Mutual Aid II: How Living Can Inform the Life Sciences, Research Time, 26/06/2014

Continued from yesterday. Peter Kropotkin was not an ignorant political theorist alone, but a biologist and proto-ecologist with deeply held and detailed political beliefs. As I said yesterday, it is utterly ridiculous to derive a moral principle directly from a scientific principle. This is precisely the fundamental idiocy of Social Darwinism. It took the principle in the evolutionary theory of the 19th century that the engine of change in natural systems is conflict among individuals for resources, and turned this into a moral principle.

If the natural order of things was a ruthless struggle among individuals for life, then there is nothing unjust about structuring your society along lines of conflict. Those who have achieved much have won the struggle for survival and have, in doing so, demonstrated their fitness. Those who have lost have only proven their natural inferiority. The weak and enslaved were so because it was in their nature to be defeated, and any attempt to improve their lot went against the way of nature. The fact of victory by violent means justified violent means to victory. The subjugation of weak peoples by military strength merely articulated the true order of nature: the strong will dominate the weak. Such conceptual idiocy justified exploitation and empire.

Young Peter Kropotkin, an admirable man
with an admirable beard.
Kropotkin’s political theory was anarchistic, and the arc of Mutual Aid describes how the kind of cooperative relations among animals survive in humanity in the form of community and neighbourly relations. As a scientific endeavour, it’s one theoretical perspective on how altruism arises. Such a holistic approach to science should become more prominent in evolutionary biology, at least at the most broad conceptual level. My friend Y is working on a doctoral dissertation in the philosophy of science, a critique of the conceptual blockages in evolutionary population studies that prevents the quantitative science from understanding the development of altruism.

I think, at least given my preliminary engagement with the work so far, that Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid can provide a great service for researchers running up against the altruism problem in evolutionary biology. Where passing on genetic material is an evolutionary priority, the individual, or at least its kin, take precedence, and the notion that one could sacrifice oneself for the sake of an unrelated fellow is inconceivable. However, such behaviour happens frequently. 

This theory used to be extremely puzzled by social insects such as ants, whose colonies were populated by drones that would never reproduce. So they had to come up with the notion of group selection, which, after a fashion, makes no radical conceptual changes to the notion of individuals struggling to pass on their genetic material. Instead, it only treats the group as a super-organism, statistically.

This is just the wild speculation of a philosopher whose work in evolutionary theory concentrated more on ecological concepts than problems of inheritance: Mutual Aid could be a useful theoretical starting point to re-evaluate some basic concepts of the science. Kropotkin didn’t make the same mistake as all those Social Darwinists did, although it may seem as though he did and he has been summarily dismissed in some discussions of the relation of science and morality as having done so. This essay from 1997 by Stephen Jay Gould explains why he didn’t better than I could.

In short form, Kropotkin could think more easily about the problem of altruism because he didn’t have to deal with the wrinkle of inheriting DNA as the primary goal of evolution. But there’s a conceptual subtlety about inheritance that too many discussions of evolutionary theory seem to miss. Ultimately, natural selection and evolutionary change is driven by the inheritance (or lack thereof) of genetic material from generation to generation. But all Kropotkin had to see on his expeditions to Siberia were animals desperately banding together to help each other, as a group, survive hostile conditions.

And in the actual life of organisms, that’s all we know too. No animal, apart from a human with a passing familiarity with contemporary evolutionary theory, ever plans its actions with the intent of perpetuating its genetic legacy. It just wants to survive. If it survives better in a harsh environment by banding together in a group as a social creature as they all share their efforts, so much the better. A group whose members turn against itself can’t survive when environmental conditions become truly harsh. 

Here is how a political principle derives legitimately from a scientific investigation. The investigation has revealed some fact about the world which can guide the practical activity of the human race. Humans are social animals who survive and thrive evolutionarily better as groups than isolated individuals. We coordinate our societies through political means. A politics that values mutual aid over ruthless individual competition will be more likely to ensure that such a community survives an ecological catastrophe. 

Existence works probabilistically. Thinking of an individual alone, whether genetic material survives into a future generation is a matter of certainty: it either does or not. But when an entire population is taken into account, the likelihood of a given individual passing on its genetic material will depend on the vitality of its group. Momentary sacrifices for group survival make sense if we’re all in this together. The science of inheritance will be incomplete until it fully incorporates this ecological contingency, and the greater chances of survival through teamwork and group effort, into its mathematical models. 

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