Kropotkin and Darwin – evolution and cooperation

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.

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One Response to Kropotkin and Darwin – evolution and cooperation

  1. Erik Boyd says:

    If you are interested in Kropotkin and mutual aid you may also be interested in the prevalent anarchist business model: collectivism/worker’s self-management. Look up FaSinPat, a textile business in Argentina formerly known as Zanon, whose name stands for Fabrica Sin Patrones (factory without bosses). This business model actually played a key role in pulling Argentina out of its recession in 2001 with 250+ businesses in the country running on the same model.

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