There is a greed for numerical superiority among all associations of men. The average American citizen, for instance, cannot tell you the population of his town or State without an error of excess, which experience shows to be from ten to fifty per cent. Ask him if he would rather double the population, or halve it, the wealth remaining the same, and his instincts lead him at once to take the more unhappy but the bigger alternative. In the Old World of to-day, as well as in the older world of history, the same desire to have too many mouths to feed is a prominent characteristic of all peoples; so that it is hardly amiss to call it a human instinct.

In the lower states of human life, during that enormous time in which the foundations of civilization were being laid, while man’s hand was getting its cunning and his brain its capacities, numbers had a value that they do not have with us now. The very existence of the tribe might depend upon a few warriors more or less; so the first considerations of personal safety coöperated with the motive of pride in keeping up this desire to be one of many rather than one of few. Now, however, when war no longer means destruction to society, when only the remoter interests of man are in any way connected with the numerical superiority of nations, and each generation makes that interest less, it is worth our while soberly to consider this impulse to numbers-worship, and to inquire into the principles that should determine our opinions in the matter.

The greatest happiness to the greatest number seems at first sight a truism. If life is good, if its having is the great aim of nature, then the more that have it the better. If the world had no other possibilities than its present realities, if its present share of sunshine was all that could be expected in the ways of life, this principle might be accepted as the rule for our guidance; but there is here, as in other conceptions of life, a correction, which comes to us from life’s history, that materially changes our ideas as to the goodness of numbers.

The one quite unmistakable fact in all this maze of nature is that there has been a constant progress along the line leading up to man. There is no doubt that regressions occur in nature, — little doubt that a considerable part of organic life, as we now find it, has fallen from higher estates; but along that succession of creatures which we may call the human line, the advance, particularly during its last stages, has been made with a rapidity which has no parallel among other animals.1 It is almost equally evident that the transitions now going on are as great as at any time of his past history. Man is at this moment the most profoundly elastic animal; his movement in advance is perhaps a thousand times more rapid than that of any of his kindred in the state of nature. The limitations which confine his development are certainly attained in some lives, but as a whole he is far from having attained his summit as an animal or as a mental creature.

In the order of nature, the individual is little, the race is everything. Whether consciously or not, the movement of life is like that of an army in its effort to carry an important position; individuals go swiftly to their death, companies and regiments are swept away, but the column is closed, and the survivors move on toward their object. When man comes to interpose his conscious intelligence in this movement, he can do no better, at least not until he is sure of what he is doing, than to see that his course conforms to the advance that has brought him so far on the great journey. As, the end of life is practically advancement, we should at the outset of our conscious relation with the world endeavor to assist the onward going. When we come to consider the function of selection in society, we will be brought into relation with this question in its full extent; for the present, we need only call attention to the fast that above the doctrine of the greatest happiness to the greatest number we must set the doctrine—far more true to the scheme of nature—of the greatest good to the race. That there should be pleasure scattered by the wayside in this great journey is to be reasonably expected, for it is a world where life has been coaxed on by pleasure, as well as driven by the whips of pain; but that pleasure is to be the main end is a doctrine that gets little countenance from the shape of the world as it is. Whoever will consider the dreadful incompleteness of man’s mental and physical nature will be forced to allow that between what is and what is possible, in the way of perfection, there is a gulf that it is our first duty to traverse, — a duty that comes before enjoyment. To lift the average man of our race to the level of its best is a task that the most obdurately practical humanitarian must deem our duty. Unless we shut our eyes to the modes in which the advance is made in nature, and figure to ourselves some fanciful conception of a means of keeping humanity well on its way, we shall be compelled to give up happiness as an end, and be driven to take it as the slaking of the hunger and thirst that come in endless travail. If we give up the doctrine of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, we give up thereby the only accepted argument for the rapid peopling of the earth, even though we hold the somewhat doubtful doctrine that life is now, on the average, more pleasurable than painful to the mass of those called to its different offices; but it does not follow that the true value of numbers may not be found in other things than the mere enjoyment of life. It scarcely requires a glance at nature to show us that there is a prodigality of life which at first sight seems mere waste; an insect cares for ten thousand eggs with the most exquisite skill, yet but a fraction over one comes to maturity; certain species of aquatic animals inundate the shores with their off-spring. A closer view tells us that these wastes are the most skillful economy; the creatures that seem the mere waste-gates of a spendthrift life are seen to be in the midst of a struggle so ceaseless and intense that the reduction of their progeny by a few per cent. would probably lead to their annihilation. As in our best ordered battles, with intelligence behind every musket, it takes one thousand balls to attain their object and wound a man, so in the struggle of the species these eggs are its ammunition that must be expended to hit the mark at all. As rapidly as possible, by contrivances of surprising ingenuity, these seeming wastes are diminished. While the average progeny of an invertebrate may be perhaps hundreds of thousands, and among the lower fishes nearly as many, with the sharks it is possibly not above a few thousands; in the reptiles it descends still lower. With the mammals it is never over a hundred, and in man it is under five, so steady and determined is this diminution of infantile waste, if we may so call it. With the progress of civilization, this waste, by the saving of life through care, tends to still further diminution, until full half the progeny of the race attains the adult condition. So we see, without detailed inquiry, that there is evidence of what we may call an ordered, purposeful waste of life in nature; great at first, among the lower forms, but steadily diminished by the advance in organization. But all this diminution of expenditure is so arranged that the first object of rapid increase shall not be lost. It is accomplished only as the artifices of economy are increased. The pressure arising from selective action is never lessened the births always so far exceed the possible positions open to the occupancy of a species that the worthless may be rejected, and the race maintained in its unimpaired efficiency. We see, moreover, in nature that a species can never maintain itself with very limited numbers; as soon as a great decrease of numbers occurs, the species to which they belong is at once hastened to its end. This, as has been suggested, is doubtless due to the absence of the remote cross-breeding, which seems necessary to the maintenance of a stock, and to the frequency of overwhelming local disasters; where all the eggs are in one basket, they are all likely to be broken by one fall.

Along with the progressive reduction in the number of the individuals produced by the higher animals, we notice an increase in the diversity of the progeny, so that the amount of variation offered to the agents of natural selection is probably as great, or greater, in the higher than in the lower animals, despite the enormous reduction in the numbers sacrificed in the perpetuation of the species.

In the savage state of man, although the fecundity is, on the whole, probably fully as great as among the civilized races, the absolute increase of the tribe is always very slow. The death-rate of the weaker progeny is so large that only those who come into the world with sound bodies can be reared, and even among adults disablement brings death in its train. It is evident that in this state of man there is an accurately adjusted ratio between the rates of birth and death. There is reason to believe that the rate of increase among races diminishes with progressive culture: thus, in Massachusetts there are five children born, on the average, to each Irish married woman, and but three arid one half to each native married woman. Yet, notwithstanding this difference, there is reason to believe that the greater survival of native children makes the number descending from the two races in the end about equal. It is therefore likely that the natural course of events will bring about such a check in the rate of increase that, so far from finding the evils conjured up by Malthus to be the great danger of the state, we are more likely to find its greatest danger in a fatal loss of fecundity. These considerations may fairly be taken as a basis for an opinion as to the value of the birth-rate to society. The old pressure of numbers seen by Malthus is already abating in many states, and is sure to become less and less as tune advances. The question now arises, How far does the remaining part of this pressure affect the advance of man? This question is easily perceived to be many-sided.

For the purpose of our inquiry we may divide it into the following heads:

(1.) The influence of numbers on the subjugation of the earth and its preparation for the use of man.

(2.) The influence of numbers on the domination of races.

(3.) The influence of numbers on the duration of a race by the development of genius.

It has been held, in accordance with the early ideas of the relation of man to nature, that he was in some fashion a heaven-sent creature, coming into a wilderness with a special mission to subjugate the earth. To the considerate naturalist man is an organic form which has suddenly taken on a very remarkable extension of habits, that bring him into singularly complicated relations with the organic and inorganic events of our earth. The naturalist’s first question is, how far is this disturbance brought about by man to go; what are its effects on the economy of the earth to be; how far is the steady march of life, as shown in its millions of years of history, to continue, in face of this appalling and ever-increasing change that man is bringing about in the world? The primitive savage in his wilds was scarce more efficient as a destroyer than any other animal of his bulk: creating little, destroying little, the world found in him but one more hungry creature, probably affecting its economy less than many another. But each successive enlargement of man’s progressive desires has made him more and more an agent of change, until now his most advanced races are causing more change in the ways of the earth than all the other organic agents put together. Volumes could be written, indeed have been written, on this subject without more than beginning the history of man’s interference with the usual processes of nature. Yet we may fairly deem this influence but begun; each generation will doubtless add much to its powers.

The first result we find from man’s occupancy of any region is a reduction in the number of species of vertebrates living in a state of nature. As soon as any district is fully occupied by civilization, the natural interaction of animals and plants is reduced to a minimum; so when the world has become possessed by civilization in all its broad fields, we must expect a great reduction in the energy of those selective forces which have done so much for its advance. In place of the selection of nature will come, perhaps, the selections of intelligence, more efficient causes of variation, but, as we know from experience, widely differing in their action from the older selective force. Whoever fully conceives the history of life in the past, the slow-moving course of the ages, the hesitating, proving steps by which life goes on advancing under the guidance of the old natural laws, may fairly doubt whether the unorganized aims of human society will work as well for the world. The idealist, it is true, may look forward to the time when the world, fairly dominated by its highest intelligence, shall become the seat of a progress ordered by this intelligence, and moving with ever faster step on the road that leads to the fittest life. But there is nothing more sure than our hope to warrant this roseate view; from our knowledge and our probable means of prediction we get little that is worth considering. We see man, at his present rate of increase, seriously interfering with the ways in which our earth has won its greatness, and promising each year to break up the old order of things, that has brought himself out of nothingness to his high estate.

There is one element of this waste brought about by man that is not in the least remote in its effect, but calls at the outset for the most immediate action as well as consideration. It is the waste of the slender store of food-giving power contained in the earth. It is easy to overlook the importance of this question, and the magnitude of the danger it involves. Our soils represent the waste of an enormous period of time, during which the decay of the rocks has slowly built them up, including the subsoil. It is not too much to say that to form them anew would require a longer time than has elapsed since our oldest civilizations began to exist. In most regions they represent the waste of great thicknesses of strata mingled with the remains of an inconceivable succession of organic generations. This commingled waste of organic forms and rocks makes the life of the land possible; the soil is the common reservoir whence life comes, and to which it returns by death. There is no doubt that the course of civilization has led, and is still leading, to a steady and increasing waste of this precious heritage. Old lands, such as Persia and Mesopotamia, Greece, parts of Italy, etc., have had their production steadily lowered by the waning fertility of their once rich soils. America is using, or rather misusing, in a year the treasures that a thousand years have been preparing. Parts of Europe, it is true, hold their fertility, or even gain something in richness; but it is at a great cost, and often at the expense of the resources of other lands, through importation of manures, or the use of manures made of the foreign soil products. Year by year, however, a vast amount of this store of possible life contained in our soils slips from our grasp into the depths of the sea. It has been suggested that we may recover it thence by means of marine animals and plants used as fertilizers; but though we may thus regain a part of the waste, the depths of the sea will permanently claim the largest share of the materials taken from our soil. The rapidity and destructiveness of this process can be appreciated only by those who have carefully watched its operations.

Except under cultivation, our soils hardly waste at all. Until man seizes on them, they constantly gain in depth and fertility. On any of our American rivers it is possible to learn the extent of tillage by the amount of soil waste in their waters. For instance, on the French Broad, a river of some size that gathers its waters in part from streams that drain cultivated areas, and in part from others flowing through districts not yet invaded by the plow, the ferryman and fisherman can tell, during flood time, from which tributaries the waters come, as the tide goes by. From the forest-clad region the streams send water with little trace of sediment in it; from the cultivated valleys come waters yellow with a mass of wasted soil. The peculiarly large amount of sediment in the Missouri River is due to the general absence of forests within its basin; the want of woods in that region, though it has but a limited rain-fall, causes its soils to waste with singular rapidity. This question is too extensive to be considered in detail, but whoever will follow it in the fields of Europe and America will be convinced that a progressive lowering of fertility in the soils of the earth has attended, and must attend, the continued advance of man.

A similar waste attends the use of the more limited stores of metallic wealth of the earth. Of the readily attainable stock of coal, iron, etc., we have probably at this outset of our career consumed at least the one hundredth part, and in the time to come we may not unreasonably conjecture that each century will demand even as much of this limited store. So that in metals, as in soils, man finds himself with a limited store, from which to supply a demand of which he cannot see the bounds. Man without cheap means of winning the resources of the earth, such as coal and the metals, would probably be still far from his end; but he would be so restricted in his activities that we cannot look forward to such a change with satisfaction.

It is evident that if we regard our race as in migration from a lower to a higher estate, and if we set more store by the life to which it is to attain than the life it has at present, we must be of the opinion that numbers, in so far as numbers are not necessary to this advance, are a positive damage to the race by wasting the inheritance of the better times to come.

The question then arises how far the existence of a large population on the earth is necessary to the action of those forces which serve to carry man onward. To this question it is impossible to give a full answer; nevertheless, there are many practical experiments in the use of numbers which serve to throw some light on the matter. In the first place, it is clear that the great successes of this world have not been in dense or numerous populations. By whatever standard we measure the success, — by the general elevation of the masses, by the number of able intellects, by the physical well-being of successive generations, or by the combination of these various elements of greatness and success, — it is clear that the victories have been won by the non-numerous peoples. If, with the conditions that gave England the Elizabethan age, we could have had the population of China, we might have had many Shakespeares at once; but all the men of the very first order have come from the small, but highly wrought, populations. China and Hindustan and other massive aggregations of men show us that an intensified struggle for mere existence cannot help man to the higher life of body or mind; the controlling intellects, the perfect bodies, have come from the small societies, where the average estate is high, where there is time and room for culture. Judging by their fruits, we must pronounce against the massive states, and give the palm to the smaller, thoroughly vitalized communities. A multitude does not necessarily bring greatness into the world. It will compel us to the opinion that it is better to take a city of thousands, or a state with a few hundred thousands, and lavish on their people the wealth we might vainly waste on hundreds of millions without helping the cause of human advance.

There is one aspect of the numbers question that we must consider before we shall be in a position to pronounce judgment on the matter. The function of numbers in securing the dominance of a state has already been noticed. Providence is said to be ever with the strongest battalions, but it is not numbers alone that make strength; the fecundity of any race, their capacity to crowd every position as soon as it is open, is the basis of all success in dominating the earth. Even at the present time this effect is clearly seen. Take the case of the French colonies their failure is often noticed, but the extent to which this is due to the slow increase of the French population is not sufficiently considered. It is the English fecundity that gives success to their colonies, and promises dominance to their race and language in the world. France has failed in colonization, because she never needs to colonize; her reservoir of population is never filled to overflowing, ready to pour its tide over new lands.

While our race-pride, and within certain limits our reason as well, makes us grateful for the rapid extension of our race into fields whence it drives all antagonists, we must not be blind to the fact that there is a limit, perhaps now nearly attained, where this progress must cease. The Teutonic races are already brought, in this process of extension, into difficult conditions in many different regions. From quite one half of the earth they are debarred by climate. We may, with reason, be permitted to doubt whether an English-speaking and an English-thinking world would be as good as the world infinitely varied in race and language, in hope, thought, and action, — as it would be but for the overwhelming power of our overriding race. It seems better that all the several experiments of man should each go the way to its possibilities than that a world of one fashion should come from the rapid extension of our race, nature, means, climate, and the other peculiarities of place, to be the factors of race peculiarities. The future of man will be the more assured if it is left in the hands of many races, rather than in the hands of but one.

Among the greatest evils we may reckon from the rapid increase of population is the bar it puts in the way of all efforts to lift the successive generations by the influences of education. It is hard to imagine the difficulties that beset the effort to educate a generation, or the extent to which this work taxes the energies of the time. Each step onward increases the magnitude of this burden; even now the burden is hard for the race to bear. It will soon come to the point where the sharing of wealth with the rising generation will be greatly limited by the cost sf training the youth. Political economists have expressed the relation of labor to capital by the fiction of a “wages fund;” we may represent a similar relation between the earnings of a people and the expenditures for education by terming the amount fairly appropriable to the culture of a generation the education fund of society. It is an axiom of political economy that every increase in the amount of the labor seeking employment lowers the per capita it gains; now, each increase in population not attended by a corresponding increase in wealth lowers the per capita of the education fund in the same way, and so tends to lower the level of education. In countries like Great Britain, where there is a large emigration, the outflow helps to diminish the evil by a means of relief that at best is only temporary. A few years will certainly cut off this resource, and compel each state to deal with its own population as it best may.

The crowding of great numbers of people into a small area necessarily brings about the twin evils of excessive wealth and crushing poverty, — conditions greatly opposed to the production of able men. The contrast between the rather evenly distributed wealth of France and the far less uniformly shared wealth of England is in good part the result of the lower birth-rate in the former country. Each generation in France is much better endowed with all the substantial elements of prosperity than that of any other country. Costly and ruinous wars, maladministrations of government, and a scanty supply of those mineral resources to which nations now look for the greater part of their gains have been more than counterbalanced by the fact that her wealth has not been wasted in the export of men, — the costliest product of the earth, — who have been driven in a great tide from the more northern states by the excessive growth of population. Fifty years of this conservatism of population has restored the waste of her land during the revolutionary period, and has laid the foundations for a great and stable future.

If the system of our modern society left the forces of natural selection in vigorous operation, there would be something to say for the continuance of this reckless increase of man. If the strongest alone survived, if the selection of combat or disease took away the weak, and left the strong and the skillful alone to continue the race, there might be some reason found in it. But the dictates of that humanity which must be reckoned as the most precious acquisition of the race preserves the weak along with the strong, the vicious with the virtuous, the fool with the philosopher. Education must in a good degree replace the ruder ancient training, and in order to educate effectively we must limit the number to be trained. We must educate highly, in order that the greater elevation of the few may give us in an economical way what nature might win in her more wasteful way. Such education demands a high standard of comfort, and a great increase of the wages fund. It cannot be accomplished in poverty, but only in a condition of society where it is lifted to the level of self-sacrifice, and fortified by the influences of inheritance and tradition.

It seems to be thought by some that war in our modern day acts in the room of the displaced force of natural selection; but this is a mistaken view, as a little consideration will show. Certainly in the old day, when war was the frequent occupation of all able-bodied men, when the fight was personal, and the weaker vanquished were always destroyed, war did act to annihilate the weak and preserve the strong. But in modern warfare the system does not work to preserve the strong at the expense of the weak; the victors of battles do not in the least tend to survive or to propagate to better advantage than the vanquished. On the contrary, the selection for the battle-field tends to favor the breeding of the weak, the cowardly, the superannuated, or the immature by the more or less permanent separation of the strongest men from society.

There is another important point on which there are some dangers of a considerable popular misapprehension. It is boldly asserted that the diminution of the birth-rate is in some way connected with the lowering of the general vital conditions of a people. This is a fallacy, based on the assumption that the number of the progeny in a race is an index of the vital force. We have already seen that the number of the progeny of animals is subjected to a steady decrease with every advance in the grade of the organization, and has been directly connected with the gain in individual power. The force that formerly went to the multiplication of the species now. goes to the making of a higher individuality. The growth of the individual and the multiplication of the race are opposed uses of the organic forces. The individual seems always to have gained by the reduction of numbers in its progeny, and there is no reason to fear that the reduction of the birth-rate in man has yet gone beyond the point where it is advantageous to the race.

In the great conservatism of nature, pain and death hold a place, — a place that their results quite justify; but it may be doubted if nature is really wasteful. In the agony that marks every step of this progress, we see everything done to save the waste of life wherever the saving is possible. In no other way is this economy so plain as in the sparing of numbers wherever they can be spared. By far the greatest amount of suffering that now exists in the world comes in the lives of those who have no place in the advance of the race; so far from aiding in the advance of man, such lives are indeed a hindrance to his efforts to rise. It is in the order of nature that this unnecessary agony should cease to be through the limitation of reproduction to the true needs of the race.

Last, but by no means least, we must consider that nothing so debases our conception of life, our understanding or the ends and possibilities of existence, as the wasted life that clogs every step of our way. We turn with horror from the ancient amphitheatres, with their contending gladiators; we easily see how debased and debasing they must have been; yet our system of crowding two mortals where there is but room for one makes the world an arena, in its way as debasing as the spectacle of the gladiatorial combat.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to

  1. This is shown by the want of an extensive fossil record. As a general rule, the slower the advance, the more complete the record.