Mutual Aid I: Moral Lessons from Evolutionary Theory? Research Time, 25/06/2014

If there is any single notion that all scientists, historians of science, and philosophers of science can agree on, it’s that it is ridiculous to try to derive moral principles from scientific discoveries and interpretive frameworks. There are many reasons why one should never do this. 

But the reason that I prefer to concentrate on in my own thinking is that the movement is much too simple. Moral principles and systems are complex cultural creations that develop over centuries of a community’s physical constitution. Simply extrapolating a scientific principle along a straight parallel into a moral guiding principle is a philosophically awful move. But this move is the conceptual foundation of Social Darwinism. 

Social Darwinism was the largest cultural movement to emerge from evolutionary theory, and it has given the theory a bad name ever since: the notion that the natural order of the world is ruthless competition among individuals, and that it is right and natural to structure human society at all levels that those who can stomp on more people as they rise to the top of society should, because they are able. I have even still found myself discussing this idea with students, who at first seem to consider it seriously. It’s precisely the most dangerous kind of poor thinking that exists: It’s so easy.

A young Charles Darwin, the most unjustly
vilified scientist in human history.
The name itself was an insult to Darwin’s own views about evolution, which were so nuanced, you would almost believe that he was a brilliant scientist who carefully considered his theoretical interpretations and constructions, and meticulously organized his massive collections of observational data. 

I mention this because I’ve started reading some anarchist political philosophy to sort through ideas for the final third of the Utopias project outline. I already have the basic shape of the first two thirds, but this last, purely political section still needs some conceptual work. Peter Kropotkin was the first person I began reading in this regard, mostly because he was the one I’d read before. I was first introduced to his work in my undergraduate degree, in a political theory course offered by Memorial’s political science department. Michael Wallack was the professor, and we were reading Kropotkin in dialogue with selected works of Karl Marx and Herbert Marcuse in that last half of that course. So I had some haunting familiarity with his works already.

The full manuscript of Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid is actually another work that seems to make something like that illegitimate move from a scientific theory immediately to a parallel in prescriptive moral philosophy. At least, this is the popular account of the book. As I explore it further, I’ll have something else to say. A book doesn’t have the legacy Mutual Aid does without being more nuanced than the idiots who took up Social Darwinism.

Already, Mutual Aid impresses me, at least in providing an alternative conception of how evolution works than the Darwinian mainstream of his time. Darwin did his seminal fieldwork in the tropics, with a booming population of species and individuals squabbling over a lush landscape. Kropotkin did his in the wastelands of Siberia, where a sparse and dispersed population of all creatures helplessly scrounged for whatever occasional scraps of sustenance they could find in the desolation. In such an environment, creatures have to band together for a slim chance to avoid starving to death. Kropotkin’s detailed observations of animal behaviour in these harsh ecosystems were the basis of his biological framework of the evolution of mutual aid. To be continued . . .

No comments:

Post a Comment