Paul Morland suggests that demographic changes lead to modern economic growth in the current world.

Laura Hermes

2023-10-28 12:29:00 Sat ET

Paul Morland suggests that demographic changes lead to modern economic growth in the current world.

Paul Morland (2019)


The human tide: how population shapes the modern world


Paul Morland argues that demographic changes can often lead to modern growth patterns nowadays. He traces demographic developments from the late eighteenth century to the recent effects of demographic changes on economic reforms. These causal effects can help explain why some countries such as America and Britain became powerful and others did not. Morland continues the story into the twentieth century. Age structure and internal ethno-religious balances can often serve as the consequences of demographic patterns. In essence, The Human Tide deals with fundamental changes in human society over the past 200 years.

In the eighteenth century, world population grew about 0.3% per year. This growth rate doubled during the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, human world population grew at an average annual rate of 1.4%. These global estimates mask considerable heterogeneity across regions and countries, especially after World War II. From 1950 and 2015, the population growth rate was 1.6% in China, 4.4% in Kenya, and only 0.7% in France. With some exceptions, population growth has now slowed across the globe. The UN forecasts zero global population growth by the last decades of the twenty-first century.

These demographic developments reflect dramatic changes in both mortality and fertility. Advances in public health, medical science, and control of economic risks have lengthened lives nearly everywhere. In the healthiest human societies, large majorities live to 70 years old and smaller majorities live to more than 80 years old. Morland advances the populationist argument: there has been a revolution of over-population in the last 200 years, and this revolution has changed the modern world in terms of both demographic structure and economic growth (Morland, 2019, pp.7). Morland emphasizes 3 main themes. First, human population numbers can affect military power. Second, a larger human population increases economic clout. Third, demographic developments affect demography within states (i.e. country-specific age structure and key internal ethnic composition). Morland gently denies a mono-causal account of history. It would be a mistake for social scientists to substitute a specific demographic profile for a pseudo-Marxian view of history. This view would replace class with population as the hidden factor that might help explain all world history (Morland, 2019, pp.10). Instead, demography is a fresh fundamental factor that would arise from many other factors in complex, material, and even ideological episodes of both social organization and economic growth.

The Human Tide focuses on a specific set of longer-term changes in relation to the demographic transition. Before the transition, population can grow steadily as high fertility rates barely compensate for high mortality rates. In many accounts, human mortality begins to decline. Population growth rates remain high until fertility further declines in due course. Eventually fertility rates decline to equate death rates. Here population growth ceases. Post-transition human societies experience both lower fertility and mortality rates. These societies tend to be older like Japan. Depending on the difference between mortality and fertility during the demographic transition, the post-transition population can be larger too. The demographic transition is thus a general description rather than a statement about causation. After all, correlation need not imply causation. Morland divides his discussion into 2 parts. The first part focuses on historical Europe, and the second part focuses on the rest of the world. The historical discussion focuses heavily on Britain, Germany, and Russia (or the Soviet Union). In dealing with extra-European developments, Morland emphasizes East Asia, the middle east, and North Africa. This focus reflects a concern for great power conflict in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In recent times, East Asia poses a challenge to the hegemony of both Europe and its offshoots. The middle east has been the scene of both warfare and internal conflict for decades.


Universe 25 experiments help explain the root causes of societal collapse.

Between 1958 and 1962, ethologist John Calhoun conducted a set of social over-population experiments on Norway rats. In the experiments, Calhoun and his co-authors created a series of rat utopias where rats were given ample access to food and water. This ample access enabled steady and reasonable population growth. As Calhoun worked at the National Institute of Mental Health in 1954, he launched numerous experiments with rats. During his first tests, he placed 32 to 56 rats in a 10-foot by 14-foot case in a barn in Montgomery County. He separated the space into 4 rooms. Every room was specifically built to support a dozen mature brown Norwegian rats. These rats could maneuver across the rooms by using the ramps. Since Calhoun provided lots of resources such as food, water, and protection from predators and diseases, the rats were said to be in rat utopia (or mouse paradise). Following his earlier experiments with rats, Calhoun later built a 101-inch by 101-inch square cage for mice with plenty of food and water to support any increase in population in 1972. In his most famous experiment in the series, Universe 25, the population peaked at 2,200 mice and thereafter showed a variety of abnormal and often destructive social behaviors. By Day 600, the mouse population was on its way to extinction. Calhoun invented the term, behavioral sink, to explain this social collapse in behavioral patterns due to over-population. In his February 1962 article, Population Density and Social Pathology, in Scientific American, Calhoun used the series of experiments as an animal model of societal collapse. His study has hence become a touchstone of both urban sociology and psychology.

During the rat utopia experiments, any female rats were unable to carry pregnancy to full term. An even greater number of female rats substantially fell short in their material functions. Among the male rates, the behavioral disturbances ranged from sexual deviation and cannibalism to frenetic disorder and pathological withdrawal from the community. The social organization of the rats (or the mice) showed equal disruption.

The February 1962 Scientific American article by Calhoun and several co-authors came at a time when over-population had become a subject of great public interest. This article had a considerable cultural influence on the eventual fate of the human species. Calhoun saw the fate of the population of mice (or rats) as a metaphor for the likely societal collapse of humankind. He characterized the social breakdown as a spiritual death with reference to bodily death as the second death set out in the biblical verse Revelation 2:11.


Population growth can often lead to greater military power and economic clout.

Morland argues that population size can affect the balance of international military power. A larger population provides more recruits and can sustain a larger military force. Specifically, British population remained small relative to the European rivals well into the nineteenth century. The traditional argument about human population size and military power hence makes British success a mysterious puzzle. Morland emphasizes a different channel: what he sees as a British population explosion in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries propelled England to the first rank of colonial powers by allowing the country to export thousands to the colonies with a growing population at home. Britain allowed its people to gain control of continental territories away from the original inhabitants and indigenous people (Morland, 2019, pp.59). Without its early lead in the demographic transformation, Britain could not have exported people to run an empire on which the sun never set (Morland, 2019, pp.160). Britain was an unconventional place even before the Industrial Revolution from the eighteenth century. Growing population size empowered Britain to rise to economic and military prominence in the subsequent centuries.

In England, fast population growth reflected lower mortality. Wrigley and Schofield (1981) estimate that the quinquennial excess of births over deaths in England and Wales rose from about 200 thousand at mid eighteenth century to a half million by the end of the eighteenth century and a million by the 1840s (Wrigley and Schofield, 1981, pp.118-119). In 1801, England and Wales had almost 8.9 million people in comparison to 27.3 million people in France. Adding 1.6 million people in Scotland and 5.5 million in Ireland yields an approximate U.K. population about 60% of the French population size. The U.K. population first exceeded the French population at the turn of the twentieth century. In this positive light, the faster U.K. population growth led to substantially greater military power and economic clout for the British colonial empire. As a relatively small island nation, Britain took on a significant role in world affairs because the U.K. enjoyed a pervasive technological and economic transformation prior to any other country. This transformation might reflect earlier political and social changes in Britain and Europe.

If large population size enhances military power and economic clout, then national leaders have reason to worry about population dynamism both at home and in the world. Europeans reacted to the fear that some other population was growing more rapidly in the colonial era. For instance, the French knew their population seemed to be growing more slowly than many other rivals in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The French feared that substantially higher German population growth would lead to French defeat in any future confrontation. The loss of French territory in 1871 crystallized the idea by turning many Frenchmen into Germans. Germans later worried about Russian population growth and its concomitant military power and economic clout.

These concerns showed at least 2 common features. First, these concerns implied high fertility and low mortality in some rival states. The combination reflected innate characteristics that usually would not pass with other social changes. The French worried that high fertility was some inherent German characteristic. The Germans somewhat later had the same worry about Russians. Second, the concerns about relative population growth rates often had explicit or implicit racial implications. The belief that Slavs would always have bigger families than Germans reflected a set of assumptions about what other people might value in due course. In some multi-ethnic states such as America and Canada, people worried that African Americans might have bred too rapidly. More ethnically homogenous societies feared that the lower social classes had higher fertility. The putative innate characteristics of lower social classes would soon become predominant in the same population.

Morland relates population size to modern economic growth, development, as well as technological progress. Population size matters more when the country is rich. For instance, British population growth helped build the British empire by allowing the King’s subjects to overwhelm indigenous inhabitants in Australia, New Zealand, India, Singapore, and Malaysia etc. In discussing the per capita growth of the U.K. and French economies over the nineteenth century, Morland specifically notes the faster British population growth. A good part of British economic growth relative to French economic growth might emerge from the discrepancy in relative population growth (Morland, 2019, pp.56). In essence, a larger population enhances modern economic growth. A larger population provides not only more hands for factories, but also more consumers and larger markets. Large population size can build the economy both from the supply side and from the demand side (Morland, 2019, pp. 56-58). Morland somehow ignores a central feature of British Industrial Revolution: international trade. Productivity advances in some sectors such as textiles were so rapid that British producers constantly worried about access to overseas markets both in the British empire and in other European countries.

This main theme resonates with the modern neoclassical economic growth model by Nobel Laureate Robert Solow. The Solow-Swan model allows the determinants of economic growth to be due to technical progress and some increases in inputs such as labor and capital. Subsequent empirical work by Mankiw, Romer, and Weil (1992) shows that at least one third of total GDP output per capita arises from each of the 3 baseline inputs such as productive labor, physical capital investment, and human capital accumulation. Solow (1957) estimates that almost 80% of U.S. GDP economic growth per worker would be due to technical progress. In the core Solow model, an increase in the population growth raises the growth rate of total output, but has no permanent effect on the growth rate of per capita output. An increase in the population growth rate would help reduce the steady-state level of per capita output. In a positive light, the Morland demographic thesis accords with the Solow-Swan economic growth theory.


Gradual demographic transformation affects both age structure and internal ethnic composition within each state.

Gradual fertility declines often lead to a more favorable age structure and thus offer a demographic dividend. This demographic dividend manifests in the longer-term chance for each poor country to improve both social welfare and education of the population. In the middle east, for example, sharp declines in fertility rates should in principle provide the populations with an opportunity to make economic progress as the dependency ratio falls from 90 in 1980 to an estimate of 60 by 2020 (Morland, 2019, pp.240-245). Unfortunately, Morland never takes up the implicit challenge in qualifying these estimates.

Rapid changes in fertility tend to bring about abrupt shifts in cohort sizes and then pose problems for members of each respective cohort. Welch (1979) studies the relation between cohort size and labor market compensation in the specific context of the U.S. baby boom. For many common skill levels, the unusually large cohorts faced labor wage reductions as high as 13% in the 1970s and 1980s. Some other countries seem to experience youth bulges or relatively large cohorts in their late teens and twenties. From a political science viewpoint, these youth bulges render societies both more externally bellicose and internally fragile. This theme can serve as a good explanation for political instability in new democratic states such as India, Israel, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and so on. Urdal (2006) uses regression models to empirically find that youth bulges significantly correlate with his internal conflict measures. For Morland, the cross-sectional variation in youth bulges tends to represent one consequence of the demographic dividend for political instability.

The balance of ethno-religious groups (within multi-ethnic states such as America and Canada) comprises a second type of demography within states. In the 1950s, about half of all wars were between states, and half were civil wars within states. In the 1990s, civil wars outnumbered inter-state wars by 6 to 1. Much of this internal strife has been organized along ethno-religious lines in recent decades.

In recent years, many conflicts tend to reflect demographic changes. Unfortunately, the conceptual link between demographic change and social fragility often appears to be unclear. For instance, the U.S.S.R. succeeded a multi-ethnic empire that had grown through conquest. Few of the former peoples had ever been equal citizens of the Soviet Union. The Russian Federation was 80% ethnically Russian in 2002, and then declined to 75% in 2019. Morland regards this decline in ethnic Russians as threatening political stability in the country. In several similar contexts, changes in ethno-religious balances require different political coalitions. From time to time, these coalitions tilt toward the median voter to ensure better political stability.

Governments often resort to some demographic engineering measures to shape the ethno-religious composition of the population. Hard demographic engineering alters populations by causing deaths or encouraging births and immigration. Softer demographic engineering includes shifting boundaries to redefine social groups to make them larger or smaller. Specifically, the U.S. changed its immigration policy in the early twentieth century to reduce the number of people from outside of north-western Europe. Also, the U.S. had already severe restrictions on immigrants from Asia. In a similar vein, Australia maintained a White Australia policy until 1973 and then chose to relax immigration quotas in the 1990s.

Morland dwells on a different type of demographic engineering. The term, revenge from the cradle, arose in Quebec Canada in the early years of the twentieth century. Quebecois nationalists claimed that English-speaking Canadians might continue to lead the country. However, the Quebecois nationalists indicated that the higher birth-rate among French speakers would eventually make them political majority in Canada. Morland argues that many motivations of this kind help explain fertility in several other countries such as Northern Ireland and Israel-Palestine. It is never easy to prove why an ethno-religious group as a whole has fertility at a particular level. For this reason, Morland suggests that it is important to make comparisons between the fertility rates of comparable ethno-religious groups. Further, Morland recommends focusing on the public statements of national leaders in addition to any studies of each population. These valid alternative routes lead to good reasons behind fertility choices (Morland, 2019, pp.249). Morland adduces the evidence in support of the idea of revenge from the cradle as either the statement of a national leader, or a post hoc explanation of past events. In the mid-twentieth century, some Protestant leaders in Northern Ireland tacitly encouraged Catholic emigration while Catholics adopted substantially higher birth rates to boost their population numbers (Morland, 2019, pp.27-28). The idea of revenge from the cradle would help explain this demographic change in age structure, fertility, and economic development.

In the cases of Israel and Palestine, Morland points out that both had exceptionally higher fertility rates for better ethno-religious competition (Morland, 2019, pp.249). The ample evidence of ethno-religious competition boils down to claims by Jewish and Arab leaders that only higher fertility would empower the respective group to dominate in the region.

Morland mentions another important demographic development of missing women within states. Gender imbalances pose grave challenges for big parts of the world. As Sen (1992) suggests, Britain, France, America, and Canada etc each had 105 women for every 100 men, whereas, this ratio was much lower with 94 women for every 100 men in other countries such as China, India, and Pakistan etc. One root cause of these missing women arises from distortions in the sex ratio at birth due to sex-selective abortions. The other root cause reflects unequal treatment of living women that results in unusual sex differences in mortality. In societies with better public health conditions and equal nutrition to males and females, male mortality rates are higher at every age from zero to the highest attainable age (Coale, 1991, pp.518). In America, the expectation of life at birth for women was 5 years greater than the life expectancy for men as of 2019. This life expectancy difference tends to persist in most rich countries. In India and Saudi Arabia, the life expectancy for women is only 2.5 years longer than the life expectancy for men as of 2019. At the same time, there are about 5% missing women in China and India. Youth bulges may pose challenges for some countries. The percentage of men who choose to never marry may rise to 20% in China (from 3% now) and 15% in India (from 1% now) by the end of the twenty-first century (Guilmoto, 2012, Table 1). To the extent that family formation can help boost economic growth in the long run, the broader demographic changes often help explain sustainable economic development over the next few decades.

Paul Morland argues that demographic changes can often lead to modern growth patterns nowadays. He traces demographic developments from the late eighteenth century to the recent effects of demographic changes on economic reforms. These causal effects can help explain why some countries such as America and Britain became powerful and others did not. Morland continues the story into the twentieth century. Age structure and internal ethno-religious balances can often serve as the consequences of demographic patterns. In essence, The Human Tide deals with fundamental changes in human society over the past 200 years.


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