[He is] that beautiful white Christ which seems to be coming out of Russia … [One] of the most perfect lives I have come across in my own experience.—Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde was much more likely to use his glowing pen to heap scorn than to spurt praise. So who merited such a tribute? That perfect life was lived by a Russian polymath named Pëtr Kropotkin.
Though he could not have cared less about fame, Kropotkin was one of the world’s first intellectual celebrities, known as both a brilliant scientist and a vocal proponent of the political philosophy of anarchism. When he visited the United States on two different speaking tours, tens of thousands of people flocked to hear him lecture in New York, Boston, Chicago and Washingon, DC.
Kropotkin’s life is the stuff of movies, with scenes in Russian and European prisons, a harrowing 50,000-mile journey through the wastelands of Siberia, and, for good measure, banishment from most of the respectable western countries of the day. In Russia, he served Alexander II as the Czar’s favourite teenage page, morphing into a young man enamoured with the theory of evolution, and then a convicted felon, jail-breaker and general agitator, chased around the world by the Czar’s forces for his radical (or enlightened, depending on one’s perspective) ideas.
Somehow Kropotkin mustered the energy to write books on evolution, ethics, the geography of Asia, anarchism, socialism and communism, penal systems, the coming industrial revolution in the East, the French Revolution and the state of Russian literature. On the surface, these may seem disparate subjects, but a common thread—Kropotkin’s scientific law of mutual aid—ties them all together. In a nutshell, that law provides that what Kropotkin called mutual aid—and what today we call cooperation—is the driving evolutionary force behind all social life, be it in animals or humans.
But we are getting ahead of our story. We need to step back now to 1842, to the Old Equerries section of Moscow, and discover the forces that shaped Pëtr Alexeivich Kropotkin. He was born on 21 December of that year, in a green-shingled, six-columned home. The Kropotkins were descendants of the Rurik dynasts who had ruled Smolensk. Kropotkin and his siblings were educated by the finest Russian and French tutors. Summers were spent at the family estate in Nikolskoye. Roaming the estate’s woods—home to arctic foxes and reindeer—imbued Kropotkin with a passion for studying the natural world. “In that forest,” he would write many years later in his autobiography, Memoirs of a Revolutionist, “my first love of nature and my first dim perception of its incessant life were born.” That love only burned brighter after he read Humboldt’s Cosmos, a nineteenth-century treatise on science and nature.
When back in Moscow, Kropotkin was also learning about the shadowy underworld of radical politics. One of his Russian tutors introduced him to contraband political writings about the nascent Russian anarchist and socialist movements. (Had his father known this, he would probably have had the tutor jailed.) When Kropotkin learned that some had renounced their titles during the French Revolution, he stopped referring to himself as Prince, and began signing his name P. Kropotkin.
At age fifteen, Kropotkin was admitted to the Corps of Pages, the academy that prepared Russia’s brightest young men for prestigious government positions in service to the Czar. But Pëtr had no interest in such things. His diaries and letters show his disdain for life in the Corps. “I hate everything more with each day,” Kropotkin wrote to his older brother, Alexander (Sasha), “There is no one with the same inclinations I have … Day after day passes, almost the best days of life, and you can’t make use of them, you simply vegetate, you don’t live.”
Plagued by boredom, Kropotkin immersed himself in books: he read history, politics, philosophy, science, poetry and whatever else he could get his hands on. At the weekends, when he was free to go home, he buried himself in the library at his sister’s house, reading Voltaire’s Dictionnaire Philosophique. It was soon after On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, while he was still in the Corps, that his brother Sasha introduced Pëtr to Darwin’s ideas. Sasha told him about a professor of zoology at Moscow University who had given a set of lectures on transformism, a term used to describe Darwin’s early ideas on evolution. Sasha was fascinated by the variability of species, and shared his fascination with his brother. Both would read On the Origin of Species and discuss Darwin and evolution for many years to come.
In June 1861, Kropotkin‘s academic achievements led to his selection for the position of sergeant of the pages, which carried with it a job as the page de chambre to Czar Alexander II. When his time in the Corps of Pages came to an end in the spring of 1862, most of the others in his class were longing for military positions (particularly ones asssociated with pomp). All Pëtr wanted was to study at a university, but he knew his father would not permit that, so he set his sights on an appointment that had a nominal military component, but that would provide him with a chance to pursue his passions in science.
He targeted Siberia, the newly annexed region of Amur—a “Mississippi of the East,” Kropotkin called it: “The mountains it pierces … the subtropical vegetation of its tributary … the tropical regions which Humboldt had described.” His peers were utterly bewildered by the choice, and his father was not happy. But when Alexander II heard of it, he summoned his page de chambre: “So you are going to Siberia?,” Alexander II asked Pëtr. “Are you not afraid to go so far away?” The young Kropotkin’s reply must have stunned the Czar: “No, I want to work,” Kropotkin said. “Well, go then,” Alexander II told him. “One can be useful everywhere.” And so, on 27 July 1862, a little over a month after graduating from the Corps of Pages, Kropotkin began a 50,000-mile trek through Siberia—his own, colder version of Darwin’s voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle.
In winter, Siberia can be one of the most brutal places on the planet. Though Kropotkin tended to play down the severity of its climate, even he found it difficult “lying full length in the sled … wrapped in fur blankets, fur inside and fur outside … when the temperature is forty or sixty degrees below zero, Fahrenheit.” Of the five expeditions he made in Siberia during his time there, the most fruitful was one whose ostensible goal was to find a path between the gold mines of Yakútsk and Transbaikália. Kropotkin found the route, but the journey also revealed to him the extent and power of a phenomenon with which he soon became obsessed: mutual aid—cooperation—in nature.
When Kropotkin first set off for Siberia, he had expected to encounter nature red in tooth and claw—the world that he and Sasha had spoken of in their back-and-forth about evolution and natural selection. Instead, in Siberia’s ice and snow, he everywhere encountered what he would come to call mutual aid. “I failed to find, although I was eagerly looking for it,” Kropotkin writes, “that bitter struggle for the means of existence, among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always by Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of the struggle for life, and the main factor of evolution.” Kropotkin began to think that the real struggle was not between individuals of the same species, but was rather “the struggle for existence which most species of animals have to carry on against an inclement Nature.”
Kropotkin drew away from emotionally laden terms such as “love” to describe the mutual aid he observed:
It is not love, and not even sympathy … which induces a herd of ruminants or of horses to form a ring in order to resist an attack of wolves; not love which induces wolves to form a pack for hunting; not love which induces kittens or lambs to play, or a dozen of species of young birds to spend their days together in the autumn.
Rather, all this was the result of the practice of mutual aid, which Kropotkin describes as “infinitely wider than love or personal sympathy—an instinct that has been slowly developed among animals and men in the course of an extremely long evolution.”
Animals engaged in mutual aid to combat the harsh realities of Siberia. Mutual aid, Kropotkin came to believe, was the key factor explaining how animals survive in a land of ice and snow:
Wherever I saw animal life in abundance …. on the lakes where scores of species and millions of individuals came together to rear their progeny; in the colonies of rodents; in the migrations 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 Amúr, and during which scores of thousands of these intelligent animals came together from an immense territory … in all these scenes of animal life which passed before my eyes, I saw Mutual Aid and Mutual Support carried on.
Kropotkin was convinced that the depiction of the animal world “[as] a pitiless inner war for life” was simply wrong. To acquiesce to such a view was “to admit something which not only had not yet been proved, but also lacked confirmation from direct observation,” something he was incapable of doing. The evidence was clear:
The ant, the bird, the marmot … have read neither Kant nor the fathers of the Church nor even Moses … The idea of good and evil has thus nothing to do with religion or a mystic conscience. It is a natural need of animal races. And when founders of religions, philosophers, and moralists tell us of divine or metaphysical entities, they are only recasting what each ant, each sparrow practices in its little society.
As for mutual aid in human populations in Siberia, it thrived in some places, but not others. Kropotkin pieced together a pattern: in towns farther from population centers, mutual aid thrived. Freed from the actions of bureaucratic bunglers, Siberians displayed almost unbounded mutual aid.
His brother Sasha had a very different view of human mutual aid. In his letters, Sasha proposed that what appeared to be mutual aid was just another manifestation of self-interest. Pëtr would have none of it. “It is not love of my neighbour,” he wrote to Sasha, “whom I often do not know at all, which induces me to seize a pail of water and rush towards his house when I see it on fire; it is a far wider, even though more vague feeling or instinct of human solidarity and sociability which moves me. So it is also with animals.”
Kropotkin’s observations in Siberia had drawn him to a startling and dramatic conclusion: mutual aid was not only common, but “of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species, and its further evolution.” Soon, he would be describing mutual aid as a biological law, particularily after he read a lecture on mutual aid that Karl Kessler, dean of the University of Saint Petersburg, had presented to the Congress of Naturalists.
Kropotkin’s time in Siberia turned him into not only an evolutionary biologist but also a full-fledged anarchist. “I lost in Siberia,” he would write, “whatever faith in state discipline I had cherished before. I was prepared to become an anarchist.” Kropotkin’s anarchist philosophy developed naturally from his work on evolution and mutual aid in animals. Anarchism argues that no centralized government is necessary for people to lead happy, just and equitable lives. The mutual aid that Kropotkin saw among the animals of Siberia led him to that same conclusion. He came to believe that mutual aid had deep biological roots because animals engaged in it despite the absence of anything remotely like a government. The process of natural selection had favoured mutual aid in animal populations: anarchy, Kropotkin writes, was “a mere summing-up of … the next phase of evolution. It is no longer a matter of faith; it is a matter for scientific discussion.” And since animals cooperated in the absence of government, it seemed to Kropotkin impossible that humans could not find a way to break free of government shackles.
In the autumn of 1867, Kropotkin’s time in Siberia came to an end. Now old enough to no longer need permission from his father on such matters, he entered the University of St. Petersburg. On paper, he was a student in the department of mathematics, but he spent most of his time studying the politics of anarchy, including taking a month-long sojourn to Zurich, Geneva and Jura, anarchist meccas at the time. Upon his return, he found kindred souls in what was called Saint Petersburg’s Tchaykóvsky Circle, a burgeoning group of underground anarchists and nihilists whose primary mission was to educate the masses on the evils of the State. In next to no time, Kropotkin became, not only an active member of the Circle, but one of its leaders, and deeply involved in writing its best-known pamphlet, Emilian Ivanovich Pugachev, ili bunt 1773, a romanticized novel-like story of Pugachev’s 1773 rebellion against Catherine the Great, in which historical fiction was used to promote the anarchist ideal.
The Czar and the police were livid, and launched a huge manhunt. Kropotkin seemed unfazed. He first went to a barber shop and had his beard shaved off. Then, using the passport of a friend, he crossed to Finland and then to Sweden, where he boarded a steamer ship bound for England.
After landing at Hull, Kropotkin immediately began looking for work. Using the alias Mr Levashoff, he landed a position as book reviewer for the up-and-coming science journal Nature. The job would last; the alias would not. When J. Scott Keltie, an editor at Nature, asked “Mr Levashoff” to review the geography books of one Pëtr Kropotkin, Pëtr admitted that he was the said Kropotkin.
The anarchist movement had not yet fully emerged in England, and so, in time, Kropotkin moved to Switzerland. There he struck up a friendship with some of the leading anarchists of the day, including Élisée Reclus. Kropotkin was safe in his new home—until Czar Alexander II was assassinated in March 1881 by a member of the People’s Will movement. The new emperor, Alexander III, terrified that the entire Czarist system might crumble, unleashed the military, the police and the officers of a newly minted protection agency called the Okhrana in an attempt to quash it. He also put intense pressure on the Swiss government to purge itself of Russian anarchists and agitators, and so, finally, in 1881, the Swiss government expelled Kropotkin, and he returned to England, this time settling in London. But just for a year. Then it was off to Nice, France—where he quickly found himself in jail—this time for being a member of the International Workingmen’s Association, an anarcho-socialist organization that was illegal in France. Upon his release in 1886, he made his way back to London again, this time for the long haul.
In February 1888, Kropotkin opened the February issue of the popular Victorian magazine Nineteenth Century, and was aghast at what he saw. Charles Darwin’s friend, Thomas Henry Huxley, who had given himself the nickname “Darwin’s bulldog,” had written a long, scathing article entitled “The Struggle for Existence: A Programme,” in which he argues that nature is a dog-eat-dog bloodbath, not a land of mutual aid. Kropotkin’s response to what he called Huxley’s “atrocious article” would compel him to formalize his ideas on mutual aid.
Huxley had guaranteed himself an audience that was both large and smart. Nineteenth Century was no tabloid: its contributors included Alfred Lord Tennyson, Beatrix Potter, Baron Rothschild and Prime Minister Gladstone. And Huxley’s thesis about the natural world was blunt and unsettling:
From the point of view of the moralist, the animal world is on about the same level as the gladiator’s 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 … The weakest and the stupidest went to the wall, while the toughest and the shrewdest, those who were best fitted to cope with their circumstances, but not the best in any other 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 writing this piece, which came to be known as the “gladiator essay,” Huxley wanted all to “understand, once and for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process [evolution], still less in running away from it, but in combating it.”
It is hard to imagine a position more antithetical to Kropotkin’s. Kropotkin argued that we don’t need to run from our evolutionary past—because it is rooted in mutual aid. He was livid that one of Britain’s leading scientists would publish such a piece. As a friend of James Knowles, the editor of Nineteenth Century, Kropotkin requested, and was granted, the chance to write a rebuttal.
The result was a full-length essay called “Mutual Aid Among Animals.” It became the first of a series of essays on mutual aid that he would publish in the magazine—“Mutual Aid in Savages,” “Mutual Aid in Barbarians,” “Mutual Aid in the Mediæval City” and “Mutual Aid Amongst Ourselves”—but to Kropotkin it was arguably the most important.
If he had learned one thing in Siberia, it was this: “If we resort to an indirect test and ask Nature: ‘who are the fittest, those that are continually at war with each other or those who support one another?,’ we at once see those animals which acquire mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest.” But Kropotkin understood that examples from Siberia would go only so far to support the general, sweeping claims he intended to make regarding the power of mutual aid in animals. Many of his other examples of mutual aid in animals included detailed descriptions. Others were generalisations, such as the claim that falcons possess “an almost ideal organization for robber[s] … [they] practice mutual support and … almost invade the earth.” Mutual aid at this generalized level was apparent to him everywhere¾even in pond scum: “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 micro-organisms.”
Consider Kropotkin’s description of burying beetles, who lay their eggs in decomposing rodent carcasses: “As a rule,” he writes, these creatures,
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.
Social insects—the ants, bees, and wasps—were special favorites of Kropotkin, and he asked the reader to contemplate what happens when an ant comes back to its nest and solicits food from one of its nestmates. The solicitor and its partner, Kropotkin writes:
exchange a few movements with the antennae, and if one of them is hungry or thirsty, and especially if the other has its crop full … it immediately asks for food. The individual thus requested never refuses … Regurgitating food for other ants is so prominent a feature in the life of ants that … the digestive tube of the ants … consist[s] of two different parts, one of which, the posterior, is for the special use of the individual, and the other, the anterior part, is chiefly for the use of the community.
Kropotkin was fascinated by how ant cheaters (those who refuse to dispense aid) are dealt with: “If an ant which has its crop full has been selfish enough to refuse feeding a comrade, it will be treated as an enemy, or even worse. If the refusal has been made while its kinsfolk were fighting with some other species, they will fall back upon the greedy individual with greater vehemence than even upon the enemies themselves.” Punishment enforces mutual aid. “If we knew no other facts from animal life than what we know about the ants and the termites,” Kropotkin asserts, “we already might safely conclude that mutual aid … and individual initiative … are two factors infinitely more important than mutual struggle in the evolution of the animal kingdom.”
On and on he goes. For example, he writes that eagles, pelicans and many other birds use mutual aid to hunt their prey and to distribute the food amongst themselves. Mammals too hunt prey in a cooperative fashion, and use mutual aid as both a defensive and an offensive tool. Wild horses live in groups and cooperatively fend off their enemies. “When a beast of prey approaches them, several studs unite at once,” Kropotkin writes. “They repulse the beast and sometimes chase it: and neither the wolf nor the bear, not even the lion, can capture a horse or even a zebra as long as they are not detached from the herd … Union is their chief arm in the struggle for life.”
In 1902, Kropotkin compiled all the mutual aid essays he had penned for Nineteenth Century, added a lengthy introduction, and published his book, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. Almost a century later, in the late 1980s, I was working on my PhD in animal behaviour and evolution. My thesis was on theoretical models of animal cooperation and empirical tests of those models in fish. Naturally, I read everything about cooperation that I could get my hands on, which led me to Kropotkin, whom I had never heard of before. I read and re-read Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, cover to cover—in part because it is so beautifully written. I came across many citations from this book in research papers, but most of them were clearly throwaways—as if the papers’ authors had never read the book themselves, but felt obliged to cite it because others had. If only they had taken the time to read Mutual Aid, I am convinced that their already fine research would have been even finer.
Today, there is an entire subdiscipline in biology devoted to the study of cooperation in animals. Hundreds of papers on cooperation (mutual aid) come out each year—many in leading journals such as Nature, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA. Many of the hypotheses being investigated are based on permutations of ideas first raised by Pëtr Kropotkin.
A bust of Pëtr Kropotkin needs to have a place opened for it—perhaps on a shelf just under Darwin’s bust—in the small pantheon of early, iconic evolutionary thinkers.