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Book Review: Mutual Aid, A Factor in Evolution by Peter Kropotkin

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Dog eat dog. Every man for himself. Survival of the fittest.

We've heard these sayings so much we accept them as Laws of Nature. But, Peter Kropotkin proves in his 1902 landmark book Mutual Aid, this is not how nature works. These sayings are actually lies some people have made up in order to justify their own selfishness and aggression. They call it "Social Darwinism." According to Kropotkin, Darwin never wrote that survival of the fittest means competing against members of your own species. Darwin was talking about competition between different species. On the contrary, he wrote that the survival of the species is guaranteed by mutual aid.

With impeccably documented scholarship, Mutual Aid is full of examples of mutual aid within a multitude of species – including us homo-sapiens. The middle section of the book is my favorite. This is where he gives examples of mutual aid in numerous indigenous cultures in different parts of the world throughout time. All of the cultures were originally community based. Not a single one was focused on the nuclear family. The entire community (often living in groups of about 250 people) shared with each other. Some groups all slept (or do sleep tonight) in the same shelter, such as long houses.

 


Photo by Malene Thyssen (used with permission)

 

Food was (and still is in some places) gathered or hunted and shared with all. One example that especially stands out to me is a culture where it was polite practice, when hunting or gathering alone, far from other people, that before you ate anything you called out three times in a loud voice, "I'm going to eat something. Is there anyone here who would like to share it with me?" Only then would you start to eat your lunch alone in the woods.

These mutual aid concepts and practices persist today, even with the bombardment of propaganda attempting to convince us that individual consumerism (like "dog eat dog") is the road to individual survival. Here in the Andes, the Quechua and Aymara people share a word, concept, and practice called "ayni." Ayni can be translated as "reciprocity, cause and effect, dependent origination, and mutual aid."

I came across a hardcover 1955 edition of Mutual Aid in the library of my late stepfather, paleontologist H. Rodney Gale. I assume he used it as primary source material for research for his book The Natural Path to Genuine Lasting Happiness.

These circumstances of how I came to encounter Mutual Aid, and the impressive scholarship presented in this book, didn't prepare me for a surprise. In a Google search for a free public domain downloadable copy, I found Mutual Aid on a site of anarchist literature. My knee jerk reaction to the word "anarchist" was probably what many people feel — a bit of fear. But, after thinking about it, I realized that true anarchism is not violent destruction. Anarchism is based on people developing our highest spiritual selves — to treat each other with the utmost respect. Treat your neighbor as yourself — the Golden Rule sort of thing. In other words — mutual aid.

 

 

Then we don't need to have government and police to tell us what to do. Like our mutually supportive indigenous ancestors on all continents, we can be guided by our inner wisdom, courage and compassion.

This potentially limitless inner wisdom, courage and compassion, Buddhism calls "Buddha Nature." Our original selves. How harmonious are the teachings of Buddhism with the scientific findings layed out in Mutual Aid. Daisaku Ikeda (president of the SGI, the fastest growing lay Buddhist organization in the world) gives a name to the process of developing our original selves – our Buddha nature. He calls it "Human Revolution." In his yearly peace proposals to the United Nations, Ikeda promotes concrete actions for developing our capacity for mutual aid and creating a "culture of peace."

Renowned peace researcher Elise Boulding defines a culture of peace as a "mosaic of identities, attitudes, values, beliefs, and patterns that lead people to live nurturantly with one another and the Earth itself without the aid of structured power differentials — to deal creatively with their differences and to share their resources."1

Sounds like all we need is love and Mutual Aid.

1 Elise Boulding and Randall Forsberg, Abolishing War (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Boston Research Center for the 21st Century, 1998, p. 36 – as cited in Living Buddhism Magazine, November-December 2009, p. 24

 

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About Lynette Yetter

Lynette Yetter is the author of the books "72 Money Saving Tips for the 99%" and "Lucy Plays Panpipes for Peace, a novel." Lynette is a permanent resident of Bolivia and a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at Reed College.
  • Kathryn Hayes

    Thanks for the inspiring introduction to this work – I am excited to track down this book and incorporate it into my studies
    Kathryn

  • http://musicandes.com/ Lynette Yetter

    Fantastic, Kathryn! I was thinking of you constantly as I read Mutual Aid!!!!! I am so excited that you took the time from your super busy schedule to check out this blog! You are amazing! :)

  • Carolina

    Amazing work hermana de mi alma:) I am so grateful to be in such good Rhythm with you, I was just browsing the university archives for journals to finish a class project on the impact of media on the youth. I will also incorporate all of this into my paper.

    Thank you wonderful Bodhisatva!!!

  • http://musicandes.com/ Lynette Yetter

    Awesome, Carolina!!!!! :D

    Un abrazo,
    Lynette