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Review: Dugatkin’s Prince of Evolution 2011


Kropotkin was a great popular scientific journalist and pamphleteer. Dugatkin’s brief introduction to him broadly follows in this tradition. Dugatkin’s booklet/pamphlet isn’t a heavy academic work but written in the style or genre of serious but popular scientific literature with the admirable intention of providing a short, modern and basic introduction to Kropotkin’s evolutionary theories.

Dugatkin’s Prince of Evolution 2011

Review article by Graham Purchase

Kropotkin was a great popular scientific journalist and pamphleteer. Dugatkin’s brief introduction to him broadly follows in this tradition. Dugatkin’s booklet/pamphlet isn’t a heavy academic work but written in the style or genre of serious but popular scientific literature with the admirable intention of providing a short, modern and basic introduction to Kropotkin’s evolutionary theories.

Dugatkin quite successfully covers Kropotkin’s life and times. This simple, short, readable booklet on Kropotkin is a worthy addition to what I hope will be many more such books by other writers in the future. Within Kropotkin’s work there lies ample material for hundreds of similar works to The Prince (such as has occurred with Marx, Darwin or Dickens).

Anything royal seems to increase circulation of popular books and magazines. Dugatkin’s choice of The Prince as his sales-title is in poor taste. Regrettable because Kropotkin renounced his title at a very young age and refused throughout his life to exploit it for advantage.


Dugatkin’s uncritical presentation gives the impression that he is a disciple of Kropotkin. But in other recent works he is equally enthusiastic about the lives and ideas of a great many other evolutionary biologists, including (Kropotkin’s rival) Huxley, of whom Dugatkin is clearly a great fan. Dugatkin is much more critical of Kropotkin (and Allee) in his book the Altruism Equation in which he explores the evolution of the neo-Huxleyian, neo-Weismanist, neo-Darwinist tradition through the 20th century. Dugatkin might have changed his tune but the completely uncritical stance of The Prince never reveals whether he believes that Kropotkin’s ideas are ultimately wrong or right?

The Societal Super Organism and Communal Experiments:

Dugatkin’s exposition and interpretation of Kropotkin is mostly completely correct and uncontroversial. The only exceptions are his remarks upon Evolutionary W/holism and the Super Organism. Dugatkin’s analysis is wholly mistaken.

Though rarely read today Kropotkin’s chief intellectual rival in his own time was Herbert Spencer who was then universally accepted as a great evolutionary and political philosopher. The Social Organism was Spencer’s term for an ideal polity he envisaged emerging from a minimal state or stateless free-market/merit based society.

Kropotkin metaphorically uses the term social organism in one passage in his popular autobiography Memoirs. Kropotkin never used the term “Societal Super-Organism”, as Dugatin implies (pages 68-9) and this is both a misinterpretation and misrepresentation of Kropotkin’s political ideals.

Kropotkin’s own term is incontestably: “Integrated Evolution”. He linked this biological concept with a political appeal for an “integrated society” fed by an “integrated farming” rather than “agricultural monoculture”. Kropotkin combined this by advocating “Integral Education”; schooling that respects individual wholeness and initiative within (a utopian vision of) a future freely evolving, agriculturally sustainable and truly civilized culture.

The notion of integration is different from that of being a cell or an ant and performing some specific or determined role or function in a social super-organism. Kropotkin explicitly rejects such “ant hill psychology” in the first few pages of his Ethics. Kropotkin was equally dismissive of small scale intentional communist communes on the grounds that they would at best become a “communist beehive” where “all would lose their individuality”.

Holism denotes the tendency in nature to form wholes or individual identities that are more than their parts, and which are not reducible to them. Holism is an important biological, environmental and sociological concept underlying and justifying a broad spectrum of theories, outlooks and positions in diverse disciplines.

State nationalists of all political shades have used the notion of the nation and the state as being a super-individual phenomenon that is quantitatively and qualitatively superior to the will of individuals, whom are expected to submit to the will and direction of the whole. The most extreme version of this way of thinking is that the only true individual is the ‘social-whole’. Fascism and state-Socialism (with their emphasis of a planned and regimented statist society) are often referred to as holistic political concepts in contrast to capitalist individualism. However capitalism is premised upon the idea, practical utility and desirability of a self-regulating free market that functions like an organism or system that is greater than the individual speculators, buyers and sellers.

The intellectual roots or ideal of The Super-Social-Organism originates as a modern scientific concept within the works of the great evolutionary biologist, Haekal. Politically the idea of the social organism (via Hegel) inspired both the Authoritarian Communist State (Marxism) as well as Fascist notions of the racialist-nationalist-social-super-organism.

Fascist Super Organism Theory was developed into a philosophical system by the unequivocally fascist South African Apartheid Statesman Jan Smuts (1870-1950) who counted among his disciples the popular novelist John Steinbeck (see his very readable maritime travelogue The Log from the Sea of Cortez). In his book Holism and Evolution Smut's argued for holistic processes as the determining or primary factors in biological evolution and social-history, rather than being the result of individual decisions as social Darwinism suggested. Sexual preference (following Darwin), Smuts thought, was the one exception, where the individual could exercise individual creative choice and preference in evolutionary and social history. Because holism (often drawing upon biological data/theories/analogies) has been a component of extreme nationalist and fascist ideologies it went out of fashion in the west after World War II but underwent something of revival in the 1980’s with the popularity of the Gaia hypothesis.

Political/social holism claims either that social entities are like or act sufficiently like organisms or organic processes.

Biological/environmental holism is the idea that animal & human groups, the biosphere or universe is made up of integrated functioning organs or the world itself is a single integrated organism.

Dugatkin in his Prince of Evolution repeats a commonly made misrepresentation of Kropotkin1 by characterizing him as a social-ecological holist.

Lynn Marguilis and James Lovelock in their famous little book Gaia (O.U.P. 1983 check date) similarly cite Kropotkin in their introduction as a pioneering ecologist. But they then go on to paint a view of global organism-like stability or self-regulation. Kropotkin was totally opposed to the idea of stability in nature and regarded nature as fluid, dynamic and

Homeostatic regulation of the bio-sphere by bacteria:

Margulis and Lovelock build upon the observation that the bio-chemical processes of very simple bacteria have created and maintained stable conditions suitable for life for more than 2 billion years. In this sense the Earth's biosphere acts like a living, dynamic self regulating organism, similar, though infinitely larger than the countless other organisms that inhabit the Earth.

The idea that life is a geological force that shapes the Earth was first developed by Vladimir Verdansky (1863-1945), a Ukrainian bio-geo-chemist publishing his most influential work during the 1920’s. The now undisputed fact that life created the conditions for the further evolution of life was conjoined in Verdansky’s theories with the controversial and unfounded idea or hypothesis that life actively maintains and self-regulates Earth’s chemistry. The idea of stability (in atmospheric composition or ocean salinity) over eons is a recurring theme in most of Marguilis’ many books and Verdansky’s pioneering work was a forerunner of the Gaia Hypothesis.

The Organism and Systems Account of Holism:

Most ecologists, although they appreciate the value of the use of organism as a metaphor for an earthly body, conceive of the Earth as a super-ecosystem rather than a super-organism. Because the Earth cannot reproduce itself, the analogy with an organism, although powerful, is in some senses a very weak.

Margulis and Lovelock must be criticized for over-emphasizing the idea of the Earth as an organism rather than as a planetary system. Early ecological scientists similarly thought of ecosystems as organisms but this viewpoint is now almost universally rejected. Biotic assemblages exist in natural systems not as organisms. The idea of a system as greater than the individuals of which it is composed, is different to the older and earlier organism model of holism as it does not contain the idea that a system is a tangible physical or biological entity. The study and relevance of systems theory in the modern world is of fundamental importance. This is seen in environmental concern over the health of global atmospheric systems and the social impact of information and communication systems. Computer assisted areas of modern bio-mathematics i.e., chaos and complexity science, are dedicated to examining the dynamics of self-organizing systems. Although a species of organism can evolve over time (homeorhesis) systems are much more open-ended and capable of rapid emergent radical step-changes. In novel environments systems may instantaneously and unpredictably flip into entirely new regimes. Small-scale communal experimentalism:

Dugatkin links his notion of the super-organism with the practice and ideal of small-scale communal experimentalism (p. 75). In a delightful piece of travel journalism Kropotkin does indeed praise the industrious Mennonite communities of the Canadian plains. But he specifically rejected such experiments in a number of closely argued political articles (see Kropotkin, Small Scale Communal Experiments and Why They Fail).

More generally, by Kropotkin’s time communal experimentalism as a way of facilitating social and economic change and as a political goal was completely discredited in socialist circles and most usually associated with the works and followers of the eccentrically laughable and entirely loveable early socialist thinker, Charles Fourier.

Scholarly Limitations:

Because of its short length, biographical approach and journalistic or non-technical style The Prince is far from comprehensive and entirely derivative—adding little or nothing to Kropotkin scholarship.

Although scientifically rather than politically focused Dugatkin doesn’t cover all major relevant scientific fields which Kropotkin pioneered or championed. This isn’t a criticism of Dugatkin’s little book. I simply want to highlight its limitations in documenting Kropotkin’s substantial or founding contributions to diverse fields recognized by science today. Most importantly Dugatkin does not explore Kropotkin’s and Reclus’ founding scientific contributions to Ecology. (see my article Green Flame).

From: Rebel Worker [rworker@chaos.apana.org.au]

Book Reviews from Rebel Worker Vol.32 No.2 (217) July-Aug.2013

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Review: Dugatkin’s Prince of Evolution 2011 | 1 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
Review: Dugatkin’s Prince of Evolution 2011
Authored by: ISHI on Friday, August 16 2013 @ 02:30 AM CDT

 that's interesting.  i once met dugatkin---he sortuh made his name by showing forms of cooperation in guppies using these weird sort of experiments (using mirrors in schools of fish ).  i did notice he signed an 'anti-group selection' letter to either nature or science mag against a pro-group selection article by both e o wilson (ants, sociobiology) and d s wilson (group selection)---they aren't related except by name.(dugatkin got his phD under d s wilson so he was rebelling; i am definately on the d s wilson side of things, or rather boyd and richerson's version of group selection).

the group selection controversy can be found on edge, huffpo, scienceblgos, pnas etc all on-line.  (s pinker and j coyne show up as idiots. as do even some more logical thinkers like s frank). its about as coherent and unified a discussion as other democratic processes like in congress, syria, or egypt.  its all good..