Mutual Aid Revisited: Kropotkin's Work From a Modern View
By Brooks E. Davis
In 1902 Prince Peter Kropotkin published Mutual Aid which provided a scientific basic for his Anarchist views. He disputed the claim of social Darwinists such as Thomas Huxley that the wealthy were wealthy because they were most fit to be so and the poor were poor because they were unfit to be wealthy. Today, ninety-five years later, the field of evolutionary biology has advanced significantly, particularly in the area of cooperation among animal of the same or different species, and thus it is necessary to reexamine Kropotkin's work in this new light.
In the first chapter of Mutual Aid Kropotkin states:
To support this view, Kropotkin provides numerous examples from a variety of Russian sources. Kropotkin states that he found no examples of intraspecies competition during his years of research in Siberia and claims are also supported by a number of other Russian zoologists. In addition to finding no evidence of intraspecies competition, he sites a number of examples of cooperation from birds and mammals all the way down to beetles:
While these arguments certainly point to the presence of mutual aid among animals, the arguments that there is no evidence of intraspecies competition don't hold up to scrutiny. In his famous book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins provides two strong examples of competition or worse within a species:
Another, less extreme, example relates to
These cases clearly pose a problem for the theory that there is no struggle for existence between members of the same species. Another problem with Kropotkin's theory is the statement "that those animals which acquire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest." This looks a lot like the classical group selection argument that animals evolve in ways that are "for the good of the species." While I think it is possible for Kropotkin's argument to be cleverly argued such that it is not a group selectionist argument, it is more likely that Kropotkin was thinking in a group selectionist manner when he developed his theory. For this reason it is necessary to consider the group selection theory while considering Kropotkin's theory of mutual aid.
The group selection theory is what most people tend to think of when they think of evolution. It is the theory that the species (or at least large groups within it) are the basic unit of selection. This theory is very controversial because it has a lot of philosophical appeal, but it is generally thought to be unsound, both in theory and reality. Starting with reality,
The theoretical problem with group selection is more compelling because we know that selection does act on different sizes of units in different circumstances. Let us consider a group of organisms that have a trait that increases the fitness of the group as a whole at the expense of its own fitness. (For example, restricted reproduction when food is scarce.) You can think of them as animal is that makes it easier to visualize, but don't assume they are capable of logical thought. Now, let us say that a mutation occurs causing one of the organisms to reproduce as much as possible. That organism will have more progeny then the other organisms because it doesn't restrict its reproduction. Its progeny will likely have this new gene which will cause them to produce in an unrestricted manner as well. Clearly, these selfish organisms will quickly takeover because they are more fit, but their prominence will be to the detriment of the group as a whole.
In 1976, Richard Dawkins published his revolutionary book, The Selfish Gene. The Selfish Gene takes the view that the only unit of selection that matters is the gene (thought the term gene is loosely defined) and as a direct all that matters is the survival of the gene. Strictly speaking, there was nothing new about this claim, but Dawkins took it to a new level. By arguing from the perspective of a gene rather then an individual, Dawkins was able to utterly reject group selection and still account for behaviors that are ultimately detrimental to the individual. The basic premise is that organisms which tend to live in groups that are closely related (and thus are likely to have the same genes) will tend to evolve traits that are beneficial to the group as a whole. The reason for this is not that the group benefits, but that any particular gene is likely to be present in many individuals in the group. Thus a gene that leads to an increase in the group's fitness at the detriment of the individual will still tend to increase in the population as long as the statistical detriment to the individual is less then the statistical gain to the group. This theory is generally misunderstood because people assume that a conscious count of relatives who might be saved is made each time a potentially detrimental action is considered. All that matters to this theory is the statistical likelihood that those in the area are carrying the gene that is causing the action. This theory, in addition to a number of social psychological theories, makes the claim that every action is inherently selfish. This certainly casts some doubt on the concept of mutual aid.
Fortunately, more recent research in the area of game theory indicates that Kropotkin may be right after all. This research investigates a problem called the iterated prisoners' dilemma. The prisoners' dilemma is commonly stated as follows. Two people are arrested for a crime that they did commit but for which there is only enough evidence to convict them of a lesser crime. They are separated and then asked to tell on the other person in exchange for no sentence and are given no chance to communicate. The following payoff matrix shows the results of each combination of actions.
Ex. 1 year in jail
Ex. 10 years in jail
Ex. No time in jail
Ex. 5 years in jail
If you consider the standard prisoner's dilemma, the only possible choice (from a purely selfish, outcomes point of view) is to defect because that will insure that you will never get the worst possible value, the "sucker's payoff." Thus, this isn't a very interesting problem. However, if you assume each prisoner will be given each choice repeatedly and will know what the other person did last time, then some communication is allowed. As a result it is possible to develop strategies which will produce outcomes better then the outcome from each person defecting every time. A political scientist named Robert Axelrod conducted a investigation into which strategies where best for the iterated prisoner's dilemma. Dawkins describes Axelrod's work in detail in a chapter entitled "nice guys finish first" in the second edition of The Selfish Gene. The details are well beyond the scope of this paper, but the results are quite interesting. The winning strategy was technically nice which means that is will cooperate by default. The strategy was named Tit for Tat and it works on a very simple principle. The first round it cooperates with the other. If the other side defects then it defects the next round and if the other side if cooperative then it cooperates then next round. This simple and elegant strategy will beat out any other strategy under the conditions of the standard iterated prisoner's dilemma. Under a slightly more complicated system where "populations" of strategies "breed" with one another, Tit for Tat won five out of six trials although a number of other strategies which were also "nice but provocable strategies" were still around at the end as they were all playing "cooperate" and thus could not tell each other apart. In the case were Tit for Tat didn't win out, one of the other nice strategies won.
This strategy sounds very similar to the very strategy which Kropotkin proposed in The Conquest of Bread for dealing with those few people who will not work for the communal good:
This gives some hope that Kropotkin's theory of mutual aid holds true under certain circumstances. Better yet, these circumstances do not appear to be to idealistic to ever actually hold true.
Dawkins, R. (1989). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kropotkin, P. (1902). Mutual Aid. London: Heinemann. (http://www.pitzer.edu/~dward/Anarchist_Archives/kropotkin/mutaidcontents.html)
--- (1906). The Conquest of Bread. New York and London: G.P. Putnam's Sons. (http://www.pitzer.edu/~dward/Anarchist_Archives/kropotkin/conquest/toc.html)
Logan, R. (1993). Kropotkin: Basis for a Cooperative Economy in Russia. Prout Journal, 6(3). ( http://www.livelinks.com/sumeria/cosmo/kropotkin.html)
Ridley, M. (1993). Evolution. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell Science, Inc.