Posts tagged with: Thomas Robert Malthus

This is a bit second-hand (a source drawing from another source), but I still think the following tidbit on the modern history of clergy and scientific and technological development and discovery in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries from Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile is notable:

Knowledge formation, even when theoretical, takes time, some boredom, and the freedom that comes from having another occupation, therefore allowing one to escape the journalistic-style pressure of modern publish-and-perish [sic, probably intentionally] academia to produce cosmetic knowledge, much like the counterfeit watches one buys in Chinatown in New York City, the type that you know is counterfeit although it looks like the real thing. There were two main sources of technical knowledge and innovation  in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the hobbyist and the English rector….

An extraordinary proportion of work came out of the rector, the English parish priest with no worries, erudition, a large or at least comfortable house, domestic help, a reliable supply of tea and scones with clotted cream, and an abundance of free time. And, of course, optionality [i.e. freedom from intellectual strictures and the ability to change one’s mind based on new discoveries]. The enlightened amateur, that is. The Reverends Thomas Bayes (as in Bayesian probability) and Thomas [Robert] Malthus (Malthusian overpopulation) are the most famous. But there are many more surprises cataloged in Bill Bryson’s Home, in which the author found ten times more vicars and clergymen leaving recorded traces for posterity than scientists, physicists, economists, and even inventors. In addition to the previous two giants, I randomly list contributions by country clergymen: Rev. Edmund Cartwright invented the power loom, contributing to the Industrial Revolution; Rev. Jack Russel bred the terrier; Rev. William Buckland was the first authority on dinosaurs; Rev. William Greenwell the foremost authority on spiders; Rev. George Garrett invented the submarine; Rev. Gilbert White was the most esteemed naturalist of his day; Rev. M. J. Berkeley was the top expert on fungi; Rev. John Michell helped discover Uranus; and many more. Note that … the list of visible contribution by hobbyists and doers is most certainly shorter than the real one, as some academic might have appropriated the innovation by his predecessor.


I and Jordan Ballor have already commented on Ender’s Game this week (here and here), but the story is literally packed with insightful themes, many of which touch upon issues relevant to Acton’s core principles. Another such issue is that of the problems with Neo-Malthusianism, the belief that overpopulation poses such a serious threat to civilization and the environment that population control measures become ethical imperatives.

Such a perspective tends to rely on one or both of the following fallacies: a zero-sum conception of economics ignorant of the last 200 years of sustained economic growth, which have allowed humankind to escape the Mathusian trap; or a belief that people are the problem when it comes to poverty.

In Ender’s Game, the story begins (more obviously in the book) with the fact that Ender Wiggen (Asa Butterfield) is a “Third,” a third-born child in a time when the international government of Earth had adopted a two-child policy. His parents had received special permission to have a Third because their first two children, Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) and Valentine (Abigail Breslin), had shown so much promise. Unfortunately, Peter had proven too aggressive and Valentine too compassionate. The government hoped that Ender would be a happy middle. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Tyler Cowen fielded an interesting topic on his blog last week, focusing on economists who are (or were) clergy.

There’s an interesting list, including notables like the Salamancans, Paul Heyne, and Heinrich Pesch. I didn’t realize that Kirzner is a rabbi. Malthus is named first, but as the initial comment on Cowen’s post notes, anytime you mention Malthus you should mention Anders Chydenius in the following breath.

How about Edmund Opitz of the Foundation for Economic Education, or even Rodger Charles, S.J., or James Schall? It depends largely on how narrowly you define being an “economist,” of course, as the inclusion of the Salamancan theologians indicates. Being a moral theologian who focuses on ethics and economics might not be enough to qualify. Does being a political philosopher/political economist count? But certainly A. M. C. Waterman should be noted.

And of course it also depends on how narrowly you define “clergy.” As Asher Meir notes in the post, how about non-ordained academic theologians, or economists with theological training (or theologians with economic training)? Then the list would start to get very long, indeed.

Any other names come to mind?

“The power of population,” wrote the Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus in 1798, “is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” In other words, unless population growth is checked by moral restraint (refraining from having babies) or disaster (disease, famine, war) widespread poverty and degradation inevitably result. Or so thought Malthus and many other intellectuals of his era.

Unfortunately, methods of population control range from the unpleasant (disease, famine, war) to the downright horrifying (abstinence).