A polymath mind: Kropotkin’s contributions to science

While Peter Kropotkin is today best remembered as a leading anarchist thinker, one of the most persuasive advocates of anarchist communism, we should not forget that he was also a world-renown scientist, a geographer who revolutionised our understanding of the physical features of Asia. His stature was such that as well as his justly famous – and much reprinted – entry on Anarchism for the 11th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, he also contributed entries on the physical and human geography of Russia and Asia.

Little wonder an obituary was published in The Geographical Journal expressing regret that Kropotkin’s “absorption” in his political activities “seriously diminished the services which otherwise he might have rendered to Geography.” He “was a keen observer, with a well-trained intellect, familiar with all the sciences bearing on his subject” and his “contributions to geographical science are of the highest value.”

Kropotkin considered it essential for socialists to earn their own living and while in exile in Britain did so by writing for scientific journals and on scientific topics for leading journals, primarily The Nineteenth Century. As well as writing its “Recent Science” column between 1892 and 1902 (with ill-health ending that source of income), he wrote on a whole range of issues – from anarchism (contributing two articles in 1887 which would later be revised as the Freedom Press pamphlet Anarchist Communism: Its Basis and Principles), to commentary on events in Russia and on the self-defeating nature of prisons (based on his own experiences in French and Russian jails). It was in its pages that he first expounded his most famous scientific work, namely popularising the theory of mutual aid within evolution and its ramifications (such as the evolution of morality).

Like communist-anarchism (which had arisen first in the Italian section of the First International whilst Kropotkin was imprisoned in Tzarist Russia), the theory of mutual aid was advocated by many Russian scientists before Kropotkin became its most famous champion. As Daniel P. Todes has shown in Darwin Without Malthus: The Struggle for Existence in Russian Evolutionary Thought (1989), the idea that co-operation existed in nature just as much, if not more so, than competition was commonplace in Russia in the late nineteenth century. Kropotkin, as he himself admitted, was simply popularising the theory to a British audience and backing his account up with substantial empirical evidence.

Regardless of what some claim, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902) is not an anarchist work. Rather, like his Fields, Factories and Workshops (1898, 1912), it is a work of popular science written by a leading anarchist thinker. Its conclusion – that co-operation between individuals of the same species is more beneficial that competition – can be agreed to without having anarchist politics, particularly given the wealth of evidence Kropotkin marshals to support his argument (he added new evidence when he revised Mutual Aid for the 1907 Russian edition). The book showed that “those animals which acquire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest” because “life in societies is the most powerful weapon in the struggle for life, taken in its widest sense.” Thus co-operation provides “more chances to survive” and animals and humans “find in association the best arms for the struggle for life: understood, of course, in its wide Darwinian sense.”

So the basic idea of mutual aid is simple enough: animals which co-operative together have a greater chance of survival than those which do not. In other words, a group of, say, apes would survive and reproduce far better by working together against the trials and tribulations nature throws at it than one whose members were constantly at each other’s throats. Moreover, as Kropotkin makes clear, the theory of mutual aid is not anti-Darwinian and he repeatedly notes its origins in Darwin’s own works, especially The Descent of Man. That he penned it in response to the speculations of Thomas Henry Huxley, “Darwin’s Bulldog”, on “The Struggle for Existence in Human Society” is an irony which should not be forgotten.

Given this, it comes as no surprise that the theory of mutual aid was later independently rediscovered by scientists. Robert Trivers, in The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism (1971), showed that “under certain conditions natural selection favours these altruistic behaviours because in the long run they benefit the organism performing them.”This was summarised by Richard Dawkins in the second (and subsequent) editions of The Selfish Gene and its discussion of “Tit-for-Tat”, namely if animals co-operated by default and subsequently repeat (reciprocate) what another did previously (i.e., it will never be the first to defect and will retaliate against selfish behaviour) then co-operation becomes the best evolutionary strategy.

Dawkins rightly suggests that “Tit for Tat” ensures animals “prosper from mutual co-operation” and does so by rewarding co-operative behaviour and punishing those who do not reciprocate. This echoes Kropotkin, who argued that the uncooperative would be penalised, that “selfish” individuals would be “treated as an enemy, or worse” by their fellows. While not the focus of his book (which was to document the co-operative behaviour so many Victorian scientists denied), a close reading of Mutual Aid shows that it addresses the issue of individuals abusing the cooperativeness of their colleagues. Kropotkin acknowledged that “anti-social instincts continue to exist” but “natural selection continually must eliminate them” as those with “predatory inclinations” would be “eliminated in favour of those who understand the advantages of sociable life and mutual support.” Life in common meant while individual competition existed, these “unsociable instincts have no opportunity to develop, and the general result is peace and harmony” for “[i]f every individual were constantly abusing its personal advantages without the others interfering in favour of the wronged, no society-life would be possible.”

Thus Kropotkin postulated the mechanism by which co-operative behaviour could flourish long before Triver’s work and “Tit-for-Tat”. Unsurprisingly, he stressed the need for social pressure to minimise anti-social behaviour in an anarchist society in such works as Anarchist Morality and Conquest of Bread (both published before Mutual Aid). Kropotkin’s co-operators are not “suckers”, to use Richard Dawkins terminology, but rather “grudgers”, individuals who co-operate but “if any individual cheats them, they remember the incident and bear a grudge.” In this way, individual who co-operate flourish while those who abuse the helpfulness of their neighbours suffer and eventually disappear into an evolutionary dead-end.

Mutual aid is now a staple of evolutionary theory but  better known by Triver’s nomenclature, “reciprocal altruism”. As Stephen Jay Gould noted in his classic (if unfortunately entitled) essay “Kropotkin was no crackpot” concluded, “Kropotkin’s basic argument is correct. Struggle does occur in many modes, and some lead to co-operation among members of a species as the best pathway to advantage for individuals”. Moreover, Kropotkin showed that “mutual aid must benefit individual organisms in Darwin’s world of explanation” and so “did include the orthodox solution as his primary justification for mutual aid.” (Bully for Brontosaurus) Other biologists and naturalists have made the same point.

This is not the only aspect of Trivers’ ideas which Kropotkin predated by decades. Trivers suggested that a “very agreeable feature of my reciprocal altruism, which I had not anticipated in advance, was that a sense of justice or fairness seemed a natural consequence of selection for reciprocal altruism. That is, you could easily imagine that sense of fairness would evolve as a way of regulating reciprocal tendencies.” Yet this had been anticipated in Mutual Aid:

“Moreover, it is evident that life in societies would be utterly impossible without a corresponding development of social feelings, and, especially, of a certain collective sense of justice growing to become a habit . . . And feelings of justice develop, more or less, with all gregarious animals.”

Here it is worthwhile noting that mutual aid is not the same as altruism. While the latter, strictly defined, implies a sacrifice to the giver and a benefit to the receiver, mutual aid implies a benefit to both parties. Thus a wolf pack cooperates because by so doing the individual animals will have access to more food than if they hunted alone. Likewise, their prey cooperate because it gives them a better chance of defending themselves and their offspring against the wolves. Thus the desire to survive drives co-operation rather than some vague altruistic sentiment.

Yet mutual aid is related to altruism for, as Kropotkin put it in an article in the Nineteen Century later revised for his book Ethics, “Mutual Aid-Justice-Morality are thus the consecutive steps of an ascending series.” Morality “developed later than the others” and so was “an unstable feeling and the least imperative of the three.” Mutual aid simply ensured “the ground is prepared for the further and the more general development of more refined relations.”

The idea that morality has evolved as a product of social life is also becoming well-established in modern science. Dawkins summarised this work in The God Delusionwhich has a useful discussion of “Does our moral sense have a Darwinian Origin?” However, Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal is better informed of the origins of the ideas Dawkins popularises, noting how Kropotkin was the first amongst those who had “pondered the origins of a cooperative, and ultimately moral, society without invoking false pretence, Freudian denial schemes, or cultural indoctrination. In this they proved the true followers of Darwin.” (Primates and Philosophers : how morality evolved). So co-operation and altruism are as “Darwinian” as competition and selfishness, as the likes of Dawkins himself has shown.

Thus mutual aid explains the evolution of both co-operation, justice and altruism, all facts documented in animal life which have caused “nature, red in tooth and claw” biologists some concern (if they acknowledge it at all) as their theory suggests these simply cannot exist. Yet the very fact that “evolutionary theory” could even have “an altruism problem” in the first place shows both the limitation of the mainstream perspective and the impact of cultural and class influences on the scientists “discovering” it. Simply put, any “laws of evolution” which cannot explain co-operative and altruistic behaviour given their widespread existence are far from complete.

A recent example of this ideological blindness is shown by the discovery of ant colonies which include genetically unrelated ants. Mainstream socio-biology explains ant co-operation by colonies sharing a common genetic heritage (just as kinship is used to explain animal cooperation within groups). These mega-colonies, according to some so-called scientists, violate “the laws of evolution”. Yet they do no such thing: they simply violate their theory of evolution, which is clearly incomplete. Kropotkin, in contrast, would have had little difficulty in explaining why the ants co-operate – rather than wage war over resources, expending energy killing or being killed, they use that time and energy to work together to best utilise those resources and so secure a better existence for themselves and ensure their offspring survive. It is surely a delightful cosmic coincidence that these super-colonies are flourishing in the Jura Mountains, birthplace of revolutionary anarchism.

Yet, because Kropotkin died before the genetics breakthrough, some suggest that he provides no mechanism by which the traits required by mutual aid are inherited. This is true, as he lived before the definitive triumph of Mendelian inheritance within biology. Yet the same can be said of Darwin and that does not mean rejecting natural selection. Accepting Darwin’s theory, Kropotkin argued that co-operation within a species ensures that individual animals and their offspring have a better chance of survival in the face of a hostile environment. In short, the same mechanism Darwin pointed to was at the heart of mutual aid.

While Kropotkin did champion Lamarckian theories of inheritance against what he considered the baneful influence of August Weismann, this aspect of his ideas is no more required for mutual aid that Darwin’s pangenesis is for natural selection. So it must be stressed that Kropotkin’s Lamarckian tendencies and his opposition to Weisman, while now recognised as wrong, can be understood in the context of the ideological (rather than scientific) debates of the time. Lamarckian ideas were scientifically respectable then – and remained so until the 1930s – and Kropotkin had no difficulty proving Darwin’s own acceptance of them and how these came increasingly to the fore in subsequent editions of On the Origins of Species (in articles written for the Nineteenth Century after Mutual Aid was published). Kropotkin was rightly worried that Weismann’s arguments about heritability meant that an organism was unaffected by its environment. This came to the fore in the debates on eugenics which, as Kropotkin acidly noted, reflected “all the hatred of the upper classes of England against the poor of their nation”. Thus the notion that the environment had no impact on an organism reflected the reactionary notion that individuals were ‘born bad’ and so changing their social conditions was pointless, leaving serialisation of those deemed ‘unfit’ or ‘degenerate’ as the only alternative. Kropotkin rightly replied that “the great problem of medicine and social hygiene is to eliminate the conditions which always produce new degenerate families” which “contradicts the rantings of the ‘eugenicists.’” (“Comment lutter contre la dégénérescence: Conclusions d’un professeur de physiologie”, Les Temps Nouveaux, 8 and 15 November 1913)

We now know that genetic heritability, whether it is high or low, implies nothing about modifiability which  is deeply impacted by environment and so nature and nurture interact. In other words, while Kropotkin – like Darwin – has been proven wrong in his favoured assumptions on the mechanism by which animals evolve, he was right to stress the impact of environment influences on individuals in terms of how their genetic inheritance develops. Ironically, the “hard” inheritance he spent so much time trying to refute between 1910 and 1914 actually provides a more secure basis for Kropotkin’s position for Lamarckian evolutionary processes could mean that, given sufficient State repression, co-operative instincts could disappear. However, it should not be forgotten that Kropotkin recognised that cooperative instincts reflected a long evolutionary history as well as always rejecting the more superficial claims against Lamarckian theories (such as the notion that cutting off the tails of mice would soon produce a tailless offspring).

If conditions can shape individual animals and how they develop, the same can be said of how mutual aid instincts express themselves. Kropotkin was well aware that social conditions can impact on how much mutual aid was practiced in a given group or by an individual. This is why he wholeheartedly supported both class struggle and social revolution as the means of bolstering mutual aid tendences within humanity – not least by eliminating the class divisions within it. Unsurprisingly, then, Mutual Aid indicates unions, strikes and co-operatives as expressions of mutual aid within current society, being the means by which working class people can defend themselves against the hostile environment of capitalism.

So it is important to stress that Kropotkin did not, as many like to suggest, ignore the fact of individual conflict within groups. As the subtitle of Mutual Aid indicates, he was well aware that it was simply “a factor of evolution” and he explicitly noted that his book was simply the first stage of a wider work which would seek to evaluate the relative importance of both factors in evolution. Thus Mutual Aid was deliberately one-sided in the sense of documenting beyond reasonable doubt that co-operation existed within nature, proving a fact which many scientists denied it or dismissed it as little more than wishful thinking in spite of its widespread existence within nature. It was, as Kropotkin stressed, “a book on the law of Mutual Aid, viewed at as one of the chief factors of evolution – not of all factors of evolution and their respective values.”

As Mutual Aid shows, humanity’s tendency to co-operate as equals faces our tendency to exploit and oppress others. He sketches how this conflict through the centuries is expressed in the rise and fall of institutions of mutual aid within the people and the corresponding rise and fall of ruling classes above them. Yet Kropotkin also saw the positive aspect of the self-assertion which so often destroyed or exploited co-operation for the benefit of the few. So while he indicated how individuals and classes can and do oppress and exploit their fellows (and how mutual aid institutions arise to resist that), he also argued that even the best social organisation can become crystalised and a hinderance to social evolution and individual flourishing. When that happens, then self-assertion is essential to break up these once useful but now stifling organisations and customs, renewing society from the dead-weight of the past while remaining true to the values of mutual aid. Rebels are needed both to resist hierarchy and social pressures gone wrong. Such self-assertion, he suggests, was essential in the past, today and in any free society of the future to ensure social progress and individual freedom.

Too conclude, rather than a product of rose-tinted glasses or ideologically drive, Mutual Aid takes a dispassionate perspective on nature. It documents the many examples of co-operation within species, shows why it develops and points to the mechanism by which it is maintained. As such, it predates the conclusions of modern sociobiology by decades, which would have undoubtedly pleased Kropotkin as he repeatedly – for example, in Modern Science and Anarchy (1913) – linked anarchism to developments within numerous branches of science.

With the 100th anniversary of his death, we should not forget that Kropotkin’s impact was wider than just anarchism. His contributions to evolutionary theory, while not without a few dead-ends, should be better known outwith the movement as well as being a source of pride within it.


Further Reading

Iain McKay, Mutual Aid: An Introduction and Evaluation 2nd Edition, (Edinburgh: AK Press, 2010).

Brian Morris, Kropotkin: The Politics of Community (Oakland: PM Press, 2018)

Daniel Todes, “The Scientific Background of Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid”, The Raven: Anarchist Quarterly No. 24.

Peter Kropotkin, Modern Science and Anarchy (Edinburgh: AK Press, 2018)