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Separating Darwin from his mentor Malthus?

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Dr Sheldon
Rob Sheldon

Malthus was the original population bomb guy.

A recent paper by Lemin Wu (June 2015) offers A Darwinian Explanation of the Malthusian Trap:

Abstract: This paper shows that the Malthusian mechanism alone cannot explain the pre-industrial stagnation of living standards. Improvement in luxury technology, if faster than improvement in subsistence technology, would have kept living standards growing. The Malthusian trap is essentially a puzzle of balanced growth between the luxury sector and the subsistence sector. The author argues that balanced growth is caused by group selection in the form of biased migration. It is proven that a tiny bit of bias in migration can suppress a strong growth tendency. The theory re-explains the Malthusian trap and the prosperity of ancient market economies such as Rome and Sung. It also suggests a new set of factors triggering modern economic growth.

Rob Sheldon writes to say,

A fascinating attempt to separate Darwin and Malthus! If you recall, Malthus was the fellow who thought population would expand until everyone was on the verge of starvation, and the only way to prevent that was by promoting vice (aka birth control). Darwin read Malthus, and saw this extreme competition as the reason for progress.

Conventional economists say that Malthus’ ideas only worked up to 1800, and then everybody both had population increase and food increase simultaneously. One explanation I’ve heard is that rich nations voluntarily restricted their birth rates, say, by marrying later.

This paper, which is from a Berkeley PhD, argues that the converse is true. That both luxury goods and subsistence goods are increasing, but only subsistence goods lead to population increase. Call the first one “flowers” and the second “bread”, he argues that most cultures will balance the two types of goods so that society both improves their flowers and multiplies their bread (and population) but not at the expense of the other. In other words, people avoid Malthus’ dire prediction of continuous starvation by desiring and seeking after flowers instead of bread.

Okay, if this paper is right, why did the standard Malthusian model work from 600AD to 1800AD? Ahhh, says the author, because of migration. It is because emigrants are usually scraping by at the subsistence level that they move to the luxurious country, where they bring the average down. So until everyone had luxury in 1800, nobody had it.

Where does this leave Darwin? Well it cuts the legs from under his argument. It would mean that organisms can’t improve or evolve until everybody is happy and migration stops. It says that stress causes stasis and success leads to evolution. It says that “opening new niches” is what prevents evolution.

So why is this article entitled “A Darwinian Explanation of the Malthusian Trap”?

Because the correct title, “A Malthusian Explanation of the Darwinian Trap”, wouldn’t have made it past the censors.

See also: “Overpopulation” now considered science “myth”?

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