Re-reading Monod: WOW! edition

Along about Chapter 8 in Chance and Necessity Monod quotes Francois Mauriac’s comment on his (Monod) natural philosophy: “The professor’s ideas are more incredible than any we poor Christians believe”. Mauriac had won the Nobel for literature in the early 50s and was a staunch defender of the Catholic faith. To say Monod’s ideas were more incredible, i.e., unbelievable, than god coming to earth through a virgin birth, being killed for his upsetting views and then returning to life before ascending to the skies is pretty incredible in itself. What had Professor Jacques Monod been saying? I will try and give you the gist and flavor here now but again I urge you to read the book for yourself.

Monod gives a remarkably complete and beautifully articulated view of humans as biological and yes, that means without a supernatural immanence exerting its power through the material realm. After explicating through some details of protein synthesis the scientific basis of molecular biology and explaining how that provides fully for the evolution of life forms, he discusses the implications this has for natural philosophy. He understands that the challenge is to understand life without immanence, i.e., without the animating force of a god or gods. This begins with the basic understanding that nature is objective and that we can know it only through empirical effort; there is no revelation of absolutes and even through science our knowledge is conditional.

His book’s title captures a basic principle. Evolution proceeds through chance mutations to what is a necessarily conservative invariant process of reproduction that are then tested first by their coherence in the overall genetic structure and then by any effects on adaptability and reproductive success of the group. Having passed those tests chance happenings become necessary because they are now part of the invariant machinery. What propels evolution forward is not immanent design but a “vast reservoir of fortuitous variability.” Life is not predictable because of this random variability but proceeds to greater complexity because of this altogether remarkable ‘reservoir’ of chance events adding to the necessity of organismic structures and then the furthering of exploiting environmental opportunities. (He explains this so very well—read it).


Jacques Monod, Resistance hero and great scientist and philosopher.

This reservoir of variability sustaining evolution is one of the features Mauriac found incredible. I find it quite understandable though; consider my idea of evolutionary watersheds first for Solving World Problems and then for Conspecific Relations (see posts 7/25/15, 12/17/16 & soon to come) where genes spring up and flow down to the great confluences of the River Sentience and the River Empathy that then merge for the River Consciousness, which when it meets the ocean of Experience forms the somatic delta and there solving world problems becomes a social affair and conspecific relations becomes a world problem to solve. That is us. Whew!

The next thing Mauriac finds incredible (I think) is Monod’s statement that all that life is comes from experience, not a tabula rasa ala Aristotle and John Locke, but from the entire history of life, i.e., “the experiences accumulated by the entire ancestry of the species.” All that we are arises in a fortuitous bubbling of genes coming together over 4 billion years, or to borrow a phrase from James Joyce, “accidental music providentially arranged” by unknown happenstance beginning long, long ago. One facet of this evolutionary experience is our inborn fear of solitude and our need for a “need for a complete binding explanation,” of our existence, i.e., this the facet of spirit and religion.

And so at the end of chapter 8 Monod writes, “What doubt can there be of the presence of the spirit within us? To give up the illusion that sees in it an immaterial ‘substance’ [god] is not to deny the existence of the soul, but on the contrary to begin to recognize the complexity, the richness, the unfathomable profundity of the genetic and cultural heritage and of the personal experience, conscious or otherwise, which together constitute this being of ours: the unique and irrefutable witness to itself.” To appreciate the soul, then, travel back upriver to the springs of our genetic watersheds. Now that is pretty incredible, and sorry to say, Monsieur Mauriac, quite scientific.

Rumor has it that when asked if he believed in god, Einstein replied, “I do if it is Spinoza’s god.”  I think Baruch Spinoza would be right there with Jacques Monod and his natural philosophy and would be delighted that somebody could write these notions openly without fear of being burned at the stake by the religious authorities. Travel on. I suggest heading upriver but it is all of a piece, river journey or a beachhead on the ocean of experience. Plash and eddy by the banks, wave and glisten on the shore.

Oh, humans!

That is my daughter’s new expletive, “Oh, humans!” and I must say it is more apt now than ever. We humans have a marvelous capacity for opinions, a huge talent really for thinking up thoughts about things. I go to the gym and see on the TVs shows wherein people, more males in suits than females dressed for business, are giving their opinions about sports and the body politic; I put on my ipod and listen to music, which I think comes from a more important talent. I read editorials many days as much as for the quality of their prose and to glean an occasional fact or two incipient to the writer’s thinking as for finding out their opinion (humor is the draw, and passion too, of course passionate humor is best). As a clinical psychologist I was trained “to stay close to the data” in my interpretations and indeed I strove to do that; it was a true necessity when offering one’s opinion in court. Harder to do than what one might imagine.

So our talent for facts is real but not huge.   Our capacity for fact-finding is very important and relies on special efforts to avoid false opinions, you know, like the scientific method. Even there, however, facts are difficult to find. Indeed, a scientific fact is presumed to be true only so far as it goes, i.e., the need for replication and determining the probability of falsification always frames a scientific fact as an educated statement open to correction. At the University of Virginia a project to replicate many of the robust findings of psychology has found their task to be fraught with difficulty. In their search for the Higgs boson, which is important because it indicates the presence of the Higgs field that we will probably never wander except in our mathematical imagination, physicists worked until they found some facts, i.e., data, with a probability of falsification of less than 1 in 3.5 million, what is referred to as 5-sigma.

Opinion is easier than fact-finding, like swimming is easier than building a boat. Of course, swimming feels more personally muscular but a boat will take us farther, and that is an important pragmatic and ontological difference. With more education of a sort that encourages critical thinking, fact-finding, and regard for the ancient attitude of skepticism, perhaps more will take opinions as just that, their own thoughts that may comport with any factual reality on so far. We have a tradition, a cultural bias better resisted, that our consciously rational thinking is a supreme achievement of humans, that evolution has granted us this so we can dominate the rest of nature, and that if only everyone else were rational, civilization would imperiously spread its contentment everywhere. It has taken until recent times for psychologists to re-discover that the basic human thought pattern is to have an opinion, say some moral or political stance, and then to rationalize it by marshaling facts to support our intuitive notions. I say re-discover because, again, some of the wiser ancients observed this long ago; skeptics have reproduced down through the ages though not in nearly enough numbers. Skeptics are important; that they do not multiply readily is not genomically driven but due to our cultural belief system biased for binding us to power and governance, even sometimes for good reason.

I have an affection for data based decision making, yet I am increasingly brought up short by the human capacity for opinion and often called back to cautious consciousness by the virulence of that opinion. Consider the explosion of asocial fantasy, pornographic, political or conspiratorial, on the internet. Consider the efforts now needed to preserve scientific data, gleaned through assiduous effort to understand our world, because that data is at risk from opinion mongers. Yes, the Catholic church 400 years ago put Galileo under house arrest and threat of death if he continued to espouse some facts. Yes, Hitler and Stalin perverted science to justify the final solution and Lysenkoism. Yes, some of America’s leaders reason their way to deny the benefits of our rich nation to a substantial minority based upon race, religion or what have you. And yes, small groups in our country have usurped governmental functions to do all of the above again, because opinions serve power more than understanding, and power serves the wealthy more often than not.

Here is why I find the biological power of art so important, because art is not opinion about things nor is it concerned with facts. Art conveys one’s own particular experience through symbolic forms reliant on empathy for a successful communal experience. In making no claims to factual truth or powerful opinion, true art, great art, achieves something deeper for humanity, at the least a consideration of assumed values and at the most a transcendence that allows us to view the human landscape with a sublime perspective. That enables us to understand the importance of basic values such as the Golden Rule, the necessity of prosocial governance, the importance of compassion, the tenuousness of reality, life’s daunting challenges (that we all share) to mitigate necessity and exploit chance, and the sense of Gaia as one, albeit complex, thing, i.e., an organism itself. Art, like a family or group gathered around a hearth to share a meal of remembrance and celebration, helps us remember what civilization is and isn’t and how delicate its hold on us here on earth is.

This post begins a periodic expansion on this blog of looking at current cultural issues from the perspective of our biological roots, because I feel the need to address the factual basis of this new expletive, “Oh, humans!” and that is my opinion.

Not your father’s fitness

I have long appreciated that our intellectual life is governed by feelings of fitness. Take for example grammar and handedness. Some linguistic constructions feel fit, i.e., they are grammatical, like this very sentence is. Others feel awkward, e.g., “Bluebirds the lands the house on nest build to”. No logic required here, just the grammatical intuition of how things are supposed to fit together. Similarly, fold your arms right over left and then left over right and then do the same with your hands. One way will feel more natural, i.e., fit, and the other more awkward. Being right handed means that turning the screwdriver with the right hand feels right and more skillful and turning it with your left is not. Linguistic grammar is analogous to the fit coordinations of handedness. Back in my days as a speech-language pathologist I used this analogy to explain to parents the development of their young child’s grammar. A toddler says ‘tow’ for ‘cow’ and uses abbreviated syntax because that is what feels right to them. Correcting their child’s performance often resulted in the child saying something that felt awkward and wrong to them. As their brains mature and their grammatical feelings change, their speech comes to accord with adult grammar in a most marvelous manner.

So now re-reading Monod’s Chance and Necessity I realize again how important ‘fit’ is to life. In laying out the molecular basis of the genetic control of protein synthesis, Monod discusses how proteins work by folding into particular specific shapes so that they fit into other molecules thereby catalyzing and regulating the molecular biology of cellular function. With the presence of one molecule the protein folds one way and carries out one function and with the presence of another molecule the protein folds another way and carries out a different function, both because the two shapes fit exclusively into different substrates and so engender different chemical processes. He, Wolff and Jacob won the Nobel for discovering this phenomena by studying how yeasts metabolize one sugar at a time and when the supply of that sugar is exhausted, the genetic mechanism directs the shift to metabolize another sugar if present. This shift occurs within minutes of one sugar’s depletion and another’s presence is detected as the synthesis of the new necessary protein increases a thousandfold in a matter of molecular moments. Amazing, and then he goes on to explain how similar processes carry forth the ontogenesis of a new life, even more amazing.

Fitness is not just a concept of evolutionary viability anymore. It would seem to be functional principle in life’s operations, from the replication and transcription of DNA and proteins described above as based on stereotaxic fit between molecules to the grammatical compositions we use for communication (and so much more). I am fascinated by aesthetic fitness, by how the elements of an artistic work fit together coherently to form an integrated whole that shines somehow with felt life. Great art, as I think Aquinas noted so long ago, works with unity, integrity and luminosity. Not so great art misses on one or more of these three dimensions. Bad art simply appeals to some shallow stereotypical emotional response. And somehow, like linguistic structures, aesthetic works result from a composite of neural processes working together in a fit manner.

Now consider the connectome. Monod describes DNA and its accompanying proteins as crystalline structures, not regular repetitive lattices like salt or quartz but aperiodic ones whose components are self organizing like salt’s but whose irregular shapes then fit with other molecules out there initiating chains of process and thereby creating function (based upon the decision points or choices like a binary algorithm). So look at this picture of the connectome in this light and see fluid crystalline molecules lighting up crystalline modules of different functions that must fit together to be operational, and in order to be optimal, must fit according to some linguistic or aesthetic grammar.



Both composing and comprehending linguistic and aesthetic productions involves different modules lighting up and their functional ‘shapes’ fitting together according to their grammatical rules. A stroke can hinder or prevent the parts fitting together so the patient is aphasic or has amusia. Cultural expectations shape what is considered fit, so that some music seems to violate tonal rules and causes consternation, as when Stravinsk’s Rites of Spring premiered to a riotous reception or like when I hear certain music or see certain paintings and wonder why bother. Clearly the notion of ‘fitness’ is important and pervasive.

Finally consider the old myth that creative, e.g., artistic, people use their right hemispheres more. This is one of those statements that sounds good enough for some to believe but that everyone should know is too simple to be true. A brief note from the Duke Chronicle reports some brain research showing that people who rank high on creativity (and how did they assess that? Don’t know.) use both sides of their brain, especially some frontal areas, more than people who rank the lowest on creativity: This suggests that creativity stems in part from the communication between hemispheres, or following the idea here, that the functional crystals on one side communicate and operate in fit manner through the anterior commissure and corpus callosum with the functional crystals on the other side. Oh, could I go on from here, but enough for now; just look at the connectome and imagine the forms lit up and flashing between the two hemispheres (and don’t neglect subcortical structures). Time to travel on.