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Thomas Malthus


Thomas Malthus

Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834)

Magnus Manske

Early Life and Education:

Born February 13 or 14, 1766 - Died December 29, 1834 (see note at the end of the article),

Thomas Robert Malthus was born on either February 13 or 14, 1766 (different sources list both as a possible date of birth) in Surrey County, England to Daniel and Henrietta Malthus. Thomas was the sixth of seven children and began his education by being home schooled. As a young scholar, Malthus excelled in his studies of literature and mathematics. He pursued a degree at Jesus College in Cambridge and received a Master's of Art degree in 1791 despite a speech impediment caused by a hare-lip and cleft palate.

Personal Life:

Thomas Malthus married his cousin Harriet in 1804 and they had two daughters and a son. He took a job as a professor at the East India Company College in England.


In 1798, Malthus published his best known work, Essay on the Principle of Population. He was intrigued by the idea that all human populations throughout history had a section that were living in poverty. He hypothesized that populations would grow in areas with plenty of resources until those resources were strained to the point that some of the population would have to go without. Malthus went on to say that factors like famine, war, and disease in historical populations took care of the overpopulation crisis that would have taken over if left unchecked.

Thomas Malthus not only pointed out these problems, he also came up with some solutions. Populations needed to stay within appropriate limits by either raising the death rate or lowering the birth rate. His original work emphasized what he called "positive" checks that raised the death rate, such as war and famine. Revised editions focused more on what he considered "preventative" checks, like birth control or celibacy and, more controversially, abortion and prostitution.

His ideas were considered radical and many religious leaders stepped forward to denounce his works, even though Malthus himself was a clergyman in the Church of England. These detractors made attacks against Malthus for his ideas and spread lies about his personal life. This did not deter Malthus, however, as he made a total of six revisions to his Essay on the Principle of Population, further explaining his points and adding new evidence with each revision.

Thomas Malthus blamed the declining living conditions on three factors. The first was the uncontrolled reproduction of offspring. He felt families were producing more children than they could care for with their allotted resources. Second, the production of those resources could not keep up with the expanding population. Malthus wrote extensively on his views that agriculture could not be expanded enough to feed the entire population of the world. The final factor was the irresponsibility of the lower classes. In fact, Malthus mostly blamed the poor for continuing to reproduce even though they could not afford to care for the children. His solution was to limit the lower classes to the number of offspring they were allowed to produce.

Both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace read Essay on the Principle of Population and saw much of their own research in nature being mirrored in the human population. Malthus' ideas of overpopulation and the death it caused was one of the main pieces that helped shaped the idea of Natural Selection. The "survival of the fittest" idea not only applied to populations in the natural world, it also seemed to apply to more civilized populations like humans. The lower classes were dying due to lack of resources available to them, much like the Theory of Evolution by Way of Natural Selection proposed.

Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace both praised Thomas Malthus and his work. They give Malthus a large portion of the credit for shaping their ideas and helping to hone the Theory of Evolution, and in particular, their ideas of Natural Selection.

Note: Most sources agree Malthus died on December 29, 1834, but some claim his actual date of death was December 23, 1834. It is unclear which date of death is correct, just as his exact date of birth is also unclear.

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