Two visions of the future were unfurled this month. The first was a study from the University of Washington, which showed population was in rapid decline in many countries of the world. The authors suggested world population would peak at around 9 billion, sooner than the UN had predicted. The decline in national populations could, the authors suggested, even lead to nations competing for immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa to supply the work-force for their countries. It follows comments by Elon Musk last year that the biggest global issue in 20 years will be ‘population collapse’.

The second vision of the future came from Zurich’s Institute of Atmospheric and Climate Science. Its latest modelling suggests the best and worst case scenarios for climate warming are unrealistic, and it now looks increasingly likely the world will heat by 2.6–3.9 degrees centigrade. That is still a lot, and could make parts of the world uninhabitable. This, in turn, has led to fears of hundreds of millions of ‘climate refugees’ looking for a home.

Two starkly different visions — one of ageing countries competing for migrant workers, the other of countries putting up barriers to a tide of refugees.

Behind both these stories is the ghost of an 18th century English vicar, Reverend Thomas Malthus. His interpretation of human societies and the future of humanity has profoundly shaped global politics for the last two centuries. Arguably, it has led to the needless death of tens of millions of people — more, even, than Marx’s philosophy. Yet his zombie philosophy keeps coming back in waves.

I’ve been exploring Malthus’ influence through my research into the Huxley family — Thomas, Aldous and Julian Huxley were all card-carrying Malthusians. In two articles, I want to explore the influence of Malthus for better and (mainly) for worse. Here’s the first, the second will be next week.

The first wave of Malthusian thinking

Reverend Malthus was a vicar, but he wasn’t in any sense a conventional Christian. He was more the sort of free-thinking gentleman who found a home in the Anglican church in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In 1798, in his Essay on Population, Malthus revealed what he said was an iron law of nature. Humans, and all other animals, exist in a world where land is a finite resource, food is a finite resource, but populations expand exponentially. They expand until checked by natural forces — illness, starvation, inter-species struggle, or an encounter with a greater predator. A growing population can only escape this limit if it expands into a new territory (and conquers the native species).

This vision was not Christian, but biological and ecological. The same natural laws applied to humans as to every other species. Nature is an ecosystem of checks and balances. It’s a brutally Darwinian vision of existence as perpetual struggle and death — and indeed, Malthus’ Essay inspired Darwin to come up with his theory of natural selection.

At the same time, Malthus infused this ecological view with Puritanism. To live in harmony with the iron law of nature, humans need to learn Protestant self-control. If they breed like rabbits, this will lead to ‘misery and vice’, ie illness, famine and war.

Malthus used this philosophy to argue against generous support for the poor. Overly generous welfare measures would only encourage the poor to breed like rabbits, leading to more misery and vice. Statesmen should let nature take its course, and if necessary let the poor die.

He even found a place for God in his theory. He wrote: ‘The impressions and excitements of this world are the instruments with which the Supreme Being forms matter into mind.’ In other words, he believed it is the brutal struggle for survival that makes us develop our mental and moral powers. God, like a tough parent, leaves his children to fight it out, and lets the most conscious win.

Malthus taught economics in the East India Company’s college in Hertfordshire, and his disciples took his philosophy and used it to rule over nations around the British Empire, particularly India and Ireland.

In both these countries, Malthusian economics caused a great deal of needless suffering and death when famines hit, and Malthusian statesmen decided it was best to let nature take its course, so that the over-breeding natives learned Protestant self-control. One million Irish died in the Great Famine of 1847, under the administration of Charles Trevelyan, who studied under Malthus. This radio documentary explores the influence of Malthus’ ideas on the British Raj’s catastrophic response to the 1876 Indian famine, in which 5.5 million starved.

Second wave: the Neo-Malthusians of 1900–1945

Given the shocking record of Malthusian economics in these two instances alone, you’d think it would be debunked. But it wasn’t. In the early 20th century, there was a second wave of Malthusianism, which would be even more deadly.

By 1900, the world population was nearing two billion, double what it was in 1800 when Malthus wrote his essay. Populations were actually beginning to decline in western countries as families chose to have fewer babies, and scientists were discovering ways to boost crop yield through the use of fertilizers. However, populations were beginning to rise rapidly in developing countries.

This led to a new spate of Malthusian thinking, through the ‘Malthusian League’, a British organisation whose members included progressive thinkers like Julian Huxley, John Maynard Keynes, HG Wells, Margaret Sanger and George Bernard Shaw.

The Neo-Malthusian philosophy, in a nutshell, was this. Advances in science, such as the discovery of vaccines for typhus, mean humans are getting better at death control. That means we need to get better at birth control as well. Particularly in the non-white world. We are running out of space. The earth is getting too crowded. Soon, as Darwin put it, ‘there would literally not be standing room’ — the phrase ‘standing room only’ would be used again and again by subsequent Malthusians to summon up an overly crowded planet.

Many members of the Malthusian League were also members of the Eugenics Society (such as Keynes, Sanger, Wells, Bernard Shaw and Julian Huxley). They were concerned not just with the quantity of humans, but with their quality.

Keynes, for example, wrote:

The time has already come when each country needs a considered national policy about what size of population, …is most expedient. And having settled this policy, we must take steps to carry it into operation. The time may arrive a little later when the community as a whole must pay attention to the innate quality as well as to the mere numbers of its future members.

Malthusian eugenicists were very worried about what they perceived as a rising tide of low quality humans — low quality in the sense of being genetically less fit, lower intelligence, with lower ‘potentialities’ for reason, invention, aesthetic experience, spiritual insight and so on. Such low quality humans, they thought, were particularly found among the poor and the non-white. High quality humans were found among the elite — among Bloomsbury types like them, who thought Big Ideas and had exquisite mental experiences. The genetic elite — ie them — were breeding too little, and would be swamped by a tide of brown or yellow people, or by a flood of ‘morons’ (the charming eugenic term for people of low intelligence).

Neo-Malthusianism, then, was a weird mutation of Darwinian thinking, according to which the superior breed (Bloomsbury types) were in danger of extinction, while the inferior breed (everyone else) were at risk of over-breeding and leading the world to famine and war. This called for a new approach. Out with 19th century laissez faire statescraft (ie let the poor die off), in with state management. ‘Interfere, interfere, interfere’, as the Fabian eugenicist Sidney Webb put it.

What was required was nothing less than the scientific management of all natural resources, including land, agriculture, chemicals, livestock, and humans. Humans were one more natural resource to be managed by the scientific elite. This would need to be done at a global level, through some sort of world government, run by far-thinking scientists, doing whatever was necessary for the long-term good of the species and the planet. It’s not a million miles from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which has been taken as a dystopia but contained many policies Aldous genuinely supported.

You can see the connection between Julian Huxley’s eugenics and Aldous Huxley’s human potential spirituality. The Bloomsbury elite would develop their human potential through art, spiritual training, free love, psychedelics etc, while the masses would be ruthlessly controlled by the biopolitical machinery of the state.

Neo-Malthusian thinking was very influential in the 1900s to the 1940s and, once again, led to a lot of needless suffering and the deaths of millions.

In the UK, it led to an absurd panic that the country would be submerged under a flood of ‘morons’ — both the Huxley brothers did a lot to spread this panic, by the way. The consequence was that Darwin’s son, Major Leonard Darwin, was authorized to send out moron-spotters, who could arrest and imprison anyone they deemed mentally unfit, without trial, sometimes for decades.

In the US, Malthusian and eugenic measures were even more extreme, and more explicitly racist. The most interesting book I’ve read on American eugenics is a biography of Madison Grant by Jonathan Spiro, called ‘Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant’.

Grant was a posh New York WASP, who, like others of his elite, was very into hunting. In order to defend this way of life, he pioneered early conservationist policies in the 1900s, and became a hugely successful lobbyist. He lobbied to protect the bison and elk from extinction, and the redwood trees from excessive logging. He helped to create national parks across the US. He was one of the first to argue for the necessity of ‘wildlife management’, ie occasional culls of the unfit for the good of the species (like elks).

He then applied this same ecological thinking to the human species. Humanity also required this sort of scientific management, to control its numbers and improve the quality of the stock. This involved two main policies — eugenics, and immigration control. Grant became enthused by ‘racial hygiene’, and the idea that the human race was actually several different races, of distinct characters and qualities. The ‘Nordic race’ — old-school WASPS like him — were the superior breed, the breed that had built America. But they were now getting out-numbered by inferior races like Italians, Negroes, Poles and especially Jews. In ‘The Passing of the Great Race’, he argued America needed to immediately shut its doors to immigrants and pass laws against ‘miscegenation’ (ie the inter-breeding of races).

He was, unfortunately, as successful in these policies as he was in his conservationist policies. The US government forcibly sterilized around 60,000 people between the 1920s and 1960s, because they were deemed unfit. It closed its doors to immigrants in the 1920s and 1930s, just when they needed refuge from murderous dictatorships in Russia and Germany. And many states passed laws to segregate African-Americans and forbid them from marrying whites.

Malthusian eugenics and Grant’s scientific racism were based on very shoddy science. Scientists were empowered to decide who was unfit based on their own quick judgements — one youth was sterilized because he smiled too much. The bar to immigration was justified on the basis of a large-scale IQ test of American soldiers, which found that around a third of them were morons — particularly the poor and non-white. But the IQ tests were really a test of cultural literacy, asking questions about things like baseball or politics. And the scientists who used the results to argue for the heredity of intelligence and racial differences in intelligence ignored the fact that African-Americans in the North, living under better conditions and with a better diet, had markedly higher scores than African-Americans in the South — suggesting ‘IQ’ can be improved through better living conditions.

Behind the ‘science’ were all kinds of glaring prejudices and biases, against the working class, women, people of colour. There is a sort of pathology apparent in eugenicists — a pathological hatred, disgust and contempt for the lower classes, who become nightmarish figures of disease, crime and idiocy. And, on the other hand, a pathological ego-grandiosity about themselves as the elite — the superbeings, the demigods, the masters of the universe.

Malthusian eugenicists suggested there should be one rule for the superhuman Elect (do what you will, expand your human potential, breed more) and one for the subhuman masses (be controlled and breed less).

You can see this attitude in Julian Huxley, the longest-serving member of the Eugenics Society, and also a tireless campaigner for global population control. As his obituary from the Eugenics Society put it:

Julian Huxley was perfectly well aware that his personal genetic inheritance, and indeed the cultural background into which by good fortune he was born, were both of the highest grade. That did not result in him despising lesser and less fortunate people world-wide, but sharpened his feelings of duty towards humanity.

But ‘duty towards humanity’ meant trying to get the masses to breed less, while he — the superbeing — should breed more. As Rupert Sheldrake, a friend of the Huxley family, told me, his ‘duty to humanity’ meant apparently donating his sperm to clinics so that more Alphas like him would be born. He deemed himself superfit, despite being repeatedly sectioned for bipolar disorder — not that there’s anything wrong with having that illness, but under many national eugenics programmes, he’d have been sterilized or killed, if he’d happened to be poor.

The real damage from the Neo-Malthusianism of the early 20th century came, of course, in Nazi Germany. National Socialism could be described as Malthus on steroids. Hitler was a huge fan of Madison Grant — he wrote to tell him The Passing of the Great Race was his bible — and was obsessed with preserving the purity of the Aryan race, and securing it plenty of land to expand its numbers.

Like other Malthusians, Nazi thinking was ecological. Indeed, the word ‘ecology’ was coined by a racist German Darwinian, Ernst Haeckel. They believed humans should be seen as part of the whole of interdependent nature, like any other animal, and the ecosystem needed to be scientifically managed for the good of the whole. They put the long-term good of the human species, as they saw it, before the rights of the individual. The unfit must be culled, for the good of the species.

The Nazis enthusiastically copied American eugenic biopolicies, and speeded them up, sterilizing and then murdering millions of humans they deemed unfit, or unhygenic. And when Nazi scientists were put on trial by the Allies at Nuremburg for ‘crimes against humanity’, they protested, ‘but we just copied you’.

They were right — the Allies were just as committed to Malthusian thinking, they just weren’t quite as daring in following it through. But it still caused needless suffering and death. During the war, for example, the UK failed to intervene once again in another Indian famine, which this time killed two to three million people. Churchill was also a committed Malthusian, who once wrote: ‘[A] philosopher may watch unmoved the destruction of some of those superfluous millions, whose life must of necessity be destitute of pleasure.’ The famine was the Indians’ fault, he said, because they ‘breed like rabbits’.

You’d think that Nazi atrocities would have put the world off eugenics and Malthusian thinking. But it didn’t. In fact, just a year after the end of World War Two, Julian Huxley became president of UNESCO, and helped to make Malthusian biopolitics a central part of the post-world order. We’ll look at that next week.

Author of Philosophy for Life and other books. Honorary fellow, Centre for the History of the Emotions.

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