By Lee Alan Dugatkin (Atlanta Science Tavern Guest Blogger)
“… [He is] that beautiful white Christ which seems to be coming out of Russia… [one] of the most perfect lives I have come across in my own experience.” – Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde was not the sort of man prone to effusive compliments. Who could possibly have merited such glowing praise from Wilde’s typically satirical, razor-edged pen? That perfect life, the White Christ, belonged to a quite remarkable Russian scientist, explorer, historian, political scientist, and former prince by the name of Peter Kropotkin.
Prince Peter Kropotkin was one of the world’s first international celebrities. He was known as a brilliant scientist, famous for his work on animal and human cooperation, and on his role as a founder of anarchism. Tens of thousands of people followed Prince Peter during two speaking tours that took him around America. Kropotkin’s path to fame was labyrinthine, with asides in prisons, breathtaking 50,000-mile journeys through Siberia, and banishment from most respectable Western countries of the day. In Russia, he went from being Czar Alexander II’s favored teenage page, to a young man enamored with the theory of evolution, to a convicted felon and jail-breaker, eventually being chased halfway around the world by the Russian secret police.
Somehow Kropotkin found the energy to write books on a dazzling array of topics: evolution and cooperation, ethics, anarchism, socialism and communism, penal systems, and the coming industrial revolution in the East to name a few. Though seemingly disparate topics, a common thread – Kropotkin’s scientific law of mutual aid, which guided the evolution of all life on earth – tied these works together. Just like in the animals he watched for five years in Siberia, Kropotkin saw human cooperation as ultimately being driven not by government, but by groups of individuals spontaneously uniting to do good, even when they have to pay a cost to help.
Dr. Lee Alan Dugatkin is a Professor of Biology at The University of Louisville. His latest book is a history of science page-tuner entitled The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics.