The Nature of Man

A question for readers-- consider the following quotes:

Nature hath made men so equal, in the faculties of body and mind that are born in them, that one man cannot in respect of these claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend. From this equality ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our ends. Therefore, if two men desire the same thing which they cannot both enjoy they become enemies, and seek each the destruction of the other, each mistrusting the other. So men invade each other, first for gain, second for safety, and third for reputation. Hence, while men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in a state of war, every man against every man.

-- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

In that immense division of the animal kingdom which embodies more than one thousand species, and is so numerous that the Brazilians pretend that Brazil belongs to the ants, not to men, competition amidst the members of the same nest, or the colony of nests,does not exist. However terrible the wars between different species, and whatever the atrocities committed at war-time, mutual aid within the community, self-devotion grown into a habit, and very often self-sacrifice for the common welfare, are the rule. The ants and termites have renounced the "Hobbesian war," and they are the better for it. Their wonderful nests, their buildings, superior in relative size to those of man; their paved roads and overground vaulted galleries; their spacious halls and granaries; their corn-fields, harvesting and "malting" of grain;(9*) their, rational methods of nursing their eggs and larvae, and of building special nests for rearing the aphides whom Linnaeus so picturesquely described as "the cows of the ants"; and, finally, their courage, pluck, and, superior intelligence -- all these are the natural outcome of the mutual aid which they practise at every stage of their busy and laborious lives. [...]

As seen from the above, the war of each against all is not the law of nature. Mutual aid is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle...




-- Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution

The two quotes paint contrasting pictures of the essential character of nature's creatures, of which man might be considered a member. Which one do you think is correct? Or is there a third view that is more correct than either?

[cross-posted at The Agitator]

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Is Kropotkin seriously

Is Kropotkin seriously comparing ants (mere stimulus-response constructs) with people who possess purpose and thought?

At least Hobbes is trying to deal with the real world rather than extrapolate from fantasy.

Is Kropotkin seriously

Is Kropotkin seriously comparing ants (mere stimulus-response constructs) with people who possess purpose and thought?

He is trying to find a solution to Hobbes's war of each against all in nature. I don't see much wrong in that. Perhaps to Kropotkin, ants seemed more civilized than men. Looking at much of history, I don't really blame him.

Both views seem to ommit the

Both views seem to ommit the essential human characteristics of leadership and herd instinct. Kropotkin's view can clearly be seen at the tribal or family level of humanity. In that respect, Hobbes is wrong. I am not going to attack my brother, even if he has something I want. There are many reasons not to attack my tribe, above and beyond being whacked on the noggin by a chief. Hobbs is entirely correct when, for whatever reason, the set of humans involved cannot or simply are not unified by family or leadership or some other bond. At that point, contest is possible and indeed probable.

He is trying to find a

He is trying to find a solution to Hobbes?s war of each against all in nature. I don?t see much wrong in that. Perhaps to Kropotkin, ants seemed more civilized than men. Looking at much of history, I don?t really blame him.

Of course, one could hardly imagine a more totalitarian and collectivist society than that of your typical ant colony.

The funny thing is, that

The funny thing is, that Kropotkin is wrong there, too- Ant colonies are remarkably decentralized. Studies of ant 'society' show that each individual ant responds to stimuli and information local to that ant, supplied either by another ant or the environment. The result is that the "queen" of the ant hill is really the baby-making slave of the ant society, exercising no control at her purported center. THere is no hive-mind, only a spontaneous order arising from the actions of the individual ants interacting according to genetics. Surely as I said above, ants do not think or have truly purposeful behavior, but an ant colony is about the furthest thing from a human concept of totalitarian central control.

I think you have missed

I think you have missed Pete's point Brian. He speaks of mutual aid, or cooperation if you will, rather than control. Indeed, it is the absolute absence of control that makes cooperation possible and useful.

The work of Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis at the Santa Fe Institute and elsewhere using ideas from complexity theory and game theory informed by evolutionary biology are relevant to this subject.

Hayek's insights about agency are also directly relevant.

The problem is that the

The problem is that the quote massively anthropomorphizes ants to the point that any value of metaphor is lost, for me anyway (I'm a biologist by initial training). It seems clear, though, that Kropotkin is lauding ants for the qualities he anthropomorphizes that, and I have to believe the choice of words is deliberate, are most in common with social democratic/technocratic control and engineering of society.

Such as:

"... their buildings, superior in relative size to those of man; their paved roads and overground vaulted galleries; their spacious halls and granaries; their corn-fields, harvesting and ?malting? of grain;(9*)"
(the studious invocation of the standard technocratic dreams of increased industrial production and public works)

"rational methods of nursing their eggs" (just like the technocratic dreams of collective child care & raising)

"...their courage, pluck, and, superior intelligence..."
(aside from being bizarre assertions to make about nearly mindless creatures, these are all the virtues extolled by the planner, useful for managing society correctly)

It seems pretty clear to me that Kropotkin's "mutual aid" is just window dressing for the usual exhortations of socialist planning; pitch in, do your part for the Plan, help build the Great Society and stop being so selfish (be like the Ants!), yada yada yada.

But the real lesson of the

But the real lesson of the anthill is that dispersed knowledge can create great things unintended by any individual ant, be they worker, soldier, or queen. Each individual ant is a moron, barely more than a reacting machine. But each has the ability to process information in part and transmit it, leading to spontaneous coordination of ant activity even though none intend to cooperate.

The lesson is scalable to individual humans vis-a-vis society, which is of course Hayek's central thesis in the Fatal Conceit.

The problem is that the

The problem is that the quote massively anthropomorphizes ants to the point that any value of metaphor is lost, for me anyway (I?m a biologist by initial training). It seems clear, though, that Kropotkin is lauding ants for the qualities he anthropomorphizes that, and I have to believe the choice of words is deliberate, are most in common with social democratic/technocratic control and engineering of society.

I'm not sure I see the fact that he anthropomorphizes as an an effective counter-argument. An alien who watched the 20th century unfold from a hidden orbit might see little difference between animals and man.

It seems pretty clear to me that Kropotkin?s ?mutual aid? is just window dressing for the usual exhortations of socialist planning; pitch in, do your part for the Plan, help build the Great Society and stop being so selfish (be like the Ants!), yada yada yada.

I don't see anything about social engineering in there. I think that is your interpretation based on knowledge of history. But Kropotkin wrote this at a time before the difficulty of central planning was known. He simply sees mutual aid as a means to cooperation that can overcome the Hobbesian jungle.

But why do individuals

But why do individuals cooperate? Ants don't *care* about other ants. They do what they do because their ancestors happened to do it and it was an evolutionary favored strategy. That through a division of labor more can be accomplished is obvious, but hardly an insight granted to us by ants. That ants have been seen as regimented and efficient centrally controlled collectives since the dawn of such metaphorical examples has been the reason they've been lauded, not because of some degree of 'mutual aid', which itself suggests purposeful behavior.

No individual ant has purposeful behavior. It is even debatable that a colony of ants, on whole, exhibits purposeful behavior. This fundamental deficit on the individual level, to me, eliminates any useful analogies to be drawn. Humans cooperate because cooperation helps promote *individual human purpose*, not because they have a knee-jerk stimulus-response mechanism (ala ants). While the end results are superficially similar, the processes that lead to the results are absolutely different in quality and character.

That Kropotkin wrote the passage before the difficulties of central planning of society or economies was known is irrelevant. First, because the point remains unchanged: his writing is drawing an explicit analogy to the technocratic movement of his day to subsume human behavior to rational control and planning, and secondly, because Kropotkin is not saying "mutual aid is good" but that good outcomes come from striving for group goals over individual ones (from reading further down from the para that you quoted). His is not a neutral observation about the nature of (say) division of labor vs. individual autarky, but a systemic judgement.

Thirdly, that he feels the need to make an observation about "mutual aid"- as though this was somehow remarkable given the past couple of centuries of European history showing the spontaneous order of economic production and increasing gains from division of labor- means that he's not talking about simple mutual aid, but the specific socialist construction/concept of the term. Indeed, his reference to worker bees "temporarily dividing labor but every worker capable of doing every job" is a hoary socialist ideal, about as purebred as they come. Division of labor is only good for temporary jobs, but everyone should do everything (generalization of labor, no specialization!). The link you provided almost literally oozes with socialist dogma and catchphrases that I'm surprised my critique is seen as objectionable...

To summarize, my point doesn't require knowledge of any history past Kropotkin's time, though it does require knowledge of history that Kropotkin would have.

In a way, both are correct.

In a way, both are correct. In both scenarios, the ants and men are acting in what they perceive to be their own best interest. The ant, mutual cooperation ensures its continued "prosperity." The men, elimination of an opponent ensures his own continued prosperity.

However, Hobbes implies a limited good while Kropotkin implies unlimited goods. Assuming unlimited goods, man cooperates. Assuming limited goods, man goes to war.

I don't know if any of you

I don't know if any of you have small children -- I do, and we also have a copy of the movie 'Antz'. I'd like to suggest viewing it, and then consider Kropotkin's thoughts again. :)

~Michi

Thirdly, that he feels the

Thirdly, that he feels the need to make an observation about ?mutual aid?- as though this was somehow remarkable given the past couple of centuries of European history showing the spontaneous order of economic production and increasing gains from division of labor- means that he?s not talking about simple mutual aid, but the specific socialist construction/concept of the term. Indeed, his reference to worker bees ?temporarily dividing labor but every worker capable of doing every job? is a hoary socialist ideal, about as purebred as they come. Division of labor is only good for temporary jobs, but everyone should do everything (generalization of labor, no specialization!). The link you provided almost literally oozes with socialist dogma and catchphrases that I?m surprised my critique is seen as objectionable?

Your critique is objectionable because it is (partly) inaccurate. Kropotkin does not see "rational control and planning" as the answer to Hobbesian war. Instead, he sees one person's helping another with reciprocity as the answer.

Kropotkin might have called himself a socialist, but he was a huge critic of the state and Karl Marx. It's clear that he did get things wrong, but he also got many things right. It's useful to highlight what he got right in the context of what he got wrong.

Adam Smith was a follower of the LTV, but at his time in history, he was a radical libertarian because of his critiques of mercantilism and realization of self-interest as the driving force of a free economy.

Similarly, Kroptkin saw one way out of the fixed-sum worldview of Hobbes and was an outspoken critic of the state, and for that, he should be commended, even if he got many things wrong.

Brian, Humans cooperate

Brian,

Humans cooperate because cooperation helps promote individual human purpose, not because they have a knee-jerk stimulus-response mechanism (ala ants).

I'm not so sure about this. Whether you believe nature or nurture is more influential to human action, the fact remains that preferences, purposes, and ultimately human actions are largely determined by either biological factors or social factors. Sociologists love to talk about solidarity and how it is both determined by and influences social interaction. Most of our actions can be explained by little more than knee-jerk stimulus-responses to biological or social conditions.

Thus wrote Hayek, in "The Use of Knowledge in Society":

    The problem which we meet here is by no means peculiar to economics but arises in connection with nearly all truly social phenomena, with language and with most of our cultural inheritance, and constitutes really the central theoretical problem of all social science. As Alfred Whitehead has said in another connection, "It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them." This is of profound significance in the social field. We make constant use of formulas, symbols, and rules whose meaning we do not understand and through the use of which we avail ourselves of the assistance of knowledge which individually we do not possess. We have developed these practices and institutions by building upon habits and institutions which have proved successful in their own sphere and which have in turn become the foundation of the civilization we have built up.

Brian Doss, You're reading

Brian Doss,

You're reading an awful lot into one paragraph on ants. Believe me, that's not the central argument of *Mutual Aid*. Kropotkin has some early chapters on mutual aid as a factor in the animal kingdom. But most of the book is devoted to examples of voluntary cooperation and mutual aid in human society. And the state figures in his account only to the extent that it has interfered with this natural order. According to K, the centralized state suppressed human voluntary associations as rivals to its power.

You really should read the book, instead of reviewing it on the basis of one paragraph.

I think this is an area in

I think this is an area in which game theory is much more enlightening. The prisoner's dilemma is predicated on the idea that a human has a choice of whether to cooperate or back stab. The question is under what circumstances are each of the two actions are likely to occur.

Book recommendation: The evolution of cooperation by Robert Axelrod ISBN: 0465021212

Hayek, Alfred Whitehead,

Hayek, Alfred Whitehead, Karl Marx, etc., etc., . . . please delete my post about the Disney movie 'Antz', thanks! :p

I don't think anyone has yet

I don't think anyone has yet pointed out the real reason why ants cooperate. The social insects (ants, bees) have unusual genetics. Most are sterile and can only ensure that their genes are passed on by working for the survival of the queen/colony. Also because the males are haploid, their relationship to each other is higher ("brothers" are 3/4 related instead of the 1/2 in diploid species).

Given that evolution designs individuals to maximize genetic fitness, it is no surprise that social insects cooperate. They are just doing what is best for their genes. Their communal and cooperative nature has been programmed into them, its not like its a morally superior and deliberate choice.

Ted: Maybe you'd like an

Ted: Maybe you'd like an analogy. Well, take... take these ants. In the U.S. view, a small group, or cadre, of fierce red ants have taken power and are oppressing the black ant majority. Now the stated U.S. policy is to aid those black ants opposing the red ants in hopes of restoring democracy, and to impede the red ants from assisting their red ant comrades in neighboring ant colonies.

Ramon: That is clearly the most disgusting description of U.S. policy I have ever heard. The Third World is just a lot of ants to you.

Jurgen: Those are people dying, not ants.

Ted: No, I... I don't think you understand. I was reducing everything to ant scale, the... the U.S. included. An ant White House, an ant CIA, an ant Congress, an ant Pentagon...

Ramon: Secret ant landing strips, illegally established on foreign soil.

Fred: Where are the red ants?

Ted: [pointing to an ant hill] There.

[Fred crushes the ants]

-------------------------------------------

From one of my favorite films, Barcelona. :-)

I think the truth, as usual,

I think the truth, as usual, lies somewhere between. The truth is that men tend to treat other people badly when:

1. They can get away with it.
2. They either actively wish to hurt other people or don't care how the other person feels.

The problem with Hobbes is probably recognisable to everyone on the blog: making the Sovereign supreme and total allows #1.

The problem with Kropotkin is much of the same. Without a Sovereign, it becomes much more difficult to punish the "common" men. Take cartels for instance. Price-fixers are always running to the state for protection precisely because members of the cartel are always cheating.

Why? Well, the former competitors don't really care about the feelings or profits of the other owners, and in fact may want to hurt them. There's #2. And obviously, they won't suffer any repercussions without state involvement and may actually benefit. There's #1.

The problem here is that I don't see why self-interested companies who break voluntary cartels are acting any differently than self-interested entrants into voluntary laws/legal societies would. If #1 and #2 hold, what stops a person from violating the legal society?

NOTE: I've already mentioned that I don't think a state solves the problem.

- Josh