The Gentle Prince: Peter Kropotkin

The Gentle Prince: Peter Kropotkin July 16, 2012

Aiden Kelley has a nice homage to the “gentle prince,” Peter Kropotkin, over at her Including Paganism Patheos blog.

The young Prince Peter Kropotkin was stationed at a post in Siberia—it was a lot like Wyoming—bored silly, I suppose. He had read Darwin’s Origin of Species, when it came out in 1859, and had noticed that Darwin’s thinking in that book made an assumption for which Darwin presented no evidence, namely, the assumption that all animals live in a state of total war against all other animals, that an animal will always attack any other animal (except maybe for the females of its own species) that happens to be in its proximity, and that primitive humans, being animals, behaved the same way. This was, of course, Hobbes’ assumption as well.

[…] It was true that an animal will kill and eat another animal if it is hungry, and that two males of some species will fight to determine which one will be able to mate with a female. Aside from that, he discovered, animals were not aggressive toward each other. Sometimes they just ignored each other, but sometimes they cooperated, for their mutual benefit. He called such cooperation symbiosis, and he began to see that the interactions among many species, both plant and animals, formed a network that they all depended upon in order not only to survive, but also to thrive. In other words, it was Kropotkin who helped found the field of science we now call ecology. (And even if that story is somewhat romanticized, Kropotkin does write at length of his biological observations during his military service in Siberia.)

Kelley is more interested in how Kropotkin’s thoughts played out in social theory, but Kropotkin was also influential in the scientific world and even the religious world. Back in 1997, Stephen Jay Gould penned an article in an effort to redeem Kropotkin’s reputation in the west, “Kropotkin was no Crack Pot”:

Kropotkin begins by acknowledging that struggle plays a central role in the lives of organisms and also provides the chief impetus for their evolution. But Kropotkin holds that struggle must not be viewed as a unitary phenomenon. It must be divided into two fundamentally different forms with contrary evolutionary meanings. We must recognize, first of all, the struggle of organism against organism for limited resources – the theme that Malthus imparted to Darwin and that Huxley described as gladiatorial. This form of direct struggle does lead to competition for personal benefit.

But a second form of struggle – the style that Darwin called metaphorical – pits organism against the harshness of surrounding physical environments, not against other members of the same species. Organisms must struggle to keep warm, to survive the sudden and unpredictable dangers of fire and storm, to persevere through harsh periods of drought, snow, or pestilence. These forms of struggle between organism and environment are best waged by cooperation among members of the same species-by mutual aid. If the struggle for existence pits two lions against one zebra, then we shall witness a feline battle and an equine carnage. But if lions are struggling jointly against the harshness of an inanimate environment, then lighting will not remove the common enemy – while cooperation may overcome a peril beyond the power of any single individual to surmount.

Gould holds up Kropotkin and his work Mutual Aid; A Factor in Evolution as an example of the Russian school of Darwin interpretation, which downplayed the notion that nature was a war of “all against all.”

Kropotkin also plays a small but interesting role in American religion according to the historian Gary Dorrien. Around the turn on the 20th century, liberal Christian theologians like Washington Gladden used him as an antidote to Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinism. They created what one of my professors called a “social Darwinism of the left,” which placed the emphasis on cooperation as a means of advancement. From Gladden’s work, The Forks of the Road:

Herbert Spencer proved from the study of the lowest orders of life that altruism is not less primordial than egoism ; that self-sacrifice is just as natural and just as necessary as self-assertion; and Henry Drummond and Prince Kropotkin have shown us how the struggle for life even among the grasses and the flocks and the herds is lifted up and transfigured in “the struggle for the life of others.”

Gladden was a prominent voice in American liberal Christianity for decades, and he and his allies advanced the idea that the theory of Darwinian evolution complemented both liberal Christianity and the social gospel. It was a version of evolution that was teleological and frequently racist, but it’s an example of a popular movement in American Christianity that not just accepted but wholeheartedly embraced evolution.

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