Kropotkin & Biology

by Vivian Martineau

“…{He is} that beautiful white Christ which seems to be coming out of Russia… {one} of the most perfect lives I have come across in my own experience.”

—Oscar Wilde

That perfect life, the white Christ, belonged to the remarkable Russian scientist, explorer, historian, political scientist, and former prince by the name of Peter Kropotkin. Kropotkin would shake up the Victorian notion that competition was the inevitable outcome of the process of natural selection. Instead he would argue that evolution often favoured co-operation and altruism. Kropotkin was known both as a brilliant scientist and as a founder and vocal proponent of anarchism. In the United States, where he often stayed at Jane Addams Hull House, tens of thousands of people flocked to see ex-Prince Peter, which is how he was often billed during two ‘speaking tours’.

Kropotkin’s path to fame was labyrinthine, with much time in prison, 50,000-mile journeys through Siberia, and banishment from the most respectable Western countries of the day. In his homeland of Russia, he went from being Czar Alexander II’s teenage page, to a young man enamored with the theory of evolution, to a convicted felon, jail-breaker and general agitator, eventually being chased halfway around the world by the Russian Secret Police for his radical—some might, and did, say ‘enlightened’—political views. 

Somehow Kropotkin found the energy and focus under duress to write books on evolution and behaviour, ethics, the geography of Asia, anarchism, socialism and communism, penal systems, the coming industrial revolution in the East, the French Revolution, and more. One common thread—the scientific law of mutual aid, which guided the evolution of all life on earth—tied these works together. Kropotkin’s deep-seated conviction was that what we today would call co-operation—but what he called mutual aid—was the driving evolutionary force behind all social life, be it in microbes, animals or humans. 

Kropotkin’s theory of mutual aid was born when he was twenty years old and began his exploration of Siberia, following in the intellectual footsteps of his hero, Alexander von Humboldt. Kropotkin was already an avowed evolutionary biologist by then and a great admirer of Charles Darwin and his theory of natural selection. 50,000 miles later, and five years the wiser, Kropotkin left Siberia still a Darwinian, but a very different kind of evolutionary biologist: a new species of sort. 

In Siberia, Kropotkin had not found what he had expected to find. Evolutionary theory of the day advanced the argument that the natural world was a brutal place: competition was the driving force. That’s what Kropotkin expected to see in Siberia. He searched for it—hard. He studied flocks of birds, herds of mammals, schools of fish, and insect societies. What he found was that in Siberia, competition appeared to be a weak force. Instead, in every nook and cranny of the animal world, Kropotkin encountered mutual aid. Individuals huddled for warmth, fed one another, and guarded others from danger, all seeming to be cogs in a larger co-operative society. “In all the scenes of animal lives which passed before my eyes,” he 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.” 

Kropotkin didn’t limit his studies to nonhumans. He cherished his time in peasant villages, with their sense of community and co-operation: here, he began to understand “the inner springs of the life of human society.” By observing “the constructive work of the unknown masses,” Kropotkin, the budding scientist and the budding anarchist, witnessed human co-operation and altruism in its purest form.

E.O. Wilson called understanding animal co-operation and altruism one of the fundamental problems in the study of animal behaviour.

But Kropotkin now had a problem. He needed to align these observations with Darwinian theory, as he was certain that evolutionary thinking was the key to explaining the diversity of life he saw around him. And so he set up the tightrope on which he would balance for the rest of his life. His solution was this: natural selection was the driving force that shaped life, but Darwin’s ideas had been perverted and misrepresented by British scientists. Natural selection, he argued, resulted in mutual aid, not competition, among individuals. It favoured societies in which mutual aid thrived, and individuals in these societies had an innate predisposition to mutual aid because natural selection had favoured such actions over generations. Kropotkin called this progressive evolution and it was this progressive evolution that made mutual aid the sine qua non of all societal life—animal and human. 

From the Siberian tundra, Kropotkin’s thinking turned to the political implications of mutual aid. The ants and the termites, the birds, the fish and the (other) mammals were co-operating in the absence of any formal organisational structure, without any form of government. The same was true in the peasant villages, where mutual aid abounded, but a centralised government structure was nowhere to be seen. He sensed great similarities with the writings of anarchists, which he had taken to covertly as a teenager. Leave people with complete freedom and autonomy, Kropotkin had read in the anarchist literature, and they will naturally co-operate. In Siberia, Kropotkin discovered that what marked so much in the natural world could surely help in humans politics and society. “I lost in Siberia,” he wrote, “whatever faith in State discipline I had cherished before: I was prepared to become an anarchist.” 

So convinced was he that his scientific findings on mutual aid explained the biological underpinnings of political anarchy that years after his trek through Siberia, he wrote in his obituary for Darwin that, properly understood, Darwin’s theories were “an excellent argument that animal societies are best organised in the communist-anarchist manner.” 

Kropotkin’s ideas on mutual aid have played a critical role in the study of behaviour and evolution. His book-length treatments on ethics, geology, history and literature had a huge impact not only on those fields, but on areas as diverse as city planning, communist ideology, and the modern green movement. 

In addition to being one of the most famous political anarchists in history, Kropotkin was an extraordinarily important figure in terms of his science. He was the first person to propose in a systematic and conceptual way that animal co-operation was crucial for understanding the evolutionary process. He challenged the prevailing principle that evolution was strictly about survival of the strongest. It would have been remarkable enough if he had done this in obscurity, but quite the contrary—in his day Kropotkin was the public face of these ideas, and one of the most recognisable people on the planet, lecturing on an astonishing array of subjects all over the world. 

There is currently an entire subdiscipline in biology devoted to the study of co-operation and altruism in animals. This is not a small enterprise. E.O. Wilson called understanding animal co-operation and altruism one of the fundamental problems in the study of animal behaviour, and that emphasis can be seen in the laboratories of scores of researchers who specialise in this area today—laboratories from UCLA to Moscow State University, from the University of Copenhagen to the University of Helsinki. Kropotkin’s work in the late 1800s marks the birthplace of this field.

Many of the ideas that are the focus of research in modern labs working on animal co-operation are based on permutations of ideas first raised to the surface by Kropotkin. Hundreds of papers come out each year on animal co-operation—many in preeminent journals such as Nature and Science—and so many of these papers show Kropotkin to be a prophet. And Kropotkin was not only the first person who clearly demonstrated that co-operation was important among animals, he was the first person to forcefully argue that understanding co-operation in animals would shed light on human co-operation, and, indeed, would permit science to help promote human co-operation, perhaps saving our species from destroying itself. Today, anthropologists, political scientists, economists and psychologists conduct scores of studies each year on human co-operation, and researchers in these fields are just beginning to realise that so many of the topics they are investigating were first suggested and promulgated by ex-prince, anarchist and scientist extraordinaire, Peter Kropotkin. 

Based on an excerpt from Dugatkin, L.A. (2011) The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics.

Lee Alan Dugatkin, Ph.D., is an evolutionary biologist and historian of science in The Department of Biology at The University of Louisville.

E.O. Wilson called understanding animal co-operation and altruism one of the fundamental problems in the study of animal behaviour.


Info & Credits

Published in STIR magazine no.12, Winter 2016

Written by Lee Dugatkin

Illustration by Vivian Martineau