This book is meant as a criticism to survival of the fittest understanding of evolution, it does not deny that survival of the fittest happens but suggests that things are more complex and that in many/most cases the environment is a bigger danger to animals than other creatures, this results in creatures (especially of the same species) helping each other to survive and actually seeking to avoid completion unless they have no choice.
Examples given of mutual aid include packs of dogs working together to catch prey and looking after their wounded, parrots living together in groups and searching for food while others act as lookouts.
Some examples of avoiding competition such as in the winter animals hibernate or fly to warmer areas rather than fight with each other over what little food is around.
After talking about mutual aid among animals it goes on to talk about mutual aid in various human societies. Starting with tribes such as the Bushmen "they used to hunt in common, and divided the spoil without quarrelling; that they never abandoned their wounded, and displayed strong affection to their comrades."
"Eskimo life is based upon communism. What is obtained by hunting and fishing belongs to the clan. But in several tribes, especially in the West, under the influence of the Danes, private property penetrates into their institutions. However, they have an original means for obviating the inconveniences arising from a personal accumulation of wealth which would soon destroy their tribal unity. When a man has grown rich, he convokes the folk of his clan to a great festival, and, after much eating, distributes among them all his fortune."
With Aborigines the hunting land is communal as is the proceeds from hunting. Old, weak and sick are looked after not abandoned, they are very friendly but shocking some are cannibals. But even the cannibals have mutual aid! Oh the shame to think cannibals are more compassionate than us!
Mutual aid among "Barbarians", medieval cities and modern life (1902 at time the book was written) is also covered.
Reading old books such as this(1902) can sometimes be a shock as sexism, racism and other things frowned upon nowadays can be quite common, although this book is free of such things it does call certain tribes savages and barbarians which I presume was common at the time.
An interesting side note is that Richard Dawkins has got very miffed with people using his book The Selfish Gene as a reason to be selfish so in later editions he added a chapter called Nice Guys Finish First on how niceness and helping out can be beneficial to both sides.
For those Biologists who like me think that Nature is not all red tooth and claw, Kropotkin's work should be better known to balance the tired repulsive view of "the survival of the fittest". Please note that this last saying was not formed by Biologists specialising in evolution or zoology nor any Natural Scientists, the saying was coined by an economist and when do we ever listen to them. Read this book and realise that Nature and its inhabitants are more than just needy killers.
Mutual Aid is a masterpiece of political, sociological, historical, and anthropological work and even zoology. It challenges many common misconceptions about human nature and evolution that are held by the majority of people, previously including myself.The main idea it challenges is that of "SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST" in nature and as a part of human nature and its role in evolution. Peter Kropotkin points out that the struggle for survival is against harsh conditions rather than between inividuals and that the best way for a species to survive is by " Mutual aid and support" rather than "Individualistic struggle" and points to many examples in nature such as migratory birds, ants, bees, monkeys and ultimately humans who survived when others such as the sabre tooth tiger failed (despite its physical superiority in terms of strength and speed and sharp teeth and claws) because of humans ability to live in societies and cooperate whereas the sabre tooth tiger was far too individual. Kropotkins strength is his critical use of endless examples to back himself up which adds great power to his arguement. The significance of Mutual aid is collossal, even today. Free Market Capitalism is founded on the idea of survival of the fittest being the best way for humans to live and that inequality is natural and therefore justifiable whereas Kropotkin points to the extremely sociable and prosperous manner in which many tribes and societies have lived i.e.Greece.Also the tendency of humans to behave as savages has also underpinned the need for a state; however if humans left to there own devices can cooperate then there is no need for a state as humans can look after themselves. Also, when Maggie Thatcher famously said:"There is no such thing as society" to back up her vision of a free market, she was fundamentally wrong. Krpotkin says that as we are evolved from primates who are very sociable, then society is ANTERIOR to man, not man made. To sum up: "In the ethical progress of man, mutual support- not mutual struggle has had the leading part."
In this book, Peter Kropotkin sets out to demonstrate the importance of cooperation (“mutual aid”) within species and within human societies. Kropotkin, writing in the 1890s, was concerned to oppose “Social Darwinist” ideas that put the emphasis on individual self-assertion and competition within “the struggle for life”. Far from individualistic competition – “the war of all against all” – being the norm, Kropotkin insisted, the principle of “mutual aid” can be found at all levels of nature and of human society, throughout history. If anything, he adds, it is “mutual aid”, not competition, that has done the most to promote human development.
Kropotkin delineates this process working from animals through "primitive" (Kropotkin, using the terminology of his times, says "savage"), "barbarian" and medieval societies to the modern day. Kropotkin does not deny that individualistic competition and self-assertion have also been important factors in human development. His objection is that they have claimed a disproportionate amount of attention – “the self-assertion of the individual or of groups of individuals, their struggles for superiority, and the conflicts which resulted therefrom, have already been analyzed, described, and glorified from time immemorial” – and his purpose is to refute the Social Darwinist claim that evolutionary science supports (or even mandates) an individualistic, “all against all” approach to contemporary human society.
How much Kropotkin’s specific examples can be relied upon as a matter either of zoology or history, I’m not qualified to say. But he surely succeeds in his overall aim: to open our eyes to cooperation and mutual aid as a fundamental and universal experience of both humankind and the rest of nature.
This book makes a lot of sense to me. There things written in it that I had always suspected, but never really known. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of human society and how it was corrupted by the introduction of the State.