Letter to Freedom on Mutual Aid

Here is a letter I've sent off to Freedom in reply to a criticism of my review of Steve Jones' attack on Kropotkin. It appears to be from a Stirnerite, although the narrow kind of egoist that gives Max Stirner a bad name.

Suffice to say, writing that introduction to Mutual Aid came in very handy! Here it is:

Dear Freedom

Reading Peter Gibson’s letter, it struck me that his main issue is that neither myself, nor Kropotkin, fits into the safe little
stereotype he has of communist-anarchists. How else to explain the attribution of ideas to myself which I do not hold?

Peter asserts that I “clearly believe that mutual aid depends on liking one another sufficiently to give up any possibility of gain.” Where do I “clearly” state that? Where does Kropotkin? He clearly states the opposite: “Love, sympathy and self-sacrifice certainly play an immense part in the progressive development of our moral feelings. But it is not love and not even sympathy upon which Society is based in mankind.” But, then, Peter somewhat contradicts himself when he asserts that I “cannot accept that people are motivated by self interests” yet, apparently, I also admit “that mutual aid is an expression” of what I cannot accept! How strange.

Peter, sadly, makes the elemental error of confusing selfish genes with selfish people. He asserts “Jones is right. The struggle is a description of events which is driven by genes.” Yet, as Richard Dawkins put it, “there is no more connection between a selfish gene and a selfish human than there is between a rock and a rain cloud.” He also notes that it is “now widely understood that altruism at the level of the individual organism can be a means by which the underlying genes maximise their self-interest.” In The Selfish Gene itself, he acknowledged that the title could be misleading and argued that “if anything, it devotes more attention to altruism” than selfishness. This is because “gene selfishness can translate itself into individual altruism.” The selfish gene does not exclude, and in fact can encourage, what Dawkins calls “mutualistic co-operation.”

In fact, Dawkins suggested that an alternative title of his classic could have been “The Co-operative Gene.” Yet Peter asserts, in his best ex cathedra tones, that there “is no such thing as mutual aid and co-operation.” Sadly, there are numerous biologists, including many “dastardly sociobiologists”, who would dispute that. But then, what does the author of “The Selfish Gene” know about selfish genes? Perhaps Peter is one of those philosophers who, Dawkins complains, “prefer to read a book by title only, omitting the rather extensive footnote which is the book itself.” I get the impression Peter has done that to Kropotkin.

As for Jones, the ostensible reason for Peter’s letter, it is suggested that his “real crime is that he does not endorse this view.” In reality, his “real crime” is that he systematically distorted Kropotkin’s position. First, the awkward fact is that, regardless of what Jones may think, Kropotkin was not discussing symbiosis in Mutual Aid. Second, Kropotkin explicitly and repeatedly noted that Mutual Aid presented a one-sided perspective to counter the dominant perspective that stressed competition between individuals. As such he clearly did not think (to quote Jones) “altruism our true state” but rather argued that mutual aid provides “more chances to survive” and animals and humans “find in association the best arms for the struggle for life: understood, of course, in its wide Darwinian sense.” Thirdly, almost seventy years later, in an article entitled “The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism” Robert Trivers refined the concepts Kropotkin advanced and explained how co-operation and, more importantly, a system of reciprocity (termed “reciprocal altruism”) could have evolved and there is overwhelming evidence to support it.

Then there was Jones’ self-contradictory assertion that for scientists “neither symbiosis nor the struggle for existence has much message for human affairs” before concluding a few pages later that anarchism has been “sidelined by the iron rules of greed that rule the globe.” That is a “real crime” against logic and simply not true, as his fellow scientists have proven. And Peter asserts that Jones’ position “accepts reality”!

So I would suggest that it is Peter’s letter which is “sophistry” and “twaddle.” If he were aware of the reality of the situation, he would know that rather than Mutual Aid being a “somewhat soiled white rabbit” its arguments have been confirmed by subsequent research. As for his speculation on human society, well, what can I say? He seems to think that the majority of people are so unselfish that they will tolerate a minority exploiting and oppressing them forever. Personally, I’m not that pessimistic. As Kropotkin and Dawkins both show, internally co-operative societies are evolutionary superior to internally competitive ones. So I’m optimistic that we can create a society in which we can reach our full potential as free individuals. It is in our self-interest, both as individuals and a species, to do so.

Yours in solidarity,

Iain McKay

  


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