"Dr. Halliday Sutherland is a born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better” – G.K. Chesterton
In 1922, Halliday Sutherland’s book Birth Control was published. A modern reader might expect that a book with this title would be concerned with family planning and contraception. The full title of the book—Birth Control: A Statement of Christian Doctrine Against the Neo-Malthusians—reveals its broader nature: it was about population. And it was population that concerned many Britons in the early years of the twentieth century.
There were those who were troubled by the declining birth-rate. From a zenith in the 1880s, the birth-rate had been dropping steadily ever since (see chart). Today, while we await the birth of the next royal child, consider this: Queen Victoria gave birth to nine children. Yes, nine. How times have changed.
There were those concerned with the differential birth-rate. They saw the problem not as the falling birth-rate per se, but that the birth rate among the well-to-do had dropped more rapidly than the birth-rate among their social inferiors. The differential birth-rate problem, if unchecked, would lead Britain to “race suicide” as the vigorous genes of the glorious past were replaced by the offspring of those with inferior genes. The impact of this trend was observable: It was widely believed that around one-half of the men who presented themselves at recruitment offices for the Boer War and the First World War were rejected as unfit for military service. The rejects—designated “C3” by the army—were the evidence of weakening stocks.
There were those who were concerned at the over-population of Britain. These people were influenced by the theorising of Thomas Malthus who, in 1798, had written:
The power of population is so superior to the power of the Earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death in some shape or other visit the human race.
Observing that the population of Britain had doubled in the previous 100 years, Malthusians fretted that the population had grown beyond the carrying capacity of the land. To them, population reduction and control was essential to avoid “premature death” that would surely visit them in the shape of conflict, famine, and disease. Malthusians would point to the Irish famines between 1845-52 and the Four Year War (as the First World War was known in the 1920s) as evidence of “premature death” caused by over-population. The assertion that the Irish Famines were a result of over-population is contentious. Halliday Sutherland had strong views on this point and these will be aired in a later post.
In this post, the question to be addressed is: “Who was Malthus and what was Malthusianism?” In the next post it will be: “What was a Neo-Malthusian?” and in the third post it will be: “Why did Sutherland oppose the Neo-Malthusians?”
To answer the first question, the best and easiest source is the In Our Time program about Thomas Malthus and Malthusianism—an excellent historical podcast.
The podcast available here and it lasts for 45 minutes. The BBC described the program as follows:
Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss Malthusianism. In the eighteenth century, as expanding agriculture and industry resulted in a rapid increase in the European population, a number of writers began to consider the implications of this rise in numbers. Some argued it was a positive development, since a larger population meant more workers and thus more wealth. Others maintained that it placed an intolerable strain on natural resources.
In 1798 a young Anglican priest, the Reverend Thomas Malthus, published “An Essay on the Principle of Population”. Malthus argued that the population was increasing exponentially, and that food production could not keep pace; eventually a crisis would ensue. He suggested that famine, disease and wars acted as a natural corrective to overpopulation, and also suggested a number of ways in which humans could regulate their own numbers. The work caused a furore and fuelled a public debate about the size and sustainability of the British population which raged for generations. It was a profoundly influential work: Charles Darwin credited Malthus with having inspired his Theory of Natural Selection.
Picture: Chart from “Control of Life” by Halliday Sutherland.
Next post: 15 May 2015.