December 30, 2012

The patron saint of Anarchy

Filed under: History,Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:33

Another article from earlier this year looks at the fascinating career of Prince Piotr Kropotkin (who I really only knew of as a fictionalized minor character in L. Neil Smith’s books):

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.

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.

[. . .]

One of the perks of being the top student at the Corps was that when he completed his studies in 1862, he had first choice of any government appointment. To the utter amazement of his friends and the bewilderment of his father, he requested an appointment in the newly annexed Amur region of Siberia. The odd choice caught the attention of Czar Alexander II, who inquired, “So you go to Siberia? Are you not afraid to go so far?” “No,” Peter replied, “I want to work.” “Well, go,” the Czar told him. “One can be useful everywhere.” And so, on July 27, 1862, he went.

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.”

H/T to Derek Jones for the link.

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