Kropotkin and Darwin – evolution and cooperation

November 11, 2006

Way back in May at the Future Summit, Richard Hames mentioned the story of Petr Kropotkin which I found interesting at the time but hadn’t looked back at it.  It is a very interesting story – and particularly over the past 100 years since the publication of his book Mutual Aid.  It has significant implications for KM and the prevailing worldview of how people consider evolutionary change to occur, particuarly evolution through survival of the fittest.

In his seminal publication Origin of the Species, Charles Darwin mentioned two forms of struggle – the first one direct and pits organism against organism in a fight for limited resources, the second what Darwin termed metaphorical that pits organism against the environment, a battle that leads to cooperation between organisms. 

Huxley took this first struggle of competition and emphasised that aspect – of organisms competing fiercely against each other.  Later, social darwinists took this view and reflected it in human society.  We now have many products of this thought-line in modern society in areas such as classical microeconomics, business models and our constant striving for scarce money resources.

Kropotkin, on the other hand, emphasised Darwin’s second aspect of struggle.  In his study of animal societies in Siberia, he found little evidence of competitive struggle and more evidence of organisms cooperating to find resources to survive. It could be that his views were informed from a situation where resources were thin and that organisms needed to cooperate to survive rather than the Malthusian opposite of many organisms competing for resources that are somewhat more abundant. Kropotkin also identified that the more advanced species were ones that cooperated more and that “the unsociable species, on the contrary, are doomed to decay”.

Kropotkin, being an anarchist, obviously thought that Mutual Aid needed greater emphasis than competitive struggle.  Australian animals in many respects are similar to that which he found in Siberia, with many species of local birds particularly in the arid and semi-arid interior performing cooperative breeding (where more than two birds, not just the parents, raise the young).  

I find this a really interesting metaphor for KM.  KM is about sharing, creating, capturing and transferring knowledge between people within an organisation.  It tends towards a cooperative model rather than a competitive one.  Maybe as Australians, we can learn from our own bird species and struggle together against the wider environment of scarce resources, rather than place undue emphasis on competing against each other as we attempt to scale the metaphorical evolutionary ladder.

For more on Kropotkin, see this article by Stephen Jay Gould – although I disagree on his second last para as I do see evidence of the noosphere, holism and morhpic resonance; or see this good life story of Kroptkin.

Organisational Zoo – VPSCIN lunch

November 4, 2006

Had a great lunch on Friday with Arthur Shelley and his Organisational Zoo hosted by VPSCIN. Aside from working for Cadbury’s and always seeming to have a (un?)healthy supply of chocolates on-hand, he has recently published a great book on what he calls the organizational zoo. 

He wrote the book to build better relationships between people at work using metaphors to clarify team dynamics and match stakeholders in projects.  Arthur says that organisations are like zoos with lots of animals who are not normally together placed in cages (desks and work-pods) and forced to interact.  This obviously causes stress and the metaphors help to relieve the stress in a fun, gender-neutral and positive way.

 Arthur ran an interesting exercise which highlighted how the addition of some extra bits of information can change your decisions quite markedly using pictures of people.  He then ran a “quick and dirty” psychological profiling exercise which was highly effective and provides a great snapshot of someone is like (at that time).

His animal archetypes were great.  From the lion who rules by fear with the big ego, to the owl as the eternal mentor, to the whale as the techno-dude who are highly specialised but really hard to communicate with, to the yak as the enthusiastic blunderer.  They key is that effective zoos need a mix of animals that suit particular contexts. 

I think it just goes to show that there is a little bit of animal in everyone. Or as we discovered, a lot of animal in certain people. And, as a former Zoologist like Frank Connolly who coordinates VPSCIN, I’ve always said that I wanted to work with animals and now I realise that I have finally achieved my dream!  The moral of that story of course is to be careful of what you wish for as it might come true!

More on this session here at the VPSCIN blog