Jacques Monod on Meaning

Jacques Monod nobel.jpg

Jacques Monod (1910 – 1976) was a French biologist who was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1965 for his discoveries in molecular biology. His classic book Chance and Necessity: Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology is an antipode to Teilhard’s The Phenomena of Man, as well as other versions of progressivism.

According to Monod, our early ancestors did not feel themselves strangers in the world amongst plants that grew and died, and animals that ate, fought, protected their young, and died. Instead, they saw things like themselves whose purpose was to survive and produce progeny. They also saw rivers, mountains, oceans, lighting, rain, and stars in the sky, assuming no doubt that these objects had purposes too. If humans have purposes, nature must too—and with that single thought animism was born, nature and humans were connected.

However, modern science largely severed this connection, whereas Teilhard tried to revive it, placing him squarely in the company of thinkers trying to restore the connection between human and nature’s purposes. Hegel’s grand system, Spencer’s evolutionism, and Marx and Engels’ dialectical materialism all insert meaning and purpose into purposeless evolution. The cost though is abandoning objectivity, for chance is the source of innovation in biology. In Monod’s famous words:

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 hypothesis. It is today the sole 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 likely ever to be revised.[i]

For Monod chance destroys both teleology and anthropocentrism. Errors in the replication of the genetic messages—genetic mutations—are essentially random. The process is explicitly non-teleological—they are not goal-seeking processes initiated and controlled by rational entities. (Still, Monod does invoke the softer term teleonomy—goal-oriented structures and functions that derive from evolutionary history without guiding foresight.) As for anthropocentrism, we were not destined to be, we are accidents. “The universe was not pregnant with life nor the biosphere with man. Our number came up in the Monte Carlo game. Is it any wonder if, like the person who has just made a million at the casino, we feel strange and a little unreal?”[ii]We are neither the goal nor the center of creation.

So we seem lost, but we didn’t always feel this way. For eons of time, humans survived in groups with the cohesive social structures necessary for survival, leading to the acceptance of tribal laws and the mythological explanations that gave them sovereignty. From such people,

 …we have probably inherited our need for an explanation, the profound disquiet which goads us to search out the meaning of existence. That same disquiet has created all the myths, all the religions, all the philosophies, and science itself. That this imperious need develops spontaneously, that it is inborn, inscribed somewhere in the genetic code, strikes me as beyond doubt.[iii]

Human social institutions have both a cultural and biological basis, with religious phenomena invariably at the base of social structures to assuage human anxiety with narratives, stories, and histories of past events. Given our innate need for explanation, the absence of one begets existential angst, alleviated only by assigning humans a proper place in a soothing story of a meaningful cosmos. But just a few hundred years ago science offered a new model of objective knowledge as the sole source of truth.

It wrote an end to the ancient covenant between man and nature, leaving nothing in place of the precious bond but an anxious quest in a frozen universe of solitude. With nothing to recommend it but a certain puritan arrogance, how could such an idea win acceptance? It did not; it still has not. It has however commanded recognition; but that is because, solely because, of its prodigious power of performance.[iv]

Science undermines the ancient stories as well as the values that were derived from them, leaving us with an ethic of knowledge. Unlike animistic ethics, which claim knowledge of innate, natural, or religious law, an ethics of knowledge is self-imposed. An ethic of knowledge created the modern world—through its technological applications—and it is the only thing that can save the world. Our knowledge has banished cosmic meaning, yet it might also be our redemption. He concludes: “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.”[v]

Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology

[i] Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology (New York: Vintage, 1972), 112.
[ii] Monod, Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology, 145.
[iii] Monod, Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology, 167.
[iv] Monod, Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology, 169.
[v] Monod, Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology, 180.

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One thought on “Jacques Monod on Meaning

  1. The first paragraph on Monod reveals a pragmatic outlook. However, pragmatism could not prosper, under the expanding gaze of science, itself locked in mortal combat with religion and metaphysics. That Monod was twentieth century seems almost counterintuitive—his notion, more in the realm of, what, renaissance? Enlightenment?
    Curious. The infancy of complexity goes way back. Hmmmm…

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