What Caused the Explosion?

The Modern Rise of Population

by Thomas McKeown
Academic Press, 168 pp., $14.50

Now that overpopulation has been recognized as one, and not one of the least, of the major threats to the future of the human race, it has become the subject of countless books, articles, television programs, and symposia of all kinds. Yet even now amazingly little attention is being paid to the background and causes of this overriding problem. Only a few of the better texts of modern history give it a paragraph or at most a page, chiefly in reference to the great emigrations from Europe in the nineteenth century.

The problem, in a word, is to explain what can only be described as one of the dominant phases of social development: the abrupt change from an essentially static population, in Europe and probably in other areas, to an unprecedented, precipitate rise. The initial phase of this phenomenal growth antedates the statistical age and has thus far defied treatment in conclusive terms. But the fundamental pattern of growth is no longer the subject of serious controversy. Demographers are generally agreed that the European population, estimated at 140 million in 1750, rose to 188 million in 1800, and to 266 million in 1850. Whereas during most of recorded history the movement of population was so modest and spasmodic as to be unimportant, the fantastic dimensions and the durability of the changes of the past two centuries have created social problems and international tensions that can no longer be ignored or slighted. The Reverend Thomas Malthus, who in 1798 first sounded the warning and expounded “The Principle of Population,” recognized the danger of over-population, but regarded it as a distant eventuality. Yet today the Malthusian prognostications seem mild. The threat of overpopulation stalks at our heels like an ominous specter that may be upon us within a paltry generation or at most two.

Within recent years certain historians and economists have joined forces in the effort to grapple with the basic problem of the so-called “population explosion.” These scholars have done fascinating work with parish registers and other local records and have taught us much about birth and death rates, about family sizes and organization, about marriage rates and other aspects of social life, such as the numerous checks to population growth and the prevalence of celibacy. But long series of parish registers are rare and it is highly unlikely that enough information can be derived from them to provide a firm foundation for the history of the population even of Western Europe, where reliable, systematic demographic data rarely antedate the mid-nineteenth century.

Certain influences on the movement of population have, of course, long since been recognized. Throughout history famines have been common and have been followed usually by epidemics and by the endemic “killer” diseases that were the bane of human existence. It was only reasonable, then, that Malthus and his contemporaries should have attributed the past drain on the population to such natural disasters, along with man-made restrictions on marriage and inheritance. Nature, in other words, had ensured that …

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Letters

Readings in Infanticide June 23, 1977