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Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution
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Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution

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by Peter Kropotkin

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In this cornerstone of modern liberal social theory, Peter Kropotkin states that the most effective human and animal communities are essentially cooperative, rather than competitive. Kropotkin based this classic on his observations of natural phenomena and history, forming a work of stunning and well-reasoned scholarship. Essential to the understanding of human


In this cornerstone of modern liberal social theory, Peter Kropotkin states that the most effective human and animal communities are essentially cooperative, rather than competitive. Kropotkin based this classic on his observations of natural phenomena and history, forming a work of stunning and well-reasoned scholarship. Essential to the understanding of human evolution as well as social organization, it offers a powerful counterpoint to the tenets of Social Darwinism. It also cites persuasive evidence of human nature's innate compatibility with anarchist society.
"Kropotkin's basic argument is correct," noted evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. "Struggle does occur in many modes, and some lead to cooperation among members of a species as the best pathway to advantage for individuals." Anthropologist Ashley Montagu declared that "Mutual Aid will never be any more out of date than will the Declaration of Independence. New facts may increasingly become available, but we can already see that they will serve largely to support Kropotkin's conclusion that 'in the ethical progress of man, mutual support—not mutual struggle—has had the leading part.'" Physician and author Alex Comfort asserted that "Kropotkin profoundly influenced human biology by his theory of Mutual Aid. . . . He was one of the first systematic students of animal communities, and may be regarded as the founder of modern social ecology."

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Mutual Aid

A Factor of Evolution


Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-12153-6



Struggle for existence.—Mutual Aid—a law of Nature and chief factor of progressive evolution.—Invertebrates.—Ants and Bees.—Birds: hunting and fishing associations.—Sociability.—Mutual protection among small birds.—Cranes; parrots.

THE conception of struggle for existence as a factor of evolution, introduced into science by Darwin and Wallace, has permitted us to embrace an immensely-wide range of phenomena in one single generalization, which soon became the very basis of our philosophical, biological, and sociological speculations. An immense variety of facts:—adaptations of function and structure of organic beings to their surroundings; physiological and anatomical evolution; intellectual progress, and moral development itself, which we formerly used to explain by so many different causes, were embodied by Darwin in one general conception. We understood them as continued endeavours—as a struggle against adverse circumstances—for such a development of individuals, races, species and societies, as would result in the greatest possible fulness, variety, and intensity of life. It may be that at the outset Darwin himself was not fully aware of the generality of the factor which he first invoked for explaining one series only of facts relative to the accumulation of individual variations in incipient species. But he foresaw that the term which he was introducing into science would lose its philosophical and its only true meaning if it were to be used in its narrow sense only—that of a struggle between separate individuals for the sheer means of existence. And at the very beginning of his memorable work he insisted upon the term being taken in its "large and metaphorical sense including dependence of one being on another, and including (which is more important) not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny."

While he himself was chiefly using the term in its narrow sense for his own special purpose, he warned his followers against committing the error (which he seems once to have committed himself) of overrating its narrow meaning. In The Descent of Man he gave some powerful pages to illustrate its proper, wide sense. He pointed out how, in numberless animal societies, the struggle between separate individuals for the means of existence disappears, how struggle is replaced by cooperation, and how that substitution results in the development of intellectual and moral faculties which secure to the species the best conditions for survival. He intimated that in such cases the fittest are not the physically strongest, nor the cunningest, but those who learn to combine so as mutually to support each other, strong and weak alike, for the welfare of the community. "Those communities," he wrote, "which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring" (2nd edit., p. 163). The term, which originated from the narrow Malthusian conception of competition between each and all, thus lost its narrowness in the mind of one who knew Nature.

Unhappily, these remarks, which might have become the basis of most fruitful researches, were overshadowed by the masses of facts gathered for the purpose of illustrating the consequences of a real competition for life. Besides, Darwin never attempted to submit to a closer investigation the relative importance of the two aspects under which the struggle for existence appears in the animal world, and he never wrote the work he proposed to write upon the natural checks to over-multiplication, although that work would have been the crucial test for appreciating the real purport of individual struggle. Nay, on the very pages just mentioned, amidst data disproving the narrow Malthusian conception of struggle, the old Malthusian leaven reappeared—namely, in Darwin's remarks as to the alleged inconveniences of maintaining the "weak in mind and body" in our civilized societies (ch. v). As if thousands of weak-bodied and infirm poets, scientists, inventors, and reformers, together with other thousands of so-called "fools" and "weak-minded enthusiasts," were not the most precious weapons used by humanity in its struggle for existence by intellectual and moral arms, which Darwin himself emphasized in those same chapters of Descent of Man.

It happened with Darwin's theory as it always happens with theories having any bearing upon human relations. Instead of widening it according to his own hints, his followers narrowed it still more. And while Herbert Spencer, starting on independent but closely allied lines, attempted to widen the inquiry into that great question, "Who are the fittest?" especially in the appendix to the third edition of the Data of Ethics, the numberless followers of Darwin reduced the notion of struggle for existence to its narrowest limits. They came to conceive the animal world as a world of perpetual struggle among half-starved individuals, thirsting for one another's blood. They made modern literature resound with the war-cry of woe to the vanquished, as if it were the last word of modern biology. They raised the "pitiless" struggle for personal advantages to the height of a biological principle which man must submit to as well, under the menace of otherwise succumbing in a world based upon mutual extermination. Leaving aside the economists who know of natural science but a few words borrowed from second-hand vulgarizers, we must recognize that even the most authorized exponents of Darwin's views did their best to maintain those false ideas. In fact, if we take Huxley, who certainly is considered as one of the ablest exponents of the theory of evolution, were we not taught by him, in a paper on the "Struggle for Existence and its Bearing upon Man," that,

"from the point of view of the moralist, the animal world is on about the same level as a gladiators' show. The creatures are fairly well treated, and set to fight; whereby the strongest, the swiftest, and the cunningest live to fight another day. The spectator has no need to turn his thumb down, as no quarter is given."

Or, further down in the same article, did he not tell us that, as among animals, so among primitive men,

"the weakest and stupidest went to the wall, while the toughest and shrewdest, those who were best fitted to cope with their circumstances, but not the best in another way, survived. Life was a continuous free fight, and beyond the limited and temporary relations of the family, the Hobbesian war of each against all was the normal state of existence."

In how far this view of nature is supported by fact, will be seen from the evidence which will be here submitted to the reader as regards the animal world, and as regards primitive man. But it may be remarked at once that Huxley's view of nature had as little claim to be taken as a scientific deduction as the opposite view of Rousseau, who saw in nature but love, peace, and harmony destroyed by the accession of man. In fact, the first walk in the forest, the first observation upon any animal society, or even the perusal of any serious work dealing with animal life (D'Orbigny's, Audubon's, Le Vaillant's, no matter which), cannot but set the naturalist thinking about the part taken by social life in the life of animals, and prevent him from seeing in Nature nothing but a field of slaughter, just as this would prevent him from seeing in Nature nothing but harmony and peace. Rousseau had committed the error of excluding the beak-and-claw fight from his thoughts; and Huxley committed the opposite error; but neither Rousseau's optimism nor Huxley's pessimism can be accepted as an impartial interpretation of nature.

As soon as we study animals—not in laboratories and museums only, but in the forest and the prairie, in the steppe and the mountains—we at once perceive that though there is an immense amount of warfare and extermination going on amidst various species, and especially amidst various classes of animals, there is, at the same time, as much, or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defence amidst animals belonging to the same species or, at least, to the same society. Sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle. Of course it would be extremely difficult to estimate, however roughly, the relative numerical importance of both these series of facts. But if we resort to an indirect test, and ask Nature: "Who are the fittest: those who are continually at war with each other, or those who support one another?" we at once see that those animals which acquire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest. They have more chances to survive, and they attain, in their respective classes, the highest development of intelligence and bodily organization. If the numberless facts which can be brought forward to support this view are taken into account, we may safely say that mutual aid is as much a law of animal life as mutual struggle, but that, as a factor of evolution, it most probably has a far greater importance, inasmuch as it favours the development of such habits and characters as insure the maintenance and further development of the species, together with the greatest amount of welfare and enjoyment of life for the individual, with the least waste of energy.

Of the scientific followers of Darwin, the first, as far as I know, who understood the full purport of Mutual Aid as a law of Nature and the chief factor of evolution, was a well-known Russian zoologist, the late Dean of the St. Petersburg University, Professor Kessler. He developed his ideas in an address which he delivered in January 1880, a few months before his death, at a Congress of Russian naturalists; but, like so many good things published in the Russian tongue only, that remarkable address remains almost entirely unknown.

"As a zoologist of old standing," he felt bound to protest against the abuse of a term—the struggle for existence—borrowed from zoology, or, at least, against overrating its importance. Zoology, he said, and those sciences which deal with man, continually insist upon what they call the pitiless law of struggle for existence. But they forget the existence of another law which may be described as the law of mutual aid, which law, at least for the animals, is far more essential than the former. He pointed out how the need of leaving progeny necessarily brings animals together, and, "the more the individuals keep together, the more they mutually support each other, and the more are the chances of the species for surviving, as well as for making further progress in its intellectual development." "All classes of animals," he continued, "and especially the higher ones, practise mutual aid," and he illustrated his idea by examples borrowed from the life of the burying beetles and the social life of birds and some mammalia. The examples were few, as might have been expected in a short opening address, but the chief points were clearly stated; and, after mentioning that in the evolution of mankind mutual aid played a still more prominent part, Professor Kessler concluded as follows:—

"I obviously do not deny the struggle for existence, but I maintain that the progressive development of the animal kingdom, and especially of mankind, is favoured much more by mutual support than by mutual struggle.... All organic beings have two essential needs: that of nutrition, and that of propagating the species. The former brings them to a struggle and to mutual extermination, while the needs of maintaining the species bring them to approach one another and to support one another. But I am inclined to think that in the evolution of the organic world—in the progressive modification of organic beings—mutual support among individuals plays a much more important part than their mutual struggle."

The correctness of the above views struck most of the Russian zoologists present, and Syevertsoff, whose work is well known to ornithologists and geographers, supported them and illustrated them by a few more examples. He mentioned some of the species of falcons which have "an almost ideal organization for robbery," and nevertheless are in decay, while other species of falcons, which practise mutual help, do thrive. "Take, on the other side, a sociable bird, the duck," he said; "it is poorly organized on the whole, but it practises mutual support, and it almost invades the earth, as may be judged from its numberless varieties and species."

The readiness of the Russian zoologists to accept Kessler's views seems quite natural, because nearly all of them have had opportunities of studying the animal world in the wide uninhabited regions of Northern Asia and East Russia; and it is impossible to study like regions without being brought to the same ideas. I recollect myself the impression produced upon me by the animal world of Siberia when I explored the Vitim regions in the company of so accomplished a zoologist as my friend Polyakoff was. We both were under the fresh impression of the Origin of Species, but we vainly looked for the keen competition between animals of the same species which the reading of Darwin's work had prepared us to expect, even after taking into account the remarks of the third chapter (p. 54). We saw plenty of adaptations for struggling, very often in common, against the adverse circumstances of climate, or against various enemies, and Polyakoff wrote many a good page upon the mutual dependency of carnivores, ruminants, and rodents in their geographical distribution; we witnessed numbers of facts of mutual support, especially during the migrations of birds and ruminants; but even in the Amur and Usuri regions, where animal life swarms in abundance, facts of real competition and struggle between higher animals of the same species came very seldom under my notice, though I eagerly searched for them. The same impression appears in the works of most Russian zoologists, and it probably explains why Kessler's ideas were so welcomed by the Russian Darwinists, whilst like ideas are not in vogue amidst the followers of Darwin in Western Europe.

The first thing which strikes us as soon as we begin studying the struggle for existence under both its aspects—direct and metaphorical—is the abundance of facts of mutual aid, not only for rearing progeny, as recognized by most evolutionists, but also for the safety of the individual, and for providing it with the necessary food. With many large divisions of the animal kingdom mutual aid is the rule. Mutual aid is met with even amidst the lowest animals, and we must be prepared to learn some day, from the students of microscopical pond-life, facts of unconscious mutual support, even from the life of microorganisms. Of course, our knowledge of the life of the invertebrates, save the termites, the ants, and the bees, is extremely limited; and yet, even as regards the lower animals, we may glean a few facts of well-ascertained co-operation. The numberless associations of locusts, vanessæ, cicindelæ, cicadæ, and so on, are practically quite unexplored; but the very fact of their existence indicates that they must be composed on about the same principles as the temporary associations of ants or bees for purposes of migration. As to the beetles, we have quite well-observed facts of mutual help amidst the burying beetles (Necrophorus ). They must have some decaying organic matter to lay their eggs in, and thus to provide their larvæ with food; but that matter must not decay very rapidly. So they are wont to bury in the ground the corpses of all kinds of small animals which they occasionally find in their rambles. As a rule, they live an isolated life, but when one of them has discovered the corpse of a mouse or of a bird, which it hardly could manage to bury itself, it calls four, six, or ten other beetles to perform the operation with united efforts; if necessary, they transport the corpse to a suitable soft ground; and they bury it in a very considerate way, without quarrelling as to which of them will enjoy the privilege of laying its eggs in the buried corpse. And when Gleditsch attached a dead bird to a cross made out of two sticks, or suspended a toad to a stick planted in the soil, the little beetles would in the same friendly way combine their intelligences to overcome the artifice of Man. The same combination of efforts has been noticed among the dung-beetles.

Even among animals standing at a somewhat lower stage of organization we may find like examples. Some land-crabs of the West Indies and North America combine in large swarms in order to travel to the sea and to deposit therein their spawn; and each such migration implies concert, co-operation, and mutual support. As to the big Molucca crab (Limulus), I was struck (in 1882, at the Brighton Aquarium) with the extent of mutual assistance which these clumsy animals are capable of bestowing upon a comrade in case of need. One of them had fallen upon its back in a corner of the tank, and its heavy saucepan-like carapace prevented it from returning to its natural position, the more so as there was in the corner an iron bar which rendered the task still more difficult. Its comrades came to the rescue, and for one hour's time I watched how they endeavoured to help their fellow-prisoner. They came two at once, pushed their friend from beneath, and after strenuous efforts succeeded in lifting it upright; but then the iron bar would prevent them from achieving the work of rescue, and the crab would again heavily fall upon its back. After many attempts, one of the helpers would go in the depth of the tank and bring two other crabs, which would begin with fresh forces the same pushing and lifting of their helpless comrade. We stayed in the Aquarium for more than two hours, and, when leaving, we again came to cast a glance upon the tank: the work of rescue still continued! Since I saw that, I cannot refuse credit to the observation quoted by Dr. Erasmus Darwin—namely, that "the common crab during the moulting season stations as sentinel an unmoulted or hard-shelled individual to prevent marine enemies from injuring moulted individuals in their unprotected state."


Excerpted from Mutual Aid by PETER KROPOTKIN. Copyright © 2006 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Prince Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin (1842 - 1921) was a Russian philosopher, economist, writer, scientist, evolutionary theorist, geographer and one of the world's best-known anarcho-communists. He wrote many other books, pamphlets and articles, including The Conquest of Bread and Fields, Factories and Workshops.

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Mutual Aid: A Factor Of Evolution 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
TEST NOOKUSER More than 1 year ago
its a scanned book, so theres no digital table of contents. the material is all here, though i have spotted some errors.