Darwin beats malthus: evolutionary anthropology, human capital and the demographic transition Articles uri icon

publication date

  • June 2021

start page

  • 575

end page

  • 614


  • 3


  • 16

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 1863-2505

Electronic International Standard Serial Number (EISSN)

  • 1863-2513


  • Declining mortality seems a natural explanation for the demographic transition. However, many economists have discarded improved infant survival as a causal trigger. Moreover, certain currents in Neo-Malthusian economics point to potentially beneficial side-effects of population shocks. Based on historical demography and evolutionary science, I challenge these views. The argument is that uncontrollable ('extrinsic”) mortality creates selective advantages for families with many 'cheap” offspring, whereas stable environments favor child 'quality”. Combining 'life-history-theory” and a unified growth model, I demonstrate that declining mortality and medical progress facilitate the transition towards growth-promoting 'low-fertility-high-quality” phenotypes. As it will turn out, this framework produces qualitatively and quantitatively closer predictions of the historical fertility decline than standard models of the Barro–Becker type. Moreover, evolutionary mechanisms provide a parsimonious explanation for diverse demographic transition patterns. Thus, evolved adaptations add a new and culture-free mechanism to older theories. Moreover, regarding sustainable growth, they suggest that natural selection eventually offsets the benefits from population shocks claimed by Malthusian theories.


  • Anthropology
  • Sociology


  • demographic transition; darwinian selection; human evolution; unified growth theory