Malthus Was Wrong, But Not Why You Think

It’s hard to think of a historical writer more misunderstood than Thomas Malthus. A week doesn’t go by without somebody dropping his name, but only to show how wrong he was.

Take this Stephen Malanga City Journal article, “Our Vanishing Ultimate Resource: Plummeting birthrates threaten prosperity worldwide. Can America buck the trend?

Malanga writes that the “media continue to warn us about impending environmental catastrophe and mass starvation caused by an exploding human population. These Malthusian alarms persist even though the last 200 years have proved Malthus completely wrong.”

Malthusian alarms! Well, I don’t blame Malanga, because you cannot find our good Reverend named in any context other than as a failed forecaster in the same vein as Paul “Population Bomb” Ehrlich. Everybody thinks that Malthus predicted doom by overpopulation.

Not so.

Malthus’s theory was a steady state one. He said that a species will breed up to the point at which no more of it can be fed. He made the logically undeniable point that no more of a species can exist than can be supported by the available food supply. The population will increase and stay at those levels and cannotbecause there is no food to—go beyond that point. The doom of which you constantly hear is impossible. Stay here until you understand this. This applies to man, too.

What Malthus said was that a species was always at its limit—barring disasters, wars, famines, booms (exceptionally good harvests), “unnatural practices” (by which he meant abortion and homosexuality), and so on. Charles Darwin saw the brilliance of Malthus’s theory and married it to his idea of evolution: that species are always competing for food provided the mechanism to drive evolution. Those that were better at finding food, survived.

But Malthus was wrong about our species, and exactly in the opposite direction you commonly hear. Man has not bred up to the point that he can be supported by the available food supply. Man does not follow the strict theory of evolution.

NOTE: this does not imply that that theory is wrong overall; merely that it is incomplete with respect to our species; e.g., strict Darwinan “selfish genes” theory does not sufficiently explain abortion, altruism, and adoption, to name just the As.

In fact, mankind has turned out to be quite a slacker, survival-of-the-fittest-wise. As things get better, we breed not more, but less. Take a look at this picture, which shows the estimated World population since 1950.

World Population

Looks like nowhere to go but up, right? If so, this is yet another example of how to cheat with statistics. Take a look at the same numbers, but shown as the velocity, or rate of change of population.

World Population Velocity

That hatchet-notch around 1960 was caused by yet another attempt to create a socialist paradise in China (it’ll work next time, right?). Centrally-planned famine wiped out a good chunk of humanity.

However, Malthus would be at a loss—as we are—to explain the drop-off starting around 1990. True, part of it is due to good old communist stick-to-itiveness: China is vigorously aborting a fairly large fraction of its pre-women, and some pre-men, in its “one-child” policy (they misread Malthus, too).

But weirder is the trend in the West, where the beer is always cold, grocery stores overflow, over 500 channels are on demand, and there is plenty of room to grow. In short: life is good. But people are not celebrating their success in the way they would have in the days before electricity.

Following strict utilitarian principles, some of us are willingly giving up the passing on of our genes. We are not competing for our survival.

Don’t believe it? Then look at Japan. Is there are more technologically advanced civilization? Low crime, more than enough food, and talk about healthy? These people regularly pop out past the century mark. Surely, they must be beavering away producing the next generation. Here are the numbers:

Japan Population

The dip is obvious, even in the raw numbers. And remember: demographic forecasts are almost always right, at least at the decadel level. It’s easy to count people, and breeding new humans takes about a year. Makes it easy to guess what will happen in the short term.

But you don’t have to accept the prediction. Just look at the velocity.

Japan Population Velocity

A line that straight downhill is spooky: it cries out for a cause. It is such a steep slope that it appears there was a national decision, after some initial indecision before the 1970s, to stop having babies.

Can a civilization exhaust itself? Turn so inward and self-indulgent? Is there some hidden virus or amoeba acting to suppress the desire to breed? Maybe an adequate diet—in exact opposition to theory—causes that suppression.

It isn’t just Japan. It’s Italy, Sweden, Germany, Austria, and on and on. Even the “developing” countries show signs of the same disease: the better they get (materially) the less they breed. So far, the US is holding its own and still getting to business. Nobody knows why.

Malanga says it’s because we lack an overly strong government. But if he’s right, and since our government has only grown stronger, then the US will be on the same downward path soon.



  1. Matt is not the first to comment on this trend. For instance several of Spengler’s Asian Times archived pieces have touched on the issue. Can it be that “life” has become too easy? Too many toys and distractions? So many other things going on that many just put off childbearing/parenting? Until it’s more convenient? As if it will ever become so?

    Anecdotal story: Local cop died over the weekend racing his motorcycle in a sanctioned event out of state. An approvingly written story today told how lately his “passion” had become motorcycles, including building his own racing bikes. He had five. And two children. Imo somehow, something seems to have failed to click.

    Friends in the UK have 3 children. She reports being looked askance when they are taken to a medical appointment. Odd.

  2. Doug M

    Malthus was wrong. His thesis was that population grows geometrically while resources grow arithmetically. While it was possible for resources to grow faster than population in 1800, the trend was unsustainable. Population pressures will drive down the real wages. “Progress” is an illusion. Soon enough we would be forced back to near poverty. He was the most dismal of dismal scientists.

    Why has population growth subsided in developed economies? My answer is that the costs of raising children have increased. Post-modern children are more dependent on their parents, require more years of education, and are much older before entering the workforce. At the same time we get less economic benefit from our children. We no longer support our parents in their golden years, and have no expectations that our children will support us. You may say that people don’t think like that, but people respond to incentives even if they are not aware of it.

    What do we do about declining birth rates? Immigration fills the void, as people move from poor countries with high birth rates to wealthier countries with low birth rates.

  3. It’s pleasing to see that the time spent with Professors Towey, Orzech, Wolfson and Bible was not wasted.

    Much of what I see or hear of the debate over resource allocation and innovation begins with the assumption that we live within a closed-system.

    And the idea of state mandated “innovation” is doubly absurd as a result.

  4. Ron DeWitt

    There is, what seems to me to be, a significant division within our population. There are those who regard Rachel Carson as a heroine while there are others who blame the policies for which she was responsible for millions of malarial deaths among the children of Africa. Conversely, there are some who regard Norman Borlaug as a great benefactor of mankind, while there are others who damn him for increasing our dependence on technology and industrial agriculture. These attitudes seem to characterize two distinct groups who have responded differently to the issue that you have raised above. I would argue that the Carson proponents have gone a step beyond accepting the Malthus theory. They seem to accept diminution of population, even if it is brought about by avoidable famine and disease. The different attitudes that seem to exist in this regard appear to be based on differences about what is the good–is it what leads to the flourishing of humanity or is it something leading to “some greater good.” I have difficulty understanding this.

  5. Mark Walker

    Whether it’s population growth, real estate values, .com valuations or sea ice melt, the media grabs the straight line projection and tells us of the (potential, hypothetical, made-up) hazards, moral or physical if society fails to change it ways – now. And government action is the only thing that can save us – despite the dismal record of most public policy outcomes.

    Malthus (and I agree with Matt on Thomas’ ideas of steady state) and Keynes provide handy cover for all the politicians and pundits to rationalize the need for sweeping and significant government response (read spending) to “bend the curve” (an interesting concept…).

    The decline in velocity of birth rates in the world is interesting – but one should be careful about projecting the decline and wringing one’s hands about the potential outcomes in the future.

    Humans are after all, only human, and respond to various stimuli and incentives/disincentives, based solely on self-interest – despite government intervention – eventually.

    It is reasonable to expect the velocity to change (or not) in the future depending entirely on what the folks in Japan, China and rest of the World feel is in their best interests.

    Malthus may or may not be wrong, but at the end of the day Adam Smith seems to understand best the impact of human nature on such issues.

  6. Briggs

    Doug M,

    Malthus was not wrong. Let the rate of increase in a species—not just human, mind—be as high as you like, and let the rate of increase of food for that species be as low as you like. The species still cannot increase past the available food supply. Once its limit is reached, there it remains. It will only fluctuate around that limit due to external (or abnormal) causes.

    This theory is obviously not true of humans, not matter how true it might be of other species.

    Plus, Malthus was far from dismal. He was trying to find a way to help the poor: by encouraging them to breed at a slower rate, he was hoping to make their labor supply more precious, and therefore more valuable. Also, by all accounts, he was an immensely well-liked man.

  7. Ron DeWitt

    But not well-liked by Marx. Marx even challenged Darwin’s claim that the germ for the theory of natural selection had been the paper by Malthus.

  8. Doug M

    Mathus was right — a population will expand with an exponential growth rate until it reaches the carying capacity of its environment.

    He was wrong in that he failed to realize just how far a little human inginuity could increase carrying capacity.

    As joyous as he may have been in private life, through is writings, Mathus earned the title “dismal science” for his profession.

  9. Ron DeWitt

    It is amusing that the left now seems justify itself more on the basis of a questionable reading of Malthus than upon Marx.

  10. Speed

    Population growth slows as good health grows. This has been known for some time but good news doesn’t get the headlines. Melinda Gates shows this using an excellent animated graphic starting at 6:55 in this video.

    More entertaining is the original from Hans Rosling at TED.
    Start at 3:20.

    Briggs: How about some units for Population Velocity. Persons per Year perhaps?

  11. Briggs


    Good point. The velocity actually is in people per year. I should have made that clearer.

    I was also going to show the acceleration, but the page got too busy.

  12. In nature very few species ever reach “carry capacity” and thus reach food limits. That’s because most population dynamics are governed by predator-prey relationships.

    For that matter, predator/prey dynamics cannot be modeled by simple chaotic determinate equations, either, because there are alternate prey and disease and parasites and the whole shebang, so that actual population dynamics are quite complicated and often murky.

    Humans are keystone predators, meaning nothing preys on us except viruses, bacteria, and mostly ourselves. We are our own predators.

    Which is a clue to the population dynamics graphed above. It’s all self-inflicted.

  13. Kevin

    It isn’t just Japan. It’s Italy, Sweden, Germany, Austria, and on and on. Even the “developing” countries show signs of the same disease: the better they get (materially) the less they breed. So far, the US is holding its own and still getting to business. Nobody knows why.

    Doesn’t immigration explain the anomaly that is the U.S.?

  14. Scott Gibson

    I’m thinking out loud here. I think we’re talking about two different things.

    1. Availability of food will limit the total possible population in any given species.

    2. There is more pressure to breed when fewer individuals will survive, and inversely, less pressure to breed when a higher proportion will survive.

    Hence, it is not surprising that breeding pressure is inversely proportional to comfort level.

  15. John Bowman

    Lower child mortality rates, less labour intensive production of food and other resources mean inherent pressure on increasing or maintaining population levels has decreased. People now live to thrive not merely to survive.

  16. schnoerkelman

    I fear that Matt has it wrong about a species never being able to reach or exceed the carrying capacity. There are quite a few species that do this. The population explodes when “times are good” and exceeds the carrying capacity by a large margin. The large population eats everything in sight until there is little to nothing left and then the population crashes, declining to a relatively small number of individuals. The small number then begins again with a geometric growth rate but from a low starting point. Predator species may have the same response with a lag since they will also breed up during the good times and then when the prey species crashes they too have nothing to eat.

    The “textbook” example, THE INTRODUCTION, INCREASE,AND CRASH OF REINDEER ON ST. MATTHEW ISLAND is documented here:

    An interesting graphic showing sigmoidal response curve seems fitting for the human case being discussed can be seen here (page 16)


  17. Briggs


    Well, let’s say I wasn’t clear. I did point out that external changes to the environment will change the population size. Some of these were “disasters, wars, famines, booms (exceptionally good harvests), ‘unnatural practices’ (by which he meant abortion and homosexuality), and so on.” For humans, what I forgot, under “unnatural practices”, was contraception. And in a comment I said, “It will only fluctuate around that limit due to external (or abnormal) causes. ”

    So I think I hit the concept; I just didn’t emphasize it. I also do not claim Malthus was right; in fact, I say he was wrong. One reason is mentioned by Uncle Mike. The reason Malthus was wrong about humans is the question of the day.

    Our refusal to have “selfish genes” flies in the face of (raw?) evolutionary theory. So what can we do to that theory to fix it up?


    No, immigration does not explain it. We’re still gettin’ busy at a regular rate. Malanga also quotes various demographers who show that immigration is usually only a temporary fix. Obviously, the people immigrating have to come from somewhere, so the total population doesn’t change. And once they get to where they’re going, they usually adapt and adopt the breeding mores of the host population.

  18. schnoerkelman

    Dr. B: I think we’re talking past each other, sorry. I was trying to point out that there are essentially three kinds of results that can happen at the limit defined by the carrying capacity. The simple exponential where the population grows rapidly past the limit and then crashes, a sigmoidal approach where population growth slows as it approaches the limit, and a case where more multiple semi-stable levels occur with an oscillation between them. Micro-organisms and insects tend to exhibit the first kind, predator/prey pairs the third.
    Long ago and far away when I first learned about this there was an ongoing debate about what the human population would do. It would seem that we are modifying our growth rate so that the sigmoidal form might turn out to be the winner. This is not what was expected by, for example, the Club of Rome.

    As you point out, the mechanism is also a mystery. How r/K selection applies to human culture is an obvious complication. When one considers how closely all humans are related genetically it could be an extension of the altruism logic as described for close relatives.

    A minor nit to close: “but not why you think” would be better as “but not for the reasons you might think”.


  19. DAV

    I think offspring are more than a gene investment. Even if they are, as life gets easier then the need for the investment as a means to cover negative happenstance decreases. Most species would be unaware of this and would continue to procreate. Humans obviously do not. But, for humans at least, offspring are also potential workers. Certainly this is true for farm work. The less industrial countries (which seem to be the least wealthy) still have this need while the US and Japan do not.

    My guess anyway.

  20. Jade

    I think it’s obvious that what separates humans from other species is their superior ability to reason (which also serves to their demise) not to procreate. People’s view about children has changed dramatically in the past century. Rather than viewing them as a blessing, they view them as another mouth to feed. It cuts into their budget of luxuries and leisure times. I’d say the selfishness of man has only grown with time….

  21. I’ve done quite a bit of work on analyzing why the US is so different from the rest of the industrialized world in terms of birth rates.

    While immigration alone cannot explain the high fecundity rates of the US population, if you dig into the data deeper, you do find immigrant fecundity significantly higher than that of the native US-born population. However, the native US-born population fecundity is significantly higher than that of Europe, despite having, basically, very similar socio-economic makeup.

    The reason, then, for higher non-immigrant US fecundity? As far as I can see, and this is speculative, two major factors explain the difference: social attitudes towards having children (duh) and perceived limits to growth.

    The latter plays a larger role: here is where the concept of the US as that shining city on the hill, where dreams can become reality and where frontiers still exist (at least in the mind, if not physically), trumps the European view of reality where your society is more stratified, where your incomes are more limited because taxes take so much of your income, especially at lower income levels, and where social mobility, while not unknown, remains a significant problem.

    The social attitudes towards having children depends partially on this: as someone living in Germany, I have friends who consciously decide not to have children because it would impact their life styles heavily, but less because they’re out and about all the time, but more because their income would halve and they’d have so little left over that it doesn’t make financial sense for them to have children: the sacrifice, for them, is too large.

    Basically, the US has not yet reached its “natural” limits to growth where the population is maxed out: the UN forecast for US population in 2050 is no less than 400mn. That’s 100 mn more than now, in less than 40 years. I extrapolated this out to 2150 for some of my really long-term forecasts (yes, I do this for a living…) and get an upper limit for US population of around 700mn. That’s the point where the US no longer exports food because we need it for domestic consumption (which if you know anything about US food exports is fairly mind-boggling). Europe has, partially due to climactic and distribution effects, largely already reached this maximum, as is also shown by the declining birth rates.

    I readily admit that this is anecdotal and not statistical information, but my point here is that you can’t explain everything via statistics: you have to specify your models first before you can test them.

    Despite the importance of demographics, it remains a sadly neglected area of research. Odd, that.

    Oh, and that decline starting in the 1970s?

    That’s when the birth control pill arrived and became easily available.

  22. Ari

    John F. Opie,

    That still doesn’t explain Japan, who didn’t get birth control pills until much later than the 1970s. Never mind that the pill remains a rarely used tool of birth control there even today.

    I think rich people (by which I mean the entire developed world) just don’t want to have kids. I work 60 hours a week and am marrying a future doctor. We might have enough time for one kid one day if I change career paths. Might.


    It might be interesting to see what the birth rate is like in the US by income and ethnicity. If I remember correctly, it’s not the Americans living in gated communities and driving Lexus SUVs who are having enough children.

  23. Leonard Weinstein

    The growth rate of the population of US citizens, that have been here several generations, has in fact started dropping also. However the large legal and illegal immigration and very new citizens more than make up for this, both with a high influx of people and birth rate of new citizens, and these are the source of the continuation of our population growth. The large usable land area and natural resources, and wealth could allow a significant continued growth for quite a while, unlike limited sized countries and resources in Europe and Japan. Russia is having a negative growth problem for different reasons, but eventually will probably start back up in the near future now that their government and economy are more favorable. They would eventually level off and slowly drop later, but at a higher level than now.

  24. Geniuscanuck

    You may all be arguing from an obvious, but incorrect, presumption. Perhaps the correct way to determine the size of a given population is to determine just exactly that: the size. The actual head-count may not be the proper unit.

    When resources become scarce, particularly in a closed environment such as an island, animals have resorted to dwarfism: pygmy dinosaurs, pygmy elephants, pygmy hippopotami, and of course pygmy humans.

    I suggest that the total weight of a given species may be more relevant than the number of individuals.

    And let no unreconstructed hippy reply, “Heavy, dude!”

  25. Rodrigo D.

    Let me remind you our little blue planet started to die in the late XIX century due to overpopulation. The question is: How long will this bioplanet stay alive?
    To me, a biotechnological sterilizing agent -the Malthus virus- is the right answer.

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