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Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet
Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet
Robert J. Mayhew
Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2014
304 pp., $31.50

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Alister Chapman


“Dismal Science”?

On Thomas Malthus.

If you know anything about Thomas Robert Malthus, it's likely that you know only one thing. A mention of his name will lead immediately to his worrying contention that population will grow more quickly than food production, and then chances are that no one will have anything else to say. Few have read him; few would be able to come up with another of Malthus' ideas.

Robert Mayhew helpfully dusts off Malthus and recounts his influence up to the present day, explaining why, with his one big idea, he became such an influential figure in European and North American intellectual history. Wordsworth, Marx, Darwin, Ruskin, Keynes, Churchill, Hitler, and Ehrlich all had Malthus in the footnotes to their ideas.

Thomas Robert Malthus was born into a clerical family in Surrey in 1766. Neither rich nor poor, the family was of the middling sort that will be familiar to any who have read the novels of his contemporary, Jane Austen. His father, Daniel, read widely, admired Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and ensured that Robert was well prepared when he matriculated at Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1784. There, he adopted a way of thinking about the world that brought together two different strengths of the university: the pure mathematics associated with Sir Isaac Newton and the moral philosophy of William Paley. He became interested in what Condorcet had recently termed "social science": the application of mathematics for the study and therefore service of society.

Malthus was ordained at Cambridge and took a parish in Surrey in 1789. Surrey was very different from the land of leafy suburbs that it is today. Blast furnaces dotted the countryside. Awful roads left villages isolated. Infant mortality was almost twice the national average. This was part of the context for the development of Malthus' theory of population. Another part was, predictably, the social and political ferment associated with the French Revolution. Malthus published his 1798 Essay on the ...

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