Jacques Monod:

Home | The whole bibliography | My book on Consciousness

(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )

This book by the French biologist and Nobel Prize winner Jacques Monod became famous for a small part of it, the one that claims humans exist by accident.
But Monod actually begins by showing that the difference between natural and artificial things is illusory, as natural things are also built for a purpose.
Living beings are characterized by three properties: teleonomy (organisms are endowed with a purpose which is inherent in their structure and determines their behavior); autonomous morphogenesis (the structure of a living organism is due to intercations within the organism itself); and reproductive invariance (the source of information expressed in a living organism is another structurally identical object - it is the information corresponding to their own structure).
A species' teleonomic level is the quantity of information that must be transferred to to the next generation to assure transmission of the content of reproductive invariance. Invariance precedes teleonomy, teleonomy is a secondary property stemming from invariance.
All three pose, according to Monod, insourmantable problems. The birth of teleonomic systems is improbably. The development of the metabolic system is a superlative feat. And the origin of the genetic code and its translation mechanism is an even greater riddle.
The core of Monod's philosophical ideas, closely related to French existentialism, are in chapter 5. From his analysis of how DNA and proteins work, Monod concludes that humans are the product of chance, an accident in the universe. The paradox of DNA is that a mono-dimensional structure like the genome could specify the function of a three-dimensional structure like the body: the function of a protein is underspecified in the code, it is the environment that determines a unique interpretation. There is no causal connection between the syntactic (genetic) information and the semantic (phenotypic) information that results from it. Then the growth of our body, the spontaneous and autonomous morphogenesis, rests upon the properties of proteins. Monod concludes that life was born by accident; then Darwin's natural selection made it evolve. Biological information is inherently determined by chance.
In the 19th century, the French physicist Pierre Laplace suggested that, known the position and motion of all the particles in the universe, Physics could predict the evolution of the universe into the future. Laplace formulated the ultimate version of classical determinism: that the behavior of a system depends ont he behavior of its parts, and its parts obey deterministic law of Physics. Once the initial conditions are known, the whole story of a particle if known. Once all the stories of all the particles are known, the story of the whole system is known. Monod shatters this vision of reality and makes it even worse for humans: we are not robots, deterministic products of universal laws, but mere luck, product of chance.In Monod's world, chance plays the role of rationality: chance is the best strategy to play the game of life, it is necessary for life to exist and evolve.
Chance alone is the source of all innovation and creation in the biosphere. The biosphere is a unique occurrence non reducible from first principles. DNA is a registry of chance. The universe has no purpose and no meaning.
Therefore, the study of the origins of life (biogenesis) can never be a science, as life cannot be derived from the laws of Chemistry and Physics. Biogenesis is more like history than like a physical science.
Monod comments: "Man knows at last that he is alone in the universe's unfeeling immensity out of which he emerged only by chance".
In reality, what Monod highlighted is that the structures and processes on the lower level of an organism do not place any restrictions on higher level structures and processes. Reality is stratified into many levels, and the higher levels are free from determinism from the lower levels. What this means is that high-level processes can be influenced as much from "above" as they are from "below". Monod's "chance" could simply mean "environment" (which even leaves open the possibility of the superenvironment of a god influencing all systems).
A professional physicist, Freeman Dyson, on the other hand wrote: "The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known that we were coming."

Permission is granted to download/print out/redistribute this file provided it is unaltered, including credits.