in that (I am, after all, a social scientist), but only some truth. Ultimately, on a small planet with upwards of 7 billion large, hungry, human omnivores, some things are probably going to have to give whatever the economic ideology.

The third card belongs mostly to the anthropologists. Now, I have a soft spot for anthropologists, having at one point been kinda sorta one myself. The great thing about anthropologists is that they study people up close and in detail, which helps them avoid airy generalities. But the problem is that sometimes a bit of generalising isn’t such a bad idea, if you’ll excuse the generality. Take, for example, the anthropologist Christopher Taylor’s critique of Jared Diamond’s thesis in the latter’s book Collapse3, that population pressure on agricultural land was one of the factors underlying the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Taylor begins by acknowledging that such Malthusian pressure is indeed intense, but it can’t explain why the genocide erupted in 1994 specifically, when land pressure long predated it, nor can it explain why many of the génocidaires weren’t land hungry peasants. He lays out an alternative explanation in relation to contemporary geopolitics, colonial history and a specific local political culture history.

Now, I must admit that I’m not a big fan of Diamond’s writing, and I find many of the criticisms levelled at him by social scientists plausible. But he did take pains to suggest that population pressure was only one of several factors behind the genocide, and provided evidence that was at least suggestive of the possibility. Taylor’s response merely sidesteps the point. He concludes “Rwandans think about their leaders, their social system, and their place in this world in their own terms, not as Westerners, who try to find “scientific” reasons for cultural catastrophes”4. But it’s not especially controversial in social science to adduce reasons for the occurrence of human events which aren’t explicitly articulated by the humans involved themselves. If there was population pressure in Rwanda, it might have manifested in the form of generalised stress which found specific expression through pre-existing cultural, historical and political identities that had little to do with economic status per se. Is Malthus so beyond the pale that an explanation relating the genocide only partly to population pressure on land can’t even be entertained? And if so, consider the implications. First, that the catastrophe of the genocide must be explicable only in terms of local cultural responses to circumstances – which is surely as troubling a position politically as Diamond’s putatively ethnocentric universalism, implying as it does that Rwandans have a cultural predilection for genocide. Goodness knows where that kind of thinking can lead – maybe to incoherently racist quasi-academic theories about the character of ‘African culture’ which find their way onto the blogs of innocent small-scale farmers. And second, that if people are eminently capable of genocidal violence in the absence of any kind of Malthusian pressure, then just think what horrors await if such pressures do occur.

One of the main objections to Malthus indeed is his unsavoury politics, though a theory of ‘philosophical biology’ surely stands or falls on its own terms, rather than on the politics of its progenitor. After all, Darwin himself wrote a few things about the people he met on his travels around the world that sound a bit queasy to the modern ear, but nobody suggests that this somehow undermines his evolutionary theories. It’s not that I particularly want to defend Malthus’s pro-property and anti-poor views. Though I’ve read one or two quotations from his work supposedly demonstrating his incorrigible elitism that strike me as at least ambiguous. In some passages, his point rather seems to be that it’s a good idea to have a plan in order to avoid a resource crisis, and the poor are best off organising politically and using their labour as a weapon in order to improve their lot. Sounds like good advice to me. I don’t doubt there are other parts of his oeuvre that I’d find indefensible. Still, I do wonder if the opprobrium heaped on Malthus might have something to do with truths that strike a little too close to home. A recent blog commenter wrote of Malthus “It’s a bit crazy that we are, in the 21st century, still using concepts devised at the end of the 18th, to discuss our problems”. Well, maybe so – but if you’re going to bid Malthus on this one, then I’ll raise you Edmund Burke and Adam Smith.

Notes

  1. Fleming, D. 2016. Lean Logic, Chelsea Green, p.123.
  1. Panayotakis, C. 2011. Remaking Scarcity: From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy, Pluto.
  1. Diamond, J. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Penguin.
  1. Taylor, C. 2010. ‘Rwandan genocide: towards an explanation in which history and culture matter’ in McAnany, P. & Yoffee, N. (eds) Questioning Collapse, Cambridge UP, p.267.