Kropotkin and the scientific community in England in the 1870s and 80s

Kropotkin and the scientific community in England in the 1870s and 80s

A short post on a small act of solidarity from a Nature editor in the 1870s.

An act of solidarity
I hadn't come across this little bit of anarcho history before, but it's in Kropotkin's Memoirs Of A Revolutionist and Dugatkin's The Prince of Evolution. It refers to a small act of solidarity from a journal editor in England in the 1870s, and a not-so supportive act from a leading English biologist a few years later.

In 1876, after escaping from the Peter & Paul prison in St Petersburg, Kropotkin managed to get a job as a book reviewer for the journal Nature in London. This little episode, although not new, struck me as interesting because I've been reading Nature's news stuff for years, and I doubt that follows would happen these days at what is now the most-cited interdisciplinary journal in science and one of the most well-regarded academic journals in any field.

Kropotkin, keeping his head down, got the job under an alias, 'Mr Levashoff'. At this stage, in the late 1870s, Nature was less than a decade old. Sasha Kropotkin, Peter's brother, sent some of Peter's geography books to Nature for review. An editor at the journal, J.Scott Keltie, not knowing who his new reviewer really was, gave the book to Kropotkin to review. Peter's scientific integrity got the better of him, and he confided in Keltie that these were his books and he couldn't in good faith review his own work.

Keltie was aware of Kropotkin's escape from Peter & Paul prison. It's unsurprising that he'd read about it; Peter had been a secretary (and was nominated for president) of the Russian Geographical Society prior to his arrest so would have been known within the science community, and eventually "one of the world's first international celebrities"(1) according to Dugatkin.

To his credit, Keltie respected Kropotkin's wish to remain under the radar, and persuaded him to review them under the alias, but to "simply tell the reader what the books were about"(2).
Given Nature's high-standing nowadays, I can't imagine them harbouring an anarchist prison-escapee anymore, but it was cool to read about this.

Huxley shuns Kropotkin
Kropotkin would later end up in jail in France for membership of the then-illegal International Workingmens Association. Supporters in England, including many biologists, museum curators, and even politicians, petitioned for his release. One of his most best-known scientific peers refused to sign the petition. Thomas Henry Huxley, grandfather of biologist Julian Huxley (a contributor to the 'modern synthesis' in evolutionary biology) and Brave New World author Aldous Huxley, was "arguably the most famous scientist in England"(1). Huxley "adamantly refused to sign the petition" because Kropotkin's politics "rubbed him the wrong way"(1). Huxley, credited with coining the term 'agnostic', was famed for being 'Darwin's Bulldog' because of his publicly advocacy of Darwin's ideas, particularly in the 1860s, perhaps most famously his debate with Bishop Samuel 'Soapy Sam' Wilberforce.

It's fitting then that upon returning to England after his release from French prison, Kropotkin's initial motivation for writing Mutual Aid: A Factor Of Evolution was his reaction to Huxley's "atrocious article"(2), 'The struggle for existence: a programme' in the magazine Nineteenth Century. The essay became known as the 'gladiator essay' because of what Kropotkin saw as, Huxley's over-empasis on struggle in nature. As Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, Kropotkin wanted to redress this empasis on competitiveness, not just of Huxley, but of many social-Darwinists like Darwin's cousin Francis Galton, and of Victorian society generally.(3)

SJ Gould wrote:
I would hold that Kropotkin’s basic argument is correct. Struggle does occur in many modes, and some lead to cooperation among members of a species as the best pathway to advantage for individuals. If Kropotkin overemphasized mutual aid, most Darwinians in Western Europe had exaggerated competition just as strongly. If Kropotkin drew inappropriate hope for social reform from his concept of nature, other Darwinians had erred just as firmly (and for motives that most of us would now decry) in justifying imperial conquest, racism, and oppression of industrial workers as the harsh outcome of natural selection in the competitive mode. (3)

While Gould saw Kropotkin as writing a necessary corrective to the dominant discourse in 19th century English biology, Dugatkin adds that Kropotkin would have probably not formulated the ideas contained in Mutual Aid as quickly as he did were it not for reading Huxley's essay and thus being compelled to react to it.

Sources:
1 - Dugatkin, The Prince Of Evolution
2 - Kropotkin, Memoirs of a Revolutionist
3 - Gould, Kropotkin was no crackpot

Comments

jolasmo
Apr 10 2012 16:19

That picture of P. K. looks terrible, here's a higher res version: http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lvrkhgaA8x1r3sn0vo1_500.jpg.

~J.

Choccy
Apr 10 2012 03:12

I'll confess to not giving a shit about the size of the picture but have changed it to stop you crying.

Steven.
Apr 10 2012 09:09

That's a cool anecdote, thanks for posting!

jolasmo
Apr 10 2012 11:36
Choccy wrote:
I'll confess to not giving a shit about the size of the picture but have changed it to stop you crying.

No need to be knobend, in the new theme the picture gets blown up to fill the width of the page so low resolution images just look rubbish. I was just trying to be helpful.

~J.

Choccy
Apr 10 2012 16:04

Dry your eyes.

Steven.
Apr 10 2012 16:18

Let's stop being rude to one another. Jolasmo, thank you for pointing out a better image. Having decent quality images makes articles much more likely to get more traffic. In future, you should feel free to edit articles yourself to add better images (which will then need to be approved by an editor)

Choccy
Apr 10 2012 17:01

Oh stop being so pious, starting the comments with 'that image looks terrible' is hardly that constructive and sets the whole tone for the responses they got after.

Cooked
Apr 10 2012 20:36

First thing I thought on seeing this page was.

Quote:
Wow that's a glorious looking, amazingly vivid and very, very cute Kropotkin. It makes a huge difference with a good properly sized image compared to random images normally posted. Nice!

So i salute Jolasmo for the replacement... sensitive folks around here.

Choccy
Apr 10 2012 20:40
revol68 wrote:
Choccy wrote:
Oh stop being so pious, starting the comments with 'that image looks terrible' is hardly that constructive and sets the whole tone for the responses they got after.

pretty much

I'm afraid that libcom has now become the WANKY MIDDLE GROUND we feared!

jolasmo
Apr 10 2012 22:11
Choccy wrote:
Oh stop being so pious, starting the comments with 'that image looks terrible' is hardly that constructive and sets the whole tone for the responses they got after.

I think it's hilarious that you'd have a dig at me for 'crying' for making a minor, entirely cosmetic criticism of your blog, then throw a tantrum like this because a mod told you off for being rude. "Sets the whole tone" my arse, what the fuck kind of a tone does "I don't give a flying fuck, you crybaby" set?

Sorry if how I worded it was off, but I honestly thought you of all people had thicker skin than this - I wasn't trying to have a go. I didn't realise you could edit other people's blogs, or I would just have done that instead of commenting.

~J.

Toms
Apr 10 2012 22:37

Oh cool the kropotkin blog got a lot of comments since I read it, let's see what they're saying

...

Choccy
Apr 10 2012 22:47
jolasmo wrote:
I think it's hilarious that you'd have a dig at me for 'crying' for making a minor, entirely cosmetic criticism of your blog, then throw a tantrum like this because a mod told you off for being rude. "Sets the whole tone" my arse, what the fuck kind of a tone does "I don't give a flying fuck, you crybaby" set?

Sorry if how I worded it was off, but I honestly thought you of all people had thicker skin than this - I wasn't trying to have a go. I didn't realise you could edit other people's blogs, or I would just have done that instead of commenting.

~J.

Are you still talking?

libcom
Apr 11 2012 07:44

Comments locked. Play the ball, not the person.