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Kropotkin Was No Crackpot

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  • Dan Clore
    Kropotkin Was No Crackpot by Stephen Jay Gould In late 1909, two great men corresponded across religions, generations, and races. Leo Tolstoy, sage of
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 1, 2002
      Kropotkin Was No Crackpot

      by Stephen Jay Gould

      In late 1909, two great men corresponded across religions,
      generations, and races. Leo Tolstoy, sage of Christian
      nonviolence in his later years, wrote to the young Mohandas
      Gandhi, struggling for the rights of Indian settlers in
      South Africa:

      "helps our dear brothers and co-workers in the Transvaal.
      The same struggle of the tender against the harsh, of
      meekness and love against pride and violence, is every year
      making itself more and more felt here among us also."

      A year later, wearied by domestic strife, and unable to
      endure the contradiction of life in Christian poverty on a
      prosperous estate run with unwelcome income from his great
      novels (written before his religious conversion and
      published by his wife), Tolstoy fled by train for parts
      unknown and a simpler end to his waning days. He wrote to
      his wife:

      "My departure will distress you. I'm sorry about this, but
      do understand and believe that I couldn't do otherwise. My
      position in the house is becoming, or has become,
      unbearable. Apart from anything else, I can't live any
      longer in these conditions of luxury in which I have been
      living, and I'm doing what old men of my age commonly do:
      leaving this worldly life in order to live the last days of
      my life in peace and solitude."

      But Tolstoy's final journey was both brief and unhappy. Less
      than a month later, cold and weary from numerous long rides
      on Russian trains in approaching winter, he contracted
      pneumonia and died at age eighty-two in the stationmaster's
      home at the railroad stop ofAstapovo. Too weak to write, he
      dictated his last letter on November 1, 1910. Addressed to a
      son and daughter who did not share his views on Christian
      nonviolence, Tolstoy offered a last word of advice:

      "The views you have acquired about Darwinism, evolution, and
      the struggle for existence won't explain to you the meaning
      of your life and won't give you guidance in your actions,
      and a life without an explanation of its meaning and
      importance, and without the unfailing guidance that stems
      from it is a pitiful existence. Think about it. I say it,
      probably on the eve of my death, because I love you."

      Tolstoy's complaint has been the most common of all
      indictments against Darwin, from the publication of the
      _Origin of Species_ in 1859 to now. Darwinism, the charge
      contends, undermines morality by claiming that success in
      nature can only be measured by victory in bloody battle--the
      "struggle for existence" or "survival of the fittest" to
      cite Darwin's own choice of mottoes. If we wish "meekness
      and love" to triumph over "pride and violence" (as Tolstoy
      wrote to Gandhi), then we must repudiate Darwin's vision of
      nature's way--as Tolstoy stated in a final plea to his
      errant children.

      This charge against Darwin is unfair for two reasons. First,
      nature (no matter how cruel in human terms) provides no
      basis for our moral values. (Evolution might, at most, help
      to explain why we have moral feelings, but nature can never
      decide for us whether any particular action is right or
      wrong.) Second, Darwin's "struggle for existence" is an
      abstract metaphor, not an explicit statement about bloody
      battle. Reproductive success, the criterion of natural
      selection, works in many modes: Victory in battle may be one
      pathway, but cooperation, symbiosis, and mutual aid may also
      secure success in other times and contexts. In a famous
      passage, Darwin explained his concept of evolutionary
      struggle (_Origin of Species_, 1859, pp. 62-63):

      "I use this term in a large and metaphorical sense including
      dependence of one being on another, and including (which is
      more important) not only the life of the individual, but
      success in leaving progeny. Two canine animals, in a time of
      dearth, may be truly said to struggle with each other which
      shall get food and live. But a plant on the edge of a desert
      is said to struggle for life against the drought. ... As the
      mistletoe is disseminated by birds, its existence depends on
      birds; and it may metaphorically be said to struggle with
      other fruit-bearing plants, in order to tempt birds to
      devour and thus disseminate its seeds rather than those of
      other plants. In these several senses, which pass into each
      other, I use for convenience sake the general term of
      struggle for existence."

      Yet, in another sense, Tolstoy's complaint is not entirely
      unfounded. Darwin did present an encompassing, metaphorical
      definition of struggle, but his actual examples certainly
      favored bloody battle--"Nature, red in tooth and claw," in a
      line from Tennyson so overquoted that it soon became a
      knee-jerk cliche for this view of life. Darwin based his
      theory of natural selection on the dismal view of Malthus
      that growth in population must outstrip food supply and lead
      to overt battle for dwindling resources. Moreover, Darwin
      maintained a limited but controlling view of ecology as a
      world stuffed full of competing species--so balanced and so
      crowded that a new form could only gain entry by literally
      pushing a former inhabitant out. Darwin expressed this view
      in a metaphor even more central to his general vision than
      the concept of struggle--the metaphor of the wedge. Nature,
      Darwin writes, is like a surface with 10,000 wedges hammered
      tightly in and filling all available space. A new species
      (represented as a wedge) can only gain entry into a
      community by driving itself into a tiny chink and forcing
      another wedge out. Success, in this vision, can only be
      achieved by direct takeover in overt competition.

      Furthermore, Darwin's own chief disciple, Thomas Henry
      Huxley, advanced this "gladiatorial" view of natural
      selection (his word) in a series of famous essays about
      ethics. Huxley maintained that the predominance of bloody
      battle defined nature's way as nonmoral (not explicitly
      immoral, but surely unsuited as offering any guide to moral
      behavior). From the point of view of the moralist the animal
      world is about on a level of a gladiator's show. The
      creatures are fairly well treated, and set to fight--whereby
      the strongest, the swiftest, and the cunningest live to
      fight another day. The spectator has no need to turn his
      thumbs down, as no quarter is given.

      But Huxley then goes further. Any human society set up along
      these lines of nature will devolve into anarchy and
      misery--Hobbes' brutal world of _bellum omnium contra omnes_
      (where _bellum_ means "war," not beauty): the war of all
      against all. Therefore, the chief purpose of society must
      lie in mitigation of the struggle that defines nature's
      pathway. Study natural selection and do the opposite in
      human society:

      "But, in civilized society, the inevitable result of such
      obedience [to the law of bloody battle] is the
      re-establishment, in all its intensity, of that struggle for
      existence--the war of each against all--the mitigation or
      abolition of which was the chief end of social

      This apparent discordance between nature's way and any hope
      for human social decency has defined the major subject for
      debate about ethics and evolution ever since Darwin.
      Huxley's solution has won many supporters--nature is nasty
      and no guide to morality except, perhaps, as an indicator of
      what to avoid in human society. My own preference lies with
      a different solution based on taking Darwin's metaphorical
      view of struggle seriously (admittedly in the face of
      Darwin's own preference for gladiatorial examples)--nature
      is sometimes nasty, sometimes nice (really neither, since
      the human terms are so inappropriate). By presenting
      examples of all behaviors (under the metaphorical rubric of
      struggle), nature favors none and offers no guidelines. The
      facts of nature cannot provide moral guidance in any case.

      But a third solution has been advocated by some thinkers who
      do wish to find a basis for morality in nature and
      evolution. Since few can detect much moral comfort in the
      gladiatorial interpretation, this third position must
      reformulate the way of nature. Darwin's words about the
      metaphorical character of struggle offer a promising
      starting point. One might argue that the gladiatorial
      examples have been over-sold and misrepresented as
      predominant. Perhaps cooperation and mutual aid are the more
      common results of struggle for existence. Perhaps communion
      rather than cambat leads to greater reproductive success in
      most circumstances.

      The most famous expression of this third solution may be
      found in _Mutual Aid_, published in 1902 by the Russian
      revolutionary anarchist Petr Kropotkin. (We must shed the
      old stereotype of anarchists as bearded bomb throwers
      furtively stalking about city streets at night. Kropotkin
      was a genial man, almost saintly according to some, who
      promoted a vision of small communities setting their own
      standards by consensus for the benefit of all, thereby
      eliminating the need for most functions of a central
      government.) Kropotkin, a Russian nobleman, lived in English
      exile for political reasons. He wrote _Mutual Aid_ (in
      English) as a direct response to the essay of Huxley quoted
      above, "The Struggle for Existence in Human Society,"
      published in _The Nineteenth Century_, in February 1888.
      Kropotkin responded to Huxley with a series of articles,
      also printed in _The Nineteenth Century_ and eventually
      collected together as the book _Mutual Aid_.

      As the title suggests, Kropotkin argues, in his cardinal
      premise, that the struggle for existence usually leads to
      mutual aid rather than combat as the chief criterion of
      evolutionary success. Human society must therefore build
      upon our natural inclinations (not reverse them, as Huxley
      held) in formulating a moral
      order that will bring both peace and prosperity to our
      species. In a series of chapters, Kropotkin tries to
      illustrate continuity between natural selection for mutual
      aid among animals and the basis for success in increasingly
      progressive human social organization. His five sequential
      chapters address mutual aid among animals, among savages,
      among barbarians, in the medieval city, and amongst

      I confess that I have always viewed Kropotkin as daftly
      idiosyncratic, if undeniably well meaning. He is always so
      presented in standard courses on evolutionary biology--as
      one of those soft and woolly thinkers who let hope and
      sentimentality get in the way of analytic toughness and a
      willingness to accept nature as she is, warts and all. After
      all, he was a man of strange politics and unworkable ideals,
      wrenched from the context of his youth, a stranger in a
      strange land. Moreover, his portrayal of Darwin so matched
      his social ideals (mutual aid naturally given as a product
      of evolution without need for central authority) that one
      could only see personal hope rather than scientific accuracy
      in his accounts. Kropotkin has long been on my list of
      potential topics for an essay (if only because I wanted to
      read his book, and not merely mouth the textbook
      interpretation), but I never proceeded because I could find
      no larger context than the man himself. Kooky intellects are
      interesting as gossip, perhaps as psychology, but true
      idiosyncrasy provides the worst possible
      basis for generality.

      But this situation changed for me in a flash when I read a
      very fine article in the latest issue of _Isis_ (our leading
      professional journal in the history of science) by Daniel P.
      Todes: "Darwin's Malthusian Metaphor and Russian
      Evolutionary Thought, 1859-1917." I learned that the
      parochiality had been mine in my ignorance of Russian
      evolutionary thought, not Kropotkin's in his isolation in
      England. (I can read Russian, but only painfully, and with a
      dictionary--which means, for all practical purposes, that I
      can't read the language.) I knew that Darwin had become a
      hero of the Russian intelligentsia and had influenced
      academic life in Russia perhaps more than in any other
      country. But virtually none of this Russian work has ever
      been translated or even discussed in English literature. The
      ideas of this school are unknown to us; we do not even
      recognize the names of the major protagonists. I knew
      Kropotkin because he had published in English and lived in
      England, but I never understood that he represented a
      standard, well-developed Russian critique of Darwin, based
      on interesting reasons and coherent national traditions.
      Todes's article does not make Kropotkin more correct, but it
      does place his writing into a general context that demands
      our respect and produces substantial enlightenment.
      Kropotkin was part of a mainstream flowing in an unfamiliar
      direction, not an isolated little arroyo.

      This Russian school of Darwinian critics, Todes argues,
      based their major premise upon a firm rejection of Malthus's
      claim that competition, in the gladiatorial mode, must
      dominate in an ever more crowded world, where population,
      growing geometrically, inevitably outstrips a food supply
      that can only increase arithmeticall. Tolstoy, speaking for
      a consensus of his compatriots, branded Malthus as a
      "malicious mediocrity."

      Todes finds a diverse set of reasons behind Russian
      hostility to Malthus. Political objections to the
      dog-eat-dog character of Western industrial competition
      arose from both ends of the Russian spectrum. Todes writes:

      "Radicals, who hoped to build a socialist society, saw
      Malthusianism as a reactionary current in bourgeois
      political economy. Conservatives, who hoped to preserve the
      communal virtues of tsarist Russia, saw it as an expression
      of the 'British national type.'"

      But Todes identifies a far more interesting reason in the
      immediate experience of Russia's land and natural history.
      We all have a tendency to spin universal theories from a
      limited domain of surrounding circumstance. Many geneticists
      read the entire world of evolution in the confines of a
      laboratory bottle filled with flies. My own increasing
      dubiousness about universal adaptation arises in large part,
      no doubt, because I study a peculiar snail that varies so
      widely and capriciously across an apparrently unvarying
      environment, rather than a bird in flight or some marvel of
      natural design.

      Russia is an immense country, under-populated by any
      nineteenth-century measure of its agricultural potential.
      Russia is also, over most of its area, a harsh land, where
      competition is more likely to pit organism against
      environment (as in Darwin's metaphorical struggle of a plant
      at the desert's edge) than organism against organism in
      direct and bloody battle. How could any Russian, with a
      strong feel for his own countryside, see Malthus's principle
      of overpopulation as a foundation for evolutionary theory?
      Todes writes:

      "It was foreign to their experience because, quite simply,
      Russia's huge land mass dwarfed its sparse population. For a
      Russian to see an inexorably increasing population
      inevitably straining potential supplies of food and space
      required quite a leap of imagination."

      If these Russian critics could honestly tie their personal
      skepticism to the view from their own backyard, they could
      also recognize that Darwin's contrary enthusiasms might
      record the parochiality of his different surroundings,
      rather than a set of necessarily universal truths. Malthus
      makes a far better prophet in a crowded, industrial country
      professing an ideal of open competition in free markets.
      Moreover, the point has often been made that both Darwin and
      Alfred Russel Wallace independently developed the theory of
      natural selection after primary experience with natural
      history in the tropics. Both claimed inspiration from
      Malthus, again independently; but if fortune favors the
      prepared mind, then their tropical experience probably
      predisposed both men to read Malthus with resonance and
      approval. No other area on earth is so packed with species,
      and therefore so replete with competition of body against
      body. An Englishman who had learned the ways of nature in
      the tropics was almost bound to view evolution differently
      from a Russian nurtured on tales of the Siberian wasteland.

      For example, N. I. Danilevsky, an expert on fisheries and
      population dynamics, published a large, two-volume critique
      of Darwinism in 1885. He identified struggle for personal
      gain as the credo of a distinctly British "national type,"
      as contrasted with old Slavic values of collectivism. An
      English child, he writes, "boxes one on one, not in a group
      as we Russians like to spar." Danilevsky viewed Darwinian
      competition as "a purely English doctrine" founded upon a
      line of British thought stretching from Hobbes through Adam
      Smith to Malthus. Natural selection, he wrote, is rooted in
      "the war of all against all, now termed the struggle for
      existence--Hobbes' theory of politics; on competition--the
      economic theory of Adam Smith. . . . Malthus applied the
      very same principle to the problem of population. . ..
      Darwin extended both Malthus' partial theory and the general
      theory of the political economists to the organic world."
      (Quotes are from Todes's article.)

      When we turn to Kropotkin's _Mutual Aid_ in the light of
      Todes's discoveries about Russian evolutionary thought, we
      must reverse the traditional view and interpret this work as
      mainstream Russian criticism, not personal crankiness. The
      central logic of Kropotkin's argument is simple,
      straightforward, and largely cogent. Kropotkin begins by
      acknowledging that struggle plays a central role in the
      lives of organisms and also provides the chief impetus for
      their evolution. But Kropotkin holds that struggle must not
      be viewed as a unitary phenomenon. It must be divided into
      two fundamentally different forms with contrary evolutionary
      meanings. We must recognize, first of all, the struggle of,
      organism against organism for limited resources--the theme
      that Malthus imparted to Darwin and that Huxley described as
      gladiatorial. This form of direct struggle does lead to
      competition for personal benefit.

      But a second form of struggle--the style that Darwin called
      metaphorical--pits organism against the harshness of
      surrounding physical environments, not against other members
      of the same species. Organisms must struggle to keep warm,
      to survive the sudden and unpredictable dangers of fire and
      storm, to persevere through harsh periods of drought, snow,
      or pestilence. These forms of struggle between organism and
      environment are best waged by cooperation among members of
      the same species--by mutual aid. If the struggle for
      existence pits two lions against one zebra, then we shall
      witness a feline battle and an equine carnage. But if lions
      are struggling jointly against the harshness of an inanimate
      environment, then fighting will not remove the common
      enemy--while cooperation may overcome a peril beyond the
      power of any single individual to surmount.

      Kropotkin therefore created a dichotomy within the general
      notion of struggle--two forms with opposite import: (1)
      organism against organism of the same species for limited
      resources, leading to competition; and (2) organism against
      environment, leading to cooperation.

      "No naturalist will doubt that the idea of a struggle for
      life carried on through organic nature is the greatest
      generalization of our century. Life is struggle; and in that
      struggle the fittest survive. But the answers to the
      questions "by which arms is the struggle chiefly carried
      on?" and "who are the fittest in the struggle?" will widely
      differ according to the importance given to the two
      different aspects of the struggle: the direct one, for food
      and safety among separate individuals, and the struggle
      which Darwin described as 'metaphorical'--the struggle, very
      often collective, against adverse circumstances."

      Darwin acknowledged that both forms existed, but his loyalty
      to Malthus and his vision of nature chock-full of species
      led him to emphasize the competitive aspect. Darwin's less
      sophisticated votaries then exalted the competitive view to
      near exclusivity, and heaped a social and moral meaning upon
      it as well.

      "They came to conceive of the animal world as a world of
      perpetual struggle among half-starved individuals, thirsting
      for one another's blood. They made modern literature resound
      with the war-cry of _woe to the vanquished_, as if it were
      the last word of modern biology. They raised the 'pitiless'
      struggle for personal advantages to the height of a
      biological principle which man must submit to as well, under
      the menace of otherwise succumbing in a world based upon
      mutual extermination."

      Kropotkin did not deny the competitive form of struggle, but
      he argued that the cooperative style had been
      underemphasized and must balance or even predominate over
      competition in considering nature as a whole.

      "There is an immense amount of warfare and extermination
      going on amidst various species; there is, at the same time,
      as much, or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual
      aid, and mutual defense. . . . Sociability is as much a law
      of nature as mutual struggle."

      As Kropotkin cranked through his selected examples, and
      built up steam for his own preferences, he became more and
      more convinced that the cooperative style, leading to mutual
      aid, not only predominated in general but also characterized
      the most advanced creatures in any group--ants among
      insects, mammals among vertebrates. Mutual aid therefore
      becomes a more important principle than competition and

      "If we . . . ask Nature: 'who are the fittest: those who are
      continually at war with each other, or those who support one
      another?' we at once see that those animals which acquire
      habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest. They have
      more chances to survive, and they attain, in their
      respective classes, the highest development of intelligence
      and bodily organization."

      If we ask why Kropotkin favored cooperation while most
      nineteenth-century Darwinians advocated competition as the
      predominant result of struggle in nature, two major reasons
      stand out. The first seems less interesting, as obvious
      under the slightly cynical but utterly realistic principle
      that true believers tend to read their social preferences
      into nature. Kropotkin, the anarchist who yearned to replace
      laws of central government with consensus of local
      communities, certainly hoped to locate a deep preference for
      mutual aid in the innermost evolutionary marrow of our
      being. Let mutual aid pervade nature and human cooperation
      becomes a simple instance of the law of life.

      "Neither the crushing powers of the centralized State nor
      the teachings of mutual hatred and pitiless struggle which
      came, adorned with the attributes of science, from obliging
      philosophers and sociologists, could weed out the feeling of
      human solidarity, deeply lodged in men's understanding and
      heart, because it has been nurtured by all our preceding

      But the second reason is more enlightening, as a welcome
      empirical input from Kropotkin's own experience as a
      naturalist and an affirmation of Todes's intriguing thesis
      that the usual flow from ideology to interpretation of
      nature may sometimes be reversed, and that landscape can
      color social preference. As a young man, long before his
      conversion to political radicalism, Kropotkin spent five
      years in Siberia (1862-1866) just after Darwin published the
      _Origin of Species_. He went as a military officer, but his
      commission served as a convenient cover for his yearning to
      study the geology, geography, and zoology of Russia's vast
      interior. There, in the polar opposite to Darwin's tropical
      experiences, he dwelled in the environment least conducive
      to Malthus's vision. He observed a sparsely populated world,
      swept with frequent catastrophes that threatened the few
      species able to find a place in such bleakness. As a
      potential disciple of Darwin, he looked for competition, but
      rarely found any. Instead, he continually observed the
      benefits of mutual aid in coping with an exterior harshness
      that threatened all alike and could not be overcome by the
      analogues of warfare and boxing.

      Kropotkin, in short, had a personal and empirical reason to
      look with favor upon cooperation as a natural force. He
      chose this theme as the opening paragraph for _Mutual Aid_:

      "Two aspects of animal life impressed me most during the
      journeys which I made in my youth in Eastern Siberia and
      Northern Manchuria. One of them was the extreme severity of
      the struggle for existence which most species of animals
      have to carry on against an inclement Nature; the enormous
      destruction of life which periodically results from natural
      agencies; and the consequent paucity of life over the vast
      territory which fell under my observation. And the other
      was, that even in those few spots where animal life teemed
      in abundance, I failed to find--although I was eagerly
      looking for it--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 struggle
      for life, and the main factor of evolution."

      What can we make of Kropotkin's argument today, and that of
      the entire Russian school represented by him? Were they just
      victims of cultural hope and intellectual conservatism? I
      don't think so. In fact, I would hold that Kropotkin's basic
      argument is correct. Struggle does occur in many modes, and
      some lead to cooperation among members of a species as the
      best pathway to advantage for individuals. If Kropotkin
      overemphasized mutual aid, most Darwinians in Western Europe
      had exaggerated competition just as strongly. If Kropotkin
      drew inappropriate hope for social reform from his concept
      of nature, other Darwinians had erred just as firmly (and
      for motives that most of us would now decry) in justifying
      imperial conquest, racism, and oppression of industrial
      workers as the harsh outcome of natural selection in the
      competitive mode.

      I would fault Kropotkin only in two ways--one technical, the
      other general. He did commit a common conceptual error in
      failing to recognize that natural selection is an argument
      about advantages to individual organisms, however they may
      struggle. The result of struggle for existence may be
      cooperation rather than competition, but mutual aid must
      benefit individual organisms in Darwin's world of
      explanation. Kropotkin sometimes speaks of mutual aid as
      selected for the benefit of entire populations or species--a
      concept foreign to classic Darwinian logic (where organisms
      work, albeit unconsciously, for their own benefit in terms
      of genes passed to future generations). But Kropotkin also
      (and often) recognized that selection for mutual aid
      directly benefits each individual in its own struggle for
      personal success. Thus, if Kropotkin did not grasp the full
      implication of Darwin's basic argument, he did include the
      orthodox solution as his primary justification for mutual

      More generally, I like to apply a somewhat cynical rule of
      thumb in judging arguments about nature that also have overt
      social implications: When such claims imbue nature with just
      those properties that make us feel good or fuel our
      prejudices, be doubly suspicious. I am especially wary of
      arguments that find kindness, mutuality, synergism,
      harmony--the very elements that we strive mightily, and so
      often unsuccessfully, to put into our own
      lives--intrinsically in nature. I see no evidence for
      Teilhard's noosphere, for Capra's California style of
      holism, for Sheldrake's morphic resonance. Gaia strikes me
      as a metaphor, not a mechanism. (Metaphors can be liberating
      and enlightening, but new scientific theories must supply
      new statements about causality. Gaia, to me, only seems to
      reformulate, in different terms, the basic conclusions long
      achieved by classically reductionist arguments of
      biogeochemical cycling theory.) There are no shortcuts to
      moral insight. Nature is not intrinsically anything that can
      offer comfort or solace in human terms--if only because our
      species is such an insignificant latecomer in a world not
      constructed for us. So much the better. The answers to moral
      dilemmas are not lying out there, waiting to be discovered.
      They reside, like the kingdom of God, within us--the most
      difficult and inaccessible spot for any discovery or

      Dan Clore

      Now available: _The Unspeakable and Others_
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      I've watched the dogs of war enjoying their feast
      I've seen the western world go down in the east
      The food of love became the greed of our time
      But now we're living on the profits of crime
      --Black Sabbath, "Hole in the Sky"
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