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 13th (it will be out in January 2020), 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.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Enlightenment Thinking About Population

I think that I can safely say that most people would not expect a connection between Catherine the Great of Russia and demography. Yet there is one and it came to my attention in Robert Massie's new book, "Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman." Catherine ruled Russia throughout most of the second half of the 18th century (1762-1796) and turned out to be a financial supporter of the Enlightenment through her purchase of the library of Denis Diderot, who was a friend of Rousseau and Voltaire--major intellectual contributors to the Enlightenment. Diderot is most famous for the Encyclopedia, through which many of the ideas of the Enlightenment came to public attention and for which Diderot had the aim of changing the way people think about the world. It accomplished that goal and in the process made a lot of enemies, which is why Diderot wound up needing the outside financial support that Catherine provided.

Among many other things, Diderot was fascinated by the stories published by the French Admiral and explorer Bougainville of the very open sexuality and high birth rate among the Tahitians. This contrasted with the very secretive sex lives and relatively low birth rate among the elite of France. In Diderot's treatise on the Supplement au Voyage de Bougainville he considers the relationship between population growth and resources in ways that clearly presaged and may well have influenced the debate between Malthus and Godwin that still rages to this day in various ways.

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