Popular Science Monthly/Volume 78/January 1911/Race Suicide vs Overpopulation



ANY conscious restriction in the birth rate is popularly referred to as "race suicide." It is in this sense that Theodore Roosevelt employed the term when he wrote to Mrs. Van Vorst concerning "race suicide, complete or partial." The prevalence of a conscious restriction in the birth rate on the part of the vast majority of American families has been established beyond question, while the facts from which this conclusion is drawn form a basis for the anathema and ridicule which the opponents of a declining birth rate have heaped upon those anti-social individuals convicted of "race suicide." Paradoxical as it may seem, however, these "race murders" are in reality race saviors, for, acting in accord with the dominant evolutionary tendency of modern civilization, they are disregarding quantity and seeking to insure quality.

A continuance of the rate of increase in population which prevailed in the early nineteenth century would have resulted, in the near future of the western world, in an over-population problem as serious as that now confronting China or India. Consider, for example, the problem as it appeared in the United States. In 1800 the population of the United States was doubling itself, by natural increase, every 25 years. Had this ratio of increase continued the native-born population of 1900 would have numbered about 100,000,000, that of A.D. 2000 would have numbered 800,000,000, while the population of A.D. 2100 would have increased to 12,800,000,000 souls, or eight times the entire population of the world in 1900. The argument is thus reduced to the absurd. Such a vast population could not be adequately cared for, and some reduction of the birth rate of 1800 was therefore inevitable.

The reduction undoubtedly took place, for instead of the 100,000,000 descendants of native-born population predicted for 1900, there were but 41,000,000 in existence. The advent of the other 59,000,000 was prevented by a conscious restriction in the birth rate, made inevitable by the abnormal growth of population at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries.

The reduction in birth rate is clearly shown by a comparison of the United States census figures from decade to decade. From 1790 to 1800, there was little immigration, yet the population of the United States increased 35 per cent.; from 1810 to 1820 the increase was 33 per cent.; 1830 to 1840, 35 per cent.; 1850 to 1860, 35 per cent.; 1870 to 1880, 30 per cent.; and 1890 to 1900, 20 per cent. Between 1890 and 1900 the net immigration to the United States was about 2,000,000. Deducting this number from the census increase, there remains an increase of only 18 per cent, for the native population.

The figures for England and Wales, a stable country with little immigration, shows even more clearly the abnormal increase of population after 1750. During the 270 years from 1480 to 1750 the population of England and Wales increased from 3,700,000 to 6,500,000, an increase of 2,800,000, or 75 per cent. During the next thirty years, however, from 1750 to 1780, the increase was 3,000,000 or 50 per cent.—an increase for 30 years nearly equal to the entire increase for the previous 270 years.

During the century from 1750 to 1850 the increase was from 6,500,000 to 17,600,000, an increase of 11,100,000 or 170 per cent. In the 270 years preceding 1750 the population of England and Wales increased 2,800,000, or 75 per cent.; in the 100 years following 1750 the population increased 11,100,000, or 170 per cent. The years succeeding 1750 witnessed a remarkable increase in population, an increase considerably below the rate of 1800 for the United States, but far above the rate of England for the three preceding centuries.

The chief influence in restricting the population prior to 1750 was undoubtedly exerted by the enormous death rate, for prior to that period, war, pestilence and famine played havoc with population. It is estimated that from 1618 to 1648 wars cost Germany 6,000,000 lives. The black plague in 1348-49 swept away half of the population of England. The ravages of plague may be imagined by the following death rates for England in plague years.

Deaths per 1,000
1593 240
1625 310
1636 130
1665 430

When it is remembered that modern science has reduced the death rate in some of the great cities to 15 per thousand, the significance of a death rate of 430 can be imagined. Famine played a less important part in curtailing population than either war or pestilence, but it occasionally became significant.

Any appreciable increase of population before the middle of the eighteenth century was, therefore, prevented by the high death rate, and any increase at all could be brought about only by maintaining a birth rate higher than the phenomenally high death rate. Necessity being then, as now, a kind of stepmother to invention, every device was resorted to for stimulating a higher birth rate. The injunction to "be fruitful and multiply" was accepted as a part of their religious belief and blindly followed by a great portion of the population. Statesmen looked upon prolificness as of near kin to patriotism.

While efforts were being made and effectively made to stimulate the birth rate, equally effective efforts were being directed to the reduction of the death rate. In London the death rate from 1680 to 1728 was 80 per 1,000 of population; in 1905 it was 15; 250 years thus witnessed a decrease of more than 80 per cent. The same fact is shown by the increasing length of life of the population of Geneva, Switzerland.

In the sixteenth century the length of life was 21.2
In the seventeenth """"" 25.7
In the eighteenth """"" 33.6
In the nineteenth """"" 39.7

The gradual checking of the death rate worked a gradual increase in the length of life, and hence, unless the birth rate was proportionately checked, a corresponding increase in the population.

Thus, during the last part of the eighteenth and the early part of the nineteenth centuries, the birth rate (which remained almost unchecked) greatly exceeded the death rate (which was being effectually checked). The result of the great excess of births over deaths is shown in the tremendous increase of population after 1750—an increase which could never have been supported but for the increased production of wealth due to the development of the factory system.

The western world, at the opening of the nineteenth century, presented this significant picture—a high birth rate, a low and decreasing death rate; a phenomenal increase in population made possible by the wealth-producing power of the factory system; and big families treading close on the heels of subsistence. Here was ample justification for the pessimistic gloom of Malthus. Catastrophe seemed inevitable, when democracy entered the field, telling the men at the margin whose families were either unregulated in size or else regulated only by subsistence, that they were free and equal to every other man and had a like right to "rise." The thought was new. "How can I rise?" asked the laborer. "Stop having children," replied the economist. The advice was followed. The family of eight is replaced by the family of two and thus disencumbered of an onerous burden, the laborer is enabled to raise his standard of life.

Until 1750 any great increase in population was prevented by a high death rate. In the succeeding century, as a result of science and sanitation, the death rate was gradually reduced, and an overwhelming increase in population was prevented in only one way—by decreasing the birth rate. The decline in the birth rate therefore saved the modern civilized world from over population and economic disaster.

Conditions from 1750 to 1850 were not in stable equilibrium. The death rate had decreased; the birth rate remained high. Population, supported by the wealth of the factory system, was increasing abnormally. Malthus drew his inferences from these facts, which, if they had remained unchanged would undoubtedly have caused overpopulation. This stage was, however, merely transitory. An equilibrium of population has been reestablished through the saving grace of the decrease in the birth rate, commonly called "race suicide."