Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER II.: Animadversions On Mr. Malthus'ss, Authorities. - Of Population. An Enquiry concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind
Return to Title Page for Of Population. An Enquiry concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER II.: Animadversions On Mr. Malthus'ss, Authorities. - William Godwin, Of Population. An Enquiry concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind 
Of Population. An Enquiry concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind, being an Answer to Mr. Malthus’s Essay on that Subject (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1820).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Animadversions On Mr. Malthus'ss, Authorities.
Having thus therefore got together all the authorities that Mr. Malthus has produced, or is able to produce, in support of his fundamental positions, let us proceed to examine into their validity and amount.
The first is Dr. Franklin. What he says on the subject of fennel, is of a very vague nature I do not imagine that any one will ascribe to this bare assertion the force of demonstration If I had heard it for the first time in conversation, and without having previously reflected on the subject, I should have answered, “Very likely.” No more. The proposition is specious enough: but appearances are sometimes deceitful. Probability is not always on the side of truth. We are not sufficiently acquainted with the natural history of fennel, and of fennel-seed, to entitle us to pronounce positively. He that should undertake to “overspread the whole earth” with fennel, and that felt quite confident of the success of his experiment, I should have been apt to pronounce a very bold man.
But, when Dr. Franklin proceeds from this hazarded assertion about fennel, to say, “Were the earth empty of other inhabitants, it might in a few ages be” replenished from one nation only, as for instance with Englishmen,” he makes a very wide step indeed. There, is a great difference between the sowing of seed, and the multiplication of men. I have myself counted eighty grains of com, growing on one stalk, from a single seed, in the course of a season. The sowing of vegetables is a very simple thing; and we are apt to think that we can calculate with some certainty on the result. And yet, I own I cannot feel an undoubting confidence in Dr. Franklin's crop of millions of acres of fennel
The multiplication of mankind however is an affair of another sort, and governed by different laws. It has by many persons been believed that we do multiply; but what was the rate of increase, no one, till the year 1731, had ventured to pronounce. It may be that I want the robust nerves of Dr. Franklin and Mr. Malthus; but I own, if the human species were by some tremendous casualty swept from every other part of the globe, except this island, I should not like to witness the experiment, whether or no its present population could be replenished with Englishmen only.
I do not know how the world was peopled at first. We are told, that we arc all descended from a single pair: but we are not entitled to reason from this memorable history, to the every-day occurrences of life. The creation of the world, and the peopling of the earth, are all a miracle. The settling of countries and the dispersion of mankind were conducted by the immediate hand of the creator. Besides, human life, it is written, was originally of the duration of nearly a thousand years; and this may be supposed to have made a wide difference in the rate of multiplication.
But Dr. Franklin and Mr. Malthus are both of them calculators and philosophers. They do not pretend to appeal to miracles for the truth of their theories. Mr. Malthus in particular deals largely in statistical tables, and collections of the registers of births, marriages and deaths, in these latter ages of the world; and to these I shall presently take leave to accompany him.
Dr. Franklin I own has obtained a great name. But, when he launches into assertions so visionary as those here recited, and above all, when I recollect what tremendous and heartsickening consequences Mr. Malthus has deduced from these assertions, I must say that a great name goes with me for nothing, and I must subject his positions to a strict examination.
Dr. Franklin is in this case particularly the object of our attention, because he was the first man that started the idea of the people of America being multiplied by procreation, so as to “double their numbers every twenty years.” Dr. Franklin, born at Boston, was eminently an American patriot; and the paper from which these extracts are taken, was expressly written to exalt the importance and glory of his country.
The following is the way in which he supports his hypothesis respecting the population of America. “If it is reckoned in Europe that there is but one marriage per annum among one hundred persons, perhaps we may here reckon on two; and if in Europe they have but four births to a marriagea , we may here reckon eight.” It were to be wished, that Dr. Franklin had given his reasons for this amazing superiority in the fruitfulness of the marriage-bed on the other side the Atlantic. Is it any thing in the climate? Dr. Franklin says something respecting the late marriages of Europe; and this we shall shortly have occasion to examine. But he could hardly have thought that all European brides were so old, as from that circumstance alone to account for their having no more than half the offspring of the brides of America. If this paper were without a date, I should have thought it had been written long before twenty-five years of age.
It is not a little curious, that the next authority upon which we are called upon to believe in Mr. Malthus's fundamental positions, is a Sermon delivered sixty years ago, by a puritanical preacher in Connecticut, which Sermon Mr. Malthus never saw.
To make a just estimate of the authority of Sir William Petty, it is necessary to quote his words. “Suppose there be 600 people; in natural possibility this number may yield near 75 births annually. For by some late observations the teeming females between. 15 and 44 years of age, are about 180 of the said 600, and the males of between 18 and 59, are about 180 also, and every teeming woman can bear a child once in two years; from all which it is plain, that the births may be 90 per annum, and (abating 15 for sickness, young abortions, and natural barrenness) there may remain 75 births, which is an eighth of the people; which births by some observations we have found to be actually but a two-and-thirtieth part, or but a quarter of what is thus shewn to be naturally possible. Now, according to this reckoning, if the births may be 75 of 600 annually, and the burials but 15, then the annual increase of the people will be 60; and so the said 600 people may double in 10 years.”
Now in this passage three things are assumed: first, the amount of teeming women in any given number of people; secondly, the amount of deaths annually; and thirdly, the amount of births annually, that are, according to Sir William, “in natural possibility.” Without going into the accuracy of the amounts in the two former instances, the first thing worthy of notice is that these two amounts are given as founded upon actual observations, while for the third the author confessedly has resort to the regions of possibility. But in this there is no parity.
And what does Sir William Petty mean by “natural possibility?” How can we know any thing of possibilities, as to the natural history of man, but from actual observation? Sir William Petty assumes that every female between 15 and 44 years of age is what he calls a teeming female, or in other words capable of bearing a child once in two years, and that 15 out of 90 is an ample allowance for natural barrenness, for abortions, and for such indisposition, of whatever sort, on the part of the female, as should produce a temporary incapacity for child-bearing. He further supposes that each female shall be the mother of fourteen children, or, more accurately speaking of fourteen children and a half; for, if the teeming women are constantly in the proportion of 180, and the number of children born annually stands as Sir William Petty has set it down, then it is obvious that every teeming woman, in other words, every woman between 15 and 44 years of age, must bear a child every second year. Now where does Sir William find this? And, if I were to say, that it is a “natural impossibility,” that every woman between these ages should do thus, should I not have as much, or rather a great deal more, reason on my side?
So much for Sir William Petty's “possible doubling of mankind in so short a time as ten years.”
I next proceed to consider the authority of Euler, who, according to Mr. Malthus, “calculates, on a mortality of 1 in 36, that if the births be to the deaths in the proportion of 3 to 1, the period of doubling will be only 12 years and 4-5ths.”
The name of Euler is truly imposing. He is one of the most eminent mathematicians of modern times, and is worthy to be ranked with the greatest geniuses in that science in ages past. But it is truly to very little purpose that the name of Euler is introduced into this question. And I am persuaded, if he could have been aware of the use that would be made of his authority, he would have taken effectual care that it should not be employed for the purpose of imposing unfounded theories on the world.
Euler never wrote a book on the population of the earth, and the multiplication of the human species. If he had, I cannot but believe that he would have looked with a penetrating eye and a persevering temper into the subject. He would not have been discouraged by its intricacies; but would have spent years of patient labour in collecting all the documents and tables that could be found, and by careful comparison have endeavoured to deduce from them such results as might be worthy of the confidence of future generations. He has done no such thing.
How comes his name then to be mixed up with the subject of which Mr. Malthus treats?
A writer, to whose pages we are considerably indebted, and who appears to have been extremely assiduous in the execution of his task, John Peter Sussmilch, member of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Berlin, undertook a work, entitled, Die Gottliche Ordnung, &c.; or, The Order of Divine Providence, as Displayed in the Births, Deaths, and Increase of the Human Race, which was first published in 1765 in two volumes octavo, and has since been enlarged into three. This work is replete with statistical tables; and the author was at indefatigable pains in collecting all the documents that could throw light on his subject. His volumes are therefore of great value as a book of reference. The professed object of Sussmilch was, first to demonstrate the possibility of an increase in the population of the earth, and then to recommend the adoption of such means as he was able to suggest for realising that increase.
The great merit of this writer is patience and perseverance; and he appears to have been laudably diffident of his own abilities in matters of mathematical calculation. He therefore applied to Euler. Euler was a man of the highest reputation in the exact sciences, and had been employed by Frederic the Second, in the beginning of his reign, to assist in remodelling and giving new life and vigour to his Academy. Euler, with that liberality which ought always to be the characteristic of a man of genius, lent himself to the request of his brother-academician. For this purpose it was no wise necessary that he should study the subject of population; nor did he attempt to do so. He was responsible only for the fidelity of his calculations. Sussmilch gave him certain questions, gratuitous and arbitrary suppositions as to an imaginary multiplication of mankind; and Euler worked the sums. Every one therefore may easily judge, with what propriety Euler is brought forward as an authority on the occasion. As well might Bonnycastle in his Introduction to Algebra be cited to prove that a gentleman gave four millions five hundred thousand pounds for a horse, because he has shewn that, upon a certain computation, if adopted, that would actually have been the price of the horse.
The computation of Euler to which Mr. Malthus refers, stands thus. “If in any country there are 100,000 persons living, and the annual mortality is one in thirty-six, then, supposing the annual proportion of deaths to births to be variously, as 10 to 11, 10 to 12, and so on, up to as 10 to 30, what will be the numbers of persons who will yearly be added to the society, and what will be the number of years required for the original 100,000 persons to become 200,000?” Euler's answer is that “the period of doubling on the first supposition would be 250 years, and—on the last would be twelve years and four-fifthsb .” This question certainly did not require the extraordinary abilities of Euler to solve. If the sum were worked upon the Rule of Compound Interest, to be found in any of the common books of arithmetic, the answer would be exactly the same as it is in Euler's Table.
Surely the reading part of the public have seldom been so egregiously trifled with, as when Mr. Malthus. gravely placed this calculation of Euler among his authorities for the rapid multiplication of mankind.
The question which the real politician is called upon to examine, is not what would be the result upon certain arbitrary suppositions, but what does actually happen in the community of mankind.
Mr. Malthus indeed adds, “This proportion [viz. the proportion on which Euler calculates a doubling in twelve years and four-fifths] has actually occurred for short periods in more countries than onec .”
This the Essay on Population asserts in its usual Laconic style.
Surely it is not thus, that the gravest question (if at all grave) which was ever presented to the consideration of mankind, ought to be treated. Let it be remembered, that the corollary from this and the like propositions, is that vice and misery, and nothing but vice and misery, are the indispensible guarantees for the existence of our race.
I cannot for myself consent to admit such a proposition with such a corollary, without the minutest and the strictest examination. One line, or even six pagesd , will never satisfy me in a question of this sort. If Mr. Malthus had named his countries and his periods, it would then have been open for me to ascertain what peculiar circumstances might have occasioned this doubling for the confessedly “short periods” our author speaks of.
But what have we to do with “short periods?” The speculations of the Essay on Population, with which the world has been made drunk for twenty years, treat of nothing less than infinity. The main proposition of the author is that “population, if unchecked, will go on doubling itself every twenty -five years, or increase in a geometrical ratio:” that is, will go on for ever: when it has once begun, nothing can stop it totally but the consummation of all things, or partially but some of those checks which fall under the heads either of vice or misery. Indeed Mr. Malthus has recently told us, that, “if any person will take the trouble to make the calculation,” he may easily ascertain how long a time, upon his principles, will be necessary, to people the whole visible universe with human beings at the rate of four men to every square yarde . What have “short periods” of increase to do with this?
It will more fully appear as we proceed that short periods of increase afford no foundation whatever upon which to found our conclusion as to any ratio of increase in perpetual series.f
But it is worth while to dwell a little upon this doubling in infinite series, which is the corner-stone of Mr. Malthus's system. The rules for calculating such a series are to be found in every common book of arithmetic: but hitherto it has been regarded by almost all sober men, as an exercise in calculation, a mathematical recreation, and nothing more.
Mr. Bonnycastle, as above quoted, has ascertained the price of a horse, if he were purchased by the rule of a geometrical progression, of which the exponent is 2, and if the progression, beginning at a farthing, were carried on through thirty-two steps. Dr. Price has calculated the produce of one penny put out at our Saviour's birth to five per cent. compound interest, and finds that in the year 1791 it would have increased to a greater sum than would be contained in three hundred millions of earths, all solid goldg . But did any one ever think of applying this to the affairs of real existence? Has any one ever given four millions sterling for a horse? Did any one ever, by dint of compound interest, for himself and his successors, turn a penny into three hundred millions of earths, all solid gold? Is it worth our while, except as a puzzle to sharpen the wits of school-boys, to talk either of the one or the other? As little, be sure, are Mr. Malthus's ratios worthy to be thought of by statesmen, or acted upon even by the overseers of parish-workhouses, to which, according to our author, they eminently belongh .
There is such a thing, well known among logicians, as an argument, that proves too much, and by so doing is universally set down as proving nothing. If ever there was such an argument, such is Mr. Malthus's argument from “the American increase;” or, in other words, such is “the American increase” as expounded by Mr. Malthus. A sound and well regulated mind, that is engaged in other matters than mathematical puzzles and wonders, soon comes to a stand amidst the luxuriances of an infinite series.
In this respect we may perhaps consider ourselves as substantially indebted to Mr. Malthus for the illustration, introduced into his last work, of peopling the whole visible universe at the rate of four men to every square yard. There is no bubble so brilliant, that, if you attempt to blow it up to too vast a size, will not presently burst, and shew to every bystander that it was but a bubble all the while.
There is, says Mr. Malthus, a tendency in the human species, susceptible of the effect of in no long time peopling all the stars. And yet, according to his own shewing, this tendency has never displayed itself, but in one insignificant period of one hundred and fifty years, in one remote corner of the world, and with what circumstances of evidence we shall presently have occasion to enquire. Credat Judœus Apella.
If the principle of population had gone on unchecked for eighteen hundred years, it would have produced men enough to fill the whole visible universe with human creatures as thick as they could stand: this is in so many words the doctrine of our author. The earth is at this moment computed to contain 600,000,000 of human beings. I wish Mr. Malthus has put down his numbers, that, by subtracting the one from the other, we might see by a glance of the eye, how many had been crushed in the egg, or destroyed in infancy. But I have shewn in the proper place, that, upon the reasonings of the Essay on Population, they were not crushed in the egg, but were actually born, and actually died in childhoodi .
Let us however treat the doctrine of our author fairly. God forbid that we should crush the “principle of population” under the weight of numbers that do not belong to it! It is true that, upon our author's principles, all in every generation are born that can be born. But, for as many as die in their infancy, we cannot count upon their progeny. This progeny is only crushed in the egg. Granted: yet I must be allowed to set on the other side the age of the world. It would need only eighteen hundred years to people the whole visible universe at the rate of four men to every square yard: but the world has lasted according to the most moderate statements six thousand years; according to the Indians and Chinese many hundred times as long. Oh, for a sober philosopher to count up the innumerable infinities (how shall I express the idea!) of children that have died for the benefit of the geometrical ratio—beside all that mortality, which the records of countries or the sad ruminations of the moralist, had recognised, and thought they had completed the tale, little suspecting the discovery which has since been made of Mr. Malthus's ratios! Millions become as insignificant as units, when applied to this consideration. Dr. Price's three hundred millions of earths all solid gold, are nothing. Three hundred millions of earths all solid men, would not constitute the millionth part of that company which is set before us, when Mr. Malthus draws up the curtain, and shews us the geometrical ratio.—I must again repeat, How do we know this? Upon what evidence is it to be received? Upon one solitary experiment (and I must be allowed to add, a most equivocal one) of one bare hundred and fifty years, in one infant colony, as I may call it, in an obscure nook of the New World; and this replied to and refuted, with one voice, and with an evidence the most consenting and astounding, by all ages and countries, by all sects of religion and forms of government, that were ever heard of or devised.
If America had never been discovered, the geometrical ratio, as applied to the multiplication of mankind, would never have been known. If the British colonies had never been planted, Mr. Malthus would never have written. The human species might have perished of a long old age, a fate to which perhaps all sublunary things are subject at last, without one statesman or one legislator through myriads of centuries, having suspected this dangerous tendency to increase, “in comparison with which human institutions, however they may appear to be causes of much mischief to society, are mere feathers.” There have been new lights in religion; and there are new lights in politics: a spark struck out fortuitously, but carefully, gathered up and preserved by men anxiously solicitous for the public weal. “The light shineth in darkness.”
But it may be said, though Mr. Malthus should be wrong in his calculations, and the power of increase in the numbers of the human species should not be altogether so prodigious as is above stated, it may nevertheless be sufficiently great to authorise all the practical inferences and precautions insisted on in the Essay on Population.
When once I have brought the reader to this point, I consider myself as having gained my cause.
The law of arithmetical and geometrical progression is one of the clearest things in the whole compass of human knowledge. It is altogether as certain, considered as matter of abstract science, as it is absurd and inapplicable, when we attempt to connect it with real life and the ebbs and flows of sublunary things. It admits no half-measures. It is like the vis inertiœ, which sir Isaac Newton has set down as a principal law of the phenomena of matter. Once set in motion, it moves for ever, and for ever with the same force.
Mr. Malthus's discovery is built on “the American increase.” He “considers it as proved, as soon as relatedk .” “The population has been found to double itself, for above a century and a half successively, in twenty-five years, and that by procreation only.” “The American increase” proves the geometrical ratio of increase, or it proves nothing. The whole fabric of Mr. Malthus's theory rests upon this simple proposition; and it is the exceeding simplicity, and apparent cogency of its principle, to which it has been mainly indebted for its universal reception. If the numbers of mankind have not been found so to double in periods short, defined, and equal in duration, and to go on doubling, the Essay on Population is turned into waste paper.
This idle and extravagant hypothesis therefore being removed, the whole science stands just as it did before Mr. Malthus wrote; and we are brought precisely to the position most favourable to the speculations of the following pages. The Essay on Population has done nothing, and worse than nothing. The geometrical ratio, as applied to any known state of mankind is a dream. “The American increase,” as explained by our author is a blunder. Let us then proceed to scrutinize the subject of population, as a theory in which no advances have been made for a century past, and. endeavour to draw sound inferences concerning it from authentic and incontrovertible documents.
Such then is the system that has gained a success in the world wholly unprecedented. A superstitious man might think it was prophesied of in the following passage of the Revelation of St. John. “And I stood upon the sands of the sea; and I saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns. [Were there not seventeen states in the confederacy from which Mr. Malthus draws his example?] And they worshipped the beast, saying, Who is like unto the beast? who is able to make war with him? And there was given unto him a mouth, speaking great things and blasphemies: and power was given unto him, to continue forty and two months. And all the world wondered after the beast.” And again: “In the latter times some shall, depart from the faith, giving ear to seducing spirits, forbidding to marry.”
The additional authority in behalf of the geometrical ratio, which has occurred to Mr. Malthus “since publishing his quarto edition,” viz. “the three regular censuses, printed in Pitkin's Statistical View,” will be fully considered by me in the Fourth Book.
[a]The knowledge of this fact of the average of four children to a marriage, seems to be one of the oldest positions in political economy. Derham, in his Physico-Theology, Book IV, Chap. X,. fifth edition, has constructed a Table for different parts of Europe, founded, as he tells us, on Major Graunt's Observations on the Bills of Motality, and Mr. King's Remarks on the First of Dr. Davenant's Essays, from which he draws the same conclusion: and on this he builds an inference, that the numbers of tile human species have been for the most part at a stand, ever since that miraculous longevity of man ceased, which, he says, “was of absolute necessity for the more speedy peopling of the new world.”
[b]This Table is printed in the Essay on Population, Vol. II, p. 167.
[c]Vol. I, p. 8.
[d]Vol. III, p. 344, note.
[e]Principles of Political Economy, p. 227. See below, p. 484.
[f]See Mr. Booth's Dissertation on the Ratios of Increase, Inserted p. 243.
[g]Observations on Reversionary Payments, Vol. I, p. 314.
[h]See below, Book VI, Chapter 111, seqq.
[i]See above pages 30, 31, 32.
[k]Vol. III, p. 344, note.