Book 2, Chapter 11 : Proofs of the Geometrical Ratio from the Phenomenon of a Pestilence
Book 2, Chapter 11
ONE frequent source of the mistakes that have been made on the subject of population, has been derived from the consideration of a pestilence. It has been said, that, when a nation has been laid waste by this great scourge of mankind, the loss is speedily made up, the lands are again cultivated, the peoples repeopled, and the country grows as flourishing as ever. The received idea is, that, if you happened not to be a spectator of the distress while it lasted, and if you returned to the country that had been visited by such a calamity after an interval of ten years, you would know nothing of the matter. Influenced by these conceptions, it has been inferred by Hume, one of the most subtle of all reasoners, that "if the restraints which the desire and power of propagation lie under were completely removed, the human species would more than double every generation."a I have that deference for the great authority of
Hume, that for this reason principally I have determined to devote a chapter to the question.
Let it be remembered then, that, when London or any other considerable town became thinned by the plague, this was not entirely the consequence of the numbers that died. Every one that had the power, and almost that had not, fled from the dreadful scene; London was indeed a melancholy solitude. Her citizens migrated in multitudes to the country parts of England; but, when the infection was at an end, they migrated back again.
If, in consequence of a calamity of this sort, there appears, when it is over, eligible place for more inhabitants, this eligibleness will tempt population from the remoter parts of the empire, or from foreign countries. Wherever there is soil well prepared for cultivation, and a country, desirable to dwell in, but ill provided with inhabitants, tither human creatures will feel prompted to remove. Man us a being that wanders from Dan to Beersheba, from Copenhagen to Jerusalem, and from Europe to America, in pursuit of happiness. But of these migrations no European government takes an account; and the new comers speedily become consolidated with the old inhabitants. We must have regulations, such as are said to exist in some parts of Asia, forbidding every man to quit the district in which he was born, before we can easily obtain accurate notions of population.
And here it may be useful to recollect what was proved some time back, that there can be no real increase in population, but by an increase in the number of women capable of childbearing. The rest of the society, the old and the young, except so far as they contribute to this, may come and go as they please. They are useless adjuncts, drone in the great give of population, and in the point of the view now under consideration not worthy to be counted. Mr. Malthus has taken infinite pains in comparing the number of births and deaths in given situations and periods, and is of the opinion that, if in any one year and another many more human beings are born than die, the population is substantially increased. But all his pains (so far as "short periods" are concerned) is thrown again. If indeed, as Mr. Malthus expresses it, "the population is continually pressing hard against the limits of subsistence," and Ave are in want of food sufficient to nourish us, it may then be desirable that the infirm and the useless should die off as soon as they could; and we might be incited, except so far as we are restrained by religion or humanity, to imitate what is related of some savage nations, to bury our grandfathers and grandmothers alive, or tie them to a tree, and leave them to starve. But their protracted existence adds not an atom of the real power and source of population. In civilized society they may be useful, ornamental, admirable;
but in the single question which Mr. Malthus has so successfully pressed upon general observation, they are mere weeds in the garden of society, a sort of annuals or biennials, that may drop off at pleasure, but add nothing to the substantial support of population, or to the chance that the nation or tribe to which they belong shall continue in their posterity.
"If you happened not to be a spectator of the pestilence while it lasted, and returned to the country after a lapse of ten years, you would not be aware of any alteration that had taken place." What would be the real state of the case? In ten years many of the men and women that existed in the beginning of the period would have deceased, according to the never sleeping, never to be suspended, course of nature. But in the mean time not one woman, not one man, would have been added to the population, by procreation only. Instead of this, we should see a fry of little children, the stay, and the single hope of the age to come. We must wait sixteen years at least, if not twenty, before we can look for a single mother from this quarter, to replace the race of mothers, who in the mean time have for the most part gone off the stage of efficient fecundity, until the pestilence ceased. A portentous gap, that might almost make us tremble for the continuance of the race. The only relief we have have from this, is in contemplating the female children born before
the pestilence, some of whom, together with some of the married women, would have survived the general calamity. So clear it is, that we must rely upon the migrating principle in man, and not upon procreation, for any sudden restoration of numbers and prosperity, after a great scene of indiscriminate devastation.
aEssays, Part II, Essay xi.
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