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Treating evolution as a prescription not a description has been cruel

My article on the misuse of Malthus appeared in Standpoint magazine. It is an edited extract from my book, The Evolution of Everything. It is worth asking how John Gray could have reviewed that book and accused me of social Darwinism after reading this!


For more than 200 years, a disturbingly vicious thread has run through Western history, based on biology and justifying cruelty on an almost unimaginable scale. It centres on the question of how to control human population growth and it answers that question by saying we must be cruel to be kind, that ends justify means. It is still around today; and it could not be more wrong. It is the continuing misuse of Malthus.

According to his epitaph in Bath Abbey, the Rev Thomas Robert Malthus, author of An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), was noted for “his sweetness of temper, urbanity of manners and tenderness of heart, his benevolence and his piety”. Yet his ideas have justified some of the greatest crimes in  history. By saying that, if people could not be persuaded to delay marriage, we would have to encourage famine and “reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases”, he inadvertently gave birth to a series of heartless policies — the poor laws, the British government’s approach to famine in Ireland and India, social Darwinism, eugenics, the Holocaust, India’s forced sterilisations and China’s one-child policy. All derived their logic more or less directly from a partial reading of Malthus.

To this day if you write or speak about falling child mortality in Africa, you can be sure of getting the following Malthusian response: but surely it’s a bad thing if you stop poor people’s babies dying? Better to be cruel to be kind. Yet actually we now know, this argument is wrong. The way to get population growth to slow, it turns out, is to keep babies alive so people plan smaller families: to bring health, prosperity and education to all.

Britain’s Poor Law of 1834, which attempted to ensure that the very poor were not helped except in workhouses, and that conditions in workhouses were not better than the worst in the outside world, was based explicitly on Malthusian ideas — that too much charity only encouraged breeding, especially illegitimacy, or “bastardy”. The Irish potato famine of the 1840s was made infinitely worse by Malthusian prejudice shared by the British politicians in positions of power. The Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, was motivated by “a Malthusian fear about the long-term effect of relief”, according to a biographer.  The Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, Charles Trevelyan, had been a pupil of Malthus at the East India Company College: famine, he thought, was an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population” and a “direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence” sent to teach the “selfish, perverse and turbulent” Irish a lesson. Trevelyan added: “Supreme Wisdom has educed permanent good out of transient evil.”

In India in 1877, a famine killed ten million people. The viceroy, Lord Lytton, quoted almost directly from Malthus in explaining why he had halted several private attempts to bring relief to the starving: “The Indian population has a tendency to increase more rapidly than the food it raises from the soil.” His policy was to herd the hungry into camps where they were fed on — literally — starvation rations. Lytton thought he was being cruel to be kind.

Even Charles Darwin briefly succumbed. In an explicitly Malthusian passage in his 1871 book The Descent of Man he noted that the “imbecile, the maimed and the sick” are saved by asylums and doctors; and that the weak are kept alive by vaccination. “Thus the weak members of civilised species propagate their kind,” something that any cattle breeder knows is “injurious to the race”. It was a hint that was enthusiastically embraced by several of Darwin’s followers, notably his cousin Francis Galton and his German translator, Ernst Haeckel. Galton wanted people to choose their marriage partners more carefully, so that the fit would breed and the unfit would not. “What nature does blindly, slowly, and ruthlessly,” he argued, “man may do providently, quickly and kindly.”

Galton’s followers were soon outdoing each other in their prescriptive rush to nationalise marriage, license reproduction and sterilise the unfit. Many of the most enthusiastic eugenicists, such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, Havelock Ellis and H.G. Wells, were socialists, who thought the power of the state would be necessary to implement this programme of selective human breeding. It became politically incorrect in elite circles in Britain, France and the United States not to urge eugenic policies. To be against eugenics was to be uncaring about the future of the human race.

Incidentally, “social Darwinism” is the doctrine that we should encourage biological evolution to assist social progress: that we should prescribe natural selection among people through licensing marriage, and sterilising or killing “unfit” people. It could not be more different from modern theories of cultural evolution, which I champion in my new book The Evolution of Everything (Fourth Estate, £20), and which argue that ideas themselves evolve by trial and error: that ideas can die so that people do not have to.

In Germany, Haeckel used a phrase taken directly from Malthus in an influential lecture at Altenburg in 1892: “Here it was Darwin, especially, who thirty-three years ago opened our eyes by his doctrine of the struggle for existence, and his theory of selection founded upon it.” (My emphasis.) In 1905 four of Haeckel’s followers founded the German Society for Racial Hygiene, a step that would lead pretty well directly to the Nuremberg laws, the Wannsee conference and the gas chambers. This is not to blame the innocent mathematician-clergyman for the sins of the Nazis. There is nothing morally wrong in describing a struggle for existence as a feature of human population. What is wrong is prescribing it as deliberate policy.

Leonard Darwin, son of Charles, made no bones about the switch from description to prescription in his presidential address to the First International Congress of Eugenics in London in 1912: “As an agency making for progress, conscious selection must replace the blind forces of natural selection.” America, led by California, took the hint. By the time eugenic laws were struck down in the early 1970s, some 63,000 Americans had been forcibly sterilised and many more persuaded to accept voluntary sterility. By 1933 California had forcibly sterilised more people than all other states combined.

It was to California that Ernst Rudin of the German Society of Racial Hygiene looked for advice when he was appointed Reichskommissar for eugenics by the incoming Nazi government. By 1934, Germany was sterilising more than 5,000 people per month, and it soon moved on to killing them instead. The California conservationist Charles Goethe returned from a visit to Germany overjoyed that the Californian example had “jolted into action a great government of 60 million people”.

After the Second World War, with the revelation of the horrendous results of these policies taken to extremes in Auschwitz, eugenics fell from fashion. Or did it? The very same arguments resurfaced in the movement to control world population. In 1948 a bestselling book by the American biologist William Vogt, Road to Survival, praised the “clear-sighted clergyman” Malthus and lamented that British rule in India had contributed to making famines ineffectual, which was a pity because it led to Indians “breeding with the irresponsibility of codfish”.

The link was just as explicit on the other side of the Atlantic. In 1952 Sir Charles Galton Darwin, nephew of Leonard and grandson of Charles, published his own pessimistic book, entitled The Next Million Years, in which he wrote: “Those who are most anxious about the Malthusian threat argue that the decrease of population through prosperity is the solution of the population problem. They are unconscious of the degeneration of the race implied by this condition, or perhaps they are willing to accept it as the lesser of two evils.” He recommended sterilisation, which he feared would be “vehemently resisted”.

Sir Julian Huxley, the first head of Unesco and an early advocate of population control, as late as 1962 lamented that “at the moment the population certainly wouldn’t tolerate compulsory eugenic or sterilisation measures, but if you start some experiments, including some voluntary ones, and see that they work and if you make a massive attempt at educating people and making them understand what is at issue, you might be able, within a generation, to have an effect on the general population.”

Paul Ehrlich, an ecologist who shot to fame in 1968 with his gloomy Malthusian book The Population Bomb, wanted President Johnson to make food aid to India conditional on forcible sterilisation of all those who had three or more children: “coercion in a good cause”, he called it. The fact that Johnson’s linking of aid to India with population control had sparked criticism at home left Ehrlich “astounded”.

It is not as if these views were uncontested. The Brazilian diplomat Josué de Castro, in his book The Geopolitics of Hunger, wrote: “The road to survival, therefore, does not lie in the neo-Malthusian prescriptions to eliminate surplus people, nor in birth control, but in the effort to make everybody on the face of the earth productive.” The economist Julian Simon attacked Ehrlich’s population pessimism, arguing there was something badly wrong with a thesis that the birth of a baby is a bad thing, but the birth of a calf is a good thing.

China’s one-child policy also derives directly from neo-Malthusian writing. As Susan Greenhalgh, a Harvard anthropologist, recounts in her book Just One Child, in 1978 Song Jian, a guided-missile designer with expertise in control systems, attended a technical conference in Helsinki. While there he heard about two books by neo-Malthusian alarmists linked with a shadowy group of environmentalist bigwigs called the Club of Rome: The Limits to Growth and A Blueprint for Survival.

The Limits to Growth had applied control systems theory, of the kind Song was an expert in, not to the trajectory of missiles but to the trajectory of population and resource use. A Blueprint for Survival, written by Zac Goldsmith’s uncle Teddy but signed by a veritable Who’s Who of the scientific establishment, including Sir Julian Huxley, Sir Peter Medawar and Sir Peter Scott, echoed Malthus: “It is unrealistic to suppose that there will be increases in agricultural production adequate to meet forecast demands for food.”

Back in China, Song republished the main themes of both books under his own name, and shot to fame within the regime. General Qian Xing Zhong was put in charge of the one-child policy. He ordered the sterilisation of all women with two or more children, the insertion of IUDs into all women with one child (removal of the device being a crime), the banning of births to women younger than 23, and the mandatory abortion of all unauthorised pregnancies up to the eighth month.

What was the international reaction to this holocaust? The United Nations Secretary General awarded a prize to General Qian in 1983, and recorded his “deep appreciation” for the way in which the Chinese government had “marshalled the resources necessary to implement population policies on a massive scale”. Eight years later, even though the horrors of the policy were becoming ever more clear, the head of the United Nations Family Planning Agency said that “China has every reason to feel proud of its remarkable achievements” in population control, before offering to help China teach other countries how to do it. A benign view of this authoritarian atrocity continues to this day. The media tycoon Ted Turner told a newspaper reporter in 2010 that other countries should follow China’s lead in instituting a one-child policy to reduce global population over time.

We now know that Malthusian misanthropy — the notion that you should harden your heart, approve of famine and disease, feel ashamed of pity and compassion, for the good of the race — was wrong pragmatically as well as morally. The right thing to do about poor, hungry and fecund people always was, and still is, to give them hope, opportunity, freedom, education, food and medicine, including of course voluntary contraception, for not only will that make them happier, it will enable them to have smaller families.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist