Jacques Monod, Brave Genius, by Sean B. Carroll

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Monod brought to his thinking new empirical scientific facts.

Always the logician, he then explored just how far that logic could take him into the philosophical realm. Everything he presented about the biology of DNA was completely unknown to the world when Camus wrote The Myth of Sisyphus (whose appearance also preceded publication of Schrödinger’s What Is Life?). Monod drew from that new science the most profound, logical, and unavoidable conclusion. It was the implications of that conclusion that led Monod both into territory well plowed by Camus—how we should respond to the gift of life—and into ground Camus had not touched but was of pressing concern in the wake of the rapid advancement of science since World War II, namely the role of science in shaping modern societies’ values.

The four essential points of which Monod set out to convince his audiences:

1. Biology has revealed that the emergence of humans is the result of chance, and therefore not a matter of any preordained plan.

2. All belief systems that are established on the latter notion are no longer tenable.

3. All ethics and value systems based on such traditional beliefs have no foundation, and create intolerable contradictions within modern societies.

4. Humans must decide how we should live and how we should act. A society that valued knowledge, creativity, and freedom above all would best serve human potential.

1. THE EMERGENCE OF HUMANS IS THE RESULT OF CHANCE

It was Charles Darwin who first changed our concept of humans’ place in the living world. Monod acknowledged that the theory of evolution had profoundly affected every domain of human thought—“philosophical, religious, and political.” Yet, while the phenomenon of evolution had largely been accepted by the end of the nineteenth century, at least by the scientific community, Monod suggested that it “remained as if suspended, awaiting the elaboration of a physical theory of heredity.” At the time Monod began his studies of enzyme adaptation, that theory seemed unattainable. “Thirty years ago, the hope that one would soon be forthcoming appeared almost illusory.” But after the ensuing revolutionary advances—demonstrating that DNA was the hereditary material, solving the structure of DNA, revealing the logic of gene regulation, and cracking the genetic code—biology had a precise understanding of heredity in the form of the molecular theory of the genetic code.

“The ‘secret of life’…has been laid bare,” Monod declared. “This, a considerable event, ought certainly to make itself strongly felt in contemporary thinking, once the general significance and consequences of the theory are understood and appreciated beyond the narrow circle of specialists.”

The general significance of the newly revealed secret of life for Monod’s purposes was that it in turn revealed the precise, fundamental basis of evolution—and the interplay between what Monod called “chance and necessity.” The phrase and the book’s title came from Democritus’s dictum that “everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and of necessity.” It was now understood how variation in DNA, the source of biological change and diversity, arose by mutations in the sequences of bases in DNA. These mutations occur through “accidents”—unpredictable, random errors that occur in the copying of a single molecule of DNA. The errors thus arise by blind chance, without any relation to what their effects might be on an organism’s function.

Only after the errors are copied through the DNA replication machinery and passed on to offspring is their relative necessity weighed at the level of organisms, by the non-random, competitive process of natural selection. A mutation may have a positive beneficial effect, a detrimental negative effect, or no effect at all on organisms’ survival and reproduction. In Monod’s poetic description, “Drawn out of the realm of pure chance, the accident enters into that of necessity, of the most implacable certainties.”

There was no need, and indeed no evidence, in this process for divine intervention or special creation. The power of chance and necessity, of mutation and natural selection, was sufficient to generate and to explain all of the species, and all of the genetic diversity, on the planet, including the existence of humans.

It was now certain that humans depended not only on the same DNA chemistry as all other species but that molecular biology had just revealed that humans and all other species used the very same genetic code in utilizing the information in DNA. The differences in anatomy, physiology, and behavior between humans and other species were due to thousands to millions of changes in DNA accumulated over time.

The most profound consequence from this new understanding of DNA, mutation, and the genetic code was the inescapable, logical certainty that “man was the product of an incalculable number of fortuitous events,” that humans had thus emerged through a process dependent upon chance. “The emergence of Man can only be conceived as the result of a huge Monte-Carlo game, where our number eventually did come out, when it might not well have appeared,” Monod wrote. “And, in any case, the unfathomable cosmos around us could not have cared less.”…

2. ALL BELIEF SYSTEMS THAT ARE FOUNDED ON A SPECIAL PLACE OR PURPOSE OF MAN IN NATURE ARE NO LONGER TENABLE

For Monod, the philosophical consequences of molecular biology followed from the role of chance in the emergence of humans, and the challenge that presented to all traditional belief systems. Monod explained, “In virtually all the mythic, religious or philosophic systems, Man’s existence receives its meaning from being supposed part of some general purpose which accounts for the whole of nature and creation. The ‘purpose’ may be naively ascribed to a mythic founder-hero, or more grandiosely (albeit less poetically) to some abstract divine intervention; or it may be assumed that the ‘laws of nature’ are such that the universe in its evolution, could not fail to produce Man and history.”

The common flaw in all of these systems, Monod underscored, is that they assume “between Man and the Universe, between Cosmology and History an unbroken continuity, a profound immanent alliance.” However, Monod argued, “the scientific approach reveals to Man that he is an accident, almost a stranger in the universe, and reduces the ‘old alliance’ between him and the rest of creation to a tenuous and fragile thread.”

Moreover, Monod asserted that molecular biology had snapped the last thread: “It remained for modern Biology…blossoming into Molecular Biology, to discover the ultimate source of stability and evolution in the Biosphere [DNA and mutation], and thus blow to shreds the myth of the old alliance.”

As a result, Monod asserted, “none of the gracious or frightening myths that [man] had dreamed, none of the hopes that he had tenaciously entertained, none of the certainties that had formed the structure of his moral and social life for thousands of years, can stand anymore.”

3. ALL ETHICS AND VALUE SYSTEMS BASED ON SUCH TRADITIONAL BELIEFS HAVE NO FOUNDATION, AND CREATE INTOLERABLE CONTRADICTIONS WITHIN MODERN SOCIETIES

Pressing to follow his logic as far as it could take him, Monod asked what the implications were of this loss of certainty, of the traditional systems that had guided human societies for millennia.

All traditional systems teach values, duties, rights, and prohibitions based on various claimed sources—historical, divine, or natural. Monod recognized that the important psychological function of these teachings was to satisfy individuals’ longing for meaning, while their social function was to provide stability. Take away those sources, as Monod argued modern science had done, and both individuals’ and society’s foundations were undermined.

Monod believed that the greatest threat to society was not science itself, with all of its technological powers; rather, it was the continuing embrace of traditional systems alongside the practice of modern science. In his debut interview in Le Nouvel Observateur, he said, “Society by definition does not like things being put intoquestion, it is not for nothing that the societies who wanted the best seats, in their faith in themselves have always had difficulties with science.” He cited as evidence: “The Church with Galileo, Stalin with Lysenko, Hitler with ‘Jewish science’ as they referred to relativity,” and the condemnation of Darwin by biblical literalists in the United States.[A good number of those who elected Donald Trump!]

Monod declared, “Modern societies had accepted the treasures and the power that science laid in their laps. But they have not accepted—they have scarcely heard—its profounder message: the defining of a new and unique source of truth.” That source is the objective knowledge provided by the scientific method. Rather than abandon their traditional sources of knowledge and values, Monod lamented, “our societies are still trying to live by and to teach systems of values already blasted at the root by science itself.” Monod accused the Western, liberal-capitalist countries of still teaching (and preaching) “anauseating mixture of Judeo-Christian religiosity, ‘Natural’ Human Rights, pedestrian utilitarianism and 19th Century progressism” while “the Marxist countries still throw up a stupefying smokescreen of nonsensical Historicism and Dialectical materialism.”

“They all lie and they know it,” Monod wrote. “No intelligent and cultivated person, in any of these societies can really believe in the validity of these dogma.”

And yet, he acknowledged, “no society can survive without a moral code based on values understood, accepted, respected by the majority of its members.” The outstanding question, then, was: After having banished all traditional sources, from where could or should those values come?

4. HUMANS MUST DECIDE HOW WE SHOULD LIVE AND HOW WE SHOULD ACT

“Man must wake out of his millenary dream…wake to his solitude, his fundamental isolation,” Monod urged. “Now does he at last realize that, like a gypsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien universe. A universe that is deaf to his music, just as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his suffering or his crimes.”

Through the facts of molecular biology and his Cartesian logic, Monod had arrived at the same junction Camus had reached through his philosophical journey three decades earlier, when the latter wrote: “A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly devoid of illusion and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger.”

And Monod therefore probed the same question as Camus—of how to live in the face of this knowledge. Camus’s reply was given by Meursault in The Stranger, who laid his “heart open to the benign indifference of the universe,” and by Sisyphus, to whom “this universe without a master seems…neither sterile nor futile.” Monod argued that, in a scientifically enlightened world, man must realize that there is no external source of meaning or values, “that he alone creates, defines, and shapes them.”

And which values, then, should humans choose?

Monod proposed a “supreme value” that combined Camus’s view of the role of art with his own vision of the role of science—the dual pursuit of creation and knowledge.

Camus had written, “Of all the schools of patience and lucidity, creation is the most effective. It is also the staggering evidence of man’s sole dignity: the dogged revolt against his condition, perseverance in an effort considered sterile.”

Moreover, he claimed that “the absurd joy par excellence is creation” and that “authentic creation is a gift to the future.” Monod embraced Camus’s maxims, and held that they applied equally well to scientific creation and the pursuit of objective knowledge. Monod wrote: “And what other ultimate values to choose then, than those creations, born from Men, yet transcending those creators, as existing in the Kingdom of ideas, richer and wider in content than any single man or all men at any one time can perceive? I mean of course the great, ever unfinished, monument of creation and knowledge, that is of Art and Science?”

Monod continued: “A society that would accept these transcendent values as the ultimate standard of all, more immediate human values, and designed itself deliberately to serve them, would have to defend intellectual, political, and economic freedom; to foster education…as its primary task” in order to progress toward more freedom, creativity, and knowledge.

“A utopia. Perhaps,” Monod admitted in closing his book. “But it is not an incoherent dream. It is an idea that owes its force to its logical coherence alone. It is the conclusion to which the search for authenticity leads. The ancient covenant is in pieces; man knows at last that he is alone in the universe’s unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty. The Kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose.”


The above text is from CHAPTER 35 CHANCE AND NECESSITY: SISYPHUS RETURNS, from  Sean B. Carroll’s book: Brave Genius, Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize  Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition.



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