Darwinian evolution and Smithian economics refute Malthusianism

The climate website Watts Up With That? posted a commentary by Dr. Larry Bell earlier this year in which he attempts to refute the claim that overpopulation contributes to global warming. I respect Dr. Bell for his work in climate science and agree with his conclusion that overpopulation does not contribute to climate change. However, Dr. Bell’s attempt to demonize Charles Darwin as having been heavily influenced by Dr. Thomas Malthus resulting in Darwin’s evolutionary theories is not accurate. Malthus, as you may recall, is the author of the infamous Victorian-era book Essay on the Principle of Population and is the basis of environmentalism.

In his book, Malthus posited the theory that as the supply of resources increases, they become cheaper. This, in turn, results in more reproduction and the growth of families and, hence, population growth. With increased population, Malthus states, comes increased demand for food that becomes more expensive. Consequently, increased demand for food causes stress on families, deaths of children or steps taken to prevent conception. As food prices rise, Malthus theorized, more land or efforts are made in intensifying the production of resources themselves. In fairness, he did not predict that population would collapse resulting from a diminishing food supply.

It is true that Charles Darwin was influenced by Dr. Malthus but he was one of Darwin’s many influences. At best, Darwin’s theory of natural selection refutes Malthus’ population theory. According to scientist and British Parliamentarian Matt Ridley, evolution works in nature by a selective death rate and not random one where some species survive and others do not. What increases a species’ chance for survival is some sort of even the most minor mutation or even the smallest changes in behavior. In a 2012 lecture Dr. Ridley gave at the Adam Smith Institute, Ridley described similarities between Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory and the writings of Adam Smith.

In Nature, Ridley explains, reproduction plays a viral role in mixing gene combinations that result in innovations occurring with greater frequency. Human interaction in economics results in the intermingling and exchange of ideas. This results in new combinations and innovations. More trade and exchange results in increased contacts that can result in new ideas being tried. Co-operation with strangers results in mutual advantage and this has lead to extraordinary achievements in fields like the sciences. One example is increased food production using less resources by manipulating nature with genetically modified foods. Another is the usage and growth of vaccines to fight diseases. Dr. Ridley’s fantastic speech outlining correlation between Darwinian evolution and Smithian economics is below for your viewing pleasure.