Today, a gentle Russian offers something better
than combat. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Petr Kropotkin was born a
Russian Prince in 1842. His father trained him for
the Tsar's court. But Kropotkin had read Darwin's new book, Origin
of Species. He wanted to be a scientist. He
hated court politics. He finally quit and joined a
Cossack regiment in Siberia.
There he was free to study life in a natural
environment. For five years he served as a
geographer and naturalist. The Siberian wilds gave
him far better lessons in social organization than
the Russian court had.
He joined the Imperial Geographical Society in
1868. He made more trips. In 1870 he turned down
the cushy post of Society secretary and left
Petersburg again. This time he went to Europe to
study anarchy. You and I bend the word anarchy to
mean chaos. But what anarchists claim is that
individuals organize society by working together --
cooperatively and voluntarily.
Imperial Europe didn't like the idea that imperial
rule is unnecessary. So Kropotkin spent time in
jails. He finally found a safe haven in England.
There he worked as a science writer.
Meanwhile Darwin's influence grew. Tennyson called nature "red in
tooth and claw." In 1888 Huxley wrote a harsh essay on
survival of the fittest: "The Struggle for
Existence." We starting seeing our lot through
distorted Darwinian lenses. We started believing
that life is a blood sport.
Both capitalists and the new Marxists bent Darwin
to fit their ends. Kropotkin reacted with articles.
He showed that cooperation is our primary survival
strategy. He wrote:
Life in societies enables the feeblest animals,
the feeblest birds, and the feeblest mammals to
resist, or protect themselves from the most
terrible birds and beasts of prey;
He showed how acts of mercy and mutual
support were part of all insect, animal, and human
societies. In 1902 he wove his studies into a
powerful lucid book. He called it Mutual
Kropotkin had once supported the Russian
revolution. But, as Marxists turned up their
Darwinian rhetoric, he withdrew. Before his death
in 1921, he wrote to Lenin. "Vladimir Ilych," your
actions are [unworthy of your ideals]."
Today we're finding Kropotkin's modes of
cooperation far more subtly active in our ecology
than we'd once thought. We're finding new hope in
his anarchist notion that a society
... which organizes itself without authority, is
always in existence. [It is] like a seed beneath
For it is you and I who shape our world.
Our cooperation and interaction have far more say
than government does. We form our world. We do so
simply by working together -- and by cherishing one
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Kropotkin, P., Mutual Aid: A Factor of
Evolution. (with an introduction by George
Woodcock), New York: Black Rose Books, 1989.
See also the Encyclopaedia Britannica
article on Kropotkin.
I'm grateful to the Rev. Bill Cobb for drawing my
attention to Kropotkin's work.
For more on Kropotkin and his ideas, see Episodes
1036 and 947.
Image courtesy of Special
Collections, UH Library
Petr Kropotkin, from Memoirs of a
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
photo by John Lienhard
Mutual aid and cooperation are hallmarks of animal
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