Thomas Malthus: Theory of Population

Thomas Malthus' Theory of Population that was proposed more than two centuries ago, foretold the problems of food shortage that the world is facing today, due to uncontrolled increase in population. Although not foolproof, the theory influenced the formulation of Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection. As you will read through his theory you will marvel at the fact that what describes accurately the condition we face today was scripted almost 200 years ago.
Thomas Malthus: Theory of population
Thomas Robert Malthus was a British economist and a demographer, whose famous Theory of Population highlighted the potential dangers of overpopulation. Malthus put forth his ideas in six editions of his famous treatise 'An Essay on the Principle of Population'. His thinking took shape under the influence of the optimistic ideas of his father and his friends especially Rousseau, for future improvement of the society. In the first edition of his treatise, Malthus put forth his views that opposed the belief of scholars like Marquis de Condorcet and William Godwin who were optimistic about population growth in England. During the Industrial Revolution, England experienced a steep increase in its population. In his book "The Enquirer", William Godwin promoted population growth as a means for human beings to attain equality. According to him, an increased population would create more wealth that would provide food for the whole humanity. Scholars of such school of thought believed that, both man and society could be made perfect. In contrast to this viewpoint, Malthus interpreted overpopulation as an evil that would reduce the amount of food available per person.

The Theory

In his famous treatise 'An Essay on the Principles of Population', Malthus stated that, the populations of the world would increase in geometric proportions while the food resources available for them would increase only in arithmetic proportions.

In simple words, if human population was allowed to increase in an uncontrolled way, then the number of people would increase at a faster rate than the food supply. A point would come when human population would reach the limit up to which food sources could support it. Any further increase would lead to population crash caused by natural phenomena like famine or disease.

According to him, human society could never be perfected. He believed that man is a lazy animal, who would lead a satisfied life and procreate as long as his family was well fed. However, as soon as human population would feel constraints in food supply due to increase in population, he would again work hard to provide enough for his family. This might lead to an increase in agricultural production to provide for all, but at the same time man would be back to his complacent stage, where all his needs would be fulfilled. This would start the cycle of overpopulation and food shortage, all over again. Having been a clergy, Malthus validated his theory on moral grounds that suffering was a way of making human beings realize the virtues of hard work and moral behavior. Such kind of suffering due to overpopulation and limited food supply was inevitable.


Malthus took into account two main assumptions:
  1. Food is an essential component for human existence.
  2. Humans have the basic urge to multiply.
Malthus' theory was based on the assumption that the power of population to multiply is much greater than the power of the earth to provide subsistence for man. In his own words "passion between the sexes is an inevitable phenomenon", hence, when unchecked, population would grow at such a high rate that it would outstrip food supply. According to him, disease, food shortage and death due to starvation, were nature's way to control population. He proposed that human beings adopt measures like infanticide, abortion, delay in marriage and strict following of celibacy to check population growth.

Relation Between Population, Wages and Inflation

Malthus described the whole scenario as a "vicious cycle" of population growth and its effects. He proposed that the boom in population will result into excess of labor force ready to work at the available wage rate, giving them the income to buy food for their family. This will lead to an increase in the overall demand for food outstripping its supply. Hence, the prices will rise and inflation will set in. This inflationary pressure will worsen the situation of the already distressed poor section of the society leaving the riches unaffected. The poor will work more to improve their situation and will also consider reducing the population growth so that they have less mouths to feed. However, this will only last till the population equals the food supply and the inflation ceases; after which, overall standard of living will rise and so will the population explosion reaching the same point, hence called the vicious cycle.

Proposed Solutions

In his first edition of the essay, Malthus proposed two main solutions to the problem of population explosion, namely:

Positive Check
This method results in increase in death rate. He described this as God's way of restoring the Natural Order. It includes famines, hunger, epidemics, war and other natural miseries which cause large-scale deaths. Although it helps in controlling the population growth, it brings with it widespread misery and pain. Hence, it is not regarded as an ideal solution to population problem.

Preventive or Negative Check
This method refers to human effort in reducing the birth rate. It is more practically and logically applicable. Abortion, prostitution, postponement of marriage, birth control and celibacy are few measures that were advised to be strictly followed in order to help solve the problem.

In his second edition of the same essay, Malthus laid more emphasis on:

Moral Restraint
This is regarded as a universally applicable solution keeping up with the ideologies of virtue, economic gain and social improvement. According to this principle, one should refrain from marriage till the time he is capable of supporting a family with food, clothing and shelter. Until then he should follow strict celibacy. In the words of Geoffrey Gilbert, "He (Malthus) went so far as to claim that moral restraint on a wide scale was the best means indeed, the only means of easing the poverty of the lower classes."


Malthus' theory had great influence on both Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace, who are the co-founders of the modern evolutionary theory. In his own words Darwin acknowledged, that he was already aware of the 'struggle for existence' among different species of plants and animals. However, it was only after he read Malthus' work, he realized that animals in their struggle to survive retained the favorable features that would help them adjust to the environment, and lost those that were of no use to them. Thus, the Theory of Natural Selection was born.

By the end of the 19th Century, when living standards improved and birth rates dropped in the Western countries, concerns of overpopulation became irrelevant. However, in underdeveloped countries which have agrarian economies, Malthus' theory often finds credibility.


Some critics like Karl Marx, argued that Malthus failed to recognize the potential of human population to increase food supply. He is accused by many to have failed to comprehend man's ability to use science and technology to increase food supply to meet the needs of an increasing population.

Thinkers from the field of social sciences have criticized Malthus for his belief that the human society could never be made perfect. He opposed all political, social and economic reforms that did not aim at controlling birth rate. His own methods of checking population growth were criticized for being impractical. Malthus was opposed to the Poor Laws popular in England, which provided relief to the people who qualified as poor under the laws. According to him, such charity would provide only short-term relief to them and let the poor remain in their state of financial distress. This thought of Malthus was viewed as misanthropic.

From his writings, some have interpreted Malthus as a rigid and pessimistic individual. However, he is also viewed by some as a pragmatic thinker, who put a check on the unbridled enthusiasm of some who viewed increase in population as a means of progress.
Last Updated: July 10, 2012
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thanks I am in high school and this helped a lot. I also have a reading disorder and the reading it to me really helped.
- Dawn Hawkings [February 25, 2014]
Malthusian school of thought is still making sense and giving value jugement,even d bible predicted about the sign of end time,that there be feminine.there is no way on earth we can achieve a perfect population(zero percentage growth rate)because of different world cultural background and religious believe ranging from Christian to muslim - Nsidibe Michael [February 18, 2014]
simple writing so easy to understand.. thnks... - shaki [February 9, 2014]
Relevant information on the critcisms levelled against The Malthushian Theory of Population.
Good work done.
- Clement Danso [November 22, 2013]
i love da work - moro anthony [November 20, 2013]
thanks very informative :) - becky [November 15, 2013]
thanks i enjoyed the theory - ceejay [November 7, 2013]
Data is given 4 us with systematic elaborations to understand by readers - ssekimpi yasin [October 18, 2013]
Nice informational article. Really helped with my essay. - Bruce [September 12, 2013]
brillient job n i really enjoyed reading this theory :) - zareenali [May 8, 2013]
He also said that population would increase upto the limits of the subsistance - zareenali [May 8, 2013]
Population theory - Biswajit [April 8, 2013]
What are the methodology he used? - cecilia [March 25, 2013]
it is true - Michael Danso [March 21, 2013]
I like him very much. - Robi [March 15, 2013]
Malthustheory of population is also called modern theory of population. is it correct? - Sadaqat Ali Sha [March 4, 2013]
why Malthus failed to recognize the use of technology to increase productivity? - Awel Reshid [January 10, 2013]
what was his attitude about migration? - Awel Reshid [January 9, 2013]
wow i really appreciate this man's foresightedness - farooq rashdi [December 6, 2012]
And just what is the Malthusian Theory they are talking about? Well, here it is. It will give us more understanding! - Maria Teresa A [December 1, 2012]
Thank you for posting such usefull info. and data. Helped a lot to understand the theory. - Ashes Vin [November 19, 2012]
thank you so much for posting this, it helped me on my assignments a lot :) - Pyong Wufan [November 5, 2012]
Even though malthus was a chritian,he is well tried but malthus forgot that in both religious islam & christianity,allah has provided everything to his savant or mankind since he was in wormb period i,e b/4 coming to this we bleive that notting would change. - Khalil musa [October 13, 2012]
I think this guy is the coolest man in the world... Even cooler than Hitler. He has inspired me to be dead and/ or starving to death. - Mr. Timn [October 8, 2012]
its irrelevant if food cannot sustain the population so malthus did not consider that - muzira tonny [September 9, 2012]
a really good description for an economist or an economic students for a work - Prachin Dhoju [July 26, 2012]
Nice theory!
keep it up!
- Saradh niraula [July 26, 2012]
Over population lead to high rate of unemployment. So i agreed with Thomas Maltius Theory of Population. - Sulyman B. O [July 5, 2012]
learn a lot!. - anna mae buena [June 21, 2012]
very good and provide brief data about theory - hifza [May 4, 2012]
i think that when a person is being born at that time his food his life and hisa luck is written by the God. if we keep in mind then if we try to controle our population then it would be the induldgemnet in God,s affairs. so every person comes in this world with his luck we should not adopt these type of checkes. But malthus Preventive Checkes csn be adopted because a person is unable to bear a big family then he shouild not get marriiad. untill he can affoard. - Uzair ul Hassan [May 2, 2012]
Malthus did not consider the progressive,and that does not reflects these technological and scientific improvement - Mlango Faraji [May 1, 2012]
i appreciate it - maganza [April 26, 2012]
Nice and comprehensive. - sujata pal [March 29, 2012]
mallthus did a good job, we need more thinkers i our time younsters should emulate - buadi [March 26, 2012]
relate this to environmental degration - Randy [February 19, 2012]
Develop country have long live span - Omotayo [February 17, 2012]
Finally watched Soylent Green last night, took me about 18 years to find this movie. - Michael Cannon [February 13, 2012]
it is very great contribution for todays world - biniam [February 3, 2012]
same aspect it sound perfect as we know natural resource does fit human utility - Davies nyari [February 1, 2012]
A very nice and helpful article. .thanks a lot ))
God bless you!
- Fatima [January 6, 2012]
this website is really helpful thanks buzzle - hijo del pito [December 6, 2011]
I personaly agrred with matthew because he was looking at the future improvement of our society. The higher the population , the lower the food supplied for the growing population - Joachin [December 1, 2011]
Its useful - Peter valerian [November 17, 2011]
The opposer name - papa [October 29, 2011]
exellent. helped me alot.
rated : 100/100
- DR. WILLY. [October 26, 2011]
galing mo Malthus idol kita - Nel Mark [October 11, 2011]
too good - M.Habib [October 5, 2011]
this is so great. it gave me all the information i needed for my assay. thanks :D - MOSHASHANE M [October 5, 2011]
Very nice work,i m giving thanks to auther who provide us such informatic info. - Roushan yadav [August 19, 2011]
'''what ahhh.;.;.;just make sense - tonz24 [August 16, 2011]
Today, I was speaking with a person in a third world country and they are certain that this theory is happening and the end of the world is at end, tre idea of water and food are the two main points that are already prevalent according to Malthus. In the religiuos view, devil is the lack of resources and not the essence to leand to live with the teaching of the gospel the abuse of the rich is a bless according to this person and the poor is being punish. Personally, I am here in America and the whole thing can be easily determined, USA allways help everywhere there is a calamity, but we are dislike and know highly criticize for te economical crisis we are living. The whole problem in the world is the green effect and the misuse the resourcess. The forces of Evil and God area real but faith demonstrate the God has the sthrengt to reasured our success in America - Cecilia [August 5, 2011]
Malthusian theory of population - Sheikh unis [August 3, 2011]
Wow,i enjoyed reading it. Goodwork! - Edward [July 20, 2011]
thats great - ewang gideon [July 12, 2011]
when you take a deep look into Thomas Malthus theory of population you would find out some loop holes that malthus failed to take into consideration. Malthus undermine the power of science and technology in production of subsistence. In fact contemporary evidence has shown that nations like China and India that are vast in numbers are far more advance in development than those that are not as populated as them. One would end up in saying that large population is a blessing to a nation. - L. M. Onesa [July 6, 2011]
malthus theory is correcte but he didn't foresee potential of human
population to increase food
supply.Malthus overlooked man's ability to
use science and technology
to increase food supply to
meet the needs of an
increasing population.I don't agree with malthus that population is inimical to growth and development of a society.
- okoh lawrence [July 2, 2011]
While Malthus' ideas may be open to criticisms, those criticisms do not invalidate the basic threat: uncontrolled population growth is an issue which is long overdue for scrutiny, but is one which no politician wants to be the first to touch for fear of inspiring the various concomitant subtexts. The mere suggestion of controlling population immediately begs the questions, How? With whom in charge? With what criteria defining the control? Until we are able as cognitive beings to rationally and carefully step up to the plate and deal with these frightening implications, we are doomed to sit by idly as the problem escalates unchecked. - James [May 18, 2011]
multhus population theory and curve - javas kamya [May 10, 2011]
I like the theory - rosemary [April 28, 2011]
how would change in population affect world politics? - thando [April 28, 2011]
That's useful
Thank you
- Hin [April 20, 2011]
he is correct - rose b [April 17, 2011]
am critisize him for attacking the poor becouse he was reverend he was not surppose to say that - ikunda k [April 16, 2011]
You give me exatly what i want but i need the theory of karl max on population - Nasir Abdullahi [April 9, 2011]
I think it is a good idea which should be practiced in most African countries. - Adewole [March 26, 2011]
This is a most useful the exam day - Lovedeep patel [March 15, 2011]
this theory is very interested - sami [March 14, 2011]
That was brilliant! - Micheal [March 7, 2011]
good - indu singh [March 1, 2011]
it become very helpful for me. - Jitu Kalita [February 26, 2011]
Thank for your source itz far 2 kind - Tk [February 24, 2011]
Though Malthus foresee the t rigged effect by the population increase but we should know only to the fact that,every thing that has an effect has a solution so the only way to solve the problem of food shortage is to increase population from which we can receive the active labor force out from and the fact is clear that we can't control nature but i can only say that if all the world would side with Esther Bosurup concerning her technological innovation,i think productivity would increase and for that matter food surplus thus if only is possible that we can create robot standing out as humans who would be doing all that it take to increase productivity ie farming etc,shortage of food wouldn't be a headache - Sammy A. Agyei [February 23, 2011]
Now we are in the 21th century with tremendous increase population in the underdeveloped countries and limited food resources. War for water and food resources is worldwide. People were killed in huge mases or died from starvation in the struggle to survive. So Malthus was farsighted and pragmatic when he warned us of overpopulation. - Ahmed Almustafa [February 22, 2011]
i conquer with malthus because it is the increasing population that is bringing about extreme exploitation of resources and insufficient food shortage. - senkunda rajab [February 21, 2011]
what is the microeconomic theory on fertility? - camille [February 19, 2011]
awsome - briano [February 17, 2011]
this is very good and well informing...hands up thanx - sam [February 17, 2011]
good - yuri21 [February 13, 2011]
State the malthusian theory in population - Igwe michael c [February 7, 2011]
Thomas Malthus is a realist, his theory is practical and evident in contemporary society and the statement he made about the getting rid of the poor is a harsh but makes sense cause as you can see they are the ones that are contributing tremendously to the population explosion especially in the third world countries even though there is the rise of technology such as contraceptives. - Troy [January 14, 2011]
i 110% agree with thomas malthus, cause if you realise it is the poorer ones that are causing population explosion which is detrimental to society especially third world countries - not necessary [January 14, 2011]
I think this is all a big lie! Laws of nature cannot be interpreted by humans. - maria [December 14, 2010]
its a great theory of malthus - fahad [December 4, 2010]
this was well prepared and well simplified. - mayamiko [November 29, 2010]
Malthus was insensitive - kapeni [November 24, 2010]
Is ther any more info you could add? - HMV [November 16, 2010]
what are the business opportunities in 1798 malthusian theory of population - lanre [November 5, 2010]
put it in question form! - maayan [November 3, 2010]
GREAT - Name [October 14, 2010]
helpful 2 every individual - tidoez mtshoxa [October 13, 2010]
I think Malthus was right with his assumption. - Gbeleye Israel [October 6, 2010]
I thnk Malthus theory is not practical because those who have enough money and food have few children and vice versa. - Caren Akumu [September 23, 2010]
that was a good analysis of the theory - sandip [September 22, 2010]
Thanks for a good article. I'm studying this in AP human Geograpghy and you helped a lot. - KEB [September 13, 2010]
is this statement is right that malthus is pessimistic - hasan ali [September 5, 2010]
i think malthus thought was right because he is talking about an ideal population.when food supply will never increase at a high rate than we should do only one thing that we control the population then the equalibirium will maintain. - hasan ali [September 5, 2010]
i wish you could send me all details - jonathan [August 11, 2010]
great and very helpful - brendah [August 4, 2010]
how natural occurence can check the population in whole world at once, - chuwa N [July 13, 2010]
malthus is right about the theory, because no matter the technology you use in improving food supply and population still increases,food supply can never meets the peoples need. - azeez kehinde f [June 26, 2010]
dear sir or madam i aprciate your work its simple and presized i would like to tank you coz its help me for ma work but i want to recomend something that if you know detail about this post it as soon as you possinble - muhammed seid [April 29, 2010]
The reading is quate simple,exiting composed of necessary concern about the theory of Malthus on the issues of demographic population.please,may u explain it by writing something about those who criticised the theory,what were their views on the theory as their discovery of the new theory different from Malthus'theory of population.thanks. - Barnabas [April 16, 2010]
this is a really good reading material. - Tanya [April 8, 2010]
Malthus was contradicting himself , a clergy would not advocate for infanticide and abortion unless his religion supported that practice. It appears he believed that people first eat what they have produced before the production process continues. - Adonis Moyo [March 10, 2010]
can you put the information in point form - tia mabhera [March 7, 2010]
I am 11 years oldin 6th grade. my teacher is so cool. i had to look this up for a history essay. I thought this was going to be some stupid or almost impossible idea. Then, i read this and my opinion totally changed. If our population does just keep growing and growing this might help! - Rachel [September 19, 2009]