Home > Uncategorized > Blogging the 2016 ASSA conference. Pyotr Kropotkin on cooperation as a strategy for survival

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 Kropotkins 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? kropotkin788888

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 [1890]. 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 [1902] (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.

  1. December 28, 2015 at 8:28 am

    That is an interesting history—i’ve read a few books by Kropotkin —i see him as basically setting up the sort of modern utopian ideal—- ie everyone does a mix of work—some in the fields and factories, some in arts and sciences, in the morning be a neurosurgeon, afternoon as an astronaut, evening as a rock star etc. Doesnt seem to have panned out for most though these ideas still get some discussion. His best to me was his last on ‘ethics’.—its definately dated philosophically —some concepts in there are now seen as confused. His ‘mutual aid’ also is dated—one can get the impression that maybe at one time the lions lay down with the lambs in the garden of eden. (I’ve actually met animal rightists who think meat is murder and also originally every animal was a vegeatarian (they are also anti-abortion). Darwin is also outdated—few know this but he actually held some ‘Lamarckian” ideas (supposedly his nemesis—but adam smith had besides self interest, moral instincts).

    Many of the russians mentioned are history I dont know—its interesting that even in the `1800s people didnt like Darwin—later, under Stalin, Lysenko also didnt like Darwin (as unmarxist); some were also skeptical of ‘jewsih science’ (einstein). (I still run across Marxists or their writings which claim that quantum theory and relativity are actually derived from Marxism—i’ve seen other arguments that say they come from the bible, the koran, or hinduism—they want everyone to accept their dogma as fundamental, and claim anything people use and possibly enjoy derives from that (so ignore the scientists except to fix your computer). (Under Stalin, russian math and science apparently was in a similar, or worse state than artists in the USA (eg Paul Robeson) in the MCarthy era. I learned one of my favorite books—old one from 20’s–one of the first to use stochastic processes formalism—aparently was plagiarized from someone who was sent to one of the gulags—one way to solve job competition problems. It can be mentioned that Darwinian ‘competitive survival’ was actually dervied from his reading of adam smith.).

    Cooperation has been contentious in biology and ‘sociobiology’. It had some influence as a topic up until the 60’s, and then the ‘selfish gene’ sort of view took over (Trivers, G C Williams, Dawkins etc.) You can still see these debates fairly recently. See for example, S Pinker in edge.org/conversations/steven_pinker-the-false-allure-of-group-selection , Pinker is totally demolished in the comments section of that article by people who know math. Pinker is what i call a ‘vulgar darwinist’ as there are ‘vulgar marxists’ and ‘vulgar’ interpretations of adam smith—they leave out ‘the moral sentiments’ and just focus on cut throat competition—mostly political libertarians. Vulgar marxists are those who can quote capital chapter and verse and know that nothing has been learned since it was written.

    The situation in biology was similar to economics (and there are still reactionary holdouts, like Pinker). ‘Group selection’ was basically a banned topic. (This was also like the topic of ‘the evolution of language’—Chomsky, who i think mentored Pinker, decided in the 60’s or 70’s that ‘the evolution of language’ was a banned topic (basically because that approach might lead to falsifying his theory of language, which basically has happened nonetheless. ) After 2000 it can be noted that ‘the evolution of language’ Chomsky decided would be unbanned, since he decided so long as his name was on the paper he ‘d write it—looks good on a CV—with Hauser, of Harvard, who subsequently also got fired for falsifying data. .

    This is just as in economics where all problems were reduced to finding the general equilibrium,but mostly more applied economists rather than theoreticians —this despite the fact that most of the major contributors to general equilibrium theory including arrow, debreu. mantel, sonnenschein, kirman, and many others pointed out its limitations, that it was a very idealized model, and also came up with many counterexamples which showed it didnt hold in general. . .The ‘heterodox’ models were relegated to the more obscure books and journals (though they were readily available, but werent QJE, JPE or AER). .

    I guess my view is its somewhat amazing that these ideas are even seen as new or unknown.
    But i remember I once went to India and the local, very poor people i met who were friendly thought they were up to date on western rock and pop music—but they were playing the Beatles and Bob Marley (and alot of that I didnt even know since hardcore punk and rap was the big thing in my home country).

    The division of labor is the hard problem of cooperation. The other famous russian anarchist Bakunin saw this at about the same time Kropotkin was writing. Djilas in Yugoslavia sort of confirmed Bakunin’s prediction, and Herman Simon via bounded rationality placed the idea into modern formalism of mathematical economics. As Stephen Jay Gould put it, its a tangled bank, with a web of debt.

  2. January 26, 2016 at 9:30 am

    I’m the editor of a recent Kropotkin Anthology (“Direct Struggle Against Capital”, AK Press) and I have also written a pamphlet on Kropotkin’s “Mutual Aid”. The first edition is on-line, the second is available via AK Press:

    “Mutual Aid: An Introduction and Evaluation

    Kropotkin work has been more than confirmed by modern science.

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