Miquixote's Reviews > Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution

Mutual Aid by Pyotr Kropotkin
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Dec 16, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: classics-1000-citations, anarchism, 10-citations-year, politics, favourites, 6-points, science

This book cannot be overestimated in importance. It was written in response to Social Darwinism (and the horrifying excuse Social Darwinism gave for mass extermination of races), based on Kropotkin's scientific experiences in Siberia concerning cooperation in nonhuman animals, as well as his studies of savages, barbarians, the medieval city, and ourselves. This book concludes that cooperation and mutual aid are the most important factors in the evolution of the species and the ability to survive. Very much at the forefront of cultural battles (namely the attempt to hold off fascism). However, it would be a mistake to write this very much scientific book off for its ideological underpinnings (and equally a mistake to write it off ideologically for its scientific biases).

In Natural History Magazine (1997), Stephen Jay Gould emphasizes that Kropotkin’s basic argument is correct, although in comparison to up-to-date evolutionary (and revolutionary!) understandings, it does have a few flaws, one technical and one general:

'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.'

'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. Be 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.'

('Kropotkin was no crackpot', Stephen Jay Gould)

Humanity must therefore not forget that civilization is our battleground and that we must make civilization ours to make Nature ours.
This book can give dispossessed folk too much of a scientific bias, too often turning away from the memory of historical/material struggles to the weak argument of a permanent, natural, biological state of freedom, of the glorification of the so-called golden age of primitive man.

A book that shows how science and society do not mutually exclude the other. Absolutely essential reading for understanding our battles of ideology and also for understanding the development of scientific understandings of evolution. Both of those themes continue in extreme importance well into the present.

An under-read, full-blown classic.

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Quotes Miquixote Liked

Pyotr Kropotkin
“The mutual-aid tendency in man has so remote an origin, and is so deeply interwoven with all the past evolution of the human race, that is has been maintained by mankind up to the present time, notwithstanding all vicissitudes of history.”
Pyotr Kropotkin, Mutual Aid


Comments (showing 1-17 of 17) (17 new)

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message 1: by Ted (new) - added it

Ted " This book concludes that cooperation and mutual aid are the most important factors in the evolution of the species and the ability to survive. "

Reminds me of a main them of The Spirit Level Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. Kropotkin sounds pretty prescient. Great review Miquixote.

(As for Gould, he was a great popular writer. But his very personal theories on the details of evolution seem to be diverging more and more over time with mainstream theory. I'm not sure how far to trust his views on Kropotkin's "flaws". See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_...)


Miquixote Sorry Ted,I don't understand this phrase: diverging more and more over time with mainstream theory. Does that mean Gould is following populist sentiments? Could you clarify what you mean?


message 3: by Ted (new) - added it

Ted Miquixote wrote: "Sorry Ted,I don't understand this phrase: diverging more and more over time with mainstream theory. Does that mean Gould is following populist sentiments? Could you clarify what you mean?"

Well, of course "he" isn't doing anything any more, and I would never accuse him of having followed the crowd. But my impression is that his view of the way evolution works is becoming more of a minority view, and perhaps has always been a minority view. I could be wrong. If he were still alive I suspect he wouldn't have backed away from any of the areas where other evolutionists disagree with him.

I think it's a field where a lot of thorny issues are still being debated.


message 4: by Miquixote (last edited Mar 21, 2014 12:57PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Miquixote yeah, very thorny. Gould disagreed very strongly with the most mainstream evolutionary theorist currently (Richard Dawkins). Gould thought Dawkins' ideas were 19th century-ish. So I don't think Gould can be said to have ideas that are passé at all...from what I understand he still has tremendous intelectual peer support. I have a friend that thinks Gould trounces all over Dawkins intellectually...I need to read up on both before I can comment further.


message 5: by Ted (new) - added it

Ted Well I find Dawkins more accessible (somewhat) and probably more convincing than Gould, even though I think Gould's training was more specifically in the evolutionary field. But what do I know?!


Miquixote I think you originally meant to say Gould's ideas were diverging FROM mainstream theory...not diverging WITH...that's what confused me...cheers.


message 7: by Miquixote (last edited Mar 21, 2014 01:30PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Miquixote Well, I am not going to take any sides in the debates between Gould and Dawkins just yet. But I think we should be wary of assuming the most mainstream theory is necessarily the most viable theory. If that were the best way to go, why bother with the very minority opinión of 'Mutual Aid'? Why bother with political struggle or critical reasoning at all? And Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and Twilight must be the best books ever written...
I would rather like to think we can form our own opinions instead of relying on the mainstream popularity contest...


Miquixote By the way, I think the Spirit Level sounds interesting...thanks for the recommendation.


message 9: by Ted (new) - added it

Ted Miquixote wrote: "I think you originally meant to say Gould's ideas were diverging FROM mainstream theory...not diverging WITH...that's what confused me...cheers."

You are certainly right, and I apologize for the confusion. But to me (and my wife) "diverging from" is pretty much the same as "diverging with". Curious. Perhaps an American usage? Or maybe a mid-West usage? I don't think I would use "diverging with" except to say something like "A is diverging with B (away) from C". (Ie, A & B are both moving away from C.)


Miquixote haha. ok, but you said 'diverging with' above...


Miquixote and i think you meant 'diverging from'...thus the confusión.


message 12: by Ted (new) - added it

Ted Miquixote wrote: "Well, I am not going to take any sides in the debates between Gould and Dawkins just yet. But I think we should be wary of assuming the most mainstream theory is necessarily the most viable theory...."

Well clearly I'm not arguing for anything like your latter examples. And in science, there's generally a well-defined way of deciding between completing theories. I would think a "mainstream" scientific theory would be such for various good reasons, but could be overthrown by a "minority" view over time. (To ignore paradigm shift, which is another piece of the puzzle I guess.)


Miquixote There is no well-defined way of deciding between competing theories...if that were true there would be very few debates about scientific theory...


Miquixote Thomas Kuhn, for example, did not permit truth to be a criterion of scientific theories, and he would presumably not claim his own theory to be true. (the structure of scientific revolutions)...


message 15: by Ted (new) - added it

Ted Falsification is the method by which theories are weeded out and dropped. The theory has to make some sort of prediction which can be tested. If it fails the test, at the very least it needs to be modified. Sometimes failing the test can be close to a death knell.

If the prediction turns out to be true, the theory is generally said to be "corroborated" if I recall correctly. This is a plus in its favor, but as you say not the end of the story. I suppose it's possible for different theories to make different predictions (about different things) that aren't contradictory, and have both of them corroborated. But in general scientists in the field should gravitate slowly toward a theory that is more corroborated.

But a theory can never be "proved", which I suppose is one of the reasons why "truth" can't enter in. As a criterion, it would be useless. Truth is a very hard thing to pin down. Whether (in science) we can ever say that something is true (speaking of universal statements) I don't know. Maybe some trivial ones. Of course non-universal statements can be true. "Some swans are black" is true; so is "some swans are white".

I suspect you know all this, I'm just babbling. 8)


Miquixote Agreed. Truth is a hard thing to pin down. We must however all beware of ideological bias even in academia. For example, on an even thornier side: How so-called scientific theories from Marx, Keynes, and Hayek can all have exemplary amounts of academic support has questionable underpinnings.

Evolutionary theory must also be affected, unless each theory is entirely falsifiable (the thorniness of the details indicates a lack of corraboration though, not of the general truth of evolution, but of its details ).

Both Gould and Dawkins have exemplary academic support (just check the amount of citations each have). Currently Dawkins is probably the most accepted, but this can change with new research rather quickly depending on ideological, economic, or political maneuvering. The mainstream-ness of a theory is never completely dependent on scientific corraboration over time.


message 17: by Ted (new) - added it

Ted Agreed. Very nice summary, M.


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