A near-forgotten Russian prince and geographer offered a cooperative model for life on Earth

Some years back, television advertisements pitched the video collection The Trials of Life, from the PBS wildlife series. The ads promised “uncensored, shocking, explicit footage” of violent struggle from a “savage and untamed realm,” and offered teaser shots of wild animals tearing each other in two. The nature-porn narration made the ads unintentionally funny; purchasers of the series were guaranteed to understand “why they call them animals.” (The ads reminded me of an old Monty Python skit portraying limpets locked in mortal combat, with John Cleese’s voiceover announcing that “this pattern of aggressive behaviour is typical of these nature documentaries.”)

The notion that wild creatures do little more than fight, feed and fornicate – the gladiatorial concept of nature – has long persisted in both popular and intellectual circles. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. But is that really so? Is brute competition the sole evolutionary driver in the animal world – and by extension, our own – or do cooperation and collaboration play a significant role?

We have all heard of Charles Darwin. Some of us have even heard of Alfred Russell Wallace, the scholar who independently came up with the theory of evolution by natural selection. But few of us have heard of Prince Peter Alexeivich Kropotkin. Although reduced to a footnote in historical surveys of intellectual thought, the czarist-era Russian nobleman and geographer made significant contributions to evolutionary theory, ecology, and social criticism. In 1902, he gathered these ideas together in
Mutual Aid, a Factor in Evolution, a work that has mostly disappeared down the Anglo-American memory hole. Yet his ideas on the cooperative nature of life on Earth, though radical in his time, have received greater support over the past 30 years. Life, it turns out, may even be more cooperative than Kropotkin thought.

Born into the highest rank of the Russian aristocracy in 1842, Kropotkin’s future comfort seemed assured. His family had descended from the Rurik dynasty, which had governed Russia before the Romanovs. According to John R. Bleibtreu’s study of natural history,
The Parable of the Beast, he came from a family of six, with “a servant retinue of over 50 persons including a tailor, a piano tuner, a confectioner, and a band of 12 musicians; all serfs.”

In his early teens, Russian court society accorded Kropotkin the highest honour available to a young nobleman – appointment to the czar’s personal retinue of pages. During his studies at St. Petersburg University, he became fascinated by the theory of evolution, which became for him an “inexhaustible source of higher poetic thought, and gradually, the sense of man’s oneness with nature, both animate and inanimate.” What the young prince considered “the poetry of nature” became the philosophy of his life.

In 1862, he finished his tour of duty as a page, and had to choose a regiment in which he would be commissioned as a junior officer. His fascination with Siberia – its land, peoples and wildlife – led him to select a Cossack regiment near the Manchurian border. Kropotkin’s choice of work locale surprised his superiors, who resisted his eccentric-sounding decision. He reminisced later in life about how his determination also had a political dimension. “Besides, I reasoned, there is in Siberia an immense field for the application of the great reforms which have been made or are coming; the workers must be few there, and I shall find a field for action to my tastes.” Successfully winning his choice of post in Eastern Siberia, he met with General Kukel, head of the general staff, who was a personal friend of Bukunin, an anarchist philosopher who had recently escaped from prison in Siberia. Kukel introduced Kropotkin to Bakunin’s wife, and the three spent many evenings talking long into the night.

(Anarchism has connected in the popular imagination with the image of the black-clad, bomb-throwing lover of chaos. In fact, the foundations of anarchist thinking embrace the idea of peaceful collectives living in decentralized systems; a rejection of the top-down models of communism’s central planning and capitalism’s free market monopolies.)

In these years, czarist agents weren’t particularly welcome in these far-flung areas of the Russian Empire, so on his geographical explorations Kropotkin traveled alone and in disguise. In 1865 he undertook his most important exploration of Siberia, in the company of a zoologist and topographer, travelling in an armed party of 10 Cossacks and 50 horses. Mesmerized by the theories of Darwin, he and his colleagues found an interesting divergence between theory and observation. “We were both under the fresh impression of The Origin of Species, but we looked vainly for the keen competition between animals of the same species which the reading of Darwin’s work had prepared us to expect ... even in the Amuri and Usuri region 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.”

Kropotkin conceived a novel idea; the driver of evolutionary advance was not so much competition within a species for limited resources; it was through cooperation within a species to maximize survival against harsh external conditions.

The Russian scholar has been long dismissed as a footnote in biological thinking: a naïve sentimentalist whose scientific thinking was coloured by his anarchist sympathies. But have Darwin’s own ideas a certain culture-bound tint? His famous “aha” moment came upon reading the work of Thomas Malthus, who correctly held that population grows geometrically, while food resources only grow arithmetically. Darwin concluded that this mismatch leads to an inexorable struggle for survival by living creatures.

In a 1991 essay called
Kropotkin Was No Crank, Harvard palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould noted that Malthus “makes a far better prophet in a crowded, industrial country professing an ideal of open competition in free markets.” Malthus was less comprehensible to Russians. “He was foreign to their experience because, quite simply, Russia’s huge land mass dwarfed its sparse population.” For a Russian to see an inexorably increasing population inevitably straining potential supplies of food and space “required quite a leap of imagination.”

Independently of one another, Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace came across their theory of evolution while reading Malthus. The mutual revelations occurred for both in the tropics, and no other area on Earth is so packed with species, and so replete with bodies in competition. According to Gould, “An Englishman who had learned the ways of nature in the tropics was almost bound to view evolution differently from a Russian nurtured on tales of the Siberian wasteland.”

The ideas of cooperation in the wild fermented in Kropotkin’s imagination as he made further explorations across the steppes. His discovery of the Franz Joseph Land archipelago won him a worldwide reputation as a geographer, and nomination for presidency of the physical geography section of the Russian Geographical Society. At the same time, he had fallen in with a group of intellectuals who gave covert lectures to workers’ groups. Using the pseudonym Borodin, Kroptokin dressed in peasant disguise while addressing meetings on political and scientific topics. The nobleman’s paranoia found its real-world mirror in official suspicion. The spellbinding lectures by this mysterious six and a half-foot tall figure elicited the interest of the secret police, who apprehended Kropotkin one night after one of his talks.

So began Kropotkin’s stint in solitary confinement. For close to two years, he only had access to an inadequate prison library to help preserve his sanity, along with an exercise regime of his own making, which included walking a minimum of five miles a day back and forth across his cell. A bout of scurvy resulted in his relocation to another prison, and then to the military hospital at St. Petersburg, where he hatched his plans for escape.

On the day of the attempt, a lookout installed at a room near the prison hospital played a violin from his window. Another lookout sat eating cherries just outside the prison grounds. When the violinist picked up the tempo, and the cherry-eater stopped chewing, the coast was clear. Kropotkin, in a long, green, dressing gown, ran for his life, later recalling a sentry so close behind that several times he flung his rifle forward trying to give the prisoner a blow in the back with the bayonet. Amazingly, the prince made it to a waiting carriage driven by a co-conspirator, and sped off to safety.

Writes Blieibtreu: “He shaved his beard, and was provided with an officer’s uniform on the assumption, which later proved quite correct, that in despotic Russia, customs agents, border guards, etc. would be fearful of incurring the displeasure of an officer by delaying him with an overly scrupulous examination of his papers.”

In disguise, Kropotkin arrived in London. He travelled widely through Europe, agitating in his writings for various socialist and revolutionary causes. He narrowly escaped jail in France for his agitation, and returned to London in 1886. Here he hooked up with James Keltie, assistant editor of the British science journal,
Nature. Unaware of his true identity, Keltie gave the emigrant Russian work translating items from foreign journals into English. When Kropotkin received his own book on the glacial history of Eurasia to review, the jig was up, and the prince revealed his true identify to the editor.

A particular essay by “Darwin’s bulldog,” Thomas Huxley, caught his attention during this time. “Life was a continuous free fight,” wrote Huxley, “and beyond the limited and temporary relaxation of the family, the Hobbesian war of each against all was the normal state of existence.” Huxley tempered these remarks to say that it is the duty of human culture to resist the brute violence of the animal world, but the Russian emigre was inflamed by Huxley’s belief that the natural world is defined solely by struggle. Kropotkin believed this to be an extrapolation backwards from human militarism and misery to the natural world. Huxley’s essay resulted in a passionate series of rebuttals from Kropotkin in the magazine The Nineteenth Century, which were eventually gathered into his book Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution.

Pegged as an anarchist philosopher, Kropotkin and his writings on evolutionary theory have often been dismissed as politically motivated. Yet Gould points out that if the Russian savant overemphasized mutual aid, British evolutionists surely overemphasized competition. (Certainly the debased message of a social Darwinism, which argued that the weak are owed nothing by the powerful, was not unwelcome to the elite of newly industrialized Britain.) It’s undeniable that a one-size-fits-all reductionism, pushing the competitive aspect of the living world, helped paved the way for the monstrosities of eugenics and Aryanism. Even Darwin’s better interpreters, like Huxley, unwittingly helped this legacy by playing up gladiatorial imagery in their description of life.

The evidence supporting Kropotkin’s thesis is now substantial. The many examples of mutualism and symbiosis are too numerous to touch on here, other than a few prominent examples from the very beginnings of life. Among the first species of bacteria, it is now believed, three organisms living in cozy symbiosis as the cooperative precursors to animal cells’ organelles – the nucleus, mitochondria, and centrioles. Another variety of cell began to live in association with organisms capable of photosynthesis, in turn evolving into plant cells with their light-munching chloroplasts.

This kind of micro-cooperation persists to this day. Some 40 species of bacteria and one-celled creatures exist in the guts of termites. These creatures break down the cellulose of wood, which the termite cannot digest itself. It’s an internal community that has coevolved with termite species, with a mutual payoff for the players. According to Betsey Dyer, a biologist from Wheaton College in Massachusetts quoted in
Discover magazine, “symbioses are the rule rather than the exception; organisms are always associated with other organisms.” These associations aren’t limited to small-scale endeavours, or even to animals: across the world, subterranean networks of fungal mycelia, miles wide, share water resources with the root systems of trees in exchange for carbon compounds. Without a substantial level of collaboration between and within species, from the micro to the macro, life would not likely have evolved much past simple self-replicating strands of DNA.

Today’s neoDarwinism – the “grand synthesis” of Mendelian genetics and natural selection – has moved away from the monolithic notion of “nature red in tooth and claw.” Yet the dog-eat-dog idea still persists within academic circles. It’s even unintentionally endorsed in standard college biology texts, through minimizing the recent ideas on mutualism and symbiosis. Given this intellectual inertia, the generalization of hardcore competition from nature to human culture – and spun as the machinery of civilized advance – continues to persist in the popular imagination.
Thanks to the philosophy of social Darwinism, white, well-bred intellectuals at the turn of the century had discovered that evolution’s peak had turned out to be, by happy coincidence, themselves. Darwin himself qualified his own thoughts on the struggle to survive to acknowledge the role of cooperation. Unfortunately, we have largely inherited our ideas on competition from the irresponsible extrapolation of one-sided ideas about survival in the wild, with poverty seen as the inevitable, if unfortunate, corollary of a universal law in which the weak are winnowed out by the powerful. By this logic, the latter are justified in grabbing what resources they can, while duking it out among themselves. This spectral notion has haunted everything from business management theory to classical economic thinking. It has both endorsed and trivialized the coercive character of capital-driven power relations.

Kropotkin wrote of the mindset of his British colleagues in his 1902 magnum opus,
Mutual Aid. “They came to conceive of 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.”

His critique still stands, in a world where leaders of state and industry wrap the naked exercise of power in a thin veil of pseudoscientific platitudes (with the occasional nod to fossil beliefs from the time of Moses). We continue to hear from media sources that unregulated competition is an axiomatic good, and that all manner of abuses of power (corporate, political, or personal) are no more than accidental departures from an upward path toward universal good.

Kropotkin returned to Russia in his final years, and died on 1921 in the city of Dmitrov. Disappointed by the failure of the 1905 revolution, he remains to this day an ambiguous figure, his legacy darkened by a paradoxical refusal to disavow violence for achieving political aims.

The Russian scholar held that when hostile circumstances press upon the community, animal or human, they seem to strengthen the communal bonds of cooperation. In our high speed, high security world, with its terror alerts, data mining and erosion of privacy, it’s a message that needs to be repeated. On the global scale, cooperation is the only alternative around mutual extermination, and toward a more subtle and complex level of organization. Life is not a zero-sum game, and our moment in the sun doesn’t have to be bought at the expense of casting a shadow on others elsewhere.

Geoff Olson