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Thomas Malthus, the most destructive Englishman who ever lived?

February 13, 2016



I suppose words like “destructive” or “evil” are necessarily contested terms.  Jack the Ripper is supposed to have killed five people – maybe a few more.  Thomas Malthus may have been more remotely responsible for the deaths of many millions.  But if you were to meet Thomas Malthus in a narrow deserted street on a dark night, he wouldn’t hurt you -whereas Jack the Ripper probably would.

If they were assembling a list of the top ten most destructive Englishmen who ever lived (assuming they haven’t already – they assemble top ten lists of everything else), I would personally do my darndest to ensure that Thomas Malthus’ name appeared upon it.  The most destructive humans all kill with pens rather than swords, and Malthus’ Essay on Population (1798) is destructive because it has reconciled powerful people to the mass destruction of their fellow creatures.   Widely discredited, it remains credited.  Disproved, it remains generally assumed.

Malthus draws a straight line which he calls the arithmetic progression of food production and starting from the same point but curving upwards he draws a curved line which he calls the inexorable geometric rate of population growth.  Everybody trapped between the curved line and the straight line is destined to perish, and no plan of political or social improvement can change this mathematical certainty.  Malthus popularised a kind of pseudo-scientific version of Original Sin to puncture the expectations of anybody hoping to harness the human imagination to build a better world.  Without being in any legal sense a murderer or a psychopath, Malthus has been a great famine enabler – a harbinger of extraordinary death.  He’s the man who put the “dismal” in “dismal science”.

Thanks to the application of Malthusian logic, or, more often, the vaguer and colder misapplication of the notion that “science” tells us that millions “have” to starve – no matter what – untold misery has been inflicted upon the world.  Aid workers have told us for decades that if when infant mortality is checked, then sustainable family sizes are the product.  But the long shadow of Malthus continues to inform a swelling commentariat that tells us that any kind of global vision of humanity is an unscientific pipe-dream and that (ugh!) “charity should begin at home”.

Of course, we now know (we’ve long known) that the straight line doesn’t have to be straight.  Nor, even more importantly, does the curved line have to stay curved.  Interestingly, Malthus (the Rev. Malthus) does seem aware that techniques to have sex without conceiving children do in fact exist in the 1790s – but these speculations are too vicious and horrible for him to use in his equations.  Birth control is beyond his ken – haunting and defining the frontiers of his science.  Far better millions perish.

Thomas Malthus is 252 years old today.  Rather than celebrate this notable anniversary I intend to resume work on my time machine.  Then I will set the co-ordinates – not to 1766, but to at least nine (better make it ten) months  earlier in 1765.  I will bring with me every colourful contraceptive device imaginable together with a deal of explanatory leaflets.  I will wrap all of this material up nicely and deliver it all in person to the home of Daniel and Henrietta Malthus.

If I could prevent the birth of Thomas Malthus, the world would be too innocent to thank me.  Malthus is one of those people who has made all of us less human than we could and should have been.


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