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The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet

Robert J. Mayhew

(NY Times)

Getting people to attach an 'ian' (or an 'ist') to the end of your name is pretty impressive. Getting them to keep doing so 180 years after your death, not as a musty reference but as part of vital contemporary debates, well, that's a phenomenon worth studying.

And study it Robert J. Mayhew has done in Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet. Title notwithstanding, his book is not really about the Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus or his life. It's about Malthusianism - the context in which it arose, the manner in which it was received and the manifold ways it has lived on.

This Malthusianism is best summed up in two sentences from the man himself, in the 1798 first edition of his 'Essay on the Principle of Population': "Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio."

Others later expanded the focus from subsistence (that is, food) to fossil fuels, and more recently to the entire planet and its atmosphere. But the idea that nature has limited carrying capacity and that in our reproducing and our consuming we risk running up against that limit remains central.

Other ideas have also taken the name Malthusian. Decades after Malthus's death, birth-control advocates in Britain called themselves the Malthusian League - something Malthus surely would have blanched at. In his lifetime, his most controversial contention was that government aid encouraged the poor to have more children than they could support. Variants of this argument were in evidence during the welfare reform debates of the 1980s and 1990s, but the name Malthus didn't come up.

At least, I don't think it did. If it had, Mayhew surely would have mentioned it. A professor of historical geography and intellectual history at the University of Bristol, he takes an approach that is both methodical and comprehensive. To give the reader a sense of attitudes toward life and death in 1798, he quotes extensively from three diarists of the era. Then it's on to a tour of 18th-century demographics, with references to all the latest findings. And so on.

There are moments when these displays of effortful erudition are too much. Is he really going to tell me what every last Lake Poet had to say about Malthus? The piling on of evidence does lend persuasive power, though. Malthus's fingerprints really were all over 19th-century political discourse, science and literature. It was reading Malthus that got Charles Darwin thinking about natural selection. When Ebenezer Scrooge thunders about the need to decrease the surplus population, that's Dickens taking direct aim at Malthus.

Mayhew's account gives the impression that Malthus sought out this reaction. The image I previously had of the reverend was of a country parson declaiming in isolation. But he actually spent little time behind a pulpit. In the decade between graduating from Cambridge and publishing his essay, young Bob (that's what his family called him) appears to have engaged in congenial political debates with his freethinking father at home in Surrey, delivered perfunctory and probably hard-to-understand sermons (he had a cleft palate) at nearby village churches, and discussed hopes and dreams with his fellow Fellows of Jesus College during occasional visits to Cambridge.

He finally broke through by following the playbook familiar to modern readers from the 'How to Be an Intellectual Giant' section of David Brooks's Bobos in Paradise: Pick a 'subject niche' (the intersection of economics and demographics) and a 'demeanor' (gloom leavened with humor and charm), then write something so inflammatory that it will prompt dozens of other writers to rise and respond, thus giving the author mounds of publicity.

Malthus did complicate matters by initially publishing his essay anonymously, but with the enlarged and rewritten second edition in 1803 he owned up to authorship of the by-then-famous work. A year later he acquired through family connections the rectorship of a rural parish, which finally assured him a steady income (part of which was spent paying a curate to run things so he wouldn't have to live there). Then, in 1805, he became what Robert HeilĀ­broner called the first professional economist, as a professor at the brand-new East India College, set up to train young men to be administrators on the subcontinent. Malthus lived on the campus outside London until his death in 1834. He also married and had three children, which brought him no end of mockery but was actually in keeping with his teachings - he had waited until he could support a family to start one. One last biographical detail: Friends sometimes referred to the happy couple as 'Malthus and Malthusia.'

You will not find all this information in Mayhew's book. His choice to focus on Malthusianism rather than Malthus makes sense, but it does leave a reader wondering, and I finally satisfied my curiosity with Patricia James's biography 'Population Malthus.' Mayhew also doesn't address the possibility that some of Malthus's lingering impact derives simply from the combined properties of his name, a variant of malthouse. 'Malthusian' sounds at once euphonious and ominous, which had to be a factor in Aldous Huxley's calling the contraceptive device in Brave New World a 'Malthusian belt.' Mayhew reports that some scholars now use 'Malthustan' to describe overtaxed squatter settlements. And how about 'Malthusiasm'? Surely that's a term that merits wider use.

Or maybe not. The biggest problem with Malthusiasm, as Mayhew addresses at length, is that Malthus was wrong. He thought England was nearing the limits of its ability to provide for its growing population. But as that population continued to grow in the 19th century, the country proved more than able to feed itself by increasing agricultural productivity and importing food that it could easily pay for with its industrial wealth. And toward the end of the century, birthrates began falling and population growth slowed.

Mayhew cites the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman's exoneration that 'Malthus was right about the whole of human history up until his own era,' and argues that given the information available in 1798, Malthus's observations were cutting edge (it was widely believed in the 18th century that the English population was falling). He also notes that Malthus kept gathering data and revising his essay (after the 1803 edition there were updates in 1806, 1807, 1817 and 1826), and that by his death he had significantly altered and expanded his views. This behavior prompted John Maynard Keynes to praise Malthus in the 1930s as the first 'Cambridge economist,' moved by evidence as much as theory.

That sort of Malthusianism sounds healthy enough. Some other 20th-century variants weren't. Adolf Hitler surely would have become a mass murderer even if nobody had slipped him a copy of Malthus's essay. Easier to lay at Malthus's doorstep were the fatalistic attitudes of British officials during famines in India, which they attributed to inevitable Malthusian forces rather than their own boneheaded economic policies.

There is evidence enough in this book for a pretty withering attack on Malthusianism, if not on Malthus. Mayhew, however, prefers the role of calm and evenhanded guide. At the end he's even hinting that today's Malthusian prophets of environmental doom are on to something. They may be: Just because Malthus was wrong about nature's limits in 1798 doesn't prove we won't ever hit those limits. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Still, you'd think it would put more of a damper on people's Malthusiasm.

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