The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin's Adventures in Science and Politics

In his new book, Lee Alan Dugatkin tells the tale of one of the world's first modern international celebrities, whose writings shared the common thread of a scientific law of mutual aid, which guided the evolution of all life on Earth


Editor's Note: The following excerpted from The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin's Adventures in Science and Politics by Lee Alan Dugatkin. Copyright (c) 2011 by Lee Alan Dugatkin. 

"…{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 not the sort of man prone to effusive compliments. Who could possibly have merited such glowing praise from Wilde's typically satirical, razor-edged pen? That perfect life, the White Christ, belonged to a quite remarkable Russian scientist, explorer, historian, political scientist, and former prince by the name of Peter Kropotkin.

Kropotkin was one of the world's first international celebrities. In England he was known primarily as a brilliant scientist, but Kropotkin's fame in continental Europe centered more on his role as a founder and vocal proponent of anarchism. In the United States, he pursued both passions. Tens of thousands of people followed "ex-Prince Peter"—and that is how he was often billed—during two speaking tours in America.

Kropotkin's path to fame was unexpected and labyrinthine, with asides in prison, breathtaking 50,000-mile journeys through the wastelands of Siberia, and banishment, for one reason or another, from most respectable Western countries of the day. In his homeland of Russia, Peter went from being Czar Alexander II's favored teenage page, to a young man enamored with the theory of evolution, to a convicted felon, jail-breaker and general agitator, eventually being chased halfway around the world by the Russian Secret police for his radical—some might (and did) say enlightened—political views.

Both while in jail, and while on the run when he was entertaining and enlightening huge crowds, Kropotkin found the energy and concentration to write books on a dazzling array of topics: evolution and behavior, 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. Though seemingly disparate topics, a common thread—the scientific law of mutual aid, which guided the evolution of all life on earth—tied these works together. This law boils down to Kropotkin's deep-seated conviction that what we today would call altruism and cooperation—but what the Prince called mutual aid—was the driving evolutionary force behind all social life, be it in microbes, animals or humans. Traveling around the world, and trying to elude the Secret Police, simply gave Kropotkin the time, material and experience to develop his ideas.

Peter's theory of mutual aid came to him in the most unlikely of places. To follow in the footsteps of his hero, Alexander von Humboldt, when he was twenty years old, Kropotkin began a series of expeditions in Siberia. At that point, he was already an avowed evolutionary biologist—one of the few in Russia—and a great admirer of Darwin and his theory of natural selection.  Fifty thousand miles later, and five years the wiser, Kropotkin left Siberia a Darwinian. But he was a very different kind of evolutionary biologist: a new species of sort. For in Siberia, Kropotkin had not found what he had expected to find. Though still in its early gestation period when Kropotkin began his journey through Siberia, evolutionary theory of the day advanced that the natural world was a brutal place: competition was the driving force. And so, in the icy wilderness, Peter expected to witness nature red in tooth and claw. He searched for it. He studied flocks of migrating birds and mammals, fish schools, and insect societies.

What he found was that competition was virtually nonexistent. Instead, in every nook and cranny of the animal world, he encountered mutual aid. Individuals huddled for warmth, fed one another, and guarded their groups from danger, all seeming to be cogs in a larger cooperative society. "In all the scenes of animal lives which passed before my eyes," Kropotkin wrote, "I saw mutual aid and mutual support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species and its further evolution."

Kropotkin didn't limit his studies to animals alone. He cherished his time in peasant villages, with their sense of community and cooperation: in these small Siberian villages, Kropotkin began to understand "the inner springs of the life of human society." There, by observing "the constructive work of the unknown masses," the young scientist witnessed human cooperation and altruism in its purest form.

The conflict then arose in trying to align his observations with Darwinian theory. While he might easily have abandoned evolutionary thinking altogether, joining many other Russian scientists in dismissing Darwin's ideas as nothing more than Victorian smoke and mirrors, Kropotkin understood that evolutionary thinking could explain the diversity of life he saw around him. And so he set up the tightrope on which he would balance for the rest of his life.

He advocated that natural selection was the driving force that shaped life, but that Darwin's ideas had been perverted and misrepresented by British scientists. Natural selection, Kropotkin argued, led to mutual aid, not competition, among individuals. Natural selection favored societies in which mutual aid thrived, and individuals in these societies had an innate predisposition to mutual aid because natural selection had favored such actions. Kropotkin even coined a new scientific term—progressive evolution—to describe how mutual aid became the sine qua non of all societal life—animal and human. Years later, with the help of others, Kropotkin would formalize the idea that mutual aid was a biological law, with many implications, but the seeds were first sown in Siberia.

From the Siberian tundra, Kropotkin's thinking turned to the political implications of mutual aid. The ants and termites, the birds, the fish and the mammals were cooperating in the absence of any formal organizational structure—that is without any form of "government." The same was true in the peasant villages, where mutual aid abounded, but a centralized government structure was nowhere to be seen.

Kropotkin sensed great similarities with the writings of anarchists, which he had taken to covertly as a teenager. Leave people with complete freedom and autonomy, Peter had read in the anarchist literature, and they will naturally cooperate. In Siberia, Kropotkin had discovered this to be true not only for humans, but for all species that lived in groups. What marked so much in the natural world could surely help in politics and society.

"I lost in Siberia," Kropotkin would write," whatever faith in State discipline I had cherished before: I was prepared to become an anarchist." Peter became so convinced that his scientific findings on mutual aid explained the biological underpinnings of political anarchy, that years after his trek through Siberia, he wrote in his obituary for Charles Darwin that, properly understood, Darwin's theories were "an excellent argument that animal societies are best organized in the communist-anarchist manner."

In time, Kropotkin's ideas on the science of mutual aid would lead to his rise as the most famous anarchist of his day. Kropotkin today retains his moniker as a key founder of anarchist principles. And for more than 80 years—until about the 1960s—Kropotkin's ideas on mutual aid played a prominent, critical role in the study of behavior and evolution. And during that same period, the Prince's book-length treatments on ethics, geology, history and literature had a huge impact not only on those fields, but on areas as diverse as city planning, communist ideology and the modern "green" movement.

In the late 1980s, while researching my own Ph.D. dissertation on animal behavior and the evolution of cooperation, I came across many citations to Peter Kropotkin's work on this same topic. Quickly I came to realize a few things. Either these citations were "throwaways"—that is, citations to books the authors themselves had never read—or they were about Kropotkin the anarchist, not Kropotkin the scientist. But, when I read Kropotkin's books, cover to cover—which I did many times, in part because they are so wonderfully written—I realized that his ideas were so much more important than indicated in the evolution and animal behavior literature.

In addition to Kropotkin being one of the most famous political anarchists in history, he was an extraordinarily important figure in terms of his science. He was the first person to propose that animal cooperation was crucial for understanding the evolutionary process. He challenged the prevailing Darwinian principle that evolution was strictly about survival of the strongest. It would have been remarkable enough if Kropotkin had done this in obscurity, but quite the contrary—in his day he was the public face of these ideas, and one of the most recognizable people on the planet, lecturing on an astonishing array of subjects all over the world.

There is currently an entire subdiscipline in biology devoted to the study of cooperation and altruism in animals. This is not a small enterprise. E.O. Wilson called understanding animal cooperation and altruism one of the fundamental problems in the study of animal behavior, and that emphasis can be seen in the laboratories of scores of researchers who specialize in this area today—laboratories
from UCLA to Princeton, from the University of Texas to the University of Helsinki. Kropotkin's work in the late 1800s marks the birthplace of this field.

Many of the ideas that are the focus of research in modern labs working on animal cooperation are based on permutations of ideas first raised to the surface by Peter Kropotkin. Literally hundreds of papers come out each year on animal cooperation—many in preeminent journals such as Nature and Science—and so many of these papers show Kropotkin to be a prophet.  And Kropotkin was not only the first person who clearly demonstrated that cooperation was important among animals, he was the first person to forcefully argue that understanding cooperation in animals would shed light on human cooperation, and, indeed would permit science to help promote human cooperation, perhaps saving our species from destroying itself. Today, anthropologists, political scientists, economists and psychologists publish hundreds of studies each year on human cooperation, and researchers in these fields are just beginning to realize that so many of the topics they are investigating were first suggested and promulgated by Peter Kropotkin.

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