Friday, October 14, 2022

Social production of moral indifference - 3b

Kropotkin thus suggested two forms of struggle with opposite results: (1) organism against organism of the same species for limited resources, leading to competition (the theme that Malthus imparted to Darwin and that Huxley described as gladiatorial); and (2) organism against environment, leading to cooperation (the style that Darwin called metaphorical). If the struggle for existence pits two lions against one zebra, then the zebra has no chance. But if lions are struggling jointly against the harshness of an inanimate environment, then cooperation may overcome a peril beyond the power of any single individual to overcome.

Kropotkin argued that the cooperative style had been underemphasized and must balance or even predominate over competition in considering nature as a whole. As he studied his selected examples, he became more and more convinced that the cooperative style, leading to mutual aid, not only predominated in general but also characterized the most advanced creatures in any group - ants among insects, mammals among vertebrates. Mutual aid therefore becomes a more important principle than competition and slaughter.

The main reason why Kropotkin favored cooperation while most nineteenth-century Darwinians advocated competition as the predominant result of struggle in nature had to do with the different landscapes they studied. Kropotkin spent five years in Siberia. There, in the polar opposite to Darwin’s tropical experiences, he dwelled in the environment least conducive to Malthus’s vision. He observed a sparsely populated world, swept with frequent catastrophes that threatened the few species able to find a place in such bleakness. This led him to conclude:

Sociability thus puts a limit to physical struggle, and leaves room for the development of better moral feelings.

 Darwin acknowledged that both forms existed but his actual examples certainly favored bloody battle. Darwin’s less sophisticated supporters then raised the competitive view to near exclusivity, and gave it a social and moral meaning as well. They came to conceive of the animal world as a world of perpetual struggle among half-starved individuals, thirsting for one another’s blood.  They raised the “pitiless” struggle for personal advantages to the height of a biological principle which man must submit to as well. 

One might argue that the gladiatorial examples have been over-sold and misrepresented as predominant. Perhaps cooperation and mutual aid are the more common results of struggle for existence. Perhaps communion rather than combat leads to greater reproductive success in most circumstances. Kropotkin writes, 'It happened with Darwin’s theory as it always happens with theories having any bearing upon human relations. Instead of widening it according to his own hints, his followers narrowed it still more.' As Stephen J.Gould says in Kropotkin was no Crackpot:

What can we make of Kropotkin’s argument today . . .? I would hold that Kropotkin’s basic argument is correct. Struggle does occur in many modes, and some lead to cooperation among members of a species as the best pathway to advantage for individuals. 

If Kropotkin overemphasized mutual aid, most Darwinians in Western Europe had exaggerated competition just as strongly. If Kropotkin drew inappropriate hope for social reform from his concept of nature, other Darwinians had erred just as firmly (and for motives that most of us would now decry) in justifying imperial conquest, racism, and oppression of industrial workers as the harsh outcome of natural selection in the competitive mode.

...we may safely say that mutual aid is as much a law of animal life as mutual struggle, but that, as a factor of evolution, it most probably has a far greater importance...

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