The Human Tide

How Population Shaped the Modern World


By Paul Morland

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A dazzling new history of the irrepressible demographic changes and mass migrations that have made and unmade nations, continents, and empires

The rise and fall of the British Empire; the emergence of America as a superpower; the ebb and flow of global challenges from Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and Soviet Russia. These are the headlines of history, but they cannot be properly grasped without understanding the role that population has played.

The Human Tide shows how periods of rapid population transition — a phenomenon that first emerged in the British Isles but gradually spread across the globe–shaped the course of world history. Demography — the study of population — is the key to unlocking an understanding of the world we live in and how we got here.

Demographic changes explain why the Arab Spring came and went, how China rose so meteorically, and why Britain voted for Brexit and America for Donald Trump. Sweeping from Europe to the Americas, China, East Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, The Human Tide is a panoramic view of the sheer power of numbers.



Population and History



Joan Rumbold was nineteen years old in 1754 and living in the London district of Chelsea when she met John Phillips. Three years later, pregnant by Phillips and having contracted gonorrhoea, she was abandoned by him and with nowhere else to turn was admitted to a workhouse. When an opportunity to work in service came up, she was sent to nearby Brompton, leaving her son, John junior, in the workhouse, where he died two years later.1 This unexceptional story of desperation, abandonment and infant death would today scandalise most societies in the developed world, triggering heart-searching and finger-pointing from both the social services and the press. In eighteenth-century England, and just about anywhere else at the time, it was completely normal. It had been so since the dawn of human history. Similar stories might be told of hundreds of thousands of girls across Europe and millions across the world at the same time or earlier. Life was lived against a background of material deprivation where, for most people, every day was a struggle against hunger, disease or some other form of disaster.

Historically, it was only yesterday that life was nasty, brutish and short. Almost any account of an aspect of the ordinary person’s existence in pre- and early industrial society, whether of diet or of housing, of patterns of birth and death or of ignorance, of lack of hygiene or of lack of health, can easily shock today’s reader. For Spanish peasants in wine-producing regions, for example, all hands were required in critical seasons of the annual cycle, including mothers of small children who left their offspring ‘alone, crying and hungry in putrid diapers’; neglected, the children might end up with their eyes pecked out by domestic fowl allowed to wander in and out of their dwellings or have their hands chewed by pigs, or they might ‘fall into the fire, or… drown in pails and wash buckets left carelessly on doorsteps’.2 Small wonder that between a quarter and a third of babies born in eighteenth-century Spain were dead before their first birthdays.

Life the other side of the Pyrenees for the ordinary French peasant–the vast bulk of the population–was little better. Today the department of Lozère is a charming region known for its kayaking and trout fishing, but in the eighteenth century most of its inhabitants were clothed in rags and lived in miserable cottages, ‘surrounded by manure’ which emitted a dreadful stink; the hovels rarely had windows and their floors were covered by scraps of canvas and wool serving as beds ‘on which the old, decrepit man and the new-born child… the healthy, the ill, the dying’ and often the newly dead lay side by side.3 Similar descriptions of squalor and misery could apply to most places on the globe at almost any time since humankind adopted agriculture around ten thousand years or so ago.

So much for the idyll of rural life in earlier times, a myth only possible in a society so long urbanised as to have lost its memory of what pre-industrial country life was really like. This was the life which every penniless Jane Austen heroine on the hunt for a wealthy heir was trying to avoid, if not immediately for herself, then quite possibly for her children or grandchildren in a world of merciless, steady downward economic and social mobility and no welfare state.

Rural life across most of the world today is very different from that of the eighteenth-century country dweller of Spain or France. Urban life, too, has improved immeasurably from the miserable norms common as late as the nineteenth century even in what was then the most developed part of the world. This is well captured in the memoirs of Leonard Woolf, husband of the more famous Virginia. Woolf was born in 1880 and died in 1969 and witnessed a transformation of living conditions in south-east England where, but for a decade as a colonial administrator in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), he spent all his life. He wrote towards the end of his life that he was struck by the ‘immense change from social barbarism to social civilization’ in London and indeed in most of Britain during his lifetime, considering it ‘one of the miracles of economics and education’; slums, with their ‘terrifying products’, no longer existed and by the middle of the twentieth century, thought Woolf, it would be hard for those who had not experienced the London of the 1880s to imagine the condition of the poor in those days, living ‘in their lairs, with poverty, dirt, drunkenness and brutality’.4

These changes were not restricted to Britain. Stefan Zweig, like Leonard Woolf a memoirist and born just a year after him in Vienna, noticed a marked improvement taking place in the years before the First World War with the arrival of electric light brightly illuminating once dim streets, brighter and better-stocked shops displaying a ‘seductive new brilliance’, the convenience of the telephone and the spread of comforts and luxuries once reserved for the upper classes but now reaching into the middle class. Water no longer had to be drawn from wells and fires no longer ‘laboriously kindled in the hearth’. Hygiene was advancing and dirt retreating, and basic living standards were improving year on year so that ‘even that ultimate problem, the poverty of the masses, no longer seemed insuperable’.5

Scenes of misery and material deprivation can still be seen in the worst slums of the developing world or in the last holds of rural poverty. But for most people across the world, such scenes would be recalled, if at all, as something of the past, a more distant past for those in some places, a less distant one for those in others.

The great improvements in material conditions, in nutrition, in housing, in health, in education, which have swept across most of the globe since the start of the nineteenth century, have clearly been economic but they have also been demographic, which is to say they have concerned not just the way people produce and consume but also the numbers of people born, their rate of survival into adulthood, the number of children they in turn have, the age at which they die and the likelihood of their moving region, country or continent. The improvements are reflected in the data on population and specifically births and deaths.

In a nutshell, the sorts of societies in which most people now live, as against the one into which Joan Rumbold lived and her unfortunate son was born in 1757, are marked by dramatically lower infant mortality, with far fewer babies or infants dying and almost everyone born making it at least into adulthood. They are marked too by generally longer life expectancy, in part the result of lower infant and child mortality but also of far fewer people dying in middle age and more living to ripe old ages and even to ages scarcely heard of a couple of hundred years ago. Women, given education and the tools of choice, have far fewer children in our societies. Many have no children at all and very few have the six or more common in Britain even until the middle of the nineteenth century. Having moved from the demography of Joan Rumbold’s era to that of our own, the population has grown enormously. Back in the eighteenth century there were not a billion people on the face of the earth. Today there are more than 7 billion. Just as the politics, the economics and the sociology of societies today are radically different from those of the past, so is the demography.

This process, which started in the British Isles and among sister peoples in the United States and the British Empire around the year 1800, spread first across Europe and then to the whole world. Much of Africa has not yet completed the transition, but most of it is well on its way. Outside sub-Saharan Africa there are barely half a dozen countries today where women have on average more than four children, the global norm as recently as the 1970s. There is now no territory outside Africa with a life expectancy below sixty, again around the global norm in the 1970s and close to the European norm as recently as the 1950s. The achievement of the best in the middle of the twentieth century became the global average a few decades later. The global average of a few decades ago has become the bare minimum for most of the world today. This has been achieved through a combination of the most basic and the most complex means: the increased washing of hands, better water supply, often rudimentary but critical interventions in pregnancy and childbirth, improved general health care and diet. None of these would have been possible on a global scale without education, again often rudimentary but radically better than nothing, particularly of women, allowing life-preserving practices to be disseminated and practised. It has also required achievements of science and technology from agronomy to transportation.

Philosophers of history have long debated the fundamental factors which shape historical events. Some suggest that vast material forces are most important, determining the broad outlines if not the fine detail of the human story. Others see history as essentially the story of the playing out of ideas. Still others claim that accident and chance are in the driving seat and that it is vain to look for large-scale causes behind the unfolding of events. Once historians talked of history as if it were the creation of ‘great men’. None of these approaches is fully satisfactory and none can fully explain history. The interaction of human beings over time and space is just too vast and too complex for any one theory to encapsulate it. Material forces, ideas and chance, and even great individuals and their interplay must all be comprehended if the past is to be understood.

There has been a revolution of population over the last two hundred years or so, and that revolution has changed the world. This is the story of the rise and fall of states and great shifts in power and economics but also a story about how individual lives have been transformed; of British women who within a generation stopped expecting most of their children to die before adulthood; of childless Japanese elderly dying alone in their apartments; of African children crossing the Mediterranean in search of opportunities.

Some of these phenomena, such as the fall in infant mortality from high levels in the UK, are historical. Others, such as the sheer number of Japanese dying childless and alone and the African children heading to Europe, are still very much with us and likely to intensify. The demographic whirlwind–the ever-accelerating pace of change in population–has rattled through the globe from one region to another, tearing up old ways of life and replacing them with new. It is the story of the human tide, the great flow of humanity, swelling here, ebbing there, and how this has made a vast and too often overlooked or underplayed contribution to the course of history.

The fact that life has got immeasurably better for billions–and that the world should be managing to support 7 billion people and rising–should not obscure the dark side of this story. The West, which invented the conditions that allowed so many people to survive their early years and materially to flourish, has much to be proud of. Many of its critics would not be alive today, and certainly not enjoying rich, educated lives, were it not for scientific and technical advances from pharmaceuticals and fertilisers to soap and sewage systems. Yet this awesome achievement should not lead us to overlook the marginalisation and genocide perpetrated against non-European peoples, the decimation of indigenous populations from the Americas to Tasmania, the industrial-scale Atlantic slave trade which treated black people as disposable commodities.

The rise in nineteenth-century life expectancy in Britain was a great achievement but the Irish famine should not be forgotten. The fall of child mortality across Europe in the early decades of the twentieth century is to be celebrated but does not compensate for the barbarity of two world wars and the Holocaust. Infant mortality has fallen across the Middle East but this has contributed to the youth and instability of many societies where a mass of young people, unable to integrate into the workplace, resort to fundamentalism and violence. Rejoicing in the lengthening of life expectancy in large swathes of sub-Saharan Africa in recent years, we should not forget the Rwandan genocide in 1994 nor the appalling loss of life in the wars in Zaire/Congo in the years shortly thereafter. Account should also be taken of actual or potential environmental damage posed by rising populations. The story of the human tide should not be a ‘whiggish’ one, that is, one painting a cheery picture of endless progress towards the light with History moving ever onwards to higher and brighter prospects. It is not surprising that such a view was common among much of the British elite in the nineteenth century, when the British found themselves the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world; it is not a view which can be supported today.

But for all the caveats, proper acknowledgement should be made of the great achievement that is the vast multiplying of human numbers and the provision of billions of people with a standard of living and health care and education which the wealthiest of earlier ages would have envied. The story of the human tide should be told warts and all, but it should also be told for what it is: nothing short of a triumph of humanity. The slave ships and the gas chambers should not be forgotten, but their horrors should not blind us to the fact that today countless parents like Joan Rumbold can confidently fear little for their children’s health and that billions from Patagonia to Mongolia can expect to enjoy lives which, from a relatively recent historical perspective, are breathtaking in their richness and longevity. And this multiplicity of lives has increased the stock of human creativity and ingenuity, contributing in turn to achievements from vaccines to placing a man on the moon and to–however incomplete–the spread of democracy and human rights.

What This Book Is About–and Why It Matters

The Human Tide is about the role of population in history. It does not argue that the great trends in population–the rise and fall of birth and death rates, the swelling and shrinking of population size, the surges of migration–determine all of history. Demography, it argues, is part but not all of destiny. The case is not made here for a simplistic, monocausal or deterministic view of history. Nor is the claim made that demography is in some sense a primary cause, a first mover, an independent or external phenomenon with ramifications and effects in history but not causes preceding it. Rather, demography is a factor which itself is driven by other factors, numerous and complex, some material, some ideological and some accidental. Its effects are varied, long-lasting and profound, but so are its causes.

Demography is deeply embedded in life. In a sense, it is life–its beginning and its ending. Population must be understood alongside other causal factors such as technological innovation, economic progress and changing beliefs and ideologies, but population does explain a great deal. Take for example the ideology and perspective of feminism. It is impossible to say whether the feminist movement prefigured demographic change and drove it or rather resulted from it, but we can chart how the two have worked together. Today, feminist ideas have permeated almost every aspect of (a still imbalanced) society and the economy, from the acceptability of premarital sex to female participation in the workforce. However, the revolution in social attitudes to sex and gender may not have taken place along these lines had it not been for the invention of the Pill and the fertility choices this allowed. But then again the Pill, in turn, was the product not just of the genius and grit of a number of women and men but a change in attitudes to sex, sexuality and gender which meant that research into it became acceptable within academia and fundable by both corporate and philanthropic interests. The ideology of feminism, the technology of the Pill and changes in social attitude towards sex and childbearing have all played a role in reducing fertility rates (that is, the number of children a woman can expect to have in her lifetime) and these in turn have had their own profound impact on society, the economy, politics and the course of history. Asking what came first–the social will or the Pill–is something of a chicken-and-egg problem; the story of the interplay between these forces can be told but it is futile to try to promote one as the supposed ‘prime’ or ‘ultimate’ cause and demote the others to mere effects.

Likewise, it would be a mistake to substitute a demographic for a pseudo-Marxian view of history, replacing ‘class’ with ‘population’ as the hidden factor that explains all world history. To leave demography out, however, is to miss what may be the most important explanatory factor in world history of the last two hundred years. For millennia, the same bleak story could be told of steady population progress reversed by plague, famine and war. Since around 1800, however, humankind has increasingly managed to take control of its own numbers, and to stunning effect. Demography has gone from the slowest- to the fastest-changing discipline. Population trends no longer move at a snail’s pace, with occasional shocking interruptions like the Black Death. Fertility and mortality fall with growing speed and transitions which once took generations now take place in decades.


The Weight of Numbers

Imagine a car trundling slowly forward at more or less the same speed for mile after mile after mile. Imagine it then increasing its speed, gradually for the first few miles, then rapidly, until it achieves tremendous, even frightening, velocity. Then, after a relatively short distance hurtling along, the brakes are suddenly applied, resulting in rapid deceleration. This is what the world’s population growth pattern has been like since 1800.

The question then arises: why the last two hundred years? Why the year 1800 as a starting point? The answer is that the end of the eighteenth century and the start of the nineteenth mark a discontinuity in demographic history, a great transformation. Before this time humanity had experienced without doubt dramatic demographic events, mostly on the mortality side of the equation, such as plagues and massacres, but these had been sporadic rather than part of long-term trends. What long-term trends there had been, such as population growth in Europe and in the world more generally, had been gentle and punctuated with unhappy setbacks.

By around 1800 the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ (essentially Britons and Americans) were escaping the constraints on population growth identified and defined by Thomas Malthus, an English clergyman, writer and thinker whose life spanned the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and of whom much will be said later. Ironically, however, they were escaping these constraints precisely as they were being identified. This era marks a meaningful break in demographic history, a demographic corollary of the industrial revolution, a landmark pointing both geographically and historically to global and permanent change. Along with an industrially grounded population explosion went a boost to military and economic power and a great outpouring of settlers. These demographically driven events came to form a pattern which challenged, disrupted and in some cases overturned established orders.

The Great Transformation

To get a sense of how completely revolutionary have been the changes of the last two hundred years or so, it helps to have a long view of demography. When in 47 BC Julius Caesar was appointed perpetual dictator of the Roman Republic his domain stretched from what is now called Spain to modern Greece, as far north as Normandy in France and much of the rest of the Mediterranean, a region that today contains over thirty countries. The population of these vast lands comprised around 50 million people, which was about 20% of a world population of approximately 250 million.1 More than eighteen centuries later, when Queen Victoria ascended the British throne in 1837, the number of people living on earth had grown to something like 1,000 million, a fourfold increase. Yet less than two hundred years after Victoria’s coronation, world population has increased a further seven times–nearly twice the growth in a tenth of the time. This latter multiplication is astonishingly rapid, and has had a transformative global impact.

Between 1840 and 1857 Queen Victoria gave birth to nine children, all of whom survived into adulthood. Britain’s previous female monarch, Queen Anne, had died in 1714, aged forty-nine. She had eighteen pregnancies but her tragedy was that not a single child survived her. By 1930, just twenty-nine years after the death of Queen Victoria, another great British matriarch, the Queen Mother, had produced only two children, Elizabeth (the present queen) and Margaret. These facts about three queens–Anne, Victoria and Elizabeth the Queen Mother–neatly represent the two trends that began in Britain between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries and which have subsequently spread across the world.

The first was a precipitous drop in infant mortality, with the death of a child becoming mercifully irregular rather than a common agony for parents. The second, which followed, was a dramatic reduction in the average number of children born per woman. In Queen Anne’s time, losing child after child was common. In mid-Victorian Britain, having a large brood was still the norm. Its complete survival into adulthood was unusual (in this, Victoria had luck as well as wealth in her favour) but would shortly become usual. By the interwar years of the twentieth century, the Queen Mother’s expectation that both her daughters would survive into adulthood was quite normal, in Britain at least.

When Queen Victoria was born in 1819, only a small number of Europeans–around 30,000–were living in Australia. The number of indigenous Australians at that time is uncertain, but estimates range from between 300,000 to 1 million. When Victoria died at the start of the twentieth century, there were fewer than 100,000, while Australians of European origin numbered nearly 4 million, more than a hundred times as many as eighty years earlier. This transformation in the size and composition of a continental population occurred in the space of a single lifetime. It changed Australia completely and forever, and would have a significant impact beyond Australia’s shores, as the country came to play a major role in provisioning and manning British efforts in both world wars. A similar story can be told of Canada and New Zealand.

These startling facts–the rapid but selective acceleration of population growth; plummeting infant mortality rates; falls in fertility; the nineteenth-century outpouring of European populations to lands beyond Europe–are all connected. They are born of the same profound social changes that accompanied the industrial revolution and have proved to be a formidable influence on the course of history, empowering some countries and communities at the expense of others, determining the fate of economies and empires, and laying the foundations of today’s world. Yet when, after 1945, these trends became truly global, they caused an even greater tidal surge, one that contained similar eddies and currents to the nineteenth-century transformation but which occurred faster and more furiously than before.

The Great Population Trends, Past and Present

The acceleration that began in nineteenth-century Britain contains within it a complex story. It took hundreds of thousands of years from the dawn of humanity to the early nineteenth century for the world’s population to reach a billion but only a couple of hundred years more for it to reach today’s 7 billion. Now, however, there is a slowdown. In the late 1960s the number of people on the planet was doubling roughly every thirty years. Today it is doubling every sixty years. By the end of the current century there is a good chance global population will have stopped growing altogether. Some countries are already experiencing population decline.

Rapid population acceleration and deceleration send shockwaves around the world wherever they occur and have shaped history in ways that are rarely appreciated. For example, many people in the West would be surprised to learn that women in Thailand are having four children fewer than they were in the late 1960s, or that life expectancy for men in Glasgow is lower than for men in Gaza, or that the world’s population is growing at barely half the rate it was in the early 1970s. Once this immense speeding up and then quite sudden slowing down are apprehended, it is possible to get a sense of the great fairground ride of world population change and our own position, today, of living at a turning point. This, in essence, is the human tide.

Within this big global picture there are striking contrasts between countries and continents. In 1950, for example, there were two to three Europeans for every person in sub-Saharan Africa. By 2100 there are very likely to be six or seven times as many Africans as Europeans. Over the same 150-year period, the ratio of Japanese to Nigerians will have gone from two to one in favour of Japan to nine to one in favour of Nigeria. Population change on this scale transforms everything, from geostrategy to macro-economics, from the demand for cradles to the need for graves. Neither the past nor the future can be considered properly without understanding this.

The great demographic transformation of humanity began in the British Isles and among those who originated there and who spilled out into North America and Australasia. Soon it spread to other European nations, and from them to the peoples of Asia and Latin America. Today, its powerful effects are to be seen at different stages across the world, in particular in Africa, where it is shaking and remaking a continent humanity first ventured from more than 100,000 years ago. Thus the great demographic transformation is returning to humanity’s homeland. The Human Tide tells this story, from its origins in north-western Europe, and will trace its ever more rapid and dramatic impact across the entire globe. It focuses initially on those areas where demographic change first occurred. Following the trajectory, it will then move beyond Europe to China and Japan, to the Middle East, Latin America and south Asia and ultimately to Africa, as the human tide broke out of its originally narrow confines and became a truly global phenomenon. In each region some background will be given, but the story will essentially start when the old demographic order passed away and was replaced by the new, a process that occurs earlier in some places than in others.

How the Demography Equation Works


  • "An illuminating perspective on the history and likely future of population trends."—STARRED REVIEW,BOOKLIST
  • "Morland's real skill is linking economic, political, military and cultural trends to the demographic story...lucid, jargon-free and full of neat observations...The future, Morland concludes, is grey (societies that grow old before they grow rich), green (as global population declines, humans will need less land and fewer resources) and much less white (because of more rapid growth of non-European populations and immigration into majority white countries)... this is an admirable introduction to a vital subject."—THE TIMES
  • "A global history that gallops from 1800 and Brexit to Donald Trump's wall, seen through the prism of births, deaths and migration... The Human Tide is packed with information...This is, deliberately, a book for those with little knowledge of demography...What are fascinating are the author's projections of where we are heading demographically. To an older population in the UK certainly: the number of people over 85 will treble in 30 years as the baby-boomers age. That means a more indebted nation, but it could also mean a more peacefully inclined one"—SUNDAYTIMES
  • "Useful for students of geopolitics, international economics, and demography alike."—KIRKUS REVIEWS
  • "Engrossing...How many people live in a place, how old they are and how hungry they are, explains a lot about how their rulers behave, he argues. Do you have a fast-growing young population like late-19th-century Germany? Your neighbours will fear you. An imploding birth rate, like modern Italy? Your economy will probably shrink too. It's not a new idea but Morland offers plenty of evidence to prove just how much it matters...This book adds to the debate about the basic causes of history."—BOOK OF THE WEEK, EVENING STANDARD
  • "Morland shows how history has been driven not only by science and economics, but by birth, sex, life, and death. An essential read for anyone seeking to understand not only the human tide, but the tide of history. Gripping, authoritative, and compelling."—Richard V. Reeves, author of Dream Hoarders: How the American UpperMiddle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, andWhat to Do About It
  • "Demographic change underlies most of the trends of our time, from controversies over immigration to the challenge of funding welfare states. In The Human Tide, Paul Morland provides an erudite and entertaining overview of the influence of population trends on history."—Michael Lind, author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of theUnited States
  • "Paul Morland has rudely awakened us to the hidden hand of demography in shaping history and politics in the modern world. Morland's superb political-demographic history of the world alerts us not only to how manpower matters, but why the perception of population shifts may be even more consequential than the shifts themselves. If you want to understand our times, you must read this book."—Eric Kaufmann, author of Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration and theFuture of White Majorities
  • "A fascinating account of how much sheer population numbers have mattered in human history---and why major demographic upheavals, happening now and over the next few decades, are going to affect us all."—Alison Wolf, Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management atKing's College London and author off The XX Factor: How the Rise of WorkingWomen Has Created a Far Less Equal World
  • "Population has been historically one of the key factors that has defined the relations between states. As Paul Morland shows, it has now become the defining factor for the political dynamics within states. The Human Tide shows that we live in an age of hard and soft demographic engineering."—Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia

On Sale
Mar 5, 2019
Page Count
352 pages

Paul Morland

About the Author

Dr. Paul Morland is associate research fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London and a renowned authority on demography. He lives in London with his wife and has three children. A French speaker with dual German and British citizenship, Paul Morland also spends much time at his home in the French Pyrenees.

He was educated at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, from where he graduated with a first class B.A. (Hons) in PPE. He graduated with Distinction in his Masters in International Relations, also from Oxford University, and was awarded his Ph.D from the University of London. The Human Tide is his first trade book but as well as an academic work on demography, published by Ashgate / Routledge, he has contributed a number of comment pieces on demography to newspapers in the UK and Israel.

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