The Use of a Baby

useofbabymainIn 1783, the story goes, Benjamin Franklin witnessed the world's first manned flight in the gardens of the Rue de Montreuil, Paris. As he and several hundred spectators gazed in slack-jawed wonder at the magnificent hot-air balloon, rising with its intrepid aviators, an acquaintance scoffed beside him. A pretty sight, admitted the skeptic, but what use is flying in the air? To which Franklin replied, "Sir, what is the use of a newborn baby?"

Fifteen years later, a mild-mannered Anglican clergyman published the first edition of An Essay on the Principles of Population. In his signature work, revised five times, Thomas Malthus presented a simple thesis: Times of peace and prosperity tended to increase the population, which would, at a certain indefinable point, begin to stretch available resources. This would lead directly to famine and disease, and indirectly to war, all of which would bring the population down to a manageable size until it began to outgrow its bounds again. The cycle was probably God's way of curtailing human vice.

Malthus had his critics, notably Karl Marx, who believed that population increased production, not want. But the clergyman's defenders included such heavy hitters as Darwin, John Stewart Mill, and Herbert Spencer of "survival of the fittest" fame. If Malthus didn't introduce the fear of overpopulation, he gave his name to it.

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