Blogging the 2016 ASSA conference. Pyotr Kropotkin on cooperation as a strategy for survival
The 2016 ASSA conference (3-5 Jan.) is in San Fransisco. I’m not there but the internet allows me to highlight some interesting papers, mainly from the Association for Evolutionary Economics sessions. The paper by John Hall and Svetlana Kirdina about Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin‘s ideas about evolution is an excellent paper to begin with (read that Wikipedia page: very interesting guy who, just like Darwin, was able to combine individual observations with global insights in a very clever way). The question is more or less: did people survive because they competed with each other – or because they cooperated?
The paper states first that Darwin’s ideas about evolution may have had an individualist British flavour, for one thing as he stresses a very explicit Malthusian ‘struggle for survival’ (aside – one of the things I like about ‘The origin of species’ is the fact that, repeatedly, Darwin explicitly mentions holes in his theory!):
Our research suggests that indeed place can play a role in the development of ideas. And after his grand voyages Darwin formulated his ideas while based back in Great Britain during a period in which this nascent but powerful nation-state had established itself at the center of an extensive and still expanding empire spanning the globe. In 1859 at the time when Darwin published his monumental The Origins of Species, his country registered as one of the most densely populated in Europe, and competition for space contributed to pressures encouraging outmigration to colonies and former colonies. An economic competition also characterized the realm of family-owned businesses that composed the industrializing economy during this era described by the term laissez-faire, and which is reflected in Economic Science with the first and later editions of Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics . In contrast to Darwin’s Britain, the empire of Russia included a vast geographic area that stretched past Europe’s continental boundary at the Ural Mountains, all of the way across Asia to the Pacific. Russia offered a fundamentally different environment and place from which ideas regarding natural selection and evolution could be drawn.
Darwin rapidly became hugely influential in Russia and there was quite a bit of discussion of his ideas and method, discussions which extended well beyond biology proper. According to the authors,
it was Prince Peter Kropotkin who appears to have offered the most constructive criticism of Darwin’s reliance of Malthus’ notion of struggle for existence. Kropotkin displayed a profound respect for Darwin’s thinking and regarded the theory of natural selection as “… perhaps the most brilliant scientific generalization of the [19th] century” (Avrich, 1988, 58). In addition, Kropotkin accepted that the struggle for existence played an important role in the evolution of species and went further and argued that life is a struggle; and in this struggle the fittest survive. However, in his foundational book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution  (2006), Kropotkin criticized Darwin’s emphasizing competition and the struggle for existence as a valid and universal law. In its place, he introduced the Law of Mutual Aid….While Kropotkin finished life as perhaps the most famous theorists of anarchism when combined with socialism, he started out his career as a research scientist with broad interests spanning from geology and geography, to botany and biology. What is more, Kropotkin gained his insights from fieldwork. In particular, his two expeditions to northeastern Siberia led him to recognize how the harshness of climatic conditions registered as the greatest challenge in the struggle for existence. And rather than observing what Darwin had hypothesized, namely that intra-species competition served as the “bitter struggle for existence” among animals, Kropotkin (2006, xi) noticed that groupings of species thrived through cooperation. Researching human settlements in Siberia, Kropotkin likewise noted cooperation and mutual aid as the foundation for dealing with the larger struggle for survival against natural challenges.
The paper ends with some references to Veblen, which are however at the moment somewhat gratituous. And it is too bad that they do not compare the ideas of Kropotkin with those of Elinor Ostrom: from the site of Nobelprize.org:
As a political scientist Elinor Ostrom’s research methods differed from how most economists work. Usually they start with a hypothesis, an assumption of reality, which is then put to the test. Elinor Ostrom started with an actual reality instead. She gathered information through field studies and then analyzed this material. In her book ‘Governing the Commons’ from 1990, she demonstrated how common property can be successfully managed by user associations and that economic analysis can shed light on most forms of social organization. Her research had great impact amongst political scientists and economists.
And modern evolutionary theory stresses cooperation more than Darwin did (our guts are stuffed with ‘good’ bacteria). But dusting off Kropotkin is, as far as I’m concerned (I knew nothing else about him than ‘Kropotkin – russian anarchist), already a welcome addition to present day economics.