This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

If you are a user of my textbook and would like to suggest a blog post idea, please email me at: john.weeks@sdsu.edu

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Who First Said “Demography is Destiny”?

The term “demography is destiny” is often-repeated by me and many others, especially writers for The Economist, as I have noted before. It has become common-place to ascribe the term to the French sociologist and father of positivism Auguste Comte, who lived from 1798 to 1857. A Google search turned up a lot of people copying each other with the name “Augustus” instead of Auguste, and a few claiming that he was an 18th century Frenchman. Well, OK, he was born in the 18th century, but he was scarcely three as the 19th century rolled around. Another advantage of Google is that they have copied old books and have them online so that you can do word or phrase searches. I went through every Comte volume that exists online and could not find a reference to “demography is destiny.” To be sure, Comte was concerned about destinies, but not about demographic processes. Indeed, if we agree that Achille Guillard invented the term “demographie” in 1855, that was only two years before Comte died, so he is unlikely to have heard the term, much less to have used it. I have a copy of Guillard’s book and I don’t see any reference by him to “demography is destiny.” His grandson Jacques Bertillon would be a likely candidate to have coined the phrase, but I can’t find any reference to it in his writings either.

So, to my mind, the phrase is not properly attributable to Auguste Comte, but I admit that I don’t have a good substitute. The origin seems to be a mystery and, if so, let’s leave it at that and not pretend that it comes from one of the French Enlightenment thinkers. Of course, if someone can prove me wrong on this, I’ll be happy to know the truth.


UPDATE: THE ANSWER IS FOUND BOTH IN MY BLOG POST ON 13 NOVEMBER 2013 AND IN THE LINK IN THE COMMENT BELOW.

5 comments:

  1. http://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/demography_is_destiny

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  2. Anonymous, that article is wrong. Demography may have only been printed in *English* in 1890. But in French, it goes back to 1855. (A. Guillard, Eléments de statistique humaine, ou démographie comparée).

    http://www.cnrtl.fr/definition/d%C3%A9mographie

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    1. Yes, you are right that the article is wrong about that--he apparently had not read my book!! where, on page 3 I note that the term "demography" was first used by Guillard in 1855 (as I also note in the above blog post)

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  3. So I am a student at Penn State and in my sociology class we use your textbook, Population an Introduction to Concepts and Issues. One of our essay questions for our upcoming test is "August Comte said that "Demography is Destiny." Write and essay in which you describe the origin and meaning of this phrase and provide at least one example." I am currently baffled because I looked this phrase up with no valid source that Comte actually had said this quote. Then, I found your blog denouncing the assumptions that Comte said this. It is extremely ironic that my professor is using your book but is teaching material that you say to be false.

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    1. Well, the best case scenario is that your professor wants you to discover the error and correct it in your essay 😀. Assuming that's not the case, your essay can tactfully provide the accurate information. Let us know how this goes!

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