Thomas Malthus' Theory of Human Population Growth

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  • 0:07 Human Population Growth
  • 0:24 Early View of…
  • 1:03 Thomas Malthus and His Theory
  • 3:23 Was Thomas Malthus Correct?
  • 4:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Margaret Cunningham

Margaret has taught many Biology and Environmental Science courses and has Master's degrees in Environmental Science and Education.

In this lesson, we will explore the ideas of Thomas Malthus and his predictions for the growth of the human population. We will also investigate if his predictions have come true or not.

Human Population Growth

The human population has been growing for thousands of years, and as of 2013 there are over seven billion people on Earth. What do you think will happen to the human population in the future? Will it continue to increase, or maybe decrease, or stay the same?

Early View of Population Growth

Over the years, there have been many opinions on how the human population will change over time. During the 1700s, philosophers proclaimed that the human population would be maintained because human knowledge and moral constraint would make it possible to establish a world where resources are abundant. They believed that humans could control the Earth and would make sure that all humans had all of the supplies they needed to survive. It was also a common belief of the time that if the population started to grow too rapidly that people would immediately stop having sexual intercourse to help limit population growth.

Thomas Malthus and His Theory

During the 1700s, there was one man who was very interested in the future of the human population and had an opinion very different than most. Thomas Malthus, an English philosopher who lived from 1766 to 1834, was the first man to publicly predict the limits of the human population and how population and well-being are connected. In 1798, Malthus wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population, which explained his predictions and changed the view of many people.

Thomas Malthus believed that the human population exhibits exponential growth, which is when the increase is proportional to the amount already present. With exponential growth the rate of increase becomes more rapid in proportion to the increasing total size. An example of exponential growth would be if a population increased from 2 individuals to 4, 8, 16, 32, and then 64 individuals.

Now we know what exponential growth is. You might wonder what this has to do with human well-being. Thomas Malthus found that food production did not increase at an exponential rate but instead increased more slowly. As a result of these differences in population and food growth rates, Malthus predicted that the human population would eventually grow too large to be sufficiently supported by the food available.

As a result of the growing population and limited food, Thomas Malthus thought that the world would begin a downward spiral. Overall, he predicted that the uncontrolled population growth would lead to a depletion of resources, increased pollution, overcrowding, and increased unemployment. He thought these problems would then lead to larger problems, such as starvation, increased diseases, crime, poverty, and eventually war. Malthus predicted that these unfortunate circumstances would be how the Earth would control the human population. He thought that these problems would lead to increased death rates and lower birth rates, which would help return the human population to a manageable size where there would be enough resources to support the entire population.

Was Thomas Malthus Correct?

In areas of the world that suffer from extreme poverty, you can currently see Thomas Malthus' predictions coming true. In these areas, populations have increased rapidly and without control. This has led to famine, diseases, and wars, which have all caused decreases in the population size of the region.

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