Fierce Jacques Monod

I have finally after many years started re-reading Monod’s Chance and Necessity. The title is from a quote by Democritus that “Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.” (Of late I have been thinking that any animate intelligence only mitigates contingency and exploits chance; that is really about all life does). I surprise myself that I can remember at least these early chapters fairly well and how carefully one must read to follow his chemical examples and to follow his line of reasoning. I do have a deeper appreciation now of his discussion of humanity’s alternatives to the postulate of objectivity as the basis of science, i.e., the universe is objective and can never be known and so can only be understood approximately through empirical efforts. Monod lists two alternatives, animism and vitalism. The latter is that life is separately energized by some projective animating spirit with teleonomic direction; the former is that all of the universe is so energized. Religions vary according to Monod by this distinction: spirits exist in all living things or spirits or one spirit gives motion to everything in the universe. His argument is that the teleonomy of life is inherent in the objective chemical workings governed by chance and necessity and is not a projection from outside of nature by say, a god guiding evolution to some end. Monod emphasizes that his use of ‘animist’ and ‘vitalist’ is idiosyncratic to himself, but his reasoning is clear enough that life operates and progresses by blindly objective chemical processes.

I did not remember a particular statement he makes at the end of chapter 2; I guess I am old enough now to appreciate how fierce a statement it is: “We would like to think ourselves necessary, inevitable, ordained from all eternity. All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even a part of science testify to the unwearying, heroic effort of mankind desperately denying its own contingency”. Here he strikes down any notion that we are the center of the universe or the crown of creation and replaces it with a deeper understanding and appreciation of molecular biology. Remember that he, Lwoff and Jacob won the Nobel Prize for discovering how genes control protein synthesis, and that has led to the remarkable explosion of molecular biology in our time.


Jacques Monod, French scientist and philosopher.

I am particularly struck by his use of the word ‘desperately.’ Monod is a careful writer and not given to hyperbole, so I take that word seriously enough I have to wonder: Why ‘desperately’? I understand that we tend to deny or ignore our mortality except at given times. Buddhist monks might consider it more; other religions think death only a transition to an eternal existence; skeptics and existentialists, like Monod’s good friend Camus (a quote from The Myth of Sisyphus also begins Chance and Necessity) hold that this life is all there is. I guess our desperation comes from the difficulty we experience apprehending our life span as a quick wink on a small planet in an ever growing universe, though I think today we have become more accustomed to that notion and so not as desperate to deny it.

In volume 3 of Mind Susanne Langer thought that we humans attained our current level of consciousness when we came to understand that from birth to death is one unitary act, that each life has these two boundaries beyond which it does not exist as an objective fact. I guess that having realized that and become fully conscious of being alive only for now, we then began to feel some need to go beyond that, i.e., to escape that contingency. And the ancients also believed, still in evidence today, in fate, another inescapable contingency. Skeptics, existentialists and some others understand that we create that need for ourselves out of our own imagination and so we can make up other pertinent needs and beliefs as well.

I will go back now and read some more Monod. I rarely see this book listed in bibliographies. I guess most consider it an historical work, but next to Darwin, and then Crick and Watson, Monod and colleagues led us to a greater understanding of ourselves. I hope I am clear that Chance and Necessity should be required reading for anyone hoping to understand how we came to understand the biological roots of our humanity.

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