The Ecology of Human Populations: Thomas Malthus
Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) has a hallowed place in the history of biology, despite the fact that he and his contemporaries thought of him not as a biologist but as a political economist. Malthus grew up during a time of revolutions and new philosophies about human nature. He chose a conservative path, taking holy orders in 1797, and began to write essays attacking the notion that humans and society could be improved without limits.
Population growth vs. the food supply
If a countrys population did explode this way, Malthus warned that there was no hope that the worlds food supply could keep up. Clearing new land for farming or improving the yields of crops might produce a bigger harvest, but it could only increase arithmetically, not geometrically. Unchecked population growth inevitably brought famine and misery. The only reason that humanity wasnt already in perpetual famine was because its growth was continually checked by forces such as plagues, infanticide, and simply putting off marriage until middle age. Malthus argued that population growth doomed any efforts to improve the lot of the poor. Extra money would allow the poor to have more children, only hastening the nations appointment with famine.
A new view of humans
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Sun/comet image adapted from images at NASA. Malthus image courtesy of Dennis ONeil, Palomar College.
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