Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution

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Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution is a book by Peter Kropotkin on the subject of mutual aid, written while he was living in exile in England. It was first published by William Heinemann in London in October 1902. The individual chapters had originally been published in 1890–96 as a series of essays in the British monthly literary magazine, Nineteenth Century.

Written partly in response to social Darwinism and in particular to Thomas H. Huxley's Nineteenth Century essay, "The Struggle for Existence", Kropotkin's book drew on his experiences in scientific expeditions in Siberia to illustrate the phenomenon of cooperation. After examining the evidence of cooperation in nonhuman animals, in pre-feudal societies and medieval cities, and in modern times, he concluded that cooperation and mutual aid are the most important factors in the evolution of species and the ability to survive.


Daniel P. Todes, in his account of Russian naturalism in the 19th century, concludes that Kropotkin’s work "cannot be dismissed as the idiosyncratic product of an anarchist dabbling in biology" and that his views "were but one expression of a broad current in Russian evolutionary thought that pre-dated, indeed encouraged, his work on the subject and was by no means confined to leftist thinkers."[1]

Kropotkin pointed out the distinction between the direct struggle among individuals for limited resources (generally called competition) and the more metaphorical struggle between organisms and the environment (tending to be cooperative). He therefore did not deny the competitive form of struggle, but argued that the cooperative counterpart has been underemphasized: "There is an immense amount of warfare and extermination going on amidst various species; there is, at the same time, as much, or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defense...Sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle."[2] However, Kropotkin did consider cooperation as a feature of the most advanced organisms (e.g., ants among insects, mammals among vertebrates) leading to the development of the highest intelligence and bodily organization.

As a description of biology, Kropotkin's work is flawed but not without merit. Stephen Jay Gould admired Kropotkin's observations, but found his grasp of Darwinian theory deficient.[3] Cooperation, if it increases individual survival, is not ruled out by natural selection, and is in fact encouraged. Gould also objected to Kropotkin's reliance on the naturalistic fallacy in refuting social Darwinism. Modern biology explains Kropotkin's observations in two ways. When different species appear to aid each other, it is a case of mutualism. When individuals within a species aid each other, it is a case of altruism in animals, including kin selection and reciprocal altruism. Douglas H. Boucher places Kropotkin's book as a precursor to the development of mutualism as a theory.[4]


See also


  1. Todes, Daniel P. (1989). Darwin Without Malthus: The Struggle for Existence in Russian Evolutionary Thought. Oxford University Press. pp. 104, 123.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Kropotkin, Peter (1902). Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Chapter I
  3. Gould, Stephen Jay (June 1997). "Kropotkin was no crackpot". Natural History. No. 106. pp. 12–21.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Boucher, Douglas H., ed. (1985). "The Idea of Mutualism, Past and Future". The Biology of Mutualism: Ecology and Evolution. Croom Helm. p. 17. ISBN 9780709932383.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links