November 23, 2004


The Malthusian Trap (Benjamin Marks, November 23, 2004,

The principle that there is a perpetual tendency in the race of man to increase beyond the means of subsistence is usually attributed to Malthus. But he was really just the popularizer of a belief that was (and is) fairly widespread. William Hazlitt, a mighty adversary of Malthus, does not think he was the first to write about it, either. In fact, plagiarism is hinted at. See Hazlitt's excellent essay on this topic here. The great Australian philosopher, David Stove, in the same vein as Hazlitt, thinks:

There are anticipations of his 'principle of population' in the writings of David Hume, Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Townsend, and no doubt others beside; but not, or not to any extent worth mentioning, in any writings whatever before about 1750. And yet people could have made, at any time during thousands of years before that date, at least a rough comparison between the size of a batch of fertilized cod eggs, or viable pine seeds, and the number of this batch which survived to reproduce in turn.

But whatever may have been the reason for it, it was left to Malthus to teach naturalists the strength of the organic tendency to increase, and of the resulting pressure of their numbers on their food. And he happened to do so in a book which, for reasons quite unconnected with evolution, reached an unusually great number of readers.

The Malthusian population principle is always incorrect, but its proximity to the truth varies. It is also an instance where we can appreciate one of Rothbard's empirical generalizations—of high predictive value, but not apodictically certain—that nonAustrian individuals tend to specialize in the area they are least competent. As Stove put it:

It is . . . a curious irony that the general biological principle which he put forward comes steadily closer to being true, the further one departs from the human case, and is a grotesque falsity only in the one case which really interested Malthus: man.

Human populations, once they reach a certain size and complexity, always develop specialized orders, of priests, doctors, soldiers. To the members of these orders sexual abstinence, either permanent or periodic, or in "business hours" (so to speak), is typically prescribed. Here, then, is [a] fact about our species which is contrary to what one would expect on the principle that population always increases when, and as fast as, the amount of food available permits.

Stove talks of many other instances, and not just in our species, where the Malthusian population principle is broken, but the one refutation will suffice for the purposes of this article. Similarly, Hazlitt wrote,

I am ashamed of wasting the reader's time and my own in thus beating the air. It is not however my fault that Mr Malthus has written nonsense, or that others have admired it. It is not Mr Malthus's nonsense, but the opinion of the world respecting it, that I would be thought to compliment by this serious refutation of what in itself neither deserves not (sic) admits of any reasoning upon it.

Darwinism (Jenny Teichman, March 2003, Quadrant)
Darwin’s own Darwinism has three elements:

1. The first evolutionary hypothesis – propounded by naturalists in Darwin’s childhood - was that existing species originated in earlier ones as an ongoing outcome of an unknown cause:

2. A vast collection of facts about the natural world which Darwin put together in his books and papers in support of:

3. The second evolutionary hypothesis in which he stated what he took to be the cause of the evolutionary process.

That cause, he says, is a process which works rather like the selection made by men when they breed plants or animals for specific purposes. He called this supposed cause “natural selection” to distinguish it from selections made by rose farmers and pigeon-fanciers and suchlike human “selectors”. He also gave it an alternative label - “the survival of the fittest”, a term borrowed from Herbert Spencer.

IN DEFENCE of the second evolutionary hypothesis Darwin took up a notion first set out by Thomas Malthus (1766 –1834), namely the idea that population always presses on the food supply. That pressure brings it about that stronger individuals survive while weaker ones die.

Malthus was interested in what he took to be natural differences between the death rates of rich and poor human beings and he claimed that any attempt to reduce those differences would be both wrong and ineffective. He thought it would be ineffective because he had formulated the hypothesis that population increases geometrically while food supplies increase arithmetically. That idea was refuted almost immediately by William Hazlitt who pointed out that fish, sheep and grasses are themselves populations as well as food and so would have to increase both geometrically and arithmetically all at the same time - a blatant absurdity.

Darwin extended Malthus’s theory from human beings to everything organic but did not mention the mathematical absurdity. He surely must have noticed it but, as David Stove suggests, he was probably an emollient sort of character, a man never happy about getting into rows.

If populations and food supplies do not increase in Malthusian proportions there is less need to postulate Herbert Spencer’s survival of the fittest. However, Darwin makes clear that in his book the phrase “struggle for life” refers not only to struggles for food but also to struggles for sexual mates and struggles against diseases and accidents and hostile environments. On the other hand he insists, à la Malthus, that the struggle for life between individuals of the same species is the most important factor in natural selection and the most significant evidence for the second evolutionary hypothesis. For example in Chapter One of The Origin of Species (sixth edition) he states “The struggle for life is most severe between individuals and varieties of the same species.” Moreover, the struggle is indeed sometimes or often for food: thus in Chapter Two of The Descent of Man (second edition) he says: “The primary or fundamental check to the continued increase of man is the difficulty of gaining subsistence ...”

And this, I think, is the bit of Darwinism which cannot be true and which Michell and others are right to reject. The tale of a direct struggle for sustenance between animal con-specifics is largely a myth, or as David Stove calls it, a fairytale. Herbivores graze quietly together, they do not fight about who gets the grass. Unlike reptiles, all mammals share food with their young. So do birds, with the exception of the cuckoo. Not many species engage in con-specific fights for food. Gulls do but even they feed their own young.

Anthropology shows that when “primitive” hunters and gatherers find food they spontaneously share it with their fellow hunter-gatherers and also, of course, with children. Even the lonely Inuit waiting over a hole in the ice will share the seal he eventually kills with the other folk in the igloo. We civilised folk share food within the family and with friends and in the course of many different rituals. Human beings, in short, are natural food sharers. And why? Because they have to be. Unlike crocodiles, they are completely dependent during a long childhood and remain dependent on one another to some extent even in adulthood.

At this point Darwinians sometimes fall back on the idea that humanity nowadays is not living a natural life. Darwin himself has quite a lot to say about the difference between civilised man and natural or savage man. The first to do so was T. H. Huxley, “Darwin’s Bulldog”, who said, “in the state of nature [human] life was a continual free fight” .The distinction is reminiscent of Hobbes’ idea, or hypothesis rather, about a supposed state of nature in which “every man’s hand is against every man’s” .

However, it makes no sense to say that any one state of mankind is more or less natural than any other because each stage or state or variation is a stage or state or variation in the evolution of our species. To say that its later states are less natural than some hypothetical earlier one is like saying that modern bats and lizards are less natural than their extinct ancestors.

One of the things that makes Darwinists tolerable is that the logic of their theory ends with them insisting that Man is unique and has broken free of the restraints of the process that shapes all other living things in the Universe. It's aqbsurd, but touching.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 23, 2004 8:46 AM

Another travesty of what the theory says.

If you really believed darwinism was so weak, you'd engage it on its own grounds.

The observation about animals grazing peacefully and sharing food is simply bad observation, as anyone who raises chickens or cats knows.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at November 23, 2004 1:11 PM

Chickens and cats don't evolve either.

Posted by: oj at November 23, 2004 2:07 PM

One reason that Malthusian reasoning does not apply to human beings is that it's based on the idea that we're animals. We're not animals. Ecologically speaking, we're plants.

When a species of animal increases its numbers, there is less animal food to go around. When plants increase their numbers there's more plant food (also known as soil) than before.

Posted by: Joseph Hertzlinger at November 23, 2004 2:23 PM

Mainly because plants eat their dead.

Posted by: Timothy at November 23, 2004 2:33 PM

The difference with people is that we think. We are quammodo co-creators. Human culture takes over from mere biological evolution, and change moves at the speed of thought. Spencer takes over from Darwin.

Posted by: Lou Gots at November 23, 2004 3:45 PM

This post is a good example of the intellectual imbecility of the antidarwinists.

Whether cats evolve or not, Hazlitt's so-called mathematical insight is nonsense.

Each organism both consumes and is consumed. You cannot break in and say, see this one should be increasingly geometrically but it's not, therefore Malthus was wrong.

Malthus was right, though incomplete.

If Malthus were wrong, Maine would be all mooses, or no mooses. It's somewhere in between.

The exception that proves the rule is a distillery, where yeasts do multiply geometrically and endlessly, but only because unnatural actors deliver food and carry off wastes.

In natural conditions, yeasts also multiply on grain, but at low levels.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at November 25, 2004 1:33 AM


So where are the piles of natural yeats that starve when they max out? Or mooses?

Posted by: oj at November 25, 2004 9:46 AM

They're there, at low concentrations, but you have to look for them.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at November 25, 2004 10:29 PM

Next time you stumble on a pile of dead moose in your search let me know.

Posted by: oj at November 25, 2004 11:11 PM