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The biology and politics of mutual aid
on November 14, 2011
Lee Dugatkin's _Prince of Evolution_ is a compelling biography of the life of Peter Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist, founder of 'Freedom Press' publishing house in London and author of the series of essays that were later brought together as _Mutual Aid. A Factor in Evolution_(1902). This book is 'read-in-an-afternoon' short, coming in at less than 100 pages, and so the story is necessarily selective, but for all this it is a must read. Anarchists will find a detailed consideration of Kropotkin's notable scientific achievements, and historians of other political persuasions might also be surprised at the extent of Kropotkin's scientific achievements. Biologists will also glean some history of what is now termed the levels of selection debate (whether natural selection selects the gene, the individual, or the group), giving more detail on Kropotkin's story than either Mark Borrello included in his brilliant _Evolutionary Restraints_ (2010) or Oren Harmann had time for in his compelling story of George Price, _The Price of Altruism_ (2010).
From chapter four onwards Dugatkin goes into some detail to explain the origins, influences and implications of Kropotkin's biological theory of mutualism, not only in biology but in politics--the two were inseparable in the context of the nineteenth-century evolution debates. In stark contrast to the liberal-individualist version of Darwinian evolution put forward by 'Darwin's Bulldog', T.H. Huxley, Kropotkin argued that ethical regard for others of the same species was deep-seated. Its origins lay in the evolutionary strategy of mutual aid, the groups that contained organisms that cooperated tended to survive and multiply where those that were made up predominantly of selfish individualists tended not to. Although Dugatkin does not say so, Kropotkin was, with only a few differences, actually echoing the views that Darwin had already laid out in his _Descent of Man_ (1871), and made it clear that he thought himself a better Darwinian than Huxley on account of it.
In sum, Prince of Evolution is short, readable, and on the money - ($3.99 for Kindle and less than $13.00 for the print-to-order paperback?!). Dugatkin is a biologist, with an undergraduate degree in history. This shows: the science is foregrounded,--a bonus, as it takes a very distant back seat in most other biographies of Kropotkin, and it is eminently readable. Professional historians of science could learn a thing or two from Dugatkin, while there is clearly much left out (the teasing fact that it was Kropotkin who translated Spencer into Russian is pointed out, but in a sentence), he writes with the ability to make history exciting and accessible to undergraduates. I have students of my own who wax lyrical about this book--and who want to read more. What more can you ask?