Malthus' Dismal Theorem and Cultural Evolution

Patrick Christmas

Thomas Robert Malthus theorized long ago that the relentless growth of the human population would eventually be slowed and brought into equilibrium; such a stabilization of the global population would be enormously important to an already overstrained environment. However, he believed this equilibrium would be reached only after considerable and extensive human suffering, mainly among the most impoverished classes of society.

In the “marginal subsistence solution” put forward by Malthus in his book, An Essay on the Principle of Population, the poorest classes are the ones that suffer an increasing death rate and decreasing birth rate until population growth ceases. It already seems as though the world, or at least large regions of it, may be approaching the point where this ominous possibility slowly becomes reality. There are many over-populated regions of the world in which the impoverished face overwhelmingly adverse living conditions. Much of South and Central America, Africa, and Asia, in particular, seem vulnerable to such a dark approach to population equilibrium. Fortunately, the model created by Malthus includes a number of assumptions and conditions that do not necessarily fit the world we live in today or the one we’ll live in the future. Of particular importance is the assumption that each generation in a population reproduces more than enough individuals to replace itself. If population growth occurred in such an unimpeded manner, Malthus’ belief that someone would eventually have to pay a price would be true. However, there remains the possibility, not included in Malthus’ model of population equilibrium, that the human race recognizes that population growth must be stopped. To consciously undergo a cultural evolution to achieve a sustainable population would be most difficult but also, an accomplishment of tremendous proportions. For this reason, we can have hope that a Malthusian population event of catastrophic proportions will never take place.

Left: Aerial view of Mexico City, Mexico; the city is one of the largest in the world and struggles with its exploding population, boasting more than 20 million denizens. Right: Shack roofs in Nairobi, Kenya. Many developing nations face severe poverty unheard of in developed, industrialized societies.

The first condition requires “some fixed population ceiling dictated by existing, fixed technology” (Dolan, 59). There are countless examples throughout history of technological breakthroughs allowing further population growth by increasing the amount of food available. Major ones include the plow, tractor, and specialized breeding of crops to achieve higher yields. Today bioengineering research is focused on the development and implementation genetically modified foods. Possible benefits of this technology include greater crop yields with more nutritious, longer-lasting products. Work with the genetics of food-producing crops is essentially a much more advanced method of the specialized breeding of food-growing plants that has been conducted by farmers for thousands of years. It would seem that technological solutions to many of our problems (including overpopulation) have always been there for us. From where we are now, who can tell what our technological capabilities will be in the future. However, Edwin Dolan makes the important point in his book, “TANSTAAFL: The Economic Strategy for Environmental Crises,” that despite what our technology has done for us in the past, we cannot rely on it as the end all solution to the population growth we are experiencing. “Only if the rate of technological progress is sufficient to outrun population will things get better, given the assumptions [included in Malthus’ model]…we can’t count on the indefinite continuation of such a rate of technological progress” (Dolan, 60). Because technology will not be the ultimately solving world population growth, the human race will have to turn to other means of stabilizing our numbers at a sustainable size.

The second major assumption included in the model is that “the reproductive behavior of the populace is such that each generation more than reproduces itself” (Dolan, 59). To respond to this innate behavior we exhibit as a population, we can only turn to our own culture as a solution. The drive to reproduce is a characteristic permanently ingrained in our nature and it will never evolve out of us. As a result, we must rely on our unique ability to rationalize if we are to affect this reproductive behavior and lower birth rates. Attempts to address this have met varying degrees of success in different parts of the world. In some developing countries, education of birth control (particularly with women) and contraceptive development and dispersal have proven to have some effectiveness in slowing population growth. Governments around the world have also taken various approaches to the issue; examples include programs of family planning and “economic incentives to limit family size, such as better housing for small families and lower taxes for couples having no more than two children” (Southwick, 179). The People’s Republic of China went as far as to adopt the rather harsh policy of limiting each couple to only one child. Of course, this repressive program was highly effective in ceasing the growth of the already enormous Chinese population; however, its success is only made possible by considerable infringement on fundamental human rights (Southwick, 179).

Developed nations including Japan, the United States, and many in Western Europe have either already achieved or are close to achieving zero population growth. In fact, some governments must actually be concerned with population decline as aging citizens leave the workforce (Southwick, 178). For whatever reason, it seems as though the cultural norms of these societies are leaning toward birth rates that maintain a sustainable population. Unfortunately, these societies are the small exception in terms of human society as a whole. It is in the developing nations with exploding populations where efforts must be focused to stem natural reproductive behavior.

The last two conditions mentioned as part of the “marginal subsistence solution” include the following: a) “consumer goods are available only via purchase” and b) “income is not distributed equally over all members” (Dolan, 60). Unlike the previously discussed conditions, these are essentially true today and, barring any monumental change in human society, will likely always be true. Unequal distribution of income and wealth, especially, will always be an unpleasant fact of human life. As for the distribution of consumer goods, it is true that most all are only “available via purchase.” Of course, some programs and policies exist to aid the people living in lowest end of the socioeconomic spectrum. International relief agencies deliver food and medical supplies to regions of the world with the most extreme poverty. Within developed, industrialized nations, welfare programs attempt to keep the poorest individuals at or above subsistence levels. Malthus might disagree with organized attempts to keep the impoverished at subsistence levels because of the potential consequences everyone would face. According to his model, efforts to help the poor achieve subsistence levels would allow population growth to continue; this would lead to the abuse of resources from overpopulation and drastic negative effects on the entire population. However, repercussions from such continued population growth would only come about if another force did not stem the birth rate first. This force could only be that of our own rationality and the resulting cultural evolution that would have to overcome the reproductive instincts ingrained in us by natural evolution.

Malthus’ “dismal theorem” is that of a “society in which affluence can exist only against the backdrop of miserable masses” (Dolan, 59). Perhaps when he developed his theorems and population models in the late 1700s, a widespread cultural response to unsustainable population growth seemed impossible. In the two hundred following the publication of his famous book, the rate of technological advances in England remained ahead of population growth; however, as mentioned before, technology cannot be the final solution. The world population is nearly six times larger than the one Malthus lived in and space, resources, and time are dwindling. We pride ourselves on possessing intelligence incomparably superior to any other organism known. If we are as enlightened a species as we think we are, perhaps we will successfully counter Malthus’ “dismal theorem” and gain control of our reproductive behavior through changes in our culture.


Dolan, Edwin G. "TANSTAAFL: The Economic Strategy for Environmental Crises." 1974.

Southwick, Charles H. "Global Ecology in Human Perspective." Oxford University Press, 1996.

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last updated 4/8/06