Darwin’s publication of About the origin of species triggered great battles. Perhaps the most famous was between science and religion, but there were also disputes within science. One of the most contentious was whether natural selection favored cooperative or competitive behaviors, a battle that still rages today. For almost 100 years, no one has done more to promote the study of the evolution of cooperation than Peter Kropotkin.
Kropotkin traveled the world to talk about the evolution of cooperation, which he called “mutual aid”, in animals and humans. Sometimes the trip was voluntary, but often it wasn’t: he was imprisoned, banished or expelled from many of the most respectable countries of his time. 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 his science were united by the law of mutual aid: that cooperation was the predominant evolutionary force that directs all social life, from microbes to humans.
Kropotkin was also a Russian prince. A private tutor named Poulain told him about the French Revolution and smuggled anarchist ideas into the Kropotkin household, where Peter’s father played tunes 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 privileged child. He once had a strange encounter with Tsar Nicholas I at a royal ball, and years later Peter ended up enrolling in the Corps of Pages.
Kropotkin’s father couldn’t have been happier about his son’s prospects in this elite breeding ground for the next generation of Russian leaders. Peter, however, was bored to death. “Day after day passes,” he wrote to his beloved brother, Sasha, “almost the best days of life and you can’t use them, you just vegetate, you don’t live.” He quickly rose to become the Corps’ top student, which also made him chief page to Tsar Alexander II (who had succeeded Nicholas I). When he wasn’t tending to the Tsar’s needs or attending classes, Peter spent his time doing what he loved most: soaking up the beauty of nature, reading about the anarchist movement in flourish in Russia and learn radical new ideas about evolution and natural selection. propagated by an Englishman named Charles Darwin.
One of the advantages of being the Corps’ top student was that when he graduated in 1862, he had first choice for any government appointment. To the astonishment of his friends and the amazement of his father, he requested an appointment in the newly annexed Amur region of Siberia. The strange choice caught the attention of Tsar Alexander II, who asked, “So you’re going to Siberia?” Aren’t you afraid to go so far? “No,” replied Peter, “I want to work.” “Well, go ahead,” the Tsar told him. “We can be useful everywhere.” And so, on July 27, 1862, he left.
Kropotkin’s adventures during his five years in Siberia were the subject of films. He traveled 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 in below zero…” His job was to inspect the dreaded prisons of Siberia, filled not only with criminals but also with political agitators. He did it conscientiously, but with disgust. The border of Siberia, he wrote, should have a sign like Dante’s Hell“Abandon all hope, you who enter here.” The rest of his time was spent 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 world of Darwinian competition. He searched high and low, but nothing. “I failed to find, although I looked for it eagerly,” writes Kropotkin, “that bitter struggle for the means of existence, between 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 in evolution.
Instead, he saw mutual aid – everywhere. “In all these scenes of animal life which have unfolded before my eyes,” wrote Kropotkin, “I have seen Mutual Aid and Mutual Support continue to a point which made me suspect in him a trait of the highest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species and its subsequent evolution. And it wasn’t just in animals. The peasants of the villages he visited constantly helped each other in their struggle against the brutal environment of Siberia. Moreover, he noted a correlation between the extent of mutual aid displayed in a peasant village and the remoteness of that village from the hand of the government. This was exactly what the anarchists had suggested. “I lost in Siberia,” he wrote, “whatever faith in state discipline I had cherished before. I was ready to become an anarchist.
He was also willing to challenge biological orthodoxy that natural selection only leads to competition. He was still a Darwinist, and adamant, but he believed that the process of natural selection, especially in brutal climates like Siberia, could lead to mutual aid, not just competition. His budding ideas about anarchism and biological evolution were beginning to coalesce into one.
After five years in Siberia, Kropotkin continued his education at St. Petersburg University, where on paper he focused on mathematics, but in reality his major was studying to become an anarchist. He was gifted enough that the Tsar had him arrested and thrown into the Peter and Paul prison in St. Petersburg. Kropotkin described his story: “Here Peter I tortured his son Alexis and killed him with his own hand…here Princess Tarakánova was kept in a cell that filled with water during a flood , the rats climbing over her to save themselves from drowning…here were an annals of murder and torture, of men buried alive, condemned to a slow death or driven to madness in the solitude of dark, damp dungeons. Eventually, Peter escaped. It was an incredible front-page news escape, involving months of preparation, spies, accomplices outside the prison pretending to be drunk to distract the guards, and a co-conspirator playing a mazurka at the violin as a signal to pause for this.
Soon after, Kropotkin traveled to England. He challenged Darwin’s supporters, notably Thomas Henry Huxley, and their claims that natural selection almost always leads to competition. Yes, Kropotkin admitted, it happens sometimes, especially in the tropics, but mutual aid was just as common, if not more so. It was a biological and political reality. “The ant, the bird, the groundhog… read neither Kant, nor the Church Fathers, nor even Moses,” writes Kropotkin. “So the idea of good and evil has nothing to do with religion or a mystical consciousness. It is a natural need of animal races. And when the founders of religions, philosophers and moralists talk to us about 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 anarchismand Ethics. He lectured across Europe – in places that hadn’t banned or expelled him for being a troublemaker – and on two long speaking tours in the United States. He would probably have returned for a third tour, but after the assassination of President McKinley, anarchists were personae non grata in America. Rumors even circulated in the United States with the absurd idea that Kropotkin was somehow connected to the assassination.
From the first decade of the 20and century, two things still troubled Kropotkin in his theory of the evolution of cooperation. He had argued that when environmental conditions changed and mutual aid was particularly helpful, it seemed to take hold quickly in a population. Very quickly. So rapidly that it simply could not be explained by the slow, gradual changes proposed by Darwinian theory at the time. An evolutionist through and through, Kropotkin turned to the ideas of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who had offered his own ideas decades before Darwin about how evolution worked. Lamarck suggested that habits acquired during an organism’s lifetime could be passed on to the next generation. For example, if shorebirds stretched their muscles as much as possible to pull themselves up on wet sandy beaches, their offspring would have longer legs as a result. With the Lamarckian legacy, massive change can happen in a single generation. This gave Kropotkin the speed he needed to explain how mutual aid had grown so rapidly. Problem 1 solved. Or so he supported.
Problem 2 was this: in real time, as it happened, what caused an animal to dispense with mutual aid? Kropotkin turned to economist Adam Smith for insight. Although Kropotkin despised the capitalist system that Smith had designed in Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nationshe was in love with an earlier book by Smith titled The theory of moral feelings. In it, Smith argued that humans provide mutual aid because we mentally put ourselves in the position of those in need of help, and to “minimize our own pain vicariously” we help – we are empathetic . But Adam Smith limited his discussion of empathy and self-help to humans. When Kropotkin lifted this restriction, he found what he needed. “Adam Smith’s only mistake,” writes Kropotkin, “was not to have understood that this same feeling of sympathy [what today we call empathy] in its usual stage exists among animals as well as among men. Problem 2 solved. Or so he thought.
Almost 100 years after Kropotkin’s death, what about his mutual aid theory? Well, 20/20 hindsight, he certainly made a mistake in aligning himself with Lamarck, but it was a mistake that many, including Darwin, made. And whether nonhumans show empathy is still hotly debated. I suspect some do, but data is sparse. But Kropotkin’s main legacy in science is that he was at the forefront of challenging the prevailing Darwinian principle that evolution was strictly about competition and the survival of the baddest.
Today, hundreds of articles come out every year about animal cooperation among non-humans, and many of these articles show that Kropotkin is something of a prophet. But what concerned Kropotkin more than anything was that understanding mutual aid among animals could shed light on human cooperation and perhaps help prevent humanity from self-destructing. Whether that happens remains to be seen.