Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Good Science Writers: Jacques Monod

Jacques Monod (1910 - 1976) received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1965) for his work on the regulation of the lac operon (with François Jacob). While best known as a biochemist, Monod was also well respected for his many articles on politics and philosophy.

Dawkins didn't select anything from Monod for The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing because his selections were limited to books written initially in English. Monod's most famous work is Le Hasard et la Nécessité first published in France in 1970. It is well known in the English version: Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology (1971). The excepts below are from the translation by Austryn Wainhouse.
Various mutations have been identified as due to
  1. The substitution of a single pair of nucleotides for another pair;
  2. The deletion of addition of one or several pairs of nucleotides, and
  3. Various kinds of "scrambling" of the genetic text by inversion, duplication, or fusion of more or less extended segments.
We call these events accidental; we say that they are random occurrences. And since they constitute the only possible source of modification in the genetic text, itself the sole repository of the organism's hereditary structures, it necessarily follows that chance alone is at the source of every innovation, of all creation in the biosphere. Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution: this central concept of modern biology is no longer one among other possible or even conceivable hypotheses. It is today the sole conceivable hypothesis, the only one that squares with observed and tested fact. And nothing warrants the supposition—or the hope—that on this score our position is ever likely to be revised.

I believe we can assert today that a universal theory, however completely successful in other domains, could never encompass the biosphere, its structure, and its evolution as phenomena deducible from first principles....

In a general manner the theory would anticipate the existence, the properties, the interrelations of certain classes of objects or events, but would obviously not be able to foresee the existence or the distinctive characteristics of any particular object or event.

The thesis that I shall present in this book is that the biosphere does not contain a predictable class of objects or of events but constitutes a particular occurrence, compatible indeed with first principles, but not deducible from those principles, and therefore essentially unpredictable.

Let there be no misunderstanding here. In saying that as a class living beings are not predictable upon the basis of first principles, I by no means intend to suggest that they are not explicable through these principles—that they transcend them in some way, and that other principles, applicable to living systems alone, must be invoked. In my view the biosphere is unpredictable for the very same reason—neither more nor less—that the particular configuration of atoms constituting this pebble I have in my hand is unpredictable. No one will find fault with a universal theory for not affirming and foreseeing the existence of this particular configuration of atoms; it is enough for us that this actual object, unique and real, be compatible with the theory. This object, according to the theory, is under no obligation to exist; but it has the right to.

That is enough for us as concerns the pebble, but not as concerns ourselves. 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.


  1. Thanks, Larry!
    That was enough of a bait to get me hooked. Amazon, here I come (again)!

  2. Interesting; it is in line with Pim van Meurs vocabulary at Panda's Thumb (nature as "chance and necessity" instead of stochastic and deterministic processes with path dependency).

    I have to wonder after reading this book review though. Based on a philosophical analysis Monod concludes that abiogenesis is due to chance. Isn't that to put the cart (philosophy) before the horse (science)?

    It doesn't improve things to me that he uses a teleological analysis ("teleonomy").

    Another problem I have when he seems to consider path dependence (history) and emergence (non-reducibility to first principles) as unique to biology, and as a problem for science. I believe geology, astronomy and climatology beg to differ.

    He seems to have been influential though, and well worth a read - he goes on to my To Read list. But not everywhere:

    Jacques Monod's Chance and Necessity is one of my favourite works on the philosophy of biology. For some reason it doesn't seem to be very well known (at least in the English-speaking world), perhaps because it is not, like the works of Dawkins or Gould, really aimed at a popular audience, and perhaps because of the slightly unfamiliar language and approach that mark it as French in origin. But Monod's work is one of the most original attempts to work out the philosophical implications of the modern synthesis in biology, and deserves more attention.

    The French-UK feud has a history too.

  3. Btw, on the influence of Monod. When I googled reviews I noticed that Monod is mentioned in a breathtakingly inane article by creo-dote Berlinski . (Is there any other kind from that man?)

    It is an article from -02 where Berlinski argues that Big Bang cosmology is behind the revival of "natural theology". Yet he must argue against its conclusions in the end, an inconsistency he doesn't explain.

    It starts:

    GOD'S EXISTENCE is not required by the premises of quantum mechanics or general relativity, the great theories of twentieth-century physics --but then again, it is not contravened by their conclusions either. What else can we do but watch and wait?

    The agnostic straddle. It is hardly a posture calculated to set the blood racing. In the early 1970s Jacques Monod and Steven Weinberg thus declared themselves in favor of atheism, each man eager to communicate his discovery that the universe is without plan or purpose. Any number of philosophers have embraced their platform, often clambering onto it by brute force. Were God to exist, Thomas Nagel remarked, he would not only be surprised, but disappointed.

  4. Hey isn't this funny. I am currently reading Chance and Necessity. It's a bit of a struggle since I didn't pay much attention in philosophy class and I'm still getting used to the language of philosophy. However, I am impressed with Monod's destruction of vitalism and of dialectical materialism. Good riddance to bad trash!

  5. Didin't Monod make those experiments inverting patches of cilia and obtaining weird-swimming in protozoa?