American demographers occupy a position of unchallenged respectability in the academic world despite the obvious connection between their subject and the unruly facts of sex and the political and religious controversies swirling about the question of birth control. Because they rarely stray beyond the careful, craftsmanlike recording of population trends, it is easy to forget that population is after all a consequence of copulation. There are, I am almost sure (though this is an impression, for I have not undertaken a demographic analysis to confirm it), proportionately fewer women, Jews, Negroes and, for obvious reasons, Catholics, in the ranks of demographers than among sociologists, the larger academic grouping to which demographers belong. The professional meetings of demographers tend to be stodgy and abstemious in contrast to the frantic and febrile atmosphere of sociology conventions.

The studied avoidance of controversy by the demographers is partly owing to the fact that the federal Bureau of the Census and National Office of Vital Statistics have long provided them with secure, prestigious, but politically sterile jobs outside the academy. Intellectually, demographers have never had to struggle for recognition as “real” scientists by trying to quantify their subject-matter, for their basic data are quantities to begin with. Since it would be impossible to investigate the facts of population by methods other than those they use, demographers are happily immune from the accusations of pseudo-scientism so often leveled at the sociologists. Moreover, their discipline has a longer intellectual history than sociology: the importance of their subject-matter is acknowledged even in the American Constitution, which directs the federal government to undertake a census of the population every decade.

These factors combine to give demographers something of the caution and security-mindedness of highly skilled craftsmen. But the inevitable result of their readiness to neutralize the explosive implications of their material has been that a host of amateurs and cranks have rushed into the breach to produce a voluminous popular literature on population problems. Most of it is either extravagantly alarmist about continuing population growth or extravagantly counter-alarmist, invoking the marvels of science or the improved productive efficiency to be expected from social reform in order to lay the ghost of the overcrowded, starving anthill world conjured up by neo-Malthusian writers. Conservationists depressed by the spread of suburbia into the countryside, geneticists concerned about the higher “breeding rates” of allegedly inferior human stocks, biologists eager to subsume the growth of human numbers under some general law governing the expansion of animal species, retired army officers with a taste for geopolitical speculation, economists equipped to support their theological convictions with economic ratiocination—these are the sorts of people who contribute to the flood of popular literature on population. Demographers, although they presumably know most about the subject and are better disposed to minimize its importance, have been extraordinarily reticent about participating in this public debate. The authors of these books deserve congratulations for having taken the plunge.

The Days’ book is written for a large audience. Their thesis is that American population is increasing at a rate which threatens to bring about a decline in what they call the “quality of life.” They concede that the United States is in no danger of experiencing mass famines or even a reduction in the standard of living as a result of population pressure. Instead the costs of American population growth are traffic jams, spreading urban and suburban blight, the overcrowding and destruction of beaches, parks and other outdoor recreational facilities, water shortages, air and water pollution, deterioration in professional and social services resulting from shortages of trained personnel. Finally, there are the greater restrictions on personal freedom owing to the increased need for central controls to provide for the needs of a larger, denser population.

The Day’s summary of these costs is comprehensive and well-documented, but they fail to explore the more subtle ways in which population growth aggravates nearly all of our social problems: unemployment resulting from automation, the plight of the poor, the deepening of racial tensions, the spread of suburbia with the resulting narrowing of horizons as classes and ethnic groups become more segregated. Although they have bravely abandoned the neutral technician’s stance of most of their fellow-demographers, the Days have not entirely freed themselves from the demographer’s narrow specialism which leads him to treat population trends and their effects as things-in-themselves, isolated from other social, economic, or political developments. The effect of this professionalism has been to leave the amateur population theorists free to exaggerate wildly the effects of population trends, attributing the rise and fall of nations to demographic factors, or blaming such diverse afflictions as cancer, mental disease, and tasteless white bread on overcrowding and the resulting strain on agricultural resources. The Days provide a useful corrective to some of these simplifications, but they fail to show adequately the subtle and intricate ways in which changes in the size of population can affect the texture of social life.


The Days’ exclusive concern with the overall costs of a growing population results in failure to discuss how unevenly these costs weigh on different groups, regions, and communities. They thus miss an opportunity to show how rapid population growth intensifies many of our social conflicts. Take race relations, for example, which the Days fail even to mention. Since World War II the Negro population has been increasing even more rapidly than the white population at the same time that Negroes have been migrating in unprecedented numbers from the rural South to the cities of the North and West. The increase in their numbers reflects both a continuing decline in their death rate, long higher than the white death rate, and a rise in their birth rate that has been even more pronounced than the white “baby boom,” especially in urban areas. These trends clearly indicate improvements in the health, family stability, and employment opportunities of Negroes, but—as we have all had impressed upon us recently—they also place enormous pressures on the housing and services available in the racial ghettoes of our big cities. The pattern of gains in some areas, stagnation in others, and the imminent risk of slipping backwards, which is so characteristic of the Negro’s present position in American society, is sharply revealed by demographic study of his situation.

It is now especially important that those who question the desirability of an ever-growing American population should show how racial tensions and poverty are exacerbated by population growth, because the advocates of growth tend to shrug off complaints about suburban rabbit warrens and the vanishing wilderness as mere “aesthetic” preferences. Since, in contrast to the population explosion in the underdeveloped world, American population growth does not raise the specter of mass starvation and economic retrogression, debate over whether it is a good thing or not turns on more parochial moral and religious convictions. The Days include a brief but suggestive chapter on various common attitudes toward planned social change, sexuality, and the existence of an afterlife, which tend to be associated with favorable or unfavorable attitudes towards population control (by which they mean fertility control, largely by contraceptive means). Vague approval or fatalistic acceptance of uncontrolled population growth is apt to accompany a generally traditional, religious and anti-individualistic outlook and obviously such an outlook is by no means peculiar to Catholics.

The Days seem relieved, however, to pass from consideration of the attitudes underlying popular opinions about population control to a rebuttal of the explicit arguments commonly advanced in support of population growth. They examine and convincingly refute the economic, scientific, military, and eugenic cases for a large and increasing population. They are particularly effective in rejecting the complacent utopian belief that science and technology will in the end come up with “solutions” to the strain on our resources produced by incessant population growth. They even show that interplanetary migration by spaceship cannot realistically be counted on as a final scientific escape valve for an overcrowded world.

Yet few of the arguments the Days examine treat rapid population growth as desirable in itself. They merely recoil from the idea that positive action should be taken to check it, especially action that involves any official encouragement of contraception. Such arguments, the Days themselves observe, are “resorted to less for themselves than for the seeming rational support they give to positions taken for quite irrational reasons.” This being the case, the Days have undertaken too easy a task in devoting fully half their book to refuting a set of ingenious rationalizations. I wish they had given more attention to the emotional resistances to population control and to the ways in which these resistances might be overcome. It is not going to be easy to win acceptance from the American public of even the quite modest steps in the direction of population control that the Days recommend.

The Days’ suggestions for a policy of population control are virtually identical with those advanced by William Petersen in the opening essay of The Politics of Population. Both advocate tax-supported research to improve contraceptive techniques, the abandonment of archaic state and local laws restricting the dissemination of contraceptive information, more permissive laws regarding abortion and sterilization, fewer encouragements to early marriage and parenthood, and equality of pay and more employment opportunities for women. Perhaps most demographers would make similar recommendations, but few have publicly done so.

Petersen devotes only one essay to the subject of controlling American population growth. His book is a collection of reworked articles some of which appeared previously in specialist journals, others in Encounter and Commentary; several chapters from earlier books that circulated largely among professional social scientists are also included and there are two essays published for the first time. “Apart from the unity that the essays derive from the overall subject of population,” Petersen writes, “they are all one also in that each relates to social policy in some way.”


The first half of the book includes discussions of family planning and of economic and social theory concerning the causes and consequences of population growth, while the second half deals with migration and the problems of ethnic minorities. But such a classification of the topics covered hardly does justice to the breadth of Petersen’s interests. Among the subjects to which one or more of the book’s seventeen essays are devoted are Keynes and Marx on Malthus, Soviet family policy, the economic and social history of the Netherlands, a review of the campaign to restrict immigration to the United States in the early decades of this century, religious statistics in the United States, city planning and the adjustment of immigrants in Australia and Israel. If the Days frequently fail to relate demographic trends fully to other social and cultural conditions, Petersen superbly demonstrates the complex interaction between the facts of population and virtually everything else in society and history. He shows, for example, the connection between the high Dutch birth rate—long an anomaly in Western Europe—and Holland’s nostalgic nationalism, looking back to her days of glory in the seventeenth century. He makes the strongest case I have yet seen for the inclusion of a question on religious affiliation in the U. S. Census, a case requiring him to counter the forceful arguments of Jewish, Protestant, liberal Catholic and civil libertarian groups, which have objected to such a question as a breach in the wall between church and state. He calls attention to the role of American social scientists in promoting the racist assumptions that became part of the restrictive quota immigration statute of 1924.

Perhaps his most original and valuable contribution is his discussion of different types of migration. The old economic “push-pull” theory still dominates most textbook accounts of why people migrate—that is, they are alleged to respond as individuals either to the “push” of bad economic conditions at home or the “pull” of attractive opportunities abroad. Petersen shows the inadequacy of this simplistic model in accounting for mass migrations—notably from Europe to America in the past century—those which acquire the character of social movements and to which strictly personal motivations are scarcely relevant. Once migration to America had become a genuinely “live option” to many European populations, it becomes more problematical to account for why some people declined to migrate. Not only is the “push-pull” theory excessively individualistic, but it seems to assume that a tendency to stay in the same place, or “sitzlust,” is basic to human nature, which is no more plausible than the earlier assumption of a universal “wanderlust” that was often invoked to explain human migrations.

Inevitably, having cast his net so widely, Petersen is sometimes opinionated rather than informed and often is carried too far by the thrust of his argument. He often strikes a needlessly harsh and irrelevant note in quarreling with leftist ideological views which were once common in Communist and fellow-traveling circles but which have little following today. Yet even when one disagrees with him, he manages to state what is at issue with exemplary clarity. Unlike most of his fellow-demographers, he neither shrinks back from political and ethical judgments nor lacks the intellectual range to demonstrate the depth and extent to which we are all involved in demographic questions.

This Issue

November 11, 1965