Adapting to Population Growth: The Evolutionary Alternative to Malthus
Published Web Locationhttps://doi.org/10.21237/C7clio7130171
A long-standing debate on the dynamics of population growth in human history has become polarized between a Malthusian stance and a Boserupian one. The former tends to view population growth as limited by carrying capacity, dependent on environment and technology, whereas the latter sees population growth itself as a major inducement to social, economic and technological developments. In this paper the authors experiment with approaching this debate by using recent developments in evolutionary theory. According to these, evolutionary principles, as expounded by Charles Darwin and subsequent evolutionary scientists, apply not only to biological evolution but also to social or cultural evolution. Here, the role of genes is taken over by culture and, since culture is much more pliable than our DNA, evolution speeds up. As the only organisms on Earth whose evolution relies as heavily on culture as on genes, humans have become extremely adaptable. Their hyper-adaptability suggest that humans, through their cultural evolution, have managed increasingly to adapt to their own growing population, thus succeeding in accommodating ever-growing numbers. This hypothesis fits the Boserupian approach to population very well but less so the Malthusian one, perhaps indicating a gradual shift from a Malthusian regime to a Boserupian one in human history. The hypothesis is discussed and examined through four case studies: The beginning of farming around Göbekli Tepe in southeast Turkey, the productive farming systems of Tiwanaku in South America, the population crisis of late medieval and early modern Iceland, and the ‘collapse’ of Rapa Nui (Easter Island).