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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Book review: Population and Development — The Demographic Transition by Tim Dyson

Many books claim to describe a grand theory that explains all or most of what is happening in the modern word, Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man being a relatively recent example. But often they are no sooner published than something in the world happens to prove them wrong. However, professor Tim Dyson, head of the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics, not only expounds a grand theory that aims — and here I exaggerate only slightly — to explain not only all of the key current demographic processes but also a much wider range of phenomena from why countries are tending to become more democratic to why women are wearing jeans. He also future-proofs his theory by making it clear that it works over the very long term and so cannot be contradicted by current events of whatever form.

The basic premise of the book is that falling mortality rates are the key underlying driver for four other demographic processes: falling fertility rates, population growth (the world’s population is growing not because we are breeding like rabbits but because we are no longer dying like flies), urbanisation (for instance, an increasing share of the global population live in cities) and population ageing. While individual countries will experience all of these processes in different ways, what is common is that sooner or later they will happen.

Dyson provides a wide range of data and information to support his grand theory and to explain why he is interested in the underlying ‘remote’ cause of fertility decline, for example mortality decline.

Where Dyson goes further out on a limb is when he links mortality decline with non-demographic processes. He puts forward interesting arguments as to why mortality decline should lead sooner or later to increased democratisation. Is this what we are seeing now in the Middle East? Time will tell whether what arises will be more democratic compared to what went before. As for women becoming more like men, Dyson’s argument goes as follows. As mortality declines, so does fertility. This leads to women having to spend less of their life bearing and raising children, and to greater involvement of women in the world of work and social and political life. However, the models in these spheres are men and so women end up imitating men rather than the reverse. Hence women start wearing jeans rather than men starting to wear skirts.

Dyson is aware that a challenge to his theory is the question “But what caused the mortality decline?” He has no specific answer to this but posits that it is somehow based in the Enlightenment as this led to a more scientific view of the world. However, there were many great scientists before the Enlightenment. What the Enlightenment may have contributed is a change in how people viewed the world and so a change in how they would react to falling mortality. I would also disagree with his negative view of the relationship between population growth and economic performance.


Population and Development — The Demographic Transition is published by Zed Books.
RRP £16.99


Dermot Grenham is a part-time tutorial fellow at the London School of Economics’ Development Studies Institute