Chance & Necessity

by Jacques Monod. Knopf, 1971, 199 pp., $6.95

Philosophy, according to Jacques Monod, is fiction. Science is reality. An analysis of life--or the meanings of life--therefore is fundamentally sound only when based on scientific principles.

That, in brief, is Monod's premise. And from it he builds an elegant philosophy, the "natural philosophy of biology," which bares the Secret of Life and which points out the inadequacies in the ideas, religions, and philosophies of western man.

Monod describes how scientific knowledge and the "law of objectivity" in science account for the origins of life, the evolution of the biosphere, the development of man, the development of the conscious and subconscious, and indeed for the creation of ideas, needs, and emotions. And all this--all this--is according to Monod based on purely random chance events of a biochemical nature which have occurred and are occurring within the natural biochemical systems that we are aware of.

This argument is not simply a reduction of various observable phenomena into a petulant claim of "everything's science, after all." Rather, Monod's thesis combines an elaborate survey of biochemical interactions with a thorough and visionary analysis of their implications for the meanings of life.

All philosophies and religions with a basis of anthropocentrism, all histories backed by a belief in determinism--these are worthless, misleading and wrong if Monod's argument is believed. Man's position in nature is the result of pure random genetic accident; he, just like all other living beings, evolved the way he did by pure chance. Man's development and his histories similarly are neither mysterious nor predictable: they are, however, explicable: man's emotions and capacities have been predisposed, built into his chemical and genetic makeup, all by random molecular events.

Jacques Monod, a Nobel Prize winner in Biology, helped formulate some of the original discoveries in molecular biology dealing with DNA replication and protein synthesis. More recent discoveries in the field have clearly illuminated the basic biochemical manner in which genetic materials are replicated and translated inside living tissue. Chance and Necessity reviews this information, describing the molecular structures in a fairly non-technical fashion. Monod hypothesizes how the nucleic acids might have originated as the information carrier molecule, suggests that the genetic code may have come into being purely randomly, and even suggests a mechanism for DNA-protein specificity of translation that may have originated without an RNA intermediate.

Having dispatched with the nucleic acids, showing how they could originate and function by random events. Monod moves to the question of cellular proteins. The processes of life within a cell--metabolism--are carried out primarily by proteins: enzymatic proteins, regulatory proteins, structural proteins. Monod carefully constructs for the reader the essence of enzyme functions and mechanisms as they are presently known and builds from this a model for complex, intricate interactions (as they must be inside the cell) which originated and shaped themselves by chance.

This part of Monod's argument--that the initial biochemical events which formed what we call life can and must have occurred by chance--is well supported. It is not inconceivable to think of millions of "false starts" when previous organisms came close to hitting the right combination for life; nor is it impossible to imagine that species differentiation occurs by genetic alteration and mutation.

Monod also points out that, knowing what we do about nucleic acids, it is easy to explain the transmission of genetic information from one generation to the next. Thus there is a biochemical necessity for a specific function to take place in the organism and in his descendants once this function has been coded (randomly, it seems) in the paternal DNA.

None of this is scientifically new or particularly revelatory. What Monod has done, however, is outline the basic strategy of science, and therefore of creation: Take a few immutable characteristics, add a presumption of thermodynamic movement, inject an element of randomness and you get life.

As befits a book on the Secret of Life, Monod describes his thesis in grandoise terms:

Randomness caught on the wing, preserved, reproduced by the machinery of invariance and thus converted into order, rule, necessity. A totally blind process can by definition lead to anything; it can even lead to vision itself.... 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.

This Monod-style philosophy has special implications for man, which Monod is equally lavish about pointing out. Behavior, he believes, acts to orient the pressures of selection, but is not itself distinct from the invariant chemical composition of the organism. Man's great break with the rest of the natural world came with the development of linguistic capabilities (by chance again) which led-to-the enlargement of the brain (by selective pressures, again) and the ensuing host of conscious performances. Man, then, is bound as much as any other organism to his history as an evolutionary freak: A purely random sequence of events occurred on a molecular level which included the development of communicable thought.

According to Monod, this realization shatters the image of man created and nurtured by Western religions and social movements. In addition, this new view of man is incompatible with the present attitudes toward man of most of these religions and ideas: therefore, the old philosophies are misleading, even dangerous. The worst offender, singled out by Monod, is historical materialism. "Looking back, how well one sees that, from the time of its birth, historical messianism based on dialectical materialism contained the seeds of all the woe later generations were to harvest." The notion of "scientifically" established laws of history is completely incompatible with Monod's new philosophy. Equally inept is the attempt to revise that history. Rather, Monod suggests that that ideology must simply be abandoned.

In addition, in the western world, there is "a disgusting farrago of Judeo-Christian religiosity, scientistic progressism, belief in the 'natural' rights of man, and utilitarian pragmatism." All these notions are unacceptable in the light of Monod's revelations. There can be no reliance on an "animist" concept of a covenant between man and nature.

Scientific insight and knowledge point out the inevitable conclusion that we are accidents, unique but not particularly special. Monod, as a philosopher-biologist, is in the position to point this out. What western man does with this information is anyone's guess. Foresight is another casualty of Monod's theory of random biochemistry.