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Mutual Aid by Pyotr Kropotkin
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Dec 17, 09

it was amazing
Read in February, 2007

Peter Kropotkin is one of the most noteworthy anarchist thinkers over the last two centuries. As with other political thinkers, so, too, with Kropotkin--his analysis of human nature is critical for understanding his overall philosophical position. For his view of human nature, "Mutual Aid" is a key for understanding his views. His work is a harbinger of more recent studies of sociobiology, many of which explore the roots of altruism--human and otherwise.

Much of his thinking on the nature of society was formed when he was observing the behavior of animals in Siberia. While assigned to a Siberian regiment of the Russian military, Kropotkin did innovative original work on geography and geology as well as the study of animal behavior. His observation of animals led him to respond to Huxley's assertion that natural selection was based on keen competition among animals with the following statement: ". . .wherever I saw animal life in abundance, as, for instance, on the lakes where scores of species and millions of individuals came together to rear their progeny; in the colonies of rodents; in the migration of birds which took place at that time on a truly American scale along the Usuri; and especially in a migration of fallow-deer which I witnessed on the Amur, and during which scores of thousands of these animals came together from an immense territory, flying before the coming snow, in order to cross the Amur where it is narrowest--in all these scenes of animal life which passed before my eyes, 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."

He synthesized his observations of animals within a species cooperating with one another and concluded that, in the struggle for life, cooperation was at least as important as competition. Kropotkin did not argue that competition was unimportant in the natural selection process. However, he did emphasize that mutual aid was a factor that many Darwinists (although, as Kropotkin made clear, not Darwin himself) ignored. The data that Kropotkin utilized came from many different animal species.

Kropotkin goes on to speculate about the survival value of cooperative behavior. He states that: "Life in societies enables the feeblest insects, the feeblest birds, and the feeblest mammals to resist, or to protect themselves from, the most terrible birds and beasts of prey; it permits longevity; in enables the species to rear its progeny with the least waste of energy and to maintain its progeny with the least waste of energy and to maintain its numbers albeit a very slow birth rate; it enables the gregarious animals to migrate in search of new abodes. Furthermore, cooperation facilitates the development of intelligence, since that quality is so important for social life among animals."

Kropotkin is not content to rest his case at this point. He subsequently indicates the likely course of human evolution and the role played by cooperation. He adopts the method of using existing societies at differing levels of socio-cultural complexity to speculate about the course of human socio-cultural evolution. Kropotkin argues that, at each stage, mutual aid is apparent and important for humans. Even in the period dominated by the great states, the present for Kropotkin, mutual aid institutions still flourished despite the state's intimidating presence.

Thus, Kropotkin's view of human nature is, ultimately, that it is inherently good, i.e. cooperative toward his or her fellow. What of this assertion? Is Kropotkin's view of human nature completely inaccurate and confounded by the available evidence? That is where each reader must evaluate his or her view of humanity's nature and render a judgment on "the anarchist prince."

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