Does Evolution Favor Competition or Cooperation?

Via Slate:

“Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species sparked major battles. The most famous may have been between science and religion, but there were disputes within science as well. One of the most heated was whether natural selection favored cooperative or competitive behaviors, a battle that still rages today. For almost 100 years, no single person did more to promote the study of the evolution of cooperation than Peter Kropotkin.

Peter Kropotkin, circa 1900
Peter Kropotkin, c. 1900

Kropotkin traveled the world talking about the evolution of cooperation, which he called “mutual aid,” in both animals and humans. Sometime the travel was voluntary, but often it wasn’t: He was jailed, banned, or expelled from many of the most respectable countries of his day. For he was not only the face of the science of cooperation, he was also the face of the anarchist movement. He came to believe that his politics and science were united by the law of mutual aid: that cooperation was the predominant evolutionary force driving all social life, from microbes to humans. […]

Kropotkin’s adventures during his five years in Siberia were the stuff of movies. He crisscrossed 50,000 miles of the region, often “lying full length in the sled … wrapped in fur blankets, fur inside and fur outside … when the temperature is 40 or 60 degrees below zero …” His job was to inspect the dreaded prisons of Siberia, full of not just criminals but political agitators. He did so dutifully, but with disgust. The border of Siberia, he wrote, should have a sign like that from Dante’s Inferno: “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.” The rest of his time was devoted to learning more about anarchist philosophy (often from anarchist leaders who had been banished to Siberia) and, most importantly, studying the natural history of animals and humans there.

Kropotkin expected to see the brutal dog-eat-dog world of Darwinian competition. He searched high and low—but nothing. “I failed to find, although I was eagerly looking for it,” Kropotkin wrote, “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.”

Instead he saw mutual aid—everywhere. “In all these scenes of animal life 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.” And it wasn’t just in animals. The peasants in the villages he visited were constantly helping one another in their fight against the brutal environment of Siberia. What’s more, he noted a correlation between the extent of mutual aid displayed in a peasant village and the distance of that village from the hand of government. It was just as the anarchists had suggested. “I lost in Siberia,” he wrote, “whatever faith in state discipline I had cherished before. I was prepared to become an anarchist.”

He was also prepared to challenge the biological orthodoxy that natural selection led only to competition. He was still a Darwinist, and an adamant one, but he thought the process of natural selection, especially in brutal climates like Siberia, could lead to mutual aid, not only competition. His nascent ideas on anarchism and biological evolution were beginning to merge into one.”


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