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T. Robert Malthus [1766-1834]


T. Robert Malthus on Evolution

By Frank W. Elwell


Malthus’s basic insight: Nature scatters its seeds in abundance, but it is relatively sparse in the sustenance it provides. Therefore life must continuously adapt in order to survive. Malthus is in obvious awe of the evolutionary process--writing of the “powers of selection, combination, and transmutation” of life.

"With the crude and puerile conceptions which we sometimes form of this attribute of the Deity, we might imagine that God could call into being myriads and myriads of existences, all free from pain and imperfection, all eminent in goodness and wisdom, all capable of the highest enjoyments, and unnumbered as the points throughout infinite space. But when from these vain and extravagant dreams of fancy, we turn our eyes to the book of nature, where alone we caTadpolesn read God as he is, we see a constant succession of sentient beings, rising apparently from so many specks of matter, going through a long and sometimes painful process in this world, but many of them attaining, ere the termination of it, such high qualities and powers as seem to indicate their fitness for some superior state. Ought we not then to correct our crude and puerile ideas of infinite Power from the contemplation of what we actually see existing? Can we judge of the Creator but from his creation? And, unless we wish to exalt the power of God at the expense of his goodness, ought we not to conclude that even to the great Creator, almighty as he is, a certain process may be necessary, a certain time (or at least what appears to us as time) may be requisite, in order to form beings with those exalted qualities of mind which will fit them for his high purposes?" (1798, 111).

Since nature has provided for an abundance of seed, but little sustenance, human survival depends on exertion and thought. It is human intelligence, Malthus believes, that is being selected by God’s grand design. According to Malthus, material needs are at the base of human motivation. These needs provide the stimulant for primitive man to devise new ways of exploiting her environment. They are central in providing continual stimulation for the development of the infant brain, and are probably always necessary to stimulate people to productive activity. It is the effort to satisfy physical needs for food and shelter that stimulate humans to greater effort and innovation.

It is the press of population on carrying capacity that provides the impetus for technological progress. There are eight major points regarding evolution found in the 1798 Essay:

1.    population level is severely limited by subsistence

2.    when the means of subsistence increases, population increases

3.    population pressures stimulate increases in productivity

4.    increases in productivity stimulates further population growth

5.    since this productivity can never keep up with the potential of population growth for long, there must be strong checks on  population to keep it in line with carrying capacity.

6.    it is through individual cost/benefit decisions regarding sex, work, and children that population and production are expanded or contracted.

7.    positive checks will come into operation as population exceeds subsistence level.

8.    The nature of these checks will have significant effect on the rest of the sociocultural system--Malthus points to misery, vice, and poverty.

For Malthus, the engine of social change (or social evolution) is in the relationships between population and production. Elements of the sociocultural system (social institutions, norms and values) must always adapt to this material base. Since societies must conform to natural law--that is the disparity in the powers of production and reproduction--no form of social organization or amount of technological innovation can escape these natural limits.

It was Malthus who was responsible for the concept of the struggle for survival, or natural selection, upon which the theories of Darwin, and Wallace later depended. In his autobiography Darwin writes that

Darwin PosterIn October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement 'Malthus on Population,' and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here then I had at last got a theory by which to work; but I was so anxious to avoid prejudice, that I determined not for some time to write even the briefest sketch of it (1881, 42).

Similarly, Wallace reports in his autobiography that "perhaps the most important book I read was Malthus' Principle of Population...its main principles remained with me as a permanent possession, and twenty years later gave me the long-sought clue of the effective agent in the evolution of organic species" (1905). Darwin’s principles were essentially an application of social science concepts to the discipline of biology. As Darwin put it in the Origin of Species, "This is the doctrine of Malthus, applied to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms. As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be NATURALLY SELECTED. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form” (1859, 2-3).

Where Malthus differs from  Spencer and Wallace (though not Darwin) is in their view of progress and the perfectibility of man and society. Malthus’ essay was emphatically conceived as a refutation of the enlightenment’s faith in progress. In Malthus’ view, no change in the political, economic, or social system could eliminate poverty, famine, and pestilence. While we could reform society and make a (somewhat) better world, we cannot create a utopia.

For a more extensive discussion of Malthus’s theories refer to Macro Social Theory by Frank W. Elwell.  Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a more complete understanding of modern societies.


Darwin, Charles (1859). On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

Darwin, Charles (1881). The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (p. 42).  . Kindle Edition.

Elwell, F. (2009), Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press.

Elwell, F. (2013), Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change. Alberta: Athabasca University Press.

Malthus, T. R. (Thomas Robert) (2012-05-12). An Essay on the Principle of Population.  Kindle Edition.

Referencing this Site

To reference T. Robert Malthus on Evolution you should use the following format: 

Elwell, Frank W., 2013, "T. Robert Malthus on Evolution," Retrieved August 31, 2013, [use actual date] 

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