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Study information

The Population Problem: Conservation, Eugenics, and Food in the Twentieth Century (Contexts)

Module titleThe Population Problem: Conservation, Eugenics, and Food in the Twentieth Century (Contexts)
Module codeHIH3635
Academic year2023/4
Module staff

Dr John Lidwell-Durnin (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks



Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

During the twentieth century, the world’s population grew by roughly five billion people. Even prior to this population rise, the fear of over-population was a potent political force: the first so-called ‘Neo-Malthusian Conference’ in 1878 invited representatives from all countries to discuss how nation states could control population growth. While these fears belonged to people everywhere, the authority to address the population problem very often fell into the hands of the scientists: statisticians, biologists, plant breeders, zoologists— all had a say on how the modern state could best manage its population while preserving natural resources and providing ample food for all.

The establishment of nature reserves and the scientific advancement of agriculture were often promoted by scientists and politicians alike as essential responsibilities of the modern government. Today, we (rightly) recognise eugenics as abhorrent—but in the first half of the twentieth century, many conservationists and agriculturalists also advocated eugenic policies, in countries from Japan, to Colombia, to America.

The context module will explore how fears of over-population shaped the machinery of the modern state in the twentieth century, while the co-requisite Sources module will introduce you to a range of scientific and popular sources for the period.

Module aims - intentions of the module

This module will adopt a global framework, considering case studies from Japan, South Africa, Peru, Colombia, as well as materials from Europe and America. The historiography we look at will include critical and theoretical ideas borrowed from global history, imperial history, and the history of science and medicine. Students will be encouraged to utilise these sources to approach the interpretation of the primary sources: popular science books, speeches, reports, statistical enquiries, film, instruments, maps, and illustrations. You will be expected to evaluate the utility and reasonableness of the claims in the historiography, as well as to explain their significance within the wider context of the subject.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Identify the different positions and approaches to the history of the conservation movement.
  • 2. Understand and explain the key political, social, cultural and economic developments during the rise of eugenics.
  • 3. Critically evaluate a diverse and complex range of theoretical works relating to Malthusianism.

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 4. Analyse philosophical and critical arguments to assess their utility to the historian
  • 5. Understand and deploy relevant historical terminology in a comprehensible and sophisticated manner

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 6. Select, organise and analyse material for written work and/or oral presentations of different prescribed lengths and formats.
  • 7. Present an argument in a written form in a clear and organised manner, with appropriate use of correct English
  • 8. Through essay development process, demonstrate ability to reflect critically on your own work, to respond constructively to feedback, and to implement suggestions and improve work on this basis

Syllabus plan

Whilst the content may vary from year to year, it is envisioned that it will cover some or all of the following topics:

  • Malthusianism and birth control in Britain and America
  • The development of the conservation movement in America
  • The global history of eugenics (including focus on Asia and South and Central America)
  • The rise of ecology
  • Postwar debates over environmentalism and food production

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled Learning and Teaching4422 x 2 seminars
Guided Independent Study256Reading and preparing for seminars, coursework and presentations

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Portfolio702 assignments totalling 4000 words1-8Oral and Written feedback
Written Assignment302500 words1-8Oral and Written feedback

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Portfolio (2 assignments totalling 4000 words)Portfolio (2 assignments totalling 4000 words)1-8Referral/Deferral period
Written Assignment (2500 words)Written Assignment (2500 words)1-8Referral/Deferral period

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to submit a further assessment as necessary. If you are successful on referral, your overall module mark will be capped at 40%.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • A. Bashford, Global Population: History, Geopolitics, and Life on Earth (Columbia University Press, 2014)
  • D. Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (Knopf, 1985)
  • C. Otter, Diet for a Large Planet: Industrial Britain, Food Systems, and World Ecology (Chicago University Press, 2020)
  • T. Robertson, The Malthusian Moment: Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism (Rutgers University Press, 2012)
  • J. Spiro, Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant (University of Vermont Press, 2009)
  • N. L. Stepan, The Hour of Eugenics: Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America (Cornell University Press, 1991)

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Key words search

Conservation, Eugenics, Environmentalism, Ecology, Food, Science, Malthus

Credit value30
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites


Module co-requisites

HIH3636 The Population Problem: Conservation, Eugenics, and Food in the Twentieth Century (Sources)

NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date