Malthus. William Petersen. Harvard University Press.

Malthus Book Cover Malthus
William Petersen
Harvard University Press
July 1, 1979

Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) is one of the most influential and most misunderstood of modern thinkers. This book offers the first full and accurate exposition of his thought, integrating his famous theory of population with his ideas on economic development and social structure. Such a task is a considerable assignment. It is never been attempted in a book before.

In William Petersen’s brilliant Malthus, the general reader and the social scientist are given the measure of Malthus’s population theory against competing theories as well as an account of the actual trends in fertility, mortality, and population size. There is an utterly accessible exposition of Malthus’s economic theory, how he differed from his great contemporary Ricardo, how he led to Keynes, and what importance his theory retains today. Moreover, there is an appraisal of Malthus’s ideas on the birth-control movement, both in its 19th century origins and in its meaning in less-developed countries now. More broadly, the book gives a review of both population trends and demographic theory over the past 150 years, as a base from which to judge how well or poorly Malthus’s principle of population has stood up. Finally, the work traces how Malthus’s theory developed after his death into such varied offshoots as, for example, the neo-Malthusian movement, Darwinian evolutionary theory, and Social Darwinism.

Mr. Petersen, acknowledged as one of the world’s leading demographers, is an elegant writer. His Malthus is an accomplished exercise in intellectual history that will become an inevitable point of repair in all future discussion of his subject.

William Petersen is Robert Lazarus Professor of Social Demography Emeritus at The Ohio State University.