Julian Huxley: The History of Population Control–Malthus and Darwin and Birth Control

Today, one can hear people talking endlessly about ‘birth control’ without remembering that just a few decades ago, it was synonymous with ‘population control’ (see this excerpt from the same book quoted below) and that the population control advocates themselves saw themselves as merely applying the laws Malthus discovered and Darwin proved–the very same outlook of eugenicists.   Not coincidentally, the founders of population control, Guy Irving Birch, Harrison Brown, Frederick Osborn, William Vogt, and so on, were also staunch eugenicists.  In this excerpt from a lecture by Julian Huxley, these connections are painted in bright detail, minus the reference to taking control of human evolution, which in fact he brings up at the end of the same lecture; click here.  

Source:  The Human Crisis (Part II, “The World Population Problem”) by Julian Huxley, 1963.

Pg 43.

The world population problem is to my mind the most important and the most serious of all the most important and the most serious problems now besetting the human species.  The problem of avoiding nuclear war is more immediate, but that of overpopulation is, in the long run, more serious and more difficult to deal with because it is rooted in our own nature.

It is now a world problem in general public estimation, but it has only recently achieved that position.  It is striking to see the way in which it has suddenly emerged into public consciousness during the last few years.  Let me remind you of its history.  It was first posed by the Reverend Mr. Malthus well over a century ago.  As a biologist, I like to recall that it was Malthus’ work that led both Darwin and Wallace, independently, to the idea of natural selection.

pg 44

Darwin, for instance, records in his Autobiography how, during his voyage on H.M.S. Beagle, he had realized that evolution must be a fact, and how, after his return to England, he had realized from his studies of what man had done with breeds of domestic animals and strains of crop plants how deliberate artificial selection could modify and transform species of animals and plants.  But he still could not see how anything like this selective process could be operative in nature.  But on one day in 1838, as he records in a charming phrase, “I happened to read for amusement ‘Malthus on Population'” And as a result, the idea of natural selection flashed into his mind.  Malthus’ point was that population tends to grow in geometrical ratio, at a compound interest rate, whereas the means of supporting that population tend to grow only at a much lower rate.  Though his gloomy prophecies were based on correct principles, they were temporarily falsified by two facts:  just at this time intensive industrialization was leading to higher productivity, and the New World was opening up to immigration from the Old World.  Accordingly, the disastrous pressure of population on resources which he foretold did not immediately occur.  But it was only put off, and it is now occurring.

pg 45

Next let me recall the extraordinary change in public attitude toward the idea of deliberately controlling population increase.  Malthus was a clergyman and merely advocated what he called moral restraint.  It speedily became apparent that, human nature being what it is, moral restraint was certainly not going to solve the population problem, and a few daring spirits began to advocate mechanical or chemical methods of preventing conception.  But for many years the more orthodox members of the community regarded any idea of artificial birth control as immoral and indeed wicked.

I recently came across the astonishing fact that in the year 1873 Mr. Gladstone, the great Liberal statesman of Britain, withdrew his name from support of a memorial to John Stuart Mill because he had just discovered that John Stuart Mill had once advocated birth control.  A little later came the famous Bradlaugh- Besant trial, when Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh were tried and sentenced for advocating artificial birth control.  By the way it is interesting to note that the publicity for the idea of birth control achieved by the trial had the result of changing the sign of the birth rate in Britain from positive to negative.  Before this time the birth rate had been steadily going up; one year after the trial it reached its peak and began to go down.

pg 46

Then in the early years of this century your great pioneer, Margaret Sanger, who I am glad to say is still alive, was jailed in New York for advocating birth control, and was actually arrested and jailed for a night in Portland, Oregon for the same reasons as late as 1921.  I myself have also suffered from this same attitude.  In 1929, or thereabouts, I advocated birth control in a radio talk about population on the B.B.C. in England.  Sir John Reith (now Lord Reith), who was then the head of the B.B.C., actually sent for me as if I were a schoolboy and reprimanded me for having said something so terrible over the British ether.

That was only thirty-three years ago.  Since then there has been an extraordinary breakthrough.  A couple of years ago I was much honored by being given the Lasker award for my work in regard to population and had to make a speech on the subject on the occasion of receiving the award.  [pg 47] I was warned that, owing to the general climate of opinion in the United States, I ought to be very tactful, and in preparing my speech I took a great deal of trouble to ensure that I was tactful.  However, I need not have bothered.  In the few weeks before the speech was actually delivered, both Time and Life magazine had comprehensive articles on the subject; two official committees, one presidential, the other senatorial, recommended that the United States ought to undertake much more research on reproduction and its control; and one of them added that the results of research ought to be made available to other nations on request.  Then, of course, population control became quite an issue in the last presidential election, and today you can hardly open a newspaper without seeing some reference to the difficulties caused by excessive population growth in some part of the world or other.  There really has been a breakthrough.  The general public is now aware that population is a grave problem.

Originally, birth control was advocated almost entirely by women in the interest of women.  It was advocated to save women from undesired pregnancies and unwanted children and from the illness and frustration that arise from excessive childbearing. [pg 48]  It was in a sense a campaign against male selfishness.  As such it was largely led by women–Mrs. Besant, Margaret Sanger, Marie Stopes, and others.  Then it began to be seen that it was not merely a problem of the individual woman, the individual wife and mother; it was a problem of society as a whole, a problem affecting entire nations.  It began to be very pressing, for instance, in countries like India.  Eventually the movement changed its name.  The British National Birth Control Association, founded in 1929, later became the Family Planning Association, while in 1939 the American Birth Control League was transformed into the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

It was soon realized that there were great differences in the rate of increase between different nations.  Western European countries were increasing only slowly (France was even perhaps on the verge of decreasing), whereas India and Japan and Java and some Latin-American countries were increasing very fast.  The problem was obviously an international one.  In 1927 the first World Population Conference was held in Geneva, organized by Margaret Sanger and her husband: I have vivid memories of it.  [pg 49] In the same year Professor Raymond Pearl founded the International Union for the Scientific Investigation of Population Problems.  Since then the population has been increasingly recognized as a world problem, though of course with social and national, humanitarian, and individual aspects as well.

So much for history.

[two pages on how population is doubling, ever since “the discovery of agriculture around 6000 B.C.”]

pg 52

Clearly this business of doubling cannot go on indefinitely, or indeed for more than a few decades, without leading to disaster.  This is especially clear when we consider the differential rate of increase in different countries.  The very high rates of increase are found mostly in the countries of Asia and in the tropical regions of Latin America and parts of Africa.  The population explosion in these areas is undoubtedly due primarily to the great advances in medical science and its application in better health services.  This has led to what has been pithily called “death control.” […. especially in regard to infant mortality.]

But death control operates at all ages, and people live longer.


3 pings

  1. […] Julian Huxley is a direct descendant of “Darwin’s Bulldog”, Thomas Huxley.  In this lecture from 1963, he makes it clear that birth control is family planning is population control.  He argues that the goal should be improving the ‘quality of human beings.’  The word for that, of course, is eugenics.  In other words, population control (ie, birth control) is, fundamentally, a eugenic program.  He doesn’t use that word, but that is precisely what he means.  Note the emphasis on using the educational system to promote his eugenic vision for controlling human evolution.  Importantly–since eugenicists themselves constantly made the connection–earlier in the lecture, Huxley details the connection between his arguments and Darwinism and Malthus.  See here. […]

  2. […] In some ways, the history of NSSM-200 is the history of the world over the course of 250 years or so.  We can do no more than plant some sign posts for the reader to use in doing their own research.  It should be noted that this ‘history’ often reflects points of interest that the advocates for population control themselves indicate.  In fact, in order to generate some of the most pertinent details of this timeline, we merely started with the writings of the population control advocates themselves, noted the individuals and events that they stated were formative, and worked backwards through time.   Darwin quoted Malthus, the eugenicists cited Darwin, the population control advocates invoked the eu…… […]

  3. […] The people who held these positions understood them to be pretty much interchangeable terms speaking to the same goals.  (see this and this, for examples, and since many of my readers will object to the Darwinian reference, look at this). […]

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