Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ever heard of this guy?

Every once in a while, like a pie in the face, my ignorance arrives with an unexpected splat. (You'd think I'd get used to it by now.) Anyway, I've just started reading a cool biography/history about the search for the origins of kindness. The fact of altruism has long been a huge thorn in the paw of evolutionary theory - face it, if natural selection means the progression of more and more fit species, out-competing their competitors, where does being nice fit in?

The book, "The Price of Altruism" by Oren Harman, is both a biography of George Price, a pretty-much unknown scientist who worked out mathematical equations that go a long way toward explaining altruism in evolutionary terms and a history of the whole problem. But, interestingly, it starts in part with a dude named Prince Peter Alekseyevich Kropotkin. He was an anarchist who rejected capitalism and socialism in favor of a no-government system in which people simply cooperated for the common good. He was famous. (Splat.)

As a young man in the mid- to late-19th Century in Russia of high aristocratic birth, he quickly became disillusioned with life in the court and sympathetic with the serfs. He arranged to be sent to be sent far to the east in Siberia, where he conducted important geological studies, but also observed the amazing cooperation among wild animals that contradicted the Darwinian "red in tooth and claw" view. Prey animals would post sentinels to warn of predators by jumping around, putting themselves at risk. Birds helped each other on nests. Wolves joined together to hunt in communal packs. How can this cooperation be reconciled with natural selection? Kropotkin saw a cooperative anarchism as the human answer.

The author starts his book this way to zero in on the problem of altruism for evolutionary theory. It's a cool way to begin. I just wish I'd heard of this Kropotkin guy before.

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