Current Affairs

Why Biology Can’t Tell Us How To Organize Society

Peter Kropotkin thought mutual aid in the animal kingdom showed cooperation comes naturally. But we shouldn’t defer to nature in moral questions.

The phrase “mutual aid” has been cropping up a lot recently, often in the context of grassroots responses to natural disasters, the demonstrations for Black lives and against police brutality, and neighbors helping neighbors during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Generally described as cooperation for the sake of the common good, mutual aid refers to the non-hierarchical, voluntary, and reciprocal sharing of goods and services to meet each other’s needs. We can look around us and see how cooperative projects currently work to lessen some of the harms caused by our highly competitive, capitalist society: for example, while many of the top-down efforts to address the economic effects of the pandemic (such as highly-compromised legislation from austerity-minded officials of both parties, and philanthrocapitalist initiatives from organizations such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) have mostly benefited big business, devoted mutual aid projects—which are horizontally-organized and based on the simple idea of voluntary reciprocity—have had a positive impact, filling in the gaps in these faulty initiatives from the top.

While the idea and practice of mutual aid has been around for some time, the phrase itself was popularized by Peter Kropotkin in his 1902 essay collection Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, in which the anarchist philosopher and naturalist posited that cooperation and reciprocity, as opposed to competition, played a central role in the evolution of animals and human societies. The recent heartening successes of mutual aid projects may inspire us to believe that Kropotkin’s description of human evolution—in a text now 120 years old—was indeed ahead of its time. It’s perhaps encouraging to think that millennia of hard-fought evolutionary gains have actually wired humanity to be a cooperative species, that our deeper nature disposes us to act collaboratively on behalf of the common good, and that the kind of competition and greed bred by capitalism is external and imposed upon us. But is it really true that “mutual aid,” as Kropotkin put it, is a chief “factor of evolution,” and that we are more naturally predisposed to cooperation than competition? Does this mean that our species should lean into our true nature and organize our societies around cooperation and mutual aid? What does the science really say, and what conclusions should we draw for our own lives?

Let’s start by exploring what Kropotkin meant when he invoked the concept of “mutual aid.” In his essays, Kropotkin departed from the popular conception of evolution as a ruthless dog-eat-dog struggle for survival and explored the role of cooperation in evolution, using examples from across the animal kingdom. Kropotkin uses the term “mutual aid” in a much broader sense than its contemporary usage, which is largely reserved for horizontally-organized grassroots projects; rather, he uses it to refer to a vast array of interactions that involve cooperation or reciprocal altruism. Among the cooperative animals he cited were elephants, who often form family-style cooperative groups with genetically unrelated individuals. More surprisingly, he also wrote about crabs—popularly imagined as selfish creatures, whose “crab in a barrel” mentality makes them incapable of cooperative or self-sacrificing behaviors—and described how they work together to protect their soft-shelled, recently-molted comrades from predators or how they will collaborate for hours on end to flip other crabs that fell and got stuck on their backs. Kropotkin made a strong case that even animals imagined to be inherently solitary or ruthlessly competitive—such as crabs, coyotes, and indeed humans—are nevertheless capable of amazing feats of cooperation.

This part of Mutual Aid’s thesis, the assertion that animals have an intrinsic capacity to be cooperative, has been validated by over a century of research into animal behavior. A diverse array of evolutionary biologists across the expanse of the field have cited Kropotkin’s work as an influence, proposing hypotheses for fundamental evolutionary processes and events that do not invoke competition. These scientists include the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, an advocate for non-adaptive evolution (evolution that does not directly result from selection or differences in fitness) and perhaps the 20th century’s most prominent popularizer of evolutionary biology; as well as Lynn Margulis, a visionary microbiologist who argued for the importance of symbiosis in evolution. Her hypothesis that complex cells (such as those in plants, animals, and fungi) originated as a cooperative symbiosis between two distantly-related different kinds of cells was viewed as absurd by many when she advocated for it in 1967, but has been validated through decades of research and is now universally accepted. From Margulis’ work, we now know that a component of nearly every cell in our body, the mitochondrion, was once a free-living bacterium that formed a mutualistic relationship with our single-celled ancestors over a billion years ago.

Other aspects of Kropotkin’s thesis, however, have aged less well. The language and sequencing of his book suggests the influence of a now-outdated framework for understanding evolution as linear and goal-directed, known as the “progressive” or “orthogenetic” view, where species are arranged in an evolutionary hierarchy with Homo sapiens (us humans) at the top. The idea of progressive evolution has old roots in human thought, starting with Aristotle’s scala naturae or “great chain of being,” and continuing through the taxonomic work of 18th-century botanist Carolus Linnaeus, before being codified by 19th-century zoologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Although this view of “progressive,” linear evolution had begun to be challenged by Charles Darwin’s and Alfred Russel Wallace’s work on common descent, it was still a powerful school of thought in Kropotkin’s day, and was favored among some evolutionary theorists, especially paleontologists, as late as the 1960s. Kropotkin repeatedly discusses “progressive evolution,” and his book arranges examples of cooperation in a line that starts with invertebrates, moves on to birds, and then mammals, and then at last to humans.

Viewing the evolution of species as a linear progression, culminating in human beings, inherently suggests that there are higher and lower organisms, organisms who are “more evolved” and “less evolved.” Like many of his contemporaries, Kropotkin also uses this same framework to draw distinctions within the human species, placing certain societies as “higher” or closer to evolution’s purported goal of cooperative sociality than others. He begins with the indigenous people of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, followed by those of Europe and the Caucasus, then the societies of medieval Europe, and, finally, then-contemporary European societies, which he refers to as “ourselves” and imagines to be the most evolved state of cooperation yet achieved. He lays out this hierarchy in one particularly cringy passage:

Going next over to man, we found him living in clans and tribes at the very dawn of the Stone Age; we saw a wide series of social institutions developed already in the lower savage stage in the clan and the tribe; and we found that the earliest tribal customs and habits gave to mankind the embryo of all the instructions which made late on the leading aspects of further progress. Out of the savage tribe grew up the barbarian village community […] And when new requirements induced men to make a new start, they made it in the city.

Indeed, Kropotkin suggests that some existing societies (of what he calls the “lower savage stage”) have not undergone as much evolutionary progress as others, and are even less evolved than some societies that are now extinct (“barbarians” and medieval societies of Europe). He may be referring to some kind of ill-defined social evolution as opposed to biological evolution, but the continuity between non-human and human examples in the book suggests, at the very least, some conflation of the two processes. His use of the word “savages” here refers to societies of the Stone Age, but his inferences about those societies are drawn from extant indigenous peoples in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. This, of course, is nonsensical: the indigenous people in question are not the ancestors of Europeans; they are their cousins.

Present-day evolutionary biology has moved decisively away from an understanding of living things as existing within an evolutionary “ladder” or “progression,” based upon clear evidence that this is not how species evolution actually works: relationships between species are more accurately characterized not as a straight line, but as a branching tree. So-called “tree thinking” tells us that no extant species can be considered “more evolved” or “less evolved” than others; any two species share a common ancestor at some point in the past, and, as such, are part of lineages that have all experienced the same amount of time since their divergence from each other. This misconception of a species being “more evolved” or “less evolved” is partially rooted in a popular misunderstanding of what “fitness” means in evolutionary biology; what evolutionary biologists call “fitness” is a shorthand for describing the number of offspring an individual (or genotype, or phenotype) produces relative to the numbers of offspring produced by others in the population. Evolutionary “fitness” is highly dependent on environmental context and is largely decoupled from our conventional ideas of physical fitness.

Perhaps most importantly, being “more fit” (which is not being “more evolved”) is not always more complex, more advanced, or more desirable, since “fitness” often depends on highly contingent and even random factors that won’t map clearly onto other environments and contexts. For example, humpback whales and peregrine falcons have spent just as much time evolving and are well-adapted to their respective environments, but if you submerged a falcon 600 feet below the surface of the ocean, its extensive adaptations to the sky wouldn’t serve it well (and the whale probably wouldn’t fare much better 1,800 feet above the ground).

But even if Kropotkin didn’t get everything right about evolution (as we now understand it), he at least has the excuse that he was writing Mutual Aid decades before “tree thinking” became the dominant trend in conceptualizing species relationships. Today, with far less excuse, many right-wing commentators deploy a muddled understanding of evolutionary biology in the service of what’s called “evolutionary psychology”: that is, using scientific-sounding arguments to justify the status quo of our planet’s current distributions of power as both desirable and inevitable. For example, University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson has argued that patriarchy, and hierarchies more generally, are genetically determined in humans. He bases this assertion, in part, on the facts that one of humans’ closest relatives, the common chimpanzee, lives in highly hierarchical, patriarchal societies. But this is blatant cherry-picking: when we use “tree thinking” and actually look at our relationships with our ape cousins through the use of DNA sequence data, we clearly see that there are two extant species that are equally closely related to humans, the common chimpanzee and the bonobo. The bonobo, or pygmy chimpanzee, has a drastically different social organization from the common chimpanzee, one that’s distinctly matriarchal and much less hierarchical. Common chimpanzee groups are led by a single male who gains his position through physical supremacy and has a very tenuous hold on his authority, with frequent challenges from his male peers; whereas bonobos are led by a coalition of females and males, with a single elder female decision-maker who gains her position by age and seniority.

If applied to bonobos, Peterson’s “scientific” logic could just as easily be used to argue that humans are inherently matriarchal or prone to favor looser hierarchies. And as for whatever social structure the most recent ancestor species of humans, common chimpanzees, and bonobos might have had—well, we simply don’t have the data to know. There are methods in the field of phylogenetics (the study of evolutionary history and the genealogical relationships between species) to reconstruct the probable state of common ancestors on the basis of the traits possessed by their extant descendants, but their applicability and reliability is contingent on having enough data (always more than two data points), a well-resolved phylogenetic tree based on genetic data (often DNA sequence data), a systematic coding of individual traits, and further methods to account for non-genetic and within-species variation. Perhaps more importantly, humans have since undergone millions of years of evolution independent of chimps and bonobos, so it’s unclear why we should believe that the behaviors of either species should be instructive, much less determinative, about the ideal social structure of human societies.

From a modern evolutionary theoretical perspective, Peterson’s and Kropotkin’s approaches are both storytelling: they are using their selective observations of animal behavior as a parable to try to illustrate social maxims for humans. But even by today’s standards, Kropotkin’s descriptive approach is much more robust than Peterson’s, despite predating it by over a century. Kropotkin’s provides more depth and phylogenetic context: the anarchist philosopher cites numerous examples throughout the animal kingdom, whereas Peterson appeals to a few cherry-picked species (Peterson is very into lobsters, maybe because Kropotkin already covered crabs). Moreover, Kropotkin’s ideas about evolution and cooperation—for all that they were hemmed in by that linear “orthogenetic” framework that’s since been discredited—were actually cutting-edge for their time. Social Darwinists and eugenicists of Kropotkin’s era, such as Herbert Spencer, argued that their interpretation of Darwinian natural selection (i.e., “survival of the fittest,” a phrase Spencer coined) was transposable onto sociology, economics, and ethics. But Kropotkin instead argued—based on his very different interpretation of Darwinian natural selection, informed by Darwin’s other writings on sociality in animals—that though competition was a factor in evolution, cooperation was preeminent, and human societies “naturally” tended towards large complex communities and mutual aid. 

As I mentioned earlier, Kropotkin’s ideas about cooperation have profoundly influenced important thinkers in the field of evolutionary biology. That said, we still do not completely understand how significant the role of cooperation in evolution is, or to what extent cooperation is genetically (as opposed to environmentally) determined. Traditionally, when thinking about how evolution operates, the individual is conceptualized as the “unit” of natural selection, but a controversial theory called “group selection” has stressed the importance of natural selection among assemblages of organisms. This framework suggests that there are situations in which competition among groups (and the distribution of altruistic or cooperative individuals within these competing groups) affects rates of survival and reproduction more significantly than competition between individual organisms. There is some experimental evidence from chickens and flour beetles, explained most cogently in Michael Wade’s book Adaptation in Metapopulations, that when there is a weak genetic component to variation in a trait (in other words, when much of the variation in a trait is due to differences in the environment rather than genetic difference), group selection may be more effective than individual selection. 

Another popular framework, “kin selection,” suggests that there may be a fitness incentive to help close relatives (these relatives presumably more often have the same genotypes, so helping those relatives should increase the abundance of those genotypes), but not to help those that are unrelated: i.e., altruism or any cooperation that may come at a cost to one’s self is only evolutionary beneficial within families. This framework echoes the ideology of Milton Friedman, influential Chicago school economist and staunch opponent of the inheritance tax, and Margaret Thatcher, who famously stated, “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” Alternatively, some work in genomics and molecular evolution suggests that many evolutionary changes are effectively neutral with respect to fitness—that is, they don’t actually strongly promote survival or reproductive capacity one way or the other—and are more subject to random fluctuations in the frequency of genetic variants, through a process known as genetic drift. So, thinking about evolution in terms of “selection”—whether it is among individuals or groups, or if it involves competition or cooperation—may not always be entirely accurate or useful.

It’s also possible that trying to uncover the evolutionary origins of human cooperative capacities is largely futile because many human social behaviors are simply not strongly related to genes. Studies of human behaviors like giving and trust suggest that environmental (as opposed to genetic) factors explain the overwhelming portion of variation in cooperative behavior. Although there’s been a great deal of effort by scientists to demonstrate that human behavior and cognition are reducible to genetic factors, these investigations have been to little avail, especially when it comes to traits relevant to social behavior. 

Moreover, the quest to prove that human societies, and individual humans’ roles within those societies, are structured based on genetic determinism initially started as a long-term project of eugenicists like Francis Galton and phrenologists like Paul Broca, who were motivated by a desire to justify or maintain racial, gender, and class hierarchies. Despite all their efforts, both the open eugenicists of the past and the no-I’m-totally-not eugenicists of the present have failed to find a strong genetic component to behavioral or cognitive differences between groups. Their studies are often wracked with methodological errors, as well as a poor understanding of statistics and science. For example, despite fervent efforts by genetic determinists like Arthur Jensen and Charles Murray to find, using IQ studies, major differences in cognitive ability caused by supposed genetic differences between races, empirical evidence shows that purported “racial” differences in IQ are overwhelmingly contingent on environmental factors. Furthermore, there are many caveats with using IQ as a metric for cognitive ability, as detailed in Stephen Jay Gould’s seminal work The Mismeasure of Man. Among other issues, Gould explains that IQ tests have been shown to be highly culturally biased, and older twin studies thought to be robust indicators of the large genetic component of IQ variation have actually conflated environmental and genetic components (follow-up work on separated twins suggests that they were often placed in similar socioeconomic environments, meaning that this work could not have properly disentangled genetic and environmental contributions to variation in IQ,) and, occasionally, consisted of fabricated data.

Genetic determinists like Galton, Spencer, Broca—and their ideological heirs like Peterson—commit a basic fallacy: they appeal to nature as a basis for moral argument, inferring that because something is natural, it is morally desirable. It’s a case of what’s called “Hume’s law,” which states that one cannot logically make moral judgments from non-moral premises: that is, you can’t make logical arguments about what people ought to do based solely on what people (or other fellow animals) have done in the past. For example, even if you accept the premise that competition is natural, this doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily moral or desirable: you’re stating a possible fact about the world as it exists now, but you haven’t made any moral or normative argument for why it should continue to be that way in the future. As such, the mere observation that a certain behavior exists in nature is not an argument for how we should organize our society or invest our resources.

Although we may prefer the evolutionary argument that Kropotkin makes in favor of cooperation in Mutual Aid, it’s actually subject to the exact same fallacy. Even if we accept Kropotkin’s premise that cooperation is natural, even perhaps favored by evolution, it does not follow from that premise alone that cooperation is morally good or desirable in any particular way. We can read the examples from animals in Kropotkin’s work and treat them as demonstrations of the capacity of animals, including ourselves, to be cooperative. We can also treat them as narratives, or fables, that have emotional meaning for us. But the mere fact that something occurs in nature doesn’t mean that it’s good: goodness is something we have to define and evaluate, and it may be true that in order to be good, we have to fight our instincts or inclinations.

The questions of whether 1) humans are genetically predisposed to be cooperative, or 2) whether cooperation itself is fundamental to evolution are the subjects of ongoing debate in evolutionary biology and genetics. Regardless of any coming scientific conclusions, however, the rationale and motivation to cooperate and perform mutual aid cannot come from genetics or evolutionary biology, not without running afoul of Hume’s Law. What we are isn’t nearly as meaningful as what we might be; and to that end, the drive toward mutual aid ought to be based on lessons derived from political economy, history, sociology, and practical experience. 

Indeed, Kropotkin himself makes a much better case for mutual aid by pushing back against scarcity-based narratives in his earlier work, The Conquest of Bread, where he argues persuasively that, in an industrialized society, everyone’s needs can be met. This claim, after more than a century of technological advances, is even more credible now than when it was written. We should not cede our consideration of difficult questions like “should we cooperate?” and “why should we help?” to what we think is our genetic predisposition. We constantly face new challenges in new circumstances that could not have been anticipated (or adapted to) by our ancestors. To make decisions about when and if we decide to cooperate, we need to synthesize the unique historical contingencies of our situation with our principles and/or the outcomes we want. We need to choose to be good; we can’t let someone or something else choose for us.

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