Russia produced a number of notable evolutionists who contributed to research and theory in natural history, biology, and anthropology. Russian intellectuals widely accepted Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (published in Russian translation in 1860) and the evolutionary force of natural selection, but reaction to it was shaped by various political leanings and ideological goals. Russian progressives and anarchists were generally less predisposed to the theory as they felt it reflected the bourgeois intellectual tradition in Britain. Some conservatives, however, were proactive Darwinists (for example, K. A. Timiriazev, for whom a present-day State Biological Museum and Agricultural Academy in Moscow are named). Social transformation in Russia intensified with the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, and many descendants of nobility, military, and urban classes pursued careers in the sciences. There was a small but engaged and prepared audience for evolutionary theory in Russia in the 19th century.
Indeed, many Russian evolutionists took issue with one particular facet of Darwinian evolutionary theory while maintaining their general acceptance of the theory. This issue was Darwin’s use of the 18th century Malthusian concept of the “struggle for existence” that was attributed to British competitive individualism and popular acceptance of Malthus. The struggle for existence stood for overpopulation and intraspecific competition as forces driving Darwinian selection. Rather, Russian intellectuals felt that competition was specific to particular ecological conditions. In Russia, wide expanses of the natural world were sparsely populated, especially in Siberia. Naturalists focused on cooperation and variation within species as evidence counter to the struggle-for-existence assumption. Human population pressure was not as great in Russia as Britain, and the communal lifestyle of the Russian peasantry was an important form of social organization for 90% of the population. Russia was a net exporter of agricultural products during the 19th century. Russia had a small middle class and exhibited little social competition; society was markedly hierarchical, but the communitarian values of the Russian majority were an ideal to be envied in some Western academic circles (for example, August von Haxthausen in Studies on the Interior of Russia, 1850).
Karl Kessler, one of Russia’s leading 19th-century naturalists and ichthyologists, defended Darwinian selection theory in publications in the 1860s and 1970s, but in 1879, Kessler gave a speech “On the Law of Mutual Aid” to the St. Petersburg Society of Naturalists challenging the primary role of the struggle for existence. According to the law of mutual aid, fish and all animals, including humans, were governed primarily by parental feeling and care of progeny as instincts driving nourishment and reproduction. Alliances among former enemies evidenced the increasing material and moral benefits of mutual aid. Kessler died in 1881 before publishing his theory of mutual aid, but a number of Russian scholars picked up Kessler’s idea and developed it, including A. F. Brandt in Symbiosis and Mutual Aid (1896) and Prince Petr Kropokin in Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution (1902). The concept of vzaimnopomosh, or mutual aid, was common sense in Russian society, a factor which may have led to the success of the 1904 Russian translation of Kropotkin’s book from the original English. Mutual aid was the strong force driving natural selection in 19th-century Russian evolutionary theory.
From Mutual Aid to Reciprocity
Prince Petr Alekseevich Kropotkin (1842-1921) began five years of military service in Siberia when he was 19 and uncertain in his career plans. He turned his attention to naturalistic observations, and as Darwin’s observations on the Beagle 30 years earlier informed his view on evolution, Kropokin’s travels through Siberia were an avowed influence on his theory. The severity of climate in Siberia, destruction due to natural calamity, and a lack of intraspecific conflict led Kropotkin to emphasize cooperation as the creative factor in evolution. Kropotkin perceived environmental threat and the paucity of life, rather than overpopulation. He observed migrations of fallow deer on the Amur, great gatherings of birds in the Usuri, and herds of semi-wild horses and cattle in Transbakalia, and he saw these animals struggling together for sustenance, not against one another. Kropotkin felt that intraspecific competition could not lead to “progressive evolution,” and following Kessler, argued that mutual aid was far more important than mutual struggle in evolution. Similarly, Kropotkin was critical of the Hobbesian view of each against all as the law of life for primitive man.
Kropotkin made a deduction about the origin of human sociality following the law of mutual aid. Kropotkin argued that sociality originated in colonies where mutual aid institutions—for example, communal life among Australian Aborigines and the Bushmen’s fondness for sharing— began, and that the family was an institution of recent invention. In the course of history, mutual aid institutions were invaded by what Kropotkin termed “parasitic growths,” in which individuals rebelled in two ways. Those building higher-level institutions, or commonwealths, followed one path away from mutual aid. Those who were more self-centered and worked to build their own wealth followed the second. The tragedy of history, as Kropotkin put it, was a “three-cornered contest” in which those living in mutual aid became a hindrance to progress. As societies began to lose their primitive character, Kropotkin argued that more gentle institutions, such as clans and families, began to develop. The family was a late product of human evolution for Kropotkin, and sociality had its origins in communal life. Similarly, the role of family in human life history evolution is currently questioned among anthropologists.
Russian ideas about mutual aid and its role in evolution occurred almost a century before analogous ideas made their way into anthropology from biology and game theory. Today, the evolution of cooperation is widely appreciated in terms of reciprocal altruism and strategies such as “tit for tat” cooperation. Kropotkin realized the origin of such strategies was an important issue, but he reserved speculation for future “ulterior” studies.
Twentieth-Century Russian Evolutionism
At the turn of the 20th century, social upheaval in Russia took evolutionary theory on a turn toward the Marxist-Leninist theory. Following crude group selection arguments, Vladimir Il’ich Lenin (1870-1924) and his followers argued that peasants and indigenous people were entering into a stage of capitalism from the feudal or the primitive social stages of evolution. Communism was to be the ultimate evolutionary stage with no formal state. Studies of Russia’s peasant commune, or mir, aiming at producing models alternative to unilineal Marxist-Leninist theory, influenced anthropology through the research of populist agricultural economist A. V. Chayanov and others. Chayanov’s data provided important comparisons for Marshall Sahlins’ concept of the domestic mode of production. Chayanov had evidence that the Russian peasant’s willingness to drudgery varied with the life cycle of the household, and this created cycles of socioeconomic differentiation. Chayanov proposed a path of development that was an extension of the peasant mir. However, as Lenin had already surmised that class exploitation was the cause of differentiation, Chayanov’s data and suggestions were considered counterrevolutionary. Chayanov’s theory directly challenged the assumptions of those promoting rapid modernization and unilineal thinking about social change, and he lost his life in the purges, as did many academics at that time.
Lenin’s followers devastated the Russian countryside during the Bolshevik Revolution and resulting civil war, and then, the New Economic Policy (1921-1928) allowed a short period of entrepreneurial activity, intended to jumpstart the Russian Soviet economy. What followed after Lenin’s death—Stalin’s policies of collectivization and amalgamation of peasant communes into politically directed workshops (for example, artel), collective farms (kolkhozy), and then state farms ( sovkhozy)—was draconian and guided by the goal of building socialism. The suffering of the Russian population and deaths estimated in the millions during collectivization and the purges was a result of unilineal evolutionary social engineering.
Soviet evolutionism and the war on primitive communism was particularly harsh for certain ethnic groups, such as the Volga Germans, who were uprooted and sent en masse to exile in Siberia, and the indigenous peoples of Siberia. The indigenous Siberians became targets for Soviet missionaries because many native Siberians were illiterate; they lived under the common law, but the Tsar had named hereditary kings ( kniazki) to collect tribute. There were successful herdsmen who owned thousands of animals while the poor owned less than 50. There were middle-men mercantilists and practitioners of shamanism. Under Marxist-Leninist ideology, mutual aid and other institutions of primitive communism were hindrances to progress. Many Siberians who had resisted Soviet power in the 1920s and early 1930s, large herd owners and shamans in particular, were arrested and executed in the late 1930s. Soviet evolutionism was teleological, dogmatic, ethnocentric, and tragic.
In contrast, 19th-century Russian evolutionism has its modern descendants in anthropology. For example, Kropotkin’s emphasis on mutual aid among hunter-gatherers is reinterpreted in Alan Barnard’s “foraging mode of thought.” Russian evolutionism has also informed anthropological studies of economics in small-scale societies, peasants, utopian communes, and societal change. The role of Russian scholars in the development of evolutionary theory and its interpretation in anthropology should not be overlooked.
Russian plant geneticist Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov (1887-1943) is another evolutionary biologist who suffered under Soviet politics. Vavilov gathered a vast collection of plant seeds and conceived the theory that domesticates originate in regions where the species in question and its parasites showed maximum variation. He eventually proposed seven main centers of origin for plant domestication and multiple smaller centers, based on modern crop and wild plant phenotypes and genotypes. Vavilov also proposed the idea of primary and secondary domesticates. Secondary domesticates are weeds that grow along with primary domesticates that are watered, inadvertently harvested, and eventually domesticated. He linked his theory of plant domestication to the problem of animal domestication and the development of early civilizations. In 1940, Vavilov was repressed as a promoter of “bourgeois pseudoscience” by the head of the Institute of Genetics of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Trofim Lysenko. Vavilov died in prison in 1943. His work is still cited by archaeologists studying domestication processes.
- Axelrod, R., & Hamilton, W. D. (1981). The evolution of cooperation. Science, 211, 1390-1396.
- Barnard, A. (2004). Mutual aid and the foraging mode of thought: Re-reading Kropotkin on the Khoisan. Social Evolution and History, 3(1), 3-21.
- Durrenberger, E. P. (Ed.). (1984). Chayanov, peasants, and economic anthropology. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.
- Todes, D. P. (1989). Darwin without Malthus: The struggle for existence in Russian evolutionary thought. New York: Oxford University Press.