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Kropotkin & the Evolution of Cooperation

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  • Dan Clore
    News & Views for Anarchists & Activists: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/smygo
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 31, 2012
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      News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:

      The Russian Anarchist Prince Who Challenged Evolution
      Are we cooperative or competitive?
      By Lee Alan Dugatkin|Posted Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, at 12:33 PM ET

      Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species sparked major battles.
      The most famous may have been between science and religion, but there
      were disputes within science as well. One of the most heated was whether
      natural selection favored cooperative or competitive behaviors, a battle
      that still rages today. For almost 100 years, no single person did more
      to promote the study of the evolution of cooperation than Peter Kropotkin.

      Kropotkin traveled the world talking about the evolution of cooperation,
      which he called “mutual aid,” in both animals and humans. Sometime the
      travel was voluntary, but often it wasn’t: He was jailed, banned, or
      expelled from many of the most respectable countries of his day. For he
      was not only the face of the science of cooperation, he was also the
      face of the anarchist movement. He came to believe that his politics and
      science were united by the law of mutual aid: that cooperation was the
      predominant evolutionary force driving all social life, from microbes to

      Kropotkin was also a Russian prince. A private tutor named Poulain
      taught him about the French revolution and smuggled anarchist ideas into
      the Kropotkin household, where Peter’s father put on airs about the
      family’s royal ancestry. Poulain also took the boy to visit political
      agitators in Moscow. In 1854, at age 12, Kropotkin renounced his title,
      but he was still a child of privilege. He once had a strange encounter
      with Czar Nicholas I at a Royal Ball, and years later Peter ended up
      enrolled in the Corps of Pages.

      Kropotkin’s father couldn’t have been happier about his son’s prospects
      at this elite breeding ground for Russia’s next generation of leaders.
      Peter, however, was bored out of his mind. “Day after day passes,” he
      wrote his beloved brother, Sasha, “almost the best days of life and you
      can’t make use of them, you simply vegetate, you don’t live.” He quickly
      rose to become the top student in the Corps, which also made him chief
      page to the Czar Alexander II (who had succeeded Nicholas I). When he
      wasn’t tending to the czar’s needs or taking classes, Peter spent his
      time doing what he loved to do most: soaking in nature’s beauty, reading
      about the burgeoning anarchist movement in Russia, and learning radical
      new ideas on evolution and natural selection propagated by an Englishman
      named Charles Darwin.

      One of the perks of being the top student at the Corps was that when he
      completed his studies in 1862, he had first choice of any government
      appointment. To the utter amazement of his friends and the bewilderment
      of his father, he requested an appointment in the newly annexed Amur
      region of Siberia. The odd choice caught the attention of Czar Alexander
      II, who inquired, "So you go to Siberia? Are you not afraid to go so
      far?” “No,” Peter replied, “I want to work.” "Well, go,” the Czar told
      him. “One can be useful everywhere.” And so, on July 27, 1862, he went.

      Kropotkin’s adventures during his five years in Siberia were the stuff
      of movies. He crisscrossed 50,000 miles of the region, often “lying full
      length in the sled … wrapped in fur blankets, fur inside and fur outside
      … when the temperature is 40 or 60 degrees below zero …” His job was to
      inspect the dreaded prisons of Siberia, full of not just criminals but
      political agitators. He did so dutifully, but with disgust. The border
      of Siberia, he wrote, should have a sign like that from Dante’s Inferno:
      “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.” The rest of his time was devoted
      to learning more about anarchist philosophy (often from anarchist
      leaders who had been banished to Siberia) and, most importantly,
      studying the natural history of animals and humans there.

      Kropotkin expected to see the brutal dog-eat-dog world of Darwinian
      competition. He searched high and low—but nothing. “I failed to find,
      although I was eagerly looking for it,” Kropotkin wrote, “that bitter
      struggle for the means of existence, among animals belonging to the same
      species, which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always by
      Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of the struggle for life,
      and the main factor of evolution.”

      Instead he saw mutual aid—everywhere. “In all these scenes of animal
      life which passed before my eyes,” Kropotkin wrote, “I saw Mutual Aid
      and Mutual Support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a
      feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the
      preservation of each species and its further evolution.” And it wasn’t
      just in animals. The peasants in the villages he visited were constantly
      helping one another in their fight against the brutal environment of
      Siberia. What’s more, he noted a correlation between the extent of
      mutual aid displayed in a peasant village and the distance of that
      village from the hand of government. It was just as the anarchists had
      suggested. “I lost in Siberia,” he wrote, “whatever faith in state
      discipline I had cherished before. I was prepared to become an anarchist.”

      He was also prepared to challenge the biological orthodoxy that natural
      selection led only to competition. He was still a Darwinist, and an
      adamant one, but he thought the process of natural selection, especially
      in brutal climates like Siberia, could lead to mutual aid, not only
      competition. His nascent ideas on anarchism and biological evolution
      were beginning to merge into one.

      After five years in Siberia, Kropotkin moved on to study at the
      University of St. Petersburg, where on paper his focus was mathematics,
      but in reality his major was studying to be an anarchist. He was good
      enough at it that the czar had him arrested and thrown in the Peter and
      Paul Prison in St. Petersburg. Kropotkin described its history: “Here
      Peter I tortured his son Alexis and killed him with his own hand … here
      the Princess Tarakánova was kept in a cell which filled with water
      during an inundation, the rats climbing upon her to save themselves from
      drowning … here were annals of murder and torture, of men buried alive,
      condemned to a slow death, or driven to insanity in the loneliness of
      the dark and damp dungeons.” Eventually Peter escaped. It was an
      incredible, front-page news jailbreak, involving months of preparation,
      spies, shills outside the prison pretending to be drunk to distract the
      guards, and a co-conspirator playing a mazurka on the violin as a signal
      to make a break for it.

      Soon after, Kropotkin made his way to England. He challenged Darwin’s
      followers, most notably Thomas Henry Huxley, and their claims that
      natural selection almost always led to competition. Yes, Kropotkin
      admitted, sometimes that happens, especially in the tropics, but mutual
      aid was just as common, if not more so. It was a biological reality and
      a political one. “The ant, the bird, the marmot … have read neither Kant
      nor the fathers of the Church nor even Moses,” Kropotkin wrote. “The
      idea of good and evil has thus nothing to do with religion or a mystic
      conscience. It is a natural need of animal races. And when founders of
      religions, philosophers, and moralists tell us of divine or metaphysical
      entities, they are only recasting what each ant, each sparrow practices
      in its little society.”

      Kropotkin published a series of books and long pamphlets, including
      Mutual Aid, The Great French Revolution, Modern Science and Anarchism,
      and Ethics. He lectured across Europe—in the places that hadn’t banned
      or expelled him for being a troublemaker—and in two long speaking tours
      in the United States. He probably would have returned for a third tour,
      but after President McKinley was assassinated, anarchists were personae
      non grata in America. Rumors were even floated in the United States with
      the preposterous notion that Kropotkin was somehow linked to the

      By the first decade of the 20th century, two things still troubled
      Kropotkin about his theory of the evolution of cooperation. He had been
      arguing that when environmental conditions changed and mutual aid was
      especially useful, it seemed to take hold in a population quickly.
      Really quickly. So quickly that it just couldn’t be accounted for by the
      slow, gradual changes that Darwinian theory of the day proposed. An
      evolutionist through and through, Kropotkin turned to the ideas of
      Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who had proposed his own ideas decades before
      Darwin about how evolution operates. Lamarck suggested that habits
      acquired during the lifetime of an organism could be transmitted to the
      next generation. For example, if shore birds stretched their muscles as
      far as possible to raise themselves up on wet sandy beaches, their
      offspring would have longer legs as a result. With Lamarckian
      inheritance, massive change can happen in a single generation. That gave
      Kropotkin the speed he needed to explain how mutual aid increased so
      quickly. Problem 1 solved. Or so he argued.

      Problem 2 was this: In real time, as it was happening, what prompted an
      animal to dispense mutual aid? Kropotkin turned to economist Adam Smith
      for insight. Though Kropotkin despised the capitalist system Smith had
      devised in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of
      Nations, he was enamored with an earlier book of Smith’s called The
      Theory of Moral Sentiments. In it, Smith made the case that humans
      dispense mutual aid because we mentally put ourselves in the position of
      those needing aid, and to “minimize our own vicarious pain” we help—we
      are empathetic. But Adam Smith restricted his discussion of empathy and
      mutual aid to humans. When Kropotkin lifted that restriction, he found
      what he needed. “Adam Smith's only mistake,” Kropotkin wrote, “was not
      to have understood that this same feeling of sympathy [what today we
      call empathy] in its habitual stage exists among animals as well as
      among men.” Problem 2 solved. Or so he thought.

      Almost 100 years after Kropotkin’s death, what can we say about his
      theory of mutual aid? Well, with 20/20 hindsight, he certainly made a
      mistake aligning himself to Lamarck, but it was a mistake that many,
      including Darwin, made. And it’s still a matter of heated debate whether
      nonhumans show empathy. My guess is that some do, but the data are
      scant. But Kropotkin’s primary legacy in the sciences is that he was in
      the forefront of challenging the prevailing Darwinian principle that
      evolution was strictly about competition and survival of the nastiest.

      Today, hundreds of papers come out annually on animal cooperation in
      nonhumans, and many of these papers show Kropotkin to be something of a
      prophet. But what Kropotkin cared about more than anything was that
      understanding mutual aid in animals might shed light on human
      cooperation and perhaps help save humanity from destroying itself.
      Whether that happens remains to be seen.

      Dan Clore

      New book: _Weird Words: A Lovecraftian Lexicon_:
      My collected fiction: _The Unspeakable and Others_
      Lord Weÿrdgliffe & Necronomicon Page:
      News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:

      Skipper: Professor, will you tell these people who is
      in charge on this island?
      Professor: Why, no one.
      Skipper: No one?
      Thurston Howell III: No one? Good heavens, this is anarchy!
      -- _Gilligan's Island_, episode #6, "President Gilligan"
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