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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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Mayhew on Malthus

While I was traveling to London and Copenhagen recently, I had a chance to read Robert Mayhew's new book: Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet. Mayhew is Professor of Historical Geography and Intellectual History at the University of Bristol in the U.K., so he is not coming to an analysis of Malthusian thought from the perspective of a demographer, although demography is obviously central to the book. Spoiler alert: this is not a book that teaches you about Malthus's population theory. Whether deliberately or not, Mayhew either assumes that you have already read Malthus in the original or that you will be inspired to do so after you have finished his book--and you can do that online, by the way. Indeed, the availability of Malthus's essay online illustrates the point Mayhew makes in the final chapters of his book--that Malthus is still relevant today (although that is obviously not a surprise to readers of my book!!).

In the first part of the book, Mayhew kind of gets lost in the weeds of Malthus's time--trying to put him in context by discussing other things going on in England during Malthus life. While interesting, we have no idea whether any of those things really influenced Malthus or not. More important are his discussions of Malthus's legacy through time. To me, his most interesting thoughts are about the way in which Malthus was invoked to express ideas that bore little relation to his own thinking (and, here Mayhew appropriately acknowledges the work of my good friend Dennis Hodgson at Fairfield University, who knows more about Malthus than anyone else I know). In particular, Malthusianism came to mean birth control, whereas Malthus believed in self-control, not birth control. I think that most of us would agree that more of both self-control and birth control would make a better world.

Mayhew has written a good book, well worth reading, but if I were going to suggest just one book to read about Malthus, it would be the one by William Petersen: Malthus: Founder of Modern Demography. Written by a demographer and oriented toward putting forward Malthus's population theories, Petersen also puts Malthus into context in a more straightforward fashion. Curiously, Mayhew does not seem to have read Petersen's book, or at least does not reference it.

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