The Influence of Malthus on Statistics

This is the first of three posts on the intellectual heritage of  founding fathers of modern statistics Sir Roland Fisher, Sir Karl Pearson, and Sir Francis Galton. An uncomfortable fact, suppressed or diminished in Eurocentric accounts, is the deeply racist views of nearly all major European intellectuals. In particular, the founding fathers of modern statistics – Sir Francis Galton, Sir Karl Pearson, Sir Ronald Fisher, were all prominent Eugenicists. Statistics arose out of the attempt to establish central ideas of Eugenics about how genes of superior races were transmitted to their descendants and therefore there was no chance, genetically, to improve or educate the inferior (non-white races).

Statistics is presented as an objective and ethically neutral body of tools and techniques. However, it was developed for a very clear, evil, purpose. There are polar Views on Transmission of Knowledge:

  • Look at the CHARACTER & Purpose of the transmitters of knowledge
  • Look at the CONTENTS – the body of knowledge transmitted

The fundamental underlying question is: “Can the THOUGHTS be separated from the THINKER?”. The balanced position is that BOTH are necessary. We need to Look at the BODY of KNOWLEDGE being transmitted. Also look at the CHARACTER and the PURPOSE of the transmitter/creator of knowledge. In contrast, the Western Intellectual Tradition says: “Look at the SUBJECT MATTER ONLY”. As opposed to this, a popular strand of the EASTERN tradition says: “look at the AUTHORITY of the TRANSMITTER only.” In the West, the MEANING of the word “Probability” changed to reflect this transition – Initially, the word referred to the authority of the transmitter. Later the word was used to mean the weight of the evidence for the matter (see Ian Hacking: The Emergence of Probability).

The Western intellectual tradition defines knowledge as being purely objective, and excludes subjective and personal experiences from the realm of knowledge. This leads to a clear NO answer to the fundamental questions: “Do INTENTIONS of producers of knowledge matter?”, and “Does the CHARACTER of producers of knowledge matter?”. This is in dramatic contrast with Islamic views, according to which ‘Value of Actions Depends on Intentions’. It is easy to see that the nature of scientific knowledge produced depends on the intentions and purpose for which the knowledge is being produced. This topic is now known as the sociology of knowledge, and many simple examples can be given as a proof:

The strong drive for profits led to multi-million dollars for high yield varieties of wheat, but genetically modified to have terminating seeds. This is to enable corporations to sell the same seed year after year. If the intentions had been to feed the hungry, different types of technologies and seeds would have developed.

  • “Orphan drugs” refers to drugs which provide cures to afflictions affecting masses of the poor, who are unable to pay enough to generate a profit on the production of the drug.
  • While there is little work on these, massive efforts are being made on designer-drugs, personalized and individually tailored to the genetic structures of billionaires.
  • The search for power has shaped the development of war technology, the developments of bombs, missiles and so much else. A humanistic bent would have led to developments of science in different directions.

With this as preliminary, we consider the personalities and intentions of the some of the major founding fathers of modern statistics: Sir Francis Galton, Sir Karl Pearson, Sir Ronald Fisher. Today it has been discredited and forgotten, but Eugenics was EMINENT and RESPECTABLE field of knowledge, taught at universities, and with prominent and influential supporters in the early 20th Century. All three of these founding fathers were big names in Eugenics, and statistics was developed by them as a tool to support their Eugenicist views. Eugenics asserts the Racial Superiority of Whites and the inferiority of the other races. Even more, it asserts that the elite classes are genetically superior to the commoners. According the Eugenics, the only Path to Progress lies in the Extermination of Inferior Races (negative Eugenics), and Increasing Growth of the Superior Race (positive Eugenics). Another way to deal with the inferior races was “specialization” – give them roles to fulfill which would fit their limited genetically determined capabilities (for example, making slaves out of the Blacks to do menial chores not demanding intelligence). A brief sketch of the background which led to the emergence of Eugenics as a prominent field of “science” is given below

A convenient point to start is the question of “Why is their poverty?” and “How can we reduce it?”. It will surprise the reader to learn that these are NEW questions.  Even though poverty is an age-old phenomena, the idea that this is a social problem which can be, and should be, remedied, is new. For details see An Islamic Approach to Inequality and Poverty. In pre-capitalist world, poverty was not seen as a social problem. Social responsibility, and the idea of a society as one body, where we must take care of each other, was sufficient to deal with problems of poverty. The emphasis on charity in Islamic teachings led to extraordinarily high levels of spending on the poor, especially via the WAQF, which created endowments to deal with different social problems. But similar patterns of charitable institutions for taking care of the poor are seen in all pre-modern societies.

The driver of major change in Europe was the Industrial Revolution which started in England in the 18th Century. The complex circumstances which created this change, and its effects on the transformation of economic, political, and social institutions, are described in The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi (and many other books). Of relevance to our current discussion is the fact that industry requires a Labor Force – lives for rent and sale for money. In a capitalist society (like our society today), education is meant to CREATE mindsets suitable for labor force.  This means training students to make the goal of life the pursuit of pleasure, power, and wealth. For this purpose, students are trained to pursue CAREER over other concerns like family, society, spiritual growth, or excellence in any human dimension. For more discussion of this fundamental problem with modern education, see Learn Who You Are!. Social change resulted from the chosen solution to the fundamental problem created by the Industrial Revolution: “How to create a labor market?

The solution created by Europeans was deeply racist. We must believe in TWO classes of people: REAL human beings are capable of enjoying finer things of life. LOW level humans may LOOK like us, but they do not have rich inner lives – they cannot think and feel as deeply. They are closer to animals than to humans. Eugenics is based on the idea that the aristocratic elites have superior genes to the common masses. A little more historical detail is useful in understanding the emergence of these ideas.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens opens with a scene where the carriage of a French aristocrat speeding through the crowded streets of Paris crushes a poor child. The aristocrat tosses a few coins to the bereaved mother, and continues on his way without further concern. The extreme inequality, and oppression of the poor by the elites led to the French Revolution, which changed the course of European history. As a consequence of the revolution, there was considerable debate about policies to help the poor, with a view to preventing a similar revolution in England. At this crucial juncture, the ideas of Malthus regarding the causes of, and solution to, the problem of poverty, had a dramatic impact on the policy debate. Humanitarian and compassionate solutions were replaced by cruel and harsh measures to punish the poor for their poverty. Malthus argued that poverty was due to a poor genetic endowment, and was inherited. The problem of poverty arose from the fact that the poor BREED faster than the rich. Thus, poverty is inherited, and being kind to poor, providing social services, is counterproductive. This will only increase the rate of growth of the population of the poor.  INSTEAD – we should sterilize the poor, keep them in crowded conditions, encourage spread of disease among them, to keep their numbers low.

This theme became linked with emerging theories of evolution and Mendelian genetics. How much of our makeup comes from inheritance, and how much is due to the environment and education we receive? This is often called the Nature Versus Nurture DEBATE. The dominant and widely accepted point of view leaned heavily in favor of Nature (heredity) having an overwhelming effect. This means that superior races will remain superior, and it is not possible to educate the inferior races to bring them up to the standards of the white people. The inferior people can either be exterminated or enslaved. The Malthusian approach to poverty was strongly based on the “nature” point of view. That is, poverty was due to bad genes which led to poor character and intelligence, and their was nothing we could do to change this, in the form of education or other interventions.

The wrong theories of Malthus led to a dramatically wrong approach to poverty. Malthusian theory suggested that providing support to the poor would only increase poverty, since that would allow them to breed faster. Thus social support for the poor was made deliberately humiliating and degrading, to discourage all but the extremely needy to resort to the poor houses. These theories and policies stand in stark contrast to Islamic teachings which urge us to provide support to the poor without humiliating them in the process. Furthermore, Islam teaches us that every human life – whether poor or rich, black or white, Arab or other – is equally precious. Indeed each human life counts as heavily as all of humankind. There were similar humanitarian streams of thought in the European Christian heritage, but Malthusian views came to dominate policy.

Even though nearly all of the predictions of Malthus turned out to be wrong, his theories had tremendous impacts on thinking about population. As we will see in the next portion of this lecture, the founding fathers of modern statistics invented the subject, tools, and techniques, in an attempt to prove the theories of Malthus. Our main goal is to show that tools developed have been influenced by the underlying agenda, and are not neutral and objective.  Malthus created his theories without a shred of empirical support, purely from his imagination. Since then, the theories of Malthus have been decisively proven wrong by the empirical evidence. The article, Malthus: the False Prophet, from the Economist, documents some of the major errors made by Malthus.

  1. Malthus argues that the population would increase geometrically. However, over the 20th Century, a Demographic Transition was observed, when increasing prosperity, and increasing likelihood of survival of children led to a reduction in birth rates, and stable population sizes.
  2. Malthus argued that food supplies would increase linearly, leading to shortages. However, continuing sequences of technological advances in agriculture have led to increasing food supplies per capita on a global basis.
  3. There were many other false predictions, based on the first two. For example, he argued in 1798 that Britain population would quadruple in 50 year to 28 million, but food supplies would only be sufficient for 21 million, leading to a crisis. But nothing remotely resembling this happened.

Despite numerous fallacies and failed forecasts, the ideas of Malthus continue to be exceedingly popular. WHY? The simple answer is that these theories are ALIGNED with class interests of the RICH. The POOR are to blame for their poverty. Furthermore, the rich have no responsibility to help the poor, because helping them only increases their breeding rate, leading to increased poverty, as well as increasing the stock of bad genes in human population. These deeply mistaken ideas, strongly in conflict with Islamic teachings, have had a deep and disastrous impact on human history, adding to misery of millions. They continue to guide thinking and policy of an influential minority of economists and politicians. In the next portion of this lecture, we look at the development of statistics as a tool of Eugenics, a field of study built on the foundational ideas of Malthus and Darwin.

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