The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus FRS was an English scholar, influential in political economy and demography and one of the earliest thinkers to study population growth as it relates to general human welfare. Malthus has become widely known for his theories about population and its increase or decrease in response to various factors. In 1798, Malthus anonymously published An Essay on the Principle of Population, As It Affects the Future Improvement of Society. It was an attack on William Godwin's and the Marquis de Condorcet's theories of eternal human progress. The six editions of his essay, published from 1798 to 1826, observed that sooner or later population gets checked by famine and disease. He wrote in opposition to the popular view in 18th-century Europe that saw society as improving and in principle as perfectible.

Although Malthus's youth was dominated by the Enlightenment belief in the rationality of man and the perfectibility of society, the unfolding Industrial Revolution was making it increasingly apparent that society was changing and not necessarily for the better.

Malthus argued that the standard of living of the masses cannot be improved because, “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man.”

Population, he asserted, when unchecked by war, famine, or disease, would increase by a geometric ratio but subsistence only by an arithmetic one. Malthus's identification of population growth as an obstacle to human progress was bitterly resisted in the Enlightenment climate of the day, and his theories--which greatly influenced classical economists like his friend David Ricardo--were interpreted as opposing social reform.

In 1803, Malthus published a revised edition of his work, in which he added ‘moral restraint’--late marriage and abstinence--as a factor that might limit population growth, and he provided empirical evidence to back up his theories.

In the middle of the 19th century neo-Malthusianism emerged, a movement that, partly influenced by Robert Owen, advocated birth control for the poor. The appearance of Dr. George Drysdale's Elements of Social Science in 1854, and the founding of the Malthusian League in 1877, laid the foundation of the movement. The league was disbanded in 1927.

Malthus became hugely influential, and controversial, in economic, political, social and scientific thought. Many of those whom subsequent centuries term evolutionary biologists read him, notably Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, for each of whom Malthusianism became an intellectual stepping-stone to the idea of natural selection. Malthus remains a writer of great significance and controversy.

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