Thomas Malthus An Essay On The Principle Of Population Quotes

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Thomas Robert Malthus

(13 Feb 1766 - 23 Dec 1834)


English economist and demographer who published his theories, an early systematic analysis of human society, in An Essay on the Principle of Population. He quantified the rates of increase of population versus food supply, and the consequences.


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Science Quotes by Thomas Robert Malthus (7 quotes)



Thomas Robert Malthus
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Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature. The power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction; and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague, advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and ten thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow, levels the population with the food of the world.

— Thomas Robert Malthus

In An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), 140, and in new enlarged edition (1803), 350.

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I think I may fairly make two postulata. First, That food is necessary to the existence of man. Secondly, That the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state. These two laws ever since we have had any knowledge of mankind, appear to have been fixed laws of our nature; and, as we have not hitherto seen any alteration in them, we have no right to conclude that they will ever cease to be what they are now, without an immediate act of power in that Being who first arranged the system of the universe; and for the advantage of his creatures, still executes, according to fixed laws, all its various operations.

— Thomas Robert Malthus

First 'Essay on the Principle of Population' (1798), reprinted in Parallel Chapters from the First and Second editions of An Essay on the Principle of Population (1895), 6.

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Population, when unchecked, goes on doubling itself every twenty-five years, or increases in a geometrical ratio. … The means of subsistence, under circumstances the most favorable to human industry, could not possibly be made to increase faster than in an arithmetical ratio.

— Thomas Robert Malthus

In An Essay on the Principle of Population: (new ed. 1803), Vol. 1, 5 and 7.

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Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second.

— Thomas Robert Malthus

An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), 1st edition, 14. As cited in James Bonar, Parson Malthus (1881), 18.

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That a woman should at present be almost driven from society, for an offence [illegitimate childbearing], which men commit nearly with impunity, seems to be undoubtedly a breach of natural justice… . What at first might be dictated by state necessity, is now supported by female delicacy; and operates with the greatest force on that part of society, where, if the original intention of the custom were preserved, there is the least real occasion for it.

— Thomas Robert Malthus

In 'On Systems of Equality', An Essay on the Principle of Population (1890), 315-316.

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The prodigious waste of human life occasioned by this perpetual struggle for room and food, was more than supplied by the mighty power of population, acting, in some degree, unshackled, from the constant habit of emigration.

— Thomas Robert Malthus

An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), 48.

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Through the animal and vegetable kingdoms, Nature has scattered the seeds of life abroad with the most profuse and liberal hand; but has been comparatively sparing in the room and the nourishment necessary to rear them. The germs of existence contained in this spot of earth, if they could freely develop themselves, would fill millions of worlds in the course of a few thousand years. Necessity, that imperious all-pervading law of nature, restrains them within the prescribed bounds. The race of plants and the race of animals shrink under this great restrictive law; and man cannot by any efforts of reason escape from it.

— Thomas Robert Malthus

In An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), 14-15.

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Quotes by others about Thomas Robert Malthus (6)


In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be, preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work; but I was so anxious to avoid prejudice, that I determined not for some time to write even the briefest sketch of it.

— Charles Darwin

In Charles Darwin and Francis Darwin (ed.), Charles Darwin: His Life Told in an Autobiographical Chapter, and in a Selected Series of His Published Letters (1892), 40.

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The Struggle for Existence amongst all organic beings throughout the world, which inevitably follows from their high geometrical powers of increase ... This is the doctrine of Malthus, applied to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms. As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.

— Charles Darwin

From On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection; or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1861), 12.

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I was suffering from a sharp attack of intermittent fever, and every day during the cold and succeeding hot fits had to lie down for several hours, during which time I had nothing to do but to think over any subjects then particularly interesting me. One day something brought to my recollection Malthus's 'Principles of Population', which I had read about twelve years before. I thought of his clear exposition of 'the positive checks to increase'—disease, accidents, war, and famine—which keep down the population of savage races to so much lower an average than that of more civilized peoples. It then occurred to me that these causes or their equivalents are continually acting in the case of animals also; and as animals usually breed much more rapidly than does mankind, the destruction every year from these causes must be enormous in order to keep down the numbers of each species, since they evidently do not increase regularly from year to year, as otherwise the world would long ago have been densely crowded with those that breed most quickly. Vaguely thinking over the enormous and constant destruction which this implied, it occurred to me to ask the question, Why do some die and some live? The answer was clearly, that on the whole the best fitted live. From the effects of disease the most healthy escaped; from enemies, the strongest, swiftest, or the most cunning; from famine, the best hunters or those with the best digestion; and so on. Then it suddenly flashed upon me that this self-acting process would necessarily improve the race, because in every generation the inferior would inevitably be killed off and the superior would remain—that is, the fittest would survive.
[The phrase 'survival of the fittest,' suggested by the writings of Thomas Robert Malthus, was expressed in those words by Herbert Spencer in 1865. Wallace saw the term in correspondence from Charles Darwin the following year, 1866. However, Wallace did not publish anything on his use of the expression until very much later, and his recollection is likely flawed.]

— Alfred Russel Wallace

My Life: A Record of Events and Opinions (1905), Vol. 1, 361-362, or in reprint (2004), 190.

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Malthus argued a century and a half ago that man, by using up all his available resources, would forever press on the limits of subsistence, thus condemning humanity to an indefinite future of misery and poverty. We can now begin to hope and, I believe, know that Malthus was expressing not a law of nature, but merely the limitation then of scientific and social wisdom. The truth or falsity of his prediction will depend now, with the tools we have, on our own actions, now and in the years to come.

— John F. Kennedy

From Address to the Centennial Convocation of the National Academy of Sciences (22 Oct 1963), 'A Century of Scientific Conquest'. Online at The American Presidency Project.

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As agonizing a disease as cancer is, I do not think it can be said that our civilization is threatened by it. … But a very plausible case can be made that our civilization is fundamentally threatened by the lack of adequate fertility control. Exponential increases of population will dominate any arithmetic increases, even those brought about by heroic technological initiatives, in the availability of food and resources, as Malthus long ago realized.

— Carl Sagan

From 'In Praise of Science and Technology', in Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (1975, 2011), 43.

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The problem [evolution] presented itself to me, and something led me to think of the positive checks described by Malthus in his Essay on Population, a work I had read several years before, and which had made a deep and permanent impression on my mind. These checks—war, disease, famine, and the like—must, it occurred to me, act on animals as well as man. Then I thought of the enormously rapid multiplication of animals, causing these checks to be much more effective in them than in the case of man; and while pondering vaguely on this fact, there suddenly flashed upon me the idea of the survival of the fittest—that the individuals removed by these checks must be on the whole inferior to those that survived. I sketched the draft of my paper … and sent it by the next post to Mr. Darwin.

— Alfred Russel Wallace

In 'Introductory Note to Chapter II in Present Edition', Natural Selection and Tropical Nature Essays on Descriptive and Theoretical Biology (1891, New ed. 1895), 20.

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Thomas Malthus biography
Essay on the Principles of Population

Thomas Malthus was born near Guildford, Surrey, England in 1766 into a well-off family. He was educated from 1784 at Jesus College, Cambridge where he achieved distinguished marks in his mathematical studies. He was subsequently ordained as an Anglican cleric in 1797 despite having an inconvenient speech impediment. He became curate of the parish of Albury in Surrey in 1798 and held this post for a short time.

His main contribution is to Economics where a theory, published anonymously as "An Essay on the Principle of Population" in 1798 has as a central argument that populations tend to increase faster than the supply of food available for their needs.

To quote directly from the essay:-

"Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence only increases in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power compared to the second".


The essay thus anticipated that this propensity could only lead to real distress:-

" The number of labourers also being above the proportion of work in the market, the price of labor must tend towards a decrease; while the price of provisions would at the same time tend to rise".


This theory of the effective inevitability of poverty and distress contradicted the optimistic belief prevailing in the early 19th century, that a society's fertility would lead to economic progress and helped to give Economics, then more frequently known as "Political Economy" the alternative name of "The Dismal Science."

Earlier that year the British statesman William Pitt had proposed that poor relief should give special consideration to the encouragement of large families as "those who, after having enriched their country with a number of children, have a claim upon its assistance for their support." In the event Malthus's theory was often used as an argument against efforts to better the condition of the poor.

Malthus later went so far as to suggest that, for the lessening of the probability of a miserable existence for the poor, it was advisable to seek to cut the birth rate in society. This suggestion was unmistakably outrageous given the moralities of the times (and would doubtless be most controversial today).

The Essay on the Principle of Population and other writings encouraged the first systematic demographic studies and also had a significant influence in several ways:-

In Economics David Ricardo's, "iron law of wages" and theory of distribution of wealth contain some elements of Malthus' theory.

Thomas Malthus' Essay on Population
Charles Darwin and
Alfred Russel Wallace

Of far more dramatic significance is the fact that both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace admitted that the food scarcities regarded as being normal by Malthus had been of KEY influence on their seperate development of theories of the evolutionary Origin of Species.

To use Charles Darwin's own words from his Autobiography speaking about a time late in 1838 when Malthus ideas were of the utmost importance in guiding the future direction of his own thinking:-

I happened to read for amusement Malthus on 'Population', and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work.

Words from another Autobiography, this time one by Alfred Russel Wallace, are also available to us as evidence of the massively significant influence of Thomas Malthus Essay on the Principle of Population.

It was in 1858 whilst he was laid up with a malarial fever at Ternate, in the Celebes Islands, that a possible solution to the method of evolution flashed into form in Wallace's mind. The outcome being that this burst of inspiration together with his more longstanding ruminations resulted in Alfred Russel Wallace independently framing a theory of the evolutionary origin of species by natural selection.

At the time in question I was suffering from a sharp attack of intermittent fever, and every day during the cold and succeeding hot fits had to lie down for several hours, during which time I had nothing to do but to think over any subjects then particularly interesting me. One day something brought to my recollection Malthus's "Principles of Population", which I had read about twelve years before. I thought of his clear exposition of "the positive checks to increase" - disease, accidents, war, and famine - which keep down the population of savage races to so much lower an average than that of more civilized peoples. It then occurred to me that these causes or their equivalents are continually acting in the case of animals also; and as animals usually breed much more rapidly than does mankind, the destruction every year from these causes must be enormous in order to keep down the numbers of each species, since they evidently do not increase regularly from year to year, as otherwise the world would long ago have been densely crowded with those that breed most quickly. Vaguely thinking over the enormous and constant destruction which this implied, it occurred to me to ask the question, Why do some die and some live? And the answer was clearly, that on the whole the best fitted live. From the effects of disease the most healthy escaped; from enemies, the strongest, the swiftest, or the most cunning; from famine, the best hunters or those with the best digestion; and so on. Then it suddenly flashed upon me that this self-acting process would necessarily improve the race, because in every generation the inferior would inevitably be killed off and the superior would remain - that is, the fittest would survive. Then at once I seemed to see the whole effect of this, that when changes of land and sea, or of climate, or of food-supply, or of enemies occurred - and we know that such changes have always been taking place - and considering the amount of individual variation that my experience as a collector had shown me to exist, then it followed that all the changes necessary for the adaptation of the species to the changing conditions would be brought about; and as great changes in the environment are always slow, there would be ample time for the change to be effected by the survival of the best fitted in every generation. In this way every part of an animal's organization could be modified exactly as required, and in the very process of this modification the unmodified would die out, and thus the definite characters and the clear isolation of each new species would be explained. The more I thought over it the more I became convinced that I had at length found the long-sought-for law of nature that solved the problem of the origin of the species. For the next hour I thought over the deficiencies in the theories of Lamarck and of the author of the "Vestiges," and I saw that my new theory supplemented these views and obviated every important difficulty. I waited anxiously for the termination of my fit so that I might at once make notes for a paper on the subject. The same evening I did this pretty fully, and on the two succeeding evenings wrote it out carefully in order to send it to Darwin by the next post, which would leave in a day or two.

I wrote a letter to him in which I said I hoped the idea would be as new to him as it was to me, and that it would supply the missing factor to explain the origin of the species. I asked him if he thought it sufficiently important to show it to Sir Charles Lyell, who had thought so highly of my former paper.

From Alfred Russel Wallace : My Life, pp. 360-363.

And so it was that Wallace sent a memoir about this evolutionary theory to the influential expert naturalist Charles Darwin, arrived in Darwin's hands in June 1858. In a covering letter Wallace asked that Darwin forward the memoir to a famous scientist, Sir Charles Lyell, if Darwin thought the content merited his attention.

Darwin had not intended to publish his own theorisings but this approach by Wallace forced his hand. The unfolding scenario in which these events took place are more fully considered on our page about the development of Evolutionary Theory independently by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.


Darwin and Wallace's independent routes to developing
their similar views of the Evolution of Species



From 1805 until his death Thomas Malthus was Professor of Modern History and Political Economy at the newly established college of the East India Company at Haileybury. This appointment may have been the first professional post in Economics held by anyone in human history.

Other works include An Inquiry into the Nature and Progress of Rent (1815) and Principles of Political Economy (1820).


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