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Kropotkin was no crackpot. 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:.
God 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 wifeTolstoy fled by train for parts unknown and a simpler end to his waning days. He wrote to his wife:. My departure will distress you. My position in the house is becoming, or has become, unbearable. Carckpot weak to write, he dictated crakpot last letter on November 1, Addressed to a son and daughter who did not share his views on Christian nonviolence, Tolstoy offered a last word of advice:.
I say it, probably on the eve of wss death, because I kfopotkin you. 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 on, 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.
Reproductive success, the criterion of natural selection, works in many modes: Victory in battle may be one pathway, but cooperation, symbiosis, and mutual aid bo also secure success in other times and contexts.
In a famous passage, Darwin explained his concept of evolutionary struggle Origin of Species,pp. 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. 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, 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.
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. 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 organization. By presenting examples of all behaviors under the metaphorical rubric of strugglenature 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. 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 combat leads to greater reproductive success in most circumstances. The most famous expression of this third solution may be found in Mutual Aid, published in 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 xrackpot political reasons.
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. His five sequential chapters address mutual aid among animals, among savages, among barbarians, in the medieval city, and amongst ourselves. 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 interpretationbut 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.
Kropotkin Was No Crackpot
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.
Kropotkin was part of a mainstream flowing in an unfamiliar direction, not an isolated little arroyo. 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. Radicals, who hoped to build a socialist society, saw Malthusianism as a reactionary current in bourgeois political economy.
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 fruit 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 apparently unvarying environment, rather than a bird in flight or some other marvel of natural design.
Russia is an immense country, under-populated by any nineteenth-century measure of its agricultural potential. For a Russian to see an inexorably increasing population inevitably straining potential supplies of food and space required quite a leap of imagination. 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.
Danilevsky, an expert on fisheries and population dynamics, published a large, two-volume critique of Darwinism in Malthus applied the very same principle to the problem of population.
Kropotkin begins by acknowledging that struggle plays a central role in the lives of organisms and also provides the chief cracmpot 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.
Stephen Jay Gould, Kropotkin Was No Crackpot – PhilPapers
But if lions are struggling jointly against the harshness of an inanimate environment, then lighting 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: 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. 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.
They made modern literature krropotkin with the war-cry of woe to the vanquished, as if it were the last word of modern biology. 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 cradkpot 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, kropoykin to mutual aid, not only predominated in general but also characterized the most advanced creatures in any group-ants among insects, mammals among vertebrates.
Crckpot aid therefore becomes a more important principle than competition and slaughter:. They have more chances kroptkin 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 krkpotkin 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 kropotkinn 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 kgopotkin aid in the innermost evolutionary marrow of our being.