"Chance and Necessity" Revisited

By Oren HarmanJuly 24, 2014

"Chance and Necessity" Revisited

Brave Genius by Sean B. Carroll

IN THE FALL of 1970, Éditions du Seuil published Le hasard et la nécessité, a monograph by the French molecular biologist Jacques Monod,. Chance and Necessity was a slim book laden with technical details of oligomeric proteins, teleonomic structures, and microscopic perturbations. Despite the technical jargon, the book sold over 200,000 copies in its first year and became a best seller in Germany and Japan. It was bested in France only by Erich Segal’s Love Story. What explains its popularity? 

Monod was an eminent scientist, to be sure: he’d received the 1965 Nobel Prize with André Lwoff and François Jacob for “discoveries concerning genetic control of enzyme and virus synthesis.” But the resonance of Chance and Necessity is best explained by two epigraphs that adorned its opening page, stoic reminders that this was an affair well beyond the confines of mere science. The first is a dramatic statement by the Greek philosopher Democritus: “Everything existing in the Universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.” The second epigram, more than anything, best explains the book’s salience: a lengthy quotation from Albert Camus’s essay The Myth of Sisyphus. “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart”; it ends, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Sean B. Carroll, the American developmental molecular geneticist, reveals the deep friendship between Camus and Monod in Brave Genius. Their relationship, Carroll finds, not only illuminates the work of both men, but also unlocks the political and philosophical contingencies of a key moment in 20th-century thought. Camus, the victim of a tragic car accident a decade before the publication of Chance and Necessity, had himself been a Nobel laureate and France’s most celebrated moral voice. The friendship between the two men was forged in the Cold War years through a shared antipathy toward Soviet totalitarianism and a shared nostalgia for the glory days of the Résistance. It was in that first crucible — Camus writing stirring editorials for the national Résistance newspaper Combat under the pseudonym “Bauchard” and Monod, as commander “Malivert” in the Forces Français de l’Intérior, directing anti-Nazi guerrilla activity — that two ordinary lives met the extraordinary circumstances that would push them to greatness. Subsequently, having uncovered with his colleagues the “second secret of life,” Monod became a “Camus in a lab coat” of sorts: his philosophy of biology, Carroll argues, is best understood as the scientific counterpart to his literary friend’s existentialism. 

But before examining this claim, and considering how philosophy (as well as developments in our current understanding of evolution) speaks to that coupling, we return to the lazy days before the 1940 New Year in Paris, when war seemed to most far away.


They called it “la guerre d’attente” — the war of waiting. Having shattered the promises made in Munich just six months earlier, Hitler took over Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and, in September, rolled over Poland in just eight days. But following this burst of aggression, and the Allied declaration of war, the Nazis then quieted. Months passed without further action. In England, baiting politicos called it the “Bore War,” then the “Phoney War.” A French journalist Henri Lémery from Paris-Soir offered “la drôle de guerre” — the funny war. According to Carroll:

The running joke around the capital in April was prompted by the report in a newspaper of a speech in which Goebbels purportedly claimed that Hitler would be in Pairs by June 15. At the Petit Casino, a comedian asked the orchestra leader, ‘Have you been to the École Berlitz?’ The bandleader asked, ‘Why?’ ‘To learn German, so you can talk to Adolf when he gets here.’ The crowd howled with laughter.

Carroll vividly recounts Monod’s life at this time as 30-year-old aspirant, a sailor and cellist and conductor, of dashing good looks and panache. Four years earlier, he had rejected an invitation to sail to Greenland on the Pourquoi-Pas? on a natural history expedition. “He elected instead to accompany one of his mentors, Boris Ephrussi, for a year at the California Institute of Technology [...] in the laboratory of Thomas Hunt Morgan.” There, in California, Monod did more conducting and hobnobbing than science, much to his good fortune it turned out: the Pourquoi-Pas? sank off the coast of Iceland, leaving only a one survivor.

Back in Paris in 1938, Monod fell in love with Odette Bruhl, an orientalist at the Musée Guimet, and in August 1939, four weeks before the declaration of war, the couple gave birth to baby twin boys. Monod remained charming and flamboyant, a bright talent lacking no confidence. He had begun working on a doctorate at the Sorbonne on bacterial growth, but had little direction and his work was stammering. = Meanwhile, as the waves of conscription continued, he joined the 28th Engineering Regiment, stationed in Versailles, close enough to see Odette and the twins on a regular basis.

Earlier that March the 26-year-old Albert Camus had moved from his native Algeria to Paris in search of a job. His father had been a poor agricultural worker, and was killed in the battle of the Marne. Raised by his mother, “a deaf, largely mute, and illiterate cleaning woman [of Spanish descent] whom Camus adored,” he had been spared military duty by a bout of tuberculosis at 17. Wishing to express his solidarity, twice he tried to enlist, but was rejected. Now, hesitantly, unsure of himself, the handsome young journalist was looking to take his first steps in the world.

He was determined to write. Determined as well to reject the nihilism he saw as a plague all around him. The notion that the Universe cared nothing for human life had led many other thinkers to despair. Camus’s reaction was more akin to Friedrich Nietzsche: contrarily defiant. He rejected resignation in favor of protest. His earliest writings, including a novel (The Stranger), a play (Caligula) and an essay (The Myth of Sisyphus) all embrace this theme, which he nominated “the absurd.” He exhorted us to rebel against the certainty of death in an uncaring Universe by living life to the fullest: the proverbial Zarathustra on the mountain. The end might be bleak, and the work no more rewarding than Sisyphus, but “the struggle towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” His was a willed optimism, and it would resonate. “In the depths of winter,” Camus would later write, “I discovered that there lay within me an invincible summer.”

History has recorded what came next. Invading Belgium from the east in May, Germany sickle-cut the French forces moving north to repel the invasion, forcing a humiliating retreat at Dunkirk. Then, against all presumptions, its army plowed through the forested Ardennes, crossing the Meuse River with frightening speed. Having been exhorted by their Great War hero, General Philippe Pétain, to invest heavily in fortifying the Maginot Line after 1918, France found itself hoodwinked and breached. Spilling into Sedan, the German forces had utterly cut off the French army. Surrender was inevitable. The pro-Nazi Vichy government was soon assembled under the helm of the shady Pierre Laval, a former prime minister and millionaire publisher, and the 84-year-old Pétain. The rogue general de Gaulle, convicted of treason in absentia, took to the BBC airwaves calling his countrymen to unite: “Soldiers of France, wherever you may be, arise!” but to no avail. In just six weeks, France had suffered the most colossal military disaster in its history. Carroll, an important biologist with true storytelling talents, recounts the tale beautifully.

But it is at this point that his story really begins to shine. For as de Gaulle was promising over the airwaves, “there will be an hour of hope,” the lives of Carroll’s two protagonists became dramatically engaged in historic events. Under the new German census, Monod was made to register with the authorities as the spouse of a Jewish person: Odette was an atheist, but the granddaughter of Zadoc Kahn, former chief rabbi of France. Monod joined an underground effort to form a resistance group. He soon learned that this was risky business: the friend who had recruited him was arrested, shot, and taken prisoner. Soon after, the Gestapo burst into Monod’s laboratory at the Sorbonne. As luck would have it, the policemen didn’t take to the microbes and viruses and laboratory smells, and, ignorantly fearing radioactivity or some such, didn’t search the premises quite as well as they could have.

Meanwhile, let go by his paper, Camus and his new wife headed for Oran, Algeria. Seeing people die because they judge life not worth living, and others paradoxically getting killed for the very ideals that give them reason to live, he determined that “the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions.” In the midst of the mayhem, he penned the opening lines of The Myth of Sisyphus

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer. 

“The tubercular Algerian without a franc to his name and living under a regime that valued neither freedom nor human life,” Carroll writes, held on to hope at all costs. His essay, Camus promised, was to be “a manual of happiness.”

With the fighting raging in North Africa, Camus returned to France without his wife, making separation a major theme in the allegory of German occupation he was now writing: The Plague. Meanwhile, 600,000 French workers were being shuttled with Vichy complicity to Germany as de facto factory slaves. Monod, meanwhile, escalated his involvement in resistance, joining the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans (FTP). He was far from a party member, but this Communist militant organization, he thought, was fighting the Germans as proud Frenchmen should. A double life materialized, Carroll tell us: at the Sorbonne he was Monod, the scientist, working on his experiments; as “Marchal,” he recruited trainees to lead action units across borders at his own peril. 

Camus, too, now split identities. An editor at Gallimard gaining prominence, he became a member of a literary and artistic crowd that included Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Picasso. But he was determined to join the anti-German effort. As,“Bauchard,” he slipped into a building off rue de Lisbonne one night to implore the staff of the Résistance newspaper Combat that he “had already done a little journalism” and would be happy to help in any way.

Camus’s name in the literary circles that frequented the cafés of Saint-German-des-Prés was growing, but as Carroll nicely conveys, no one at Combat had an inkling that this same man was among them editing and arranging pages. The hiring of “Bauchard” proved prescient: A first editorial was penned in March 1944, carrying a tone of moral clarity that would soon become recognizable. 

Total war has been unleashed, and it calls for total resistance. You must resist because it does concern you, and there is only one France, not two. […] That is what we expect from you.

As Carroll recounts, it wasn’t until the Lysenko affair that the two men actually met. By now Bauchard had been revealed as the author of The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, and Caligula. Camus had become a major public intellectual. “This war was fought to the end so that man could hold on to the right to be what he wants to be and to say what he wants to say,” he had written on May 8th, the day of German surrender. “Our generation understood this. We will never again cede this ground.” 

Monod had quit the Communist Party after the war but was not expecting that he’d soon be fighting it. Then came the announcement, care of the French Communist newspaper Les Lettres Françaises, of “A Great Scientific Event” in Russia. Trofim Lysenko, the enraptured editorial reported, had discovered new and useful laws of heredity in which he was purported to have worked out a method for allowing winter wheat to be sown in spring. It didn’t take long for Monod to see through the farce, a frontal and brutal attack on genetics and those who studied it, officially sanctioned by Stalin. The timing of the announcement was key to seeing through the farce: it had arrived just as Stalin was initiating his first five-year-plan, in the midst of massive forced collectivization, and during an acute shortage of grain in the country. Monod called it as he saw it in a stern piece in Combat: the Soviet turn to Lysenko, he wrote, was “senseless, monstrous, unbelievable.”

Monod was introduced to Camus at a meeting of Groupes de Liaison Internationale, an organization Camus co-founded to help bring together different nationals in the spirit of “neither victims nor executioners.” The two Résistance veterans hit it off immediately. Camus’s anti-Stalinism would begin to estrange him from friends on the left, including Sartre, but would cement his friendship with the bacterial man from the Pasteur.

Monod took Camus into his confidence about the Lysenko report. Camus could now see it more clearly as part of Soviet totalitarianism and the ruthless assault on freedom captured so bleakly in Darkness at Noon. Guided in part of the experience, he sat down to write The Rebel. “To make Marxism scientific and to preserve this fiction,” he explained, 

it has been a necessary first step to render science Marxist through terror. The progress of science, since Marx, has roughly consisted in replacing determinism and the rather crude mechanism of its period by a doctrine of provisional probabilities.

For Marxism to remain infallible, it has therefore been necessary to deny all biological discoveries made since Darwin. As it happens that all discoveries since the unexpected mutations established by De Vries have consisted in introducing, contrary to the doctrines of determinism, the idea of chance into biology. 

When the essay was completed, Camus sent his friend L’Homme révolté with an intimate dedication: “To Jacques Monod, this answer to a few of our questions,” with the word “our” underlined. 

Camus and Monod had been part of a generation that witnessed the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and Résistance, the birth of the Cold War, and the Battle of Algiers. One had turned to literature, the other to biology, but each in his way had searched for meaning in life. Their legacies, like the roads they traveled, would remain entwined.


This then is the crux of Brave Genius: that Chance and Necessity was the biological version of Camus’s existentialism. Having bravely fought the Germans and Lysenko, Monod found himself deeply involved in rescuing scientists from Soviet-invaded Hungary, and later standing shoulder to shoulder with students in the 1968 riots back home. In each of these engagements, the notion that man alone brings meaning to his existence played paramount. For biology taught that we humans are mere accidents of circumstance — the product, he wrote, of “an incalculable number of fortuitous events.” This was the deep meaning he described in Chance and Necessity: just like a pebble, a person “is under no obligation to exist; but it has the right to.” 

Monod exhorted his readers to admit their total solitude and fundamental isolation. Man must realize, he wrote, “that, like a gypsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien world; a world that is deaf to his music and as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his suffering and his crime.”

And yet despite the abject fact that the universe neither planned nor cares about us, we continue to think of ourselves as “inevitable, ordained from all eternity”; this is the absurd. Must the necessary laying to rest of all systems of thought that imbue human life with a preordained purpose lead to despair? Were the sole alternatives really either nihilism or Platonism or Hegel or Marx or God? This had been Camus’s question, and now, care of evolution, it became Monod’s.

Here Monod’s existentialism distinguishes him from several prominent contemporary thinkers. Had he been able to read, for example, the American philosopher Thomas Nagel’s most recent book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialistic Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly Wrong, he would no doubt have been piqued: yes, the emergence of life, consciousness, and reason are difficult problems, but they are in principle solvable with the scientific tools we possess. Yes, when life emerged, mere chemical processes and mechanisms became organized into systems to which a goal can be ascribed: function was born. But function is neither a new high-level chemical process nor trait; rather, it is something that only parts or processes in goal-directed systems can have. Functional information defines the way of being of a living organism, and is irreducible to simple chemistry. Monod was a reductionist but he was hardheaded enough to understand that teleology is naturally intrinsic to life. He believed in emergence. Developments in the study of the origin of life and of consciousness would have pleased him. Contra Nagel, he would see no need to posit new teleological laws of nature. Like Sisyphus, Monod believed, life already pushes its rock uphill.


 Oren Harman is the author of The Price of Altruism, which won the 2010 LA Times Prize. 

LARB Contributor

Oren Harman is the Chair of the Graduate Program in Science, Technology and Society at Bar Ilan University. He was trained in history and biology at the Hebrew University, Oxford, and Harvard, and is a historian of biology and a writer. His books include The Man Who Invented the Chromosome (Harvard, 2004), Rebels, Mavericks and Heretics in Biology [with Michael Dietrich] (Yale, 2008), Outsider Scientists [with Michael Dietrich] (Chicago, 2013), and The Price of Altruism (W.W. Norton, 2010) (Bodley Head/Random House, 2010), which won the 2010 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for the Best Book of the Year in Science and Technology, and was an American Library Association and New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He is a contributing editor at Haaretz Magazine, and the co-creator of the Israeli Oscar-nominated documentary series "Did Herzl Really Say That?". His work has been featured in The New York TimesThe London Times, NatureScienceThe EconomistForbes, The New Republic, New ScientistScientific AmericanTimes Higher EducationDiscoverThe Huffington Post, RADIOLAB and many others. He grew up in Jerusalem and now lives in Tel Aviv.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!