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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Edward O. Wilson, Pyotr Kropotkin, and the theory that love, rather than hate, is the lager force for evolution

by John MacBeath Watkins

Some years ago, I read a wonderful book, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, by that protean anarchist, Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin. It was originally published in serial in a British literary magazine between 1890 and 1896. I'm writing this on a day when an interview with Edward O. Wilson came on in which he was discussing his new book, The Social Conquest of Earth. In it he argues (perhaps without knowing about Kropotkin) essentially that Kropotkin was right.

Kropotkin was arguing against social Darwinism as it existed in its two 19th century and early 20th century forms, the individualist justification for social inequity of the Gilded Age that gave it content in its American version, and the nationalist and racist form that gave it content in Germany and to a lesser extent in the rest of Europe.

He argued that a major factor in evolution is cooperation both within and between species. A respected naturalist with  a specialty in spiders, Kropotkin was able to bring forth a great many examples in the natural world of cooperation making survival possible.

Wilson was accused of social Darwinism when he wrote Sociobiology, a book that suggested that patterns of behavior were the result of natural selection. People were willing to believe this about ants, Wilson's specialty, but not about people.

Unfortunately, too few people remember Prince Kropotkin for Wilson to be accused of being an anarchist with the publication of his new book. But it does show how far ahead of his time Kropotkin was.

Group selection, the theory behind Wilson's new book, is still controversial in biology. It seems quite likely to me that it will, over time, prove out. After all, individuals invariably die, at least those that reproduce sexually rather than dividing like bacteria. Only the group survives, so only the group can carry on the genetic bequest of the individual.

In fact, we are learning that many bacteria in our system help us digest our food, and they may well help us in other ways. There's even a theory that the purpose of the appendix is to act as a reservoir of friendly bacteria in case they die out in the digestive tract, as they do when we contract certain diseases. People whose appendix has not been removed recover more quickly, for example, from cholera than those who have had it removed.

These bacteria don't help us out because we are nice, they do so because we are good hosts, and we are not good hosts because we are nice, we are good hosts because the bacteria help us. Niceness is an accidental byproduct of this arrangement, and in fact, niceness may well seem nice because it helps us survive.

After all, we respond to sweet things because our calorie-constrained ancestors needed to be able to identify good sources of calories. Our social selves need to be able to identify sources of mutual aid, so we respond well to niceness.

This relates back to our discussion of warfare and sex in the post A story of slutty snakes and warfare, where we saw that the reason when rattlesnakes fight, they don't bite, is related to the chances of passing on their genes.

William Jennings Bryan warned in a 1905 speech that "the Darwinian theory represents man reaching his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate, the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak. If this is the law of our development then, if there is any logic that can bind the human mind, we shall turn backward to the beast in proportion as we substitute the law of love. I choose to believe that love rather than hatred is the law of development."

The problem is that he objected to the theory because he didn't like its conclusions, so he sought to keep people from being taught the theory in the Scopes trial. Kropotkin engaged social Darwinists on their own ground, showing that  "love rather than hatred is the law of development" based on science, rather than wishful thinking.

Now Wilson seems to be upsetting his fellow scientists by saying the same thing.





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