Till recent times, birth rates and death-rates have both been high, with very slow population growth. most western nations, advances in agriculture, science, medicine, and industry led to falling death rates beginning in the 17th or 18th centuries; meanwhile birth rates remained high and rates of population growth multiplied enormously.

Before long, however, the desire for a higher standard of living led to reductions in the birth rate, so that most western nations are approaching a new equilibrium, with both birth rates and death rates quite low and little population growth.

This is explained by the theory of demographic transition – the theory that industrial and commercial development first cuts the death rate but creates a desire for smaller families and eventually cuts the birth rate as shown in the figure.

The growth pattern of human populations is thus held to be S-shaped, involving a transition from on type of demographic stability with high death and birth rates to another type of plateau with low death and birth rates.


Demographic transition theory can be criticized under three board headings.

1. It may provide a description of general features of demographic change in certain western societies, but it does not provide a sophisticated casual explanation because the theoretical connections between the key variables, and their nature, are often not precisely stated.

2. As a general theory, the notion of a common process of population change is difficult to reconcile with specific population changes in modern Africa, Asia and Latin America.

3. Recent research in historical demography also presents a far more complex picture of European population history.


The stability of pre-industrial populations in north-eastern Europe was caused by late marriage and celibacy, while the population stability of societies which lay east of a line connecting Trieste and St. Petersburg was the result of early marriage with strictly enforced low fertility.

These revisions of traditional transition theory now place greater importance on marriage practices and family structure than on simple technological change in the explanation of population growth.