In 1788 Edward Gibbon completed his great work on The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The following year he surveyed the world around him. There seemed little improvement over the last two thousand years. "The far greater part of the globe is overspread with barbarism and slavery: in the civilized world, the most numerous class is condemned to ignorance and poverty...The general probability is about three to one that a new-born infant will not live to complete his fiftieth year."
Gibbon's world was one with a population of less than one thousand million inhabitants. As we stand at the end of the twentieth century, only a little over two hundred years later, there are more than seven times as many humans on earth. Yet we see a world in which many millions have escaped from a daily fear of war, famine and disease. For the privileged living in parts of Europe, America and Asia, there is wealth and stability undreamt of by peoples in most past civilizations.
-Alan MacFarlane, Thomas Malthus and the Making of the Modern World