The most of Thomas Malthus that many of us ever hear is in connection with Charles Darwin’s formulation of his Evolutionary Theory. Malthus believed that populations double over time, while food and materials increase only arithmetically. This in turn creates shortages in food and goods, leading to famine and war, so the thinking went. Darwin picked up on this and postulated that a Malthusian system created competition between members of the species, and that only those with unique traits, or differences, would be able to best compete for those resources if the environment favored those traits; what would come to be known as Survival of the Fittest.
Less well known is what Malthus postulated, using his calculus.
In An Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus writes:
“All children born, beyond what would be required to keep up the population to a desired level, must necessarily perish, unless room be made for them by the deaths of grown persons. . . . Therefore . . . we should facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavoring to impede, the operations of nature in producing this mortality; and if we
dread the too frequent visitation of the horrid form of famine, we should sedulously encourage the other forms of destruction, which we compel nature to use. Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our towns we should make the streets narrower,
crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague, In the country, we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations. But above all, we should reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases; and restrain those benevolent, but much
mistaken men, who have thought they were doing a service to mankind by projecting schemes for the total extirpation of particular disorders.”
In his biography of Sanger, Killer Angel, (available as a PDF) George Grant describes Margaret’s year in England and her falling in with the Malthusians and neo-Malthusians:
“Not surprisingly, Margaret immediately got on the Malthusian bandwagon. She was not philosophically inclined, nor was she particularly adept at political, social, or economic theory, but she did recognize in the Malthusians a kindred spirit and a tremendous opportunity. She was also shrewd enough to realize that her notions of radical socialism and sexual liberation would never have the popular support necessary to usher in the revolution without some appeal to
altruism and intellectualism. She needed somehow to capture the moral and academic “high ground.”
“Malthusianism, she thought, just might be the key to that ethical and intellectual posture. If she could argue for birth control using the scientifically verified threat of poverty, sickness, racial tension, and overpopulation as its backdrop, then she would have a much better chance of making her case. So she began to absorb as much of the Malthusian dogma as she could.
“Margaret also immersed herself in the teachings of each of the Malthusian offshoots. If a little bit of something is a good thing, then a lot is even better. There was phrenology, Binetism, and Craniometri-
cism. There was Oneidianism, Polygenesis, Recapitulationism, Lambrosianism, Hereditarianism, Freudianism, and Neotenism. From each group she picked Up a few popular slogans and concepts that would permanently shape her crusade.
“But Eugenics left the most lasting impression on the malleable mold of her nascent worldview of radicalism. Eugenics was perhaps the most revolutionary of the pseudo-sciences spawned by Malthusianism. Having convinced an entire generation of scientists, intellectuals, and social reformers that the world was facing an imminent economic crisis caused by unchecked human fertility, Malthusian thought quickly turned to practical programs and social policies.
“Some of these managerial Malthusians believed that the solution to the imminent crisis was political: restrict immigration, reform social welfare, and tighten citizenship requirements. Others thought the solution was technological: increase agricultural production, improve medical proficiency, and promote industrial efficiency. But many of the rest felt that the solution was genetic: restrict or eliminate “bad racial stocks” and gradually “help to engineer the evolutionary ascent of man.”
“This last group became the adherents of a malevoent new voodoo-science called Eugenics. They quickly became the most influential and powerful of all the insurgent ideologists striving to rule the affairs of men and nations. In fact, for the rest of the twentieth century they would unleash one plague after another+ whole plethora of designer disasters—upon the unsuspecting human race.
“The Eugenicists unashamedly espoused an elitist white Supremacy. Or to be more precise, they espoused an elitist Northern and Western European white Supremacy. It was not a supremacy based on the crass ethnic racism of the past but upon a new kind of “scientific” elitism deemed necessary to preserve “the best of the human race” in the face of impending doom. It was a very refined sort of supremacy that prided itself on rationalism, intellectualism, and progressivism.”
Ideas have origins. Ideas also have consequences. It is impossible to consider Sanger’s life’s work absent the inspiration for, and philosophical context of that life’s work.