Thomas Robert Malthus: Biography & Theory

Instructor: Robin Harley

Robin has a PhD in health psychology. She has taught undergraduate and graduate psychology, health science, and health education.

Thomas Robert Malthus was an English scholar best known for his theory of population growth, in which he argued that a population could outgrow its resources if left unchecked. In this lesson, we will discuss his life and most influential work.

Who was Thomas Robert Malthus?

Did you know that in March of 2012, the Earth's population exceeded seven billion people? According to the latest statistics from the Population Reference Bureau, our numbers increase by over 228,000 every single day. All of these people need food, water, space, and energy. Our unprecedented growth has put a strain on our infrastructures, governments, economies, social institutions, and the environment.

This is not a new concern; one of the first scholars to publicly address the dangers of population growth was Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834). Let's first take a look at who the man was and why he was concerned about population growth.

Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834)
Thomas Robert Malthus


Thomas Robert Malthus was born in 1766 in Surrey, England. He began his education at home until he enrolled in Jesus College, Cambridge to study for his undergraduate and graduate degrees. He became a fellow at Cambridge in 1793 and later went on to be the first professor of history and political economy at the East India Company's college in Hertfordshire.

His early writings consisted of pamphlets that addressed political and economic issues of his time. In opposition to the prevailing 18th century European view that society was improving toward a potential utopia, he wrote about the dangers of excessive population growth. It's no wonder, then, that Malthus has historically been regarded as a colossal pessimist! Despite this reputation, his work on population growth is still widely used and debated today.

Malthus on Population Growth

Malthus's best-known work was his 1798 essay, An Essay on the Principle of Population. He wrote that population growth occurs exponentially, which means that it increases according to the birth rate. For example, imagine a family tree. If every family member reproduces, the tree will continue getting bigger with each generation. On the other hand, food production increases arithmetically, so it only increases in given increments over time. Malthus wrote that, left unchecked, populations can outgrow their resources.

Malthus also wrote that there are two ways to 'check' the population growth rate. Preventive checks include things people might do themselves to prevent rapid population growth. For instance, Malthus was a proponent of a concept he called moral restraint, in which people resist the urge to marry and reproduce until they are capable of supporting a family.

Positive checks to population growth could be anything that might shorten the average lifespan, including poor living and working conditions, disease, famine, and war. These positive checks would result in a Malthusian catastrophe, or a forced return of a population to sustainable levels.

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