Kropotkin, Petr Alekseyevich
KROPOTKIN, PETR ALEKSEYEVICH
(b. Moscow, Russia, 9 December 1842; d. Dimitrov, U.S.S.R., 8 February 1921),
geography, natural history, evolution. For the original article on Kropotkin see DSB, vol. 7.
It is interesting to note that the original entry on Kropotkin concludes with a 1912 congratulatory address from the Royal Geographical Society of London in honor of Kropotkin’s seventieth birthday. The address cited; “service in the field of natural sciences …contribution to geography and geology,” and most importantly for this entry, “amendments to Darwin’s theory.” Kropotkin’s contributions to geography and geology are well covered in the original entry by Oleg Naumov. This supplement focuses on Kropotkin’s reassessment of Charles Darwin’s theory, which he developed in response to what he saw as the excesses of some of evolution’s most ardent supporters.
Kropotkin was attracted to natural history from a young age and developed that fascination throughout his young life as a member of a number of geographical expeditions and as a contributing member of various professional societies. After completing his studies in the corps of pages in 1862, he spent the next five years traveling through Siberia studying the geography and geomorphology of eastern Siberia. In the course of these travels,
Kropotkin wrote several significant articles that established his reputation in the natural sciences. According to his memoir, during his travels he was intently studying a recent work by the British naturalist Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species.
The year after his return from Siberia, Kropotkin won the Russian Geographical Society’s gold medal for his account of the geography of the Olekmin-Vitim expedition. It was also during this time that Kropotkin’s interest in socialist revolution and radical politics developed beyond private conversations with close associates to public statements about political reform. This activity led to his arrest and imprisonment in Saint Petersburg in 1874. A few months into his imprisonment Kropotkin received permission to continue his scientific work and completed Investigation of the Ice Age in 1876. Shortly thereafter, because of his failing health, he was moved to a military hospital, from which he escaped at the end of June in 1876. He settled initially in Edinburgh but within weeks moved to London. While in London he continued both his political and scientific pursuits, publishing a number of articles in Nature and regularly participating in Royal Geographical Society meetings. Kropotkin’s involvement in the international anarchist movement led to his second arrest and imprisonment, in France in 1883. Though initially sentenced to five years, he was released in 1886 and returned to England.
A couple of years after his release, Kropotkin was invited by the editor of the popular journal The Nineteenth Century, to respond to an article written by Darwin’s bulldog Thomas Henry Huxley. It was this series of articles that was later published as the collection Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution. Kropotkin remained in England until 1917, when he returned to Russia with the overthrow of the tsar. In his final years he worked on his book Ethics until his death in 1921.
The Nature of Nature . The influence of Kropotkin’s early experience of nature in Siberia was to last a lifetime. Under the influence of his recent reading of Darwin, Kropotkin searched the steppes and Russian plains for the struggle for existence so vividly described in The Origin. In the first chapter of Mutual Aid, he writes:
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 Poliakov was. We were both 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… We saw plenty of adaptation for struggling, very often in common, against the adverse circumstances of the environment,
or against various enemies … but even in the Amur and Usuri regions, where animal life swarms in abundance, facts of real competition and struggle between higher animals in the same species came very seldom under my notice, though I eagerly searched for them. (p. 9)
This experience of nature was significantly different from the riot of life in the tropics that Darwin had described in The Voyage of the Beagle and later in his autobiography, recalling, “The glories of the vegetation of the tropics rise before my mind at the present time more vividly than anything else” (Darwin, 1958). The harsh environment of Siberia, where organisms struggled against seasonal extremes presented an entirely different tableau on which Kropotkin’s ideas about evolution would be inscribed. In contrast to Darwin’s focus on inter- and intraspecies competition, he emphasized the direct action of the environment. Kropotkin was also deeply influenced by the lack of Malthusian overpopulation in the Siberian context. Indeed, he was most impressed by the displays of organisms such as the musk oxen huddling together cooperatively against the physical hardship. Finally, Kropotkin wondered what the long-term effects of the harshest conditions meant for the long-term viability of the species. He observed that under the most extreme environmental conditions (where the Darwinian would expect the most severe competition) the survival of the whole group was at risk and their overall fitness was often diminished.
Kropotkin’s Amended Darwinism . As mentioned above, Kropotkin’s development of his theory of mutual aid was a direct response to Huxley’s article, “The Struggle for Existence: A Programme,” originally published in the journal The Nineteenth Century in 1888 and later included in the collected volume Evolution and Ethics (1894). Drawing on materials and examples from anthropology, politics, philosophy, and economics, Huxley laid out the fundamental role that competition and natural selection had played in the development of human society from Stone Age cultures to the modern era.
Huxley’s depiction of nature in “The Struggle for Existence” was “on about the same level as a gladiators show …. [In this case, however, the] spectator has no need to turn his thumbs down as no quarter is given.” For Huxley, nature is a zero sum game and the metric of success is reproductive output. He continues:
Let us be under no illusion then. So long as unlimited multiplication goes on, no social organization which has ever been devised, or is likely to be devised … will deliver society from the tendency to be destroyed by the reproduction within itself … of that struggle for existence, the limitation of which is the object of society. (pp. 211–212)
In the remainder of the article, Huxley appeals for both educational reform and worker’s rights that while perhaps not sufficiently radical for Kropotkin might at least be consistent with his politics. Nevertheless, the emphasis on competition (to the exclusion of any form of cooperation) in nature struck Kropotkin as deeply misguided.
Kropotkin’s first response to Huxley, on mutual aid in animals, appeared in The Nineteenth Century in 1890, followed in 1891 with a piece on early peoples, then on medieval city dwellers in 1892, and on contemporary societies in 1894. These essays and four others (along with Huxley’s original article) were published in 1902 as a collected volume Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. Kropotkin’s interest in evolutionary theory did not, however, stop there. Between 1905 and 1919 he published seven additional articles in The Nineteenth Century and The Nineteenth Century and After that continued his attempt to broaden the scope of Darwinian theory against the constriction represented by Darwin’s most strident supporters Huxley and later August Weismann. Indeed, Kropotkin would argue that his broader characterization of Darwin’s theory that included cooperation and mutual aid was more consistent with Darwin’s original intent.
In “The Theory of Evolution and Mutual Aid,” Kropotkin (1910a) analyzed the historical development of Darwin’s theory. Using excerpts from Darwin’s correspondence and charting the editorial changes made over the six editions of the Origin published during Darwin’s lifetime, Kropotkin presented his theory of mutual aid as the next step of the development of Darwin’s theory. Kropotkin made the historical argument that Darwin was initially so focused on the power of natural selection largely as a response to the continued negative influence of the work of Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck and Robert Chambers.
Kropotkin further argued that the difference between his theory of mutual aid and that of Darwin’s was exaggerated by the persistent influence of the Malthusian doctrine on Western Darwinists. His theory of mutual aid was supported by a shift in the focus from strict Malthusian or individual level competition to a point of view that emphasized the role of the cooperative struggle for existence against harsh environmental conditions. Kropotkin also argued in the 1910a article that Darwin was aware that the direct action of the environment played a more significant role in the process of evolution than he had originally allowed in the Origin. “He gradually came, in an indirect way, to attribute less and less value to the individual struggle inside the species, and to recognise more significance for the associated struggle against the environment” (p. 87).
In a second article published later that year, Kropotkin presented the next step in his theory of mutual aid. Again focusing on the collective struggle against the environment, Kropotkin argued that the more cooperative species would survive longer than their more individualistic, competitive rivals. On Kropotkin’s expanded version of evolutionary theory, natural selection is no longer “a selection of haphazard variations, but becomes a physiological selection of those individuals, societies and groups which are best capable of meeting the new requirements by new adaptations of their tissues, organs and habits. It operates largely as a selection of groups of individuals, modified all at once, more or less, in a given direction” (1910b, p. 61, 75).
Kropotkin’s insistence on the fundamental importance of the direct action of the environment precipitated another significant distinction between his theory and the neo-Darwinians. For Kropotkin, the direct action of the environment not only challenged the notion of individual level competition; it also modulated the claim of purely random variation. According to Kropotkin, the recent work of the biometricians had demonstrated that: “Whether we take the sizes of leaves of the same tree, or the stature of several thousand Englishmen at Cambridge University … everywhere we find that the laws of variation in organic beings are the same as those with which we are familiar in physical sciences under the name of laws of errors in the theory of probabilities” (1910a, pp. 105–106). Following this logic, he concluded that when we see consistent or directional deviation from the normal distribution this must be the result of some permanently acting cause, that is the direct action of the environment. Given such a cause, he continued, there is no need for an intense struggle between individuals to preserve the effects of variation, the influence of the environment will maintain and accumulate them in successive generations. Another development that clearly influenced Kropotkin’s reassessment of Darwin’s theory was the recognition of the importance of geographical isolation in the process of speciation. Kropotkin identified this development as further support for his diminished emphasis on intraspecies competition and individual level selection. Again, citing passages from Darwin’s correspondence with Moritz Wagner and Karl Semper on the role of isolation, Kropotkin observed:
Once we admit the successive migrations, in the course of ages, of certain species over several continents … and once we realise the amount of segregation that ensued, we fully understand the necessary ‘absence of intermediate forms.’ And yet it was this absence which so much puzzled Darwin and for which he admitted ‘extermination’ during a severe struggle for life. With isolation, such an extermination is not necessary; and probably it did not take place at all. (1910a, p. 100)
Clearly, from Kropotkin’s perspective the acknowledgement of the role of isolation decreased almost to the point of elimination, the significance of competition.
In his last article on his theory of mutual aid, published just two years before his death, Kropotkin summarized his findings. He concluded that Darwin’s original theory had been misinterpreted and misapplied by his followers under the influence of Malthus. He had also become convinced that the neo-Darwinians had created a false dichotomy between Darwin’s theory and Lamarck’s. Finally, he was concerned that the neo-Darwinians had become so committed to the theory of Darwin that they had eschewed the importance of the naturalist tradition and thereby the connection with nature itself. Kropotkin, on the other hand, had developed his theory of mutual aid largely on the basis of his experience in Siberia, observing and recording animal behavior in nature. In a letter quoted by Daniel Todes, Kropotkin provided his characterization of evolutionary theory; one that moderated the competitive and selective focus of Weismann and Huxley and paid proper tribute to Darwin’s original formulation:
This is a theory of evolution which … recognized the importance of Mutual Aid—that is, of the social instinct—for the preservation of the species, and which … saw in it the primordial element of Ethics. … This is above all a return to the Darwinism which saw in Evolution a spontaneous result of the forces of Nature, and not, as Weismann and his disciples wished, an Evolution predetermined (by the mechanisms of the Universe) by means of a substance possessed of an ‘immortal soul’—this Hegelian creation of Weismann, his germ plasm. (quoted in Todes, 1989, p. 141)
Ultimately, Kropotkin’s ideas had little lasting influence on Western biologists, except for some few who continued to champion some form of group selection theory. They did however, exert some significant influence in the Russian context, as demonstrated in the work of the historians Mark Adams and Daniel Todes.
WORKS BY KROPOTKIN
Memoirs of a Revolutionist. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1899.
Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution. New York: McClure Philips, 1902.
“The Theory of Evolution and Mutual Aid.” The Nineteenth Century and After 67 (1910a): 86–107.
“The Direct Action of Environment on Plants.” The Nineteenth Century and After 68 (1910b): 58–77.
“Inheritance of Acquired Characters: Theoretical Difficulties.” The Nineteenth Century and After 71 (1912): 511–531.
“Inherited Variation in Animals.” The Nineteenth Century and After 78 (1915): 1124–1144.
“The Direct Action of the Environment and Evolution.” The Nineteenth Century and After 85 (1919): 70–89.
Adams, Mark B. “The Founding of Population Genetics: Contributions of the Chetverikov School, 1924–1934.” Journal of the History of Biology 1, no. 1 (1968): 23–39.
Borrello, Mark E. “Mutual Aid and Animal Dispersion: An Historical Analysis of Alternatives to Darwin.” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 47, no. 1 (2004): 15–31.
Darwin, Charles. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809–1882. With original omissions restored. Edited by Nora Barlow. New York: Norton, 1958.
Glick, Thomas F., ed. The Comparative Reception of Darwinism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. First published 1974 by University of Texas Press.
Gould, Stephen J. “Kropotkin Was No Crackpot.” Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History, pp. 325–339. New York: Norton, 1991.
Huxley, Thomas H. “The Struggle for Existence in Human Society.” In Evolution and Ethics and Other Essays, pp. 195–236. London: MacMillan, 1894.
Todes, Daniel P. Darwin without Malthus: The Struggle for Existence in Russian Evolutionary Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.