January 17, 2014

Malthus wasn't wrong, he was late

At the annual Edge question (this year: What scientific idea should be retired?), Matt Ridley writes:
Matt Ridley 
Science Writer; Founding chairman of the International Centre for Life; Author, The Rational Optimist 
Malthusianism 
T. Robert Malthus (he used his middle name) thought population must outstrip food supply and "therefore we should facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavouring to impede," disease, hunger and war. We should "court the return of the plague" and "particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations". This nasty idea—that you had to be cruel to be kind to prevent population growing too fast for food supply—directly influenced heartless policy in colonial Ireland, British India, imperial Germany, eugenic California, Nazi Europe, Lyndon Johnson's aid to India and Deng Xiaoping's China. It was encountering a Malthusian tract, The Limits to Growth, that led Song Jian to recommend a one-child policy to Deng. The Malthusian misanthropic itch is still around and far too common in science. 
Yet Malthus and his followers were wrong, wrong, wrong.

Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms documents, using English public records such as wills from 1200 to 1800, that the English over these 600 years were using Malthus's 1798 advice to engage in "moral restraint" avant la lettre. The chief mechanism was not exposing babies on mountainsides or whatever, but was simply delaying marriage until a couple could afford the various accoutrements appropriate for their class.

How different in that regard was Jane Austen's world from today? Some, but the similarities should be obvious.

The average Englishwoman married during these centuries between 24 and 26. In contrast, the average Chinese woman married around 18. Thus, the Chinese population would grow faster, but tended to collapse when good government broke down.

In contrast, most of sub-Saharan Africa didn't have to worry about Malthusian traps until fairly recently. Population density outside of a few nice highland locations tended to be well below the agriculture capacity of the enormous amount of land. Diseases, competition with co-evolving wild animals (especially elephants, who consumed crops if there weren't enough people around to drive them off), and lack of fortifications meant that much of Africa tended to be underpopulated. The great African fear was not overpopulation of a region, but of humans dying out all together in an area.

Thus, while European culture tended to encourage sexual restraint, African culture tended to encourage sexual exuberance -- a pattern we can still see today in America.

Much the same system as the English had was at work in the U.S., although that was largely forgotten due to the tendency to assume by the still-dominant Sixties Folks to assume that the Fifties represented How Things Were Done Since Civilization Began. In reality, the very young average age of first marriage for American women in the 1950s compared to previous decades represented a zenith of mass prosperity.

The sheer numbers of the giant Baby Boom, combined with the technological failure to continue to progress to even faster personal transport such as flying cars (which would have vastly increased the supply of suburban land), quickly brought us back to a more historically common situation of delayed marriage.

37 comments:

Anonymous said...

The young age at marriage in the US in the 1950s was somewhat exceptional in American history. However, the availability of land and, for a long time, jobs, in your country had also encouraged a considerably younger age at marriage than in Northwestern Europe, where land was scarce and it took time to save up to buy some, or to wait for one's parents to die. Also, aristocratic women tended to marry young in NW Europe, to maximize fertility, while the ambitious middle classes, who set themselves high standards regarding education, wealth and career achievement, tended to marry latest of all.

Alias Clio

Anonymous said...

Malthusianism is true except where there's technological progress to increase production and preserve the environment.

Global Warming Scare seems to be the new Malthusianism but that's more iffy cuz we still don't know enough about the climate. Still, the fears may well be warranted in the future.

Anonymous said...

Edge my butt.

More like Blunt(instrument).

All these childish moral tirades by 'scientific' experts.

Anonymous said...

The harder you push efficiency, the more you run into limits. You can get great efficiency gains by improving a highly inefficient system. If you start out with something that is 0.1% efficient, e.g. a plant that has evolved to pass on its genes in the wild rather than to provide food for humans, you can make improvements over decades that ignorant people will think can never end.

And yet you eventually run into limits - how much solar flux can irradiate an area to provide the energy for growth, yearly rainfall averages, nutrient availability, etc. Eventually it gets harder to improve to the point where a system is good enough, and efficiency gains slow down.

A classic example of this is supersonic flight. The rewards just aren't there, even over water where sonic booms aren't a problem. The Concorde used approximately 5+ times the fuel per passenger mile as the 747. The problem here is that air resistance increases as the square of the speed and introduces other design constraints to lower efficiency. But the increase in drag alone is a factor of nearly 5 for the doubling of speed.

Most people do not have such valuable time that it is worth multiple hundreds of dollars per hour. There just aren't that many highly paid surgeons, lawyers, CEOs, entrepreneurs and the like who can afford that sort of thing and provide an economy of scale. The mass market for travel is so much bigger.

And new aircraft, for which fuel economy is such a huge driver that the entire design of the aircraft revolves around - are only incrementally improving. e.g. 20% for the Dreamliner. So we are pushing hard (with huge budgets and man centuries of engineering effort) against a hard limit somewhere beyond current efficiency achievements.

What is true however is that it can take a long, long time to approach a hard limit, especially if incremental progress is still worth millions or billions of dollars. And incremental progress can eventually make something that is a non-starter into a starter. Smart phones are a good example of this. A smart phone just couldn't be done in the 1990s and certainly the 1980s like it can be today, because the computing power was not there. But once it inched closer to the point that these devices were possible, they are now common.

It's this sort of thing that may make Malthus look like a fool temporarily (e.g. maybe there comes technology that allows us to grow food economically in currently non-arable land, or high quality tasty protein with the sort of efficiency that carbohydrates can be produced with), but ultimately not incorrect.

Anonymous said...

Time to retire the static mistakes of misanthropic, myopic, mathematical Parson Malthus because he never was and never will be right.

Just wait for what I call the 'perfect storm' of drought. It will kill masses of people faster than any disease.

Anonymous said...

Happy 20th anniversary of the North ridge quake, Steve. Were you woken up by the one we just had today, near Universal City? Only a mid 2 in magnitude, but it was so close to where I live that I was jolted out of bed immediately.

Steve Sailer said...

Slept right through it.

Is earthquake insurance worth paying for?

countenance said...

I think black African culture expressed sexual exuberance no matter what. It's just that before white people showed up, that sexual exuberance was masked by all the internal and external factors which created a high death rate for black Africans, and in fact that's the reason why they had all that sexual exuberance, just to maintain their relatively paltry population numbers. It's the whole r-K thing at work.

But with modern medicine and a steady food supply, the sexual exuberance of the black African is resulting in a population explosion.

5371 said...

Actually, Malthus was early.
Ridley has an enviable degree of impudence to be still showing himself in public after his cameo in the financial world.

Anonymous said...

Some thinkers--maybe Malthus too--may have been 'proven wrong' because they warned people of 'the likely future if nothing were done about it'.

Thus, it may more be the case that they prevented the future than were proven wrong by it.

If scientists foresee a comet destroying the planet, and if engineers build a technology to deflect the comet based on such prediction, then the scientists weren't proven wrong. They just helped to prevent what would have been a disaster if not for their prediction.

pat said...

African culture tended to encourage sexual exuberance

You seem to be taking sides in the nature vs. nurture debate referenced in your subsequent daily posting.

Do you really believe that - that black Americans are sexually exuberant only because of some cultural influence? Are you thereby rejecting all of Rushton's work?

BTW I have in my bookshelf a book called 'Biological Exuberance'. It isn't about blacks. It's a crackpot attempt to show that all animals are naturally homosexual.

Albertosaurus

anony-mouse said...

Better late than never

David said...

Population will decline whether anyone likes it or not.

If you're in a Malthusian-mathematical mood, this lecture is great fun.

Anonymous said...

"The problem here is that air resistance increases as the square of the speed and introduces other design constraints to lower efficiency. But the increase in drag alone is a factor of nearly 5 for the doubling of speed."

The higher you go, the less air you encounter. Is climbing far above current cruising speeds very time- or fuel-consuming? Or does that lead to some other problem? Just curious.

Anonymous said...

Malthusianism, particularly in it's current mutation, AGW is an excuse for Marxists to impose their will upon us.

Anonymous said...

Oh come on Steve, stop playing this game. Malthus hasn't been right for over 200 years, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

And 200 years is, like, forever!

Reg Cæsar said...

Is earthquake insurance worth paying for?

Related question: who lives in the most affected zones? The well-off, or the down-and-out?

Everything I've read about floods suggests it's the poorest-of-the-poor who live in the flood plain. (Indeed, "skid rows" arose where the flooding was deliberate and predictable.)

Then I did relief work in Grand Forks after the '97 flood. In that city-- homogeneous and egalitarian as it i, with its government-and-potatoes economy-- the doctors, lawyers, bankers and professors lived by the river, and their nice digs were wiped out. The working stiffs lived farther west, and at worst got their front steps lapped.

Ransome said...

"The sheer numbers of the giant Baby Boom, combined with the technological failure to continue to progress to even faster personal transport such as flying cars (which would have vastly increased the supply of suburban land), quickly brought us back to a more historically common situation of delayed marriage."

For those who practice restraint.

Anonymous said...

Also, aristocratic women tended to marry young in NW Europe, to maximize fertility...

Not to maximize fertility: for aristocrats anything more than an heir and spare was just a nuisance. The point was more to settle who would inherit what as early as possible. Risk reduction: uncertainty = risk.

Jokah Macpherson said...

I've not read Malthus directly and have only received his ideas secondhand, but it seems like his core thesis has held up pretty well. Sure, technological progress can expand the upper limit on population, but it doesn't change the basic fact that extra resources mostly wind up going to making babies and either (1) you reach a limit where population growth tapers off or (2) you get overleveraged on population to where dips in resource availabilitiy have the potential to cause great suffering.

All the important people these days seem to pile on Malthus based on his weakest points but it's not like people line up to call Darwin a fool because he didn't realize inheritance was discrete.

Mr. Anon said...

"The higher you go, the less air you encounter. Is climbing far above current cruising speeds very time- or fuel-consuming? Or does that lead to some other problem? Just curious."

The SST's cruising altitude was much higher than subsonic commercial aircraft, typically 56,000 ft. (according to Wikipedia). Even given that, it's fuel consumption per passenger-mile was much higher. There were a lot of technical problems that had to be solved in order to make the thing reliable enough for commercial air transport. That they succeeded at all was a testament to the engineers who designed and built it (and to the French and British taxpayers who payed for it all). In the end though, it was just not practical.

If people would be willing to take even longer to get where they're going than they do now, commercial airplanes could fly at 300 mph, instead of 500 mph or so, and would likely be much more fuel efficient. That would likely require different planes though - planes designed for those speeds.

Anonymous said...

"Thus, while European culture tended to encourage sexual restraint, African culture tended to encourage sexual exuberance -- a pattern we can still see today in America."

What about European culture now? Swedes and Northern Europeans in general are very promiscuous. A girl in uni with 20 partners is not unusual.

Anonymous said...

The world was not introduced to the "moral restraint" of Malthus until the second edition of his essay in 1803. That concession to criticism ,obviously, spoiled his original argument. In any case it's unlikely Englishmen in 1200 were following his advice. And, it's hard to see how he could be "early" when his principle is that population is always , everywhere pressing on the supply of food or rapidly recovering from the last famine. Amusing ,isn't it, Darwin applying this principle to the factors that would ,according to Malthus ,increase only arithmetically. Any time or place is adequate for refuting Malthusianism and it has done harm but perhaps the inaction that ideologies of the inevitable encourage are most frequently overlooked.

Anonymous said...

The thing is Europeans can handle promiscuous, f*cking does not f*ck us up.

Gordo

Anonymous said...

Ridley (and The Economist/J Simon/Zubrin/samizdata.net etc) tend to be congenital optimists, and ultimately it's impossible to disprove. Yes, there _might_ be yet another techno improvement to save us yet again, myself I think it would be wise not to be bet the farm on that: hope for the best and prepare for the worst etc.

One trope they always trot out is, 'more heads means more minds to solve problems/come up with new solutions.' In that case, why is the third world poor?

It's interesting that Ehrlich was squelched in the 70s. I think he made several mistakes
- being too apocalyptic about what would happen;
- being too specific about time frames, which made him look foolish when they didn't happen;
- advocating triage, which made him look callous just when the Green Revolution was kicking in
- certain passages, taken out of context, opened him to the charge of racism.
- the bet with Simon, which was perhaps unwise from a PR point of view.

DavidB said...

Somewhere or other I have commented on the numerous misrepresentations of Malthus, mainly by people who haven't read him, and I may come back to that. For now, I will just point out that the passages quoted by Ridley are taken wildly out of context, and do not represent Malthus's own proposals. The matter is explained more fully here: http://www.victorianweb.org/economics/malthus3.html

Anonymous said...

>commercial airplanes could fly at 300 mph, instead of 500 mph or so, and would likely be much more fuel efficient. That would likely require different planes though - planes designed for those speeds.<

They exist, they're called turbo-props and on short hall routes they are taking over from Jets. For the reasons you stipulate, fuel efficiency.

Nick South Africa

Anonymous said...

"The thing is Europeans can handle promiscuous, f*cking does not f*ck us up."

There's a tendency to generalize all Europeans by subsuming them under the reputation of better Europeans. It's actually the case that certain Northern and Central Europeans are very good at handling freedom, the morally permissive kind. The Irish, Scottish, Russians, and South Italians can't handle freedom as well. Scottish seem to handle it really badly.

Dutch Boy said...

People marry later or not at all because the good-paying jobs that can support families have been outsourced.

Isegoria said...

Malthus himself, in 1798, notes the lower age of marriage in America and its consequences:

"In the United States of America, where the means of subsistence have been more ample, the manners of the people more pure, and consequently the checks to early marriages fewer, than in any of the modern states of Europe, the population has been found to double itself in twenty-five years."

Anonymous said...

Malthus was a pretty smart guy, but by his very existence he threatens the infinite growth models that have been used to sell the people a bill of goods, so he'll never be rehabilitated.

Anonymous said...

If you add urbanisation to Malthusian theories, they they're still pretty sound.

Over the last two hundred years, the surplus rural population has moved to the cities, and city life discourages people from having lots of children (expensive housing, lack of jobs for children to do etc). This is why East Asia has the lowest fertility rates - it's the most urbanised.

Cities have always been population sinks but in the old days this was mainly through disease, now it's mainly through economic disincentives, lifestyle distractions etc.

If this migration to cities hadn't occurred, then it's very likely that the malthusian deaths seen in 19th Century Ireland and 20th century India would have been much more widespread.

I guess you can cities a technological advance, although they're just as much a sociological factor as a technological one.

Anonymous said...

"Some thinkers--maybe Malthus too--may have been 'proven wrong' because they warned people of 'the likely future if nothing were done about it'.

Thus, it may more be the case that they prevented the future than were proven wrong by it."

Spot on.

Anonymous said...

Thus, while European culture tended to encourage sexual restraint, African culture tended to encourage sexual exuberance -- a pattern we can still see today in America.

Historically, probably not the case.

When African women did lose it though, it was more often to the "warm, cool" looking guy who seemed to be successful with the ladies (maybe he has a lot more wives) but didn't need to support his kids.

But (much) more sex and more promiscuity in Africa? Probably not.

Even traditional East European nations have far higher levels of "open / promiscuous" sociosexuality than Africans.

Gottlieb said...

A rational optimism is an impossibility.

I'm a misanthrope, the world does not need another six billion human beings, on the contrary. A more humanistic measure to avoid the nightmare of living in a world overpopulated by this rabble they call humanity (especially with the African mother giving birth 80% of them) is through 'voluntary' sterilization. It's simple, you offer financial benefits and psychological help for those who do not have the genetic capacity to contribute to the cognitive advancement of mankind. First you must make the culture of monofamily (sarcastic expression to non-family) extremely popular. We can not sacrifice this planet because of humankind, for Merlin.

Anonymous said...

Malthus basically says that the same forces that wiped out 99% of the species that have ever inhabited the earth apply to humans. Why is this so disturbing? Our big brains are sure to find a remedy.

Anonymous said...

Malthusianism is not misanthropic. To the contrary--it's empowering.

The point is that, hey, we're sentient beings, so don't have to embrace a Darwinian rat race of maximally fecund, subsistence-level squalor. Rather, we can embrace our own values of civilization and behave optimally with respect to those instead.

Edmund Burke said something like, "Men must restrain themselves from within or be restrained from without." Just so. Personally, I think the latter option is more "misanthropic" than the former.