Darwin and Wallace both credited an English clergyman for inspiring their evolutionary theories. What are the facts?

In the 19th century, two men independently of each other conceived the supposition now known as the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. They were Charles Darwin (1809–1882) and Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913).1 Both these men were inspired by An Essay on the Principle of Population, written by English clergyman and economist Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834), first published in 1798.2

Population vs food supply

Malthus was challenging the so-called Enlightenment philosophythat man was essentially good, that he had proceeded upward from the savage, and would continue towards perfection as a law of nature. Malthus said that population numbers tend to go up much more rapidly than food supplies, resulting in misery, not perfection, for mankind.

He wrote: “[T]he power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio.” “Taking the population of the world at any number, a thousand millions, for instance, the human species would increase in the ratio of 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, etc. and subsistence as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, etc. In two centuries and a quarter, the population would be to the means of subsistence as 512 to 10: in three centuries as 4096 to 13 ….”4

He went on to say that the system was kept in check by things which retarded population increase. These he labelled ‘misery’, i.e. pestilence, plague, war, and famine; and ‘vice’, e.g. infanticide and murder. In later editions of his Essay he added moral restraints such as postponement of marriage, and sexual abstinence prior to and outside of marriage. In addition, Malthus opposed financial relief for the poor because it encouraged larger families rather than smaller, and so resulted in more workers for fewer jobs in the labour market….

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