Chapter 10: Mutual Aid: A Factor in the Evolution of Settlement Work in Canada

Mutual Aid: Human Evolution as a Cooperative Process

Mutual aid represents a direct response to theories of human evolution that utilize a Social Darwinist perspective. Although the concept itself is much older than Darwinist schools of thought, it has only been viewed as a viable explanation for human evolution and behaviour in recent history (Méndez, 2022). This section of this chapter will examine the origins of the theory of mutual aid and then discuss its applicability in a settlement work context.


Young Indigenous man bringing a box of groceries to an older woman
Lummi Nation Food Distribution Program volunteer staffer delivers a monthly food package to an elderly resident on the Lummi reservation.

I. Origins of Mutual Aid

Méndez (2022) defines mutual aid as creating networks of care and/or generosity to better meet the needs of neighbours and community members. Although it may be a new concept to readers of this resource, it is essential to recognize that mutual aid in and of itself has a long history. It has deep roots in Indigenous communities that emphasize the importance of kinship relationships, migrant diaspora communities that pooled resources to support newcomers from their homelands, and even revolutionary organizations such as the Young Lords and the Black Panther Party that fought to eliminate racial inequities through the construction of community resource distribution networks (childcare centres, meal kitchens, community health centres, and legal and self-defence programs) that were independent of government apparatuses (Méndez, 2022).

However, it was not until the works of Pyotr (Peter) Kropotkin in the early 20th century that a more cohesive explanation of the term “mutual aid” first emerged. Kropotkin was a prominent scientist and radical social theorist who left his mark on a number of different disciplines. Born into a noble family in pre-revolutionary Russia, Kropotkin became increasingly disenchanted with (and eventually abandoned) the luxurious life his family led (Dugatkin, 2011).


Black and white photograph of Pyotr Kropotkin
Pyotr Kropotkin

Although his scientific contributions to geography and zoology afforded him a level of credibility and social status, his lasting contributions to the fields of sociology and political science have been less celebrated. Kropotkin was controversial because he also championed what is now known as anarchism, a political philosophy that argues people can collectively organize their own affairs at a local level without interference from external, centralized authority figures, such as the government.

It is also important to note that Kropotkin refused to accept any authority not based on scientific scientific principles. He urged people everywhere to reject illegitimate tyranny and to use the tools of critical thinking and science to build a more equitable society themselves. Kropotkin was not only the first theorist who explored how cooperation was important among animals, but he was also the first Western social theorist to forcefully argue that understanding cooperation among animals would shed light on human cooperation and evolution.

II. Kropotkin’s Conception of Mutual Aid: A Cooperative View of Human Evolution

Although related to the conceptions of mutual aid discussed above, Kropotkin’s framing of mutual aid was unique and revolutionary for its time because it brought forth his scientific refutation of Social Darwinism. Published in 1902, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution is considered to be Kropotkin’s most significant work and a clear articulation of his view of human evolution as one of cooperation.

In short, for Kropotkin, mutual aid refers to the economic concept of voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit (Kropotkin, 1902). Cooperation is thus a survival mechanism for animals to counteract the conception of evolution as a fierce competition for survival put forth by Social Darwinism. In other words, we are not an inherently selfish and individualistic species…we evolved because we were cooperative, not competitive.

Sociability and the need for mutual support are inherent to human nature. At no time in history did people live in small, isolated families, indefinitely fighting each other for subsistence. In other words, societies that try to “go it alone” nonstop, either through exploiting others or refusing interaction with others, do not survive for very long.

Kropotkin based his assumptions on observations he witnessed in his scientific field expeditions. Although he admired Darwin’s contributions to evolutionary biology, Dugatkin (2011) argues that Kropotkin’s journeys to Siberia presented him with many examples of interspecies collaboration for survival, not competition. These surprising development from the animal kingdom left Kropotkin intrigued and curious about various ways the structure and evolution of human societies could be examined.

Raghavan (2021) argues that for Kropotkin, mutual aid was more than a counterpoint to a theoretical paradigm he disagreed with. It provided the opportunity to conceive of the organization of human society through a biological but cooperative lens. His adoption of an anarchist worldview could be summarized as the belief that, left to their own devices, people will naturally cooperate to ensure their survival (Dugatkin, 2011). In his work Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution, Kropotkin (1902) further argues that rather than competing for dominion over others to secure access to scarce resources, the development of human civilizations was more heavily influenced by principles of mutual aid and cooperation than they were by the exploitation and subjugation of others.

For example, people living in medieval Europe preferred peace to war. They typically engaged in war only out of necessity, and even during the times of the great empires, once a war was finalized, the people in either freshly liberated or occupied territories went back to their daily routines. The leaders of such warrior societies wanted to rule in peace, and even though it was through the use of force that it was brought about, the idea was that all dissent would be eliminated and society would thus be peaceful and orderly.

As human society evolved from classical empires such as the Han and Roman to feudalism, the emergence of feudal society did not eliminate the collective nature of humanity despite the repressive and authoritarian nature of monarchic rule. After multiple uprisings against the nobility were successfully defeated, each community had its own customs and norms that carried on. This included the right of self-jurisdiction, meaning that communities, by and large, administered themselves.

However, Kropotkin argues that it is through the medieval guilds that one finds the most apparent evidence of camaraderie. A guild was an organization that came into existence when a group of individual workers (fishers, hunters, travelling merchants, builders, skilled craftspeople) came together for a common pursuit (Carlson, 2018). Guilds were precursors to modern-day trade unions, and for Kropotkin, they fulfilled humanity’s basic need to have a dependable community to use as a resource in times of need.

Although the above discussion may seem abstract and idealistic for a chapter on effective theory and practice in settlement work, it is important to recognize that Kropotkin’s conception of cooperative human evolution provides a powerful counterpoint to Social Darwinist models. Such a counterpoint provides a unique opportunity to reflect on the work that settlement workers do and on how mutual aid can be used in discussions around the evolution of best practices in the field of settlement work. The next section of this chapter will explore how mutual aid can (and has been) applied to significant effect in professional circumstances similar to the ones encountered by settlement workers.


Learning Activity 2: Everyday Mutual Aid

INSTRUCTOR NOTE: This activity lends itself best to an in-person, small group breakout or think-pair-share but could also work in a synchronous online learning environment or as an individual reflection.

Oftentimes, we engage in forms of cooperative activity without even realizing (or thinking about) it. Take 15 minutes to think about times when you may have engaged in everyday acts of mutual aid. This could include lending friends or family money, shovelling a neighbour’s sidewalk, babysitting or picking up a friend’s child from school, or helping a classmate with homework.

As you reflect on these examples, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What prompted me to engage in these activities?
  • How do these experiences relate to my personal value systems?
  • How do these experiences relate to my understanding of “normal” human behaviour?
  • How do my experiences in these settings relate to my “common sense” understanding of humanity and the world at large?

Learning Activity 3: Mutual Aid Case Studies

INSTRUCTOR NOTE 1: These case studies are best worked through in class in small groups in synchronous learning environments but can be modified to facilitate individualized learning, and groups can share their plans with their peers.

INSTRUCTOR NOTE 2: When the instructor introduces the activity, students should be prompted to reflect on how the following case studies compare with their understanding of humanity as a whole and whether or not the community responses to the disasters in the scenarios feel “natural” (and why).

Take 30 minutes to think about and reflect on the following scenarios. What does they tell you about what feels “natural” to do? How does this compare and contrast with the idea that the world is a life-and-death struggle for survival in a world of scarce resources? As you reflect on these scenarios, ask yourself about their implications for the world of settlement work.

Case Study A:  Superstorm Sandy and Occupy Sandy

The names above refer to the largest storm to hit eastern North America in October 2012. The worst hit areas were the New York, New Jersey, and New England coastlines, with New York City itself taking a large hit.

The storm arrived on shore as a Category 2 hurricane that collided and combined with a powerful winter storm that moved in from northern Canada. It resulted in roughly $65 billion (US) in damages and killed 11 people. Yet despite the crippling blow, the storm brought to one of the world’s largest and most densely populated urban corridors a group of community volunteers who modelled themselves after the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Calling themselves Occupy Sandy, these volunteers were so efficient at collecting and distributing supplies to those most at risk of harm following the storm that even the U.S. National Guard acknowledged their good work and sent its members for training.

Case Study B:  The Fort McMurray Wildfire and Response

The massive Fort McMurray, Alberta, wildfire was named “The Beast” and started on May 1, 2016, in the Fort McMurray area and quickly grew in size and ferocity. All told, the fire burned close to 6,000 square kilometres (almost the size of the province of Prince Edward Island) and was not fully extinguished until the following year.

The fire destroyed 2,400 structures in Fort McMurray and prompted the mandatory evacuation of almost 100,000 people, including the entire city of Fort Mac and all the neighbouring work camps in the oil sands.

In response, the people in Alberta (and the rest of Canada) seemed to embrace the Communist creed “from each according to their ability to each according in need.” There were countless stories of businesses donating free gas to fleeing evacuees and free accommodation offered by hotels, inns, and individuals, who opened up spare rooms in their homes to random strangers, no questions asked.

In addition, the Canadian Red Cross reported that the response to the wildfire was, at the time, the most successful fundraising campaign for a Canadian disaster in its history, with over $100 million raised in private donations, which were matched dollar for dollar by the provincial and federal governments.

Evacuation centres were set up across the province, which provided free accommodations and were used as a point of contact for the distribution of pre-loaded debit cards to people who signed up with the Red Cross for assistance, no questions asked ($1,250 per adult in the household, and an additional $500 per child).

Each city that had an evacuation centre also had local businesses falling over one another to provide free food, services, and/or steep discounts on merchandise to anyone who could prove that they lived in Fort McMurray.

III. Mutual Aid in Practice

Thus far, this chapter has focused on contrasting explanations of human nature and how the concept of mutual aid can help reframe how we view the process of human evolution. However, if this discussion is to proceed beyond the realm of the theoretical, the applicability of mutual aid on a broader scale must be explored.

Fortunately, there are numerous examples of instances and best practices that demonstrate how people are already “doing mutual aid” work without necessarily formally recognizing this work as being potentially influenced by the words of a former Russian nobleman and scientist-turned-anarchist from a century ago. And yet, examples in the following sections will demonstrate how cooperative work can feel very instinctive and “natural” on a broader scale in human society.

Image Credits (images are listed in order of appearance)

Photo 20170111-FNS-DH-0006 by U.S. Department of Agriculture, Public domain

Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. (1860–1979). Peter Kropotkin [Photograph]. Image ID 1158417., Public domain.


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