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Readings in Infanticide

In response to:

What Caused the Explosion? from the April 28, 1977 issue

To the Editors:

William Langer says “The subject of infanticide is so abhorrent to Christian thought that no comprehensive, systematic study of it has ever [in his] knowledge, been undertaken” (NYR, April 28). While not at all wanting to detract from his praise of Thomas McKeown’s invaluable work, this is such an important subject that I would like to refer readers to Sir Alexander Carr-Saunders’s The Population Problem (Oxford, 1922). This often overlooked book is a systematic survey of the use of abortion, infanticide, and “prolonged abstention from intercourse” in primitive and historical societies. It amasses the evidence of these practices in different societies and examines them as methods of limiting population numbers in relation to food resources.

I drew heavily on Carr-Saunders’s work when integrating population dynamics of this kind into a theory of economic development in my Poverty and Progress: an ecological model of economic development. I only wish I had also had the benefit of McKeown’s new book which Langer was reviewing.

Richard G. Wilkinson

London, England

William Langer replies:

I have known the Carr-Saunders’s Population Problem for many years and regret that failing memory led to my overlooking it while working on the review of McKeown’s Modern Rise of Population. Had I renewed my acquaintance with it, I should probably have profited thereby, despite the age of the book. I might possibly have even shaded the judgment in my concluding sentence, despite the fact that I was not writing an original essay, but the review of another’s book. On the whole, I still stand by my statement that “no comprehensive, systematic study” of infanticide appears to have been undertaken. William B. Ryan’s Infanticide: Its Law, Prevalence, Prevention, and History (1872) had its points, but was far from covering the many facets of the subject listed in the title. What I had in mind was the need adumbrated in some of my own articles, such as “Checks on Population Growth, 1750-1850” (Scientific American, February 1972) and more particularly the two companion pieces “Infanticide: a Historical Survey” and “Further Notes on the History of Infanticide” (History of Childhood Quarterly, I, no. 3 and II, no. 1, 1974). I am pleased, though, to think that interest in this crucial practice is constantly growing and I propose to read Mr. Wilkinson’s Poverty and Progress at the earliest possible moment.

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