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Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution

Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution is a 1902 essay collection by Russian anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin. The essays, initially published in the English periodical The Nineteenth Century between 1890 and 1896, explore the role of mutually-beneficial cooperation and reciprocity (or "mutual aid") in the animal kingdom and human societies both past and present. It is an argument against the competition-centred theories of so-called social Darwinism, as well as the romantic depictions of cooperation presented by writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued it was motivated by universal love rather than self-interest. Mutual Aid is considered a fundamental text in anarchist communism, presenting a scientific basis for communism alternative to the historical materialism of the Marxists. Many biologists also consider it an important catalyst in the scientific study of cooperation.

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DiscussionEdit

Daniel P. Todes, in his account of Russian naturalism in the 19th century, concludes that Kropotkin’s work "cannot be dismissed as the idiosyncratic product of an anarchist dabbling in biology" and that his views "were but one expression of a broad current in Russian evolutionary thought that pre-dated, indeed encouraged, his work on the subject and was by no means confined to leftist thinkers."[1]

Kropotkin pointed out the distinction between the direct struggle among individuals for limited resources (generally called competition) and the more metaphorical struggle between organisms and the environment (tending to be cooperative). He therefore did not deny the competitive form of struggle, but argued that the cooperative counterpart has been underemphasized: "There is an immense amount of warfare and extermination going on amidst various species; there is, at the same time, as much, or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defense...Sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle."[2]

As a description of biology, Kropotkin's work has been confirmed by recent research. Stephen Jay Gould admired Kropotkin's observations, noting that cooperation, if it increases individual survival, is not ruled out by natural selection, and is in fact encouraged.[3] Modern biology confirms Kropotkin's observations in two ways. When different species appear to aid each other, it is a case of mutualism. When individuals within a species aid each other, it is a case of altruism in animals, including kin selection and reciprocal altruism. Douglas H. Boucher places Kropotkin's book as a precursor to the development of mutualism as a theory.[4]

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ReferencesEdit

  1. ^ Todes, Daniel P. (1989). Darwin Without Malthus: The Struggle for Existence in Russian Evolutionary Thought. Oxford University Press. pp. 104, 123. 
  2. ^ Kropotkin, Peter (1902). Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Chapter I
  3. ^ Gould, Stephen Jay (June 1997). "Kropotkin was no crackpot". Natural History. No. 106. pp. 12–21. 
  4. ^ Boucher, Douglas H., ed. (1985). "The Idea of Mutualism, Past and Future". The Biology of Mutualism: Ecology and Evolution. Croom Helm. p. 17. ISBN 9780709932383. 

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