Thursday, November 1, 2012

Peter Kropotkin in Slate

I hate the title: “The Russian Anarchist Prince Who Challenged Evolution.” Kropotkin didn’t challenge evolution, or intend to challenge evolution, as the author notes right in the piece itself.

I hate the inane subtitle - “Are we cooperative or competitive?” – and the claim in one of the opening paragraphs that Kropotkin “came to believe that…cooperation was the predominant evolutionary force driving all social life, from microbes to humans.” He stated right in the introduction to Mutual Aid:

It may be objected to this book that both animals and men are represented in it under too favourable an aspect; that their sociable qualities are insisted upon, while their anti-social and self-asserting instincts are hardly touched upon. This was, however, unavoidable. We have heard so much lately of the "harsh, pitiless struggle for life," which was said to be carried on by every animal against all other animals, every "savage" against all other "savages," and every civilized man against all his co-citizens -- and these assertions have so much become an article of faith -- that it was necessary, first of all, to oppose to them a wide series of facts showing animal and human life under a quite different aspect. It was necessary to indicate the overwhelming importance which sociable habits play in Nature and in the progressive evolution of both the animal species and human beings: to prove that they secure to animals a better protection from their enemies, very often facilities for getting food and (winter provisions, migrations, etc.), longevity, therefore a greater facility for the development of intellectual faculties; and that they have given to men, in addition to the same advantages, the possibility of working out those institutions which have enabled mankind to survive in its hard struggle against Nature, and to progress, notwithstanding all the vicissitudes of its history. It is a book on the law of Mutual Aid, viewed at as one of the chief factors of evolution -- not on all factors of evolution and their respective values; and this first book had to be written, before the latter could become possible.

His intention was plainly to focus on the evolution of mutual aid in order to counteract the biased view prevailing among many of evolution’s spokespeople (and also opportunistically adopted to this day by creationists) and to contribute to a comprehensive picture.

I hate the suggestion that Kropotkin was primarily taking issue with Darwin rather than challenging what he viewed as ideological distortions of Darwin’s ideas by Huxley and others as a means of defending Darwin’s theory against political misrepresentations.

And I hate that Dugatkin refers to Kropotkin as a prince here and in the title of his book on the subject - The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin's Adventures in Science and Politics – while noting even in this shorter piece that Kropotkin had renounced that title by the age of 12. I think his wishes should be respected.

There are other problems as well. These aside aside, though, I’m very pleased to see evolutionary biologists writing about Kropotkin on popular sites, and the article’s informative enough. I’ll also be reading the book

(only $3.99 for the Kindle version!) over the next few days.

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