Reading Jacques Monod

Jacques Monod’s 1971 book Chance and Necessity was a landmark in the popular science literature for its unequivocal statement that the origin of life is purely a product of Chance.

…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 likely ever to be revised.
(Chance and Necessity, p. 112)

Monod correctly denies any teleological forces are needed to create life from inanimate matter, but he finds that teleonomic purposeful behavior is one of the fundamental characteristics of life, along with what he calls autonomous morphogenesis (life is “self-constructing”) and reproductive invariance (life is “self-replicating”).

Information philosophy agrees that with the emergence of life, information structures with purposes entered the universe.

But there must have been information-creating, ergodic processes at work before terrestrial life appeared. They created the informational substrate for life, in particular, the sun and the planetary environment hospitable to the origin of life on earth.

Monod says that some biologists have been unhappy with his idea of teleonomy, that living beings are endowed with a purpose or a project, but he says this is essential to the definition of living beings. His next criterion isautonomous morphogenesis. He says,

…a living being’s structure results from a … process … that owes almost nothing to the action of outside forces, but everything, from its overall shape down to its tiniest detail, to “morphogenetic” interactions within the object itself.

We now know this is only “adequate determinism

It is thus a structure giving proof of an autonomous determinism: precise, rigorous, implying a virtually total “freedom” with respect to outside agents or conditions — which are capable, to be sure, of impeding this development, but not of governing or guiding it, not of prescribing its organizational scheme to the living object. Through the autonomous and spontaneous character of the morphogenetic processes that build the macroscopic structure of living beings, the latter are absolutely distinct from artifacts, as they are, furthermore, from the majority of natural objects whose macroscopic morphology largely results from the influence of external agents.

Crystals are one of the few purely physical “ergodic” processes, reducing the entropy locally

To this there is a single exception: that, once again, of crystals, whose characteristic geometry reflects microscopic interactions occurring within the object itself. Hence, utilizing this criterion alone, crystals would have to be classified together with living beings, while artifacts and natural objects, alike fashioned by outside agents, would comprise another class.
(Chance and Necessity, p.10)

The quantum cooperative atomic phenomena that form crystals are of course the same as form the macromolecules of life, DNA, RNA, etc.

Monod thinks there is an “internal, autonomous determinism” that “guarantees the formation of the extremely complex structures of living beings.” The “guarantee” can not be perfect as a result of statistical physics. Monod is fully aware of quantum indeterminacy. After discussing chance in terms of probability and games of chance, he says,

on the microscopic level there exists a further source of still more radical uncertainty, embedded in the quantum structure of matter. A mutation is in itself a microscopic event, a quantum event, to which the principle of uncertainty consequently applies. An event which is hence and by its very nature essentially unpredictable.

Monod identifies the key evolutionary process as the transmission ofinformation from one living information structure to the next. Note that this is accomplished in the constant presence of thermal and quantal noise


Such structures represent a considerable quantity of information whose source has still to be identified: for all expressed — and hence received — information presupposes a source. He says “the source of the information expressed in the structure of a living being is always another, structurally identical object.”

[Living beings have the] ability to produce and to transmit ne varietur the information corresponding to their own structure. A very rich body of information, since it describes an organizational scheme which, along with being exceedingly complex, is preserved intact from one generation to the next. The term we shall use to designate this property is invariant reproduction, or simply invariance.With their invariant reproduction we find living beings and crystalline structures once again sharing a property that renders them unlike all other known objects in the universe. Certain chemicals in supersaturated solution do not crystallize unless the solution has been inoculated with crystal seeds. We know as well that in cases of a chemical capable of crystallizing into two different systems, the structure of the crystals appearing in the solution will be determined by that of the seed employed.
(Chance and Necessity, p.12)

Monod claims that the main distinction between crystals and living things is the quantity of information transmitted between the generations. He thus neglects the creativity inherent in the acquisition and transmission ofknowledge by living things.

Crystalline structures, however, represent a quantity of information by several orders of magnitude inferior to that transmitted from one generation to another in the simplest living beings we are acquainted with. By this criterion — purely quantitative, be it noted — living beings may be distinguished from all other objects, crystals included.

In his major contribution toward an informational approach to biology, Monod goes on to make a quantitative estimate of what he calls the “teleonomic level” of a species, arranging them in a hierarchy based purely on information content. This is an important beginning for information-based biological science.

…since a structure’s degree of order can be defined in units of information, we shall say that the “invariance content” of a given species is equal to the amount of information which, transmitted from one generation to the next, assures the preservation of the specific structural standard. As we shall see later on, with the help of a few assumptions it will be possible to arrive at an estimate of this amount.That in turn will enable us to bring into better focus the notion most immediately and plainly inspired by the examination of the structures and performances of living beings, that of teleonomy. Analysis nevertheless reveals it to be a profoundly ambiguous concept, since it implies the subjective idea of “project.” [Consider] the example of the camera: if we agree that this object’s existence and structure realize the “project” of capturing images, we must also agree, obviously enough, that a similar project is accomplished with the emergence of the eye of a vertebrate.

But it is only as a part of a more comprehensive project that each individual project, whatever it may be, has any meaning. All the functional adaptations in living beings, like all the artifacts they produce, fulfill particular projects which may be seen as so many aspects or fragments of a unique primary project, which is the preservation and multiplication of the species.

To be more precise, we shall arbitrarily choose to define the essential teleonomic project as consisting in the transmission from generation to generation of the invariance content characteristic of the species. All the structures, all the performances, all the activities contributing to the success of the essential project will hence be called “teleonomic.”

This allows us to put forward at least the principle of a definition of a species’ “teleonomic level.’ All teleonomic structures and performances can be regarded as corresponding to a certain quantity of information which must be transmitted for these structures to be realized and -these performances accomplished. Let us call this quantity “teleonomic information.” A given species’ “teleonomic level” may then be said to correspond to the quantity of information which, on the average and per individual, must be transferred to assure the generation-to-generation transmission of the specific content of reproductive invariance.
(Chance and Necessity, pp.13-14)

For François Jacob, who shared the Nobel Prize with Jacques Monod, teleonomy was a basic characteristic of every cell. Jacob said that the basic purpose and desire of every cell is to become two cells


But Monod sees that his teleonomy appears to be in conflict with a basic tenet, the very cornerstone, of modern science.

The cornerstone of the scientific method is the postulate that nature is objective. In other words, the systematic denial that “true” knowledge can be got at by interpreting phenomena in terms of final causes – that is to say, of “purpose.” An exact date may be given for the discovery of this canon. The formulation by Galileo and Descartes of the principle of inertia laid the groundwork not only for mechanics but for the epistemology of modern science, by abolishing Aristotelian physics and cosmology. To be sure, neither reason, nor logic, nor observation, nor even the idea of their systematic confrontation had been ignored by Descartes’ predecessors. But science as we understand it today could not have been developed upon those foundations alone. It required the unbending stricture implicit in the postulate of objectivity — ironclad, pure, forever undemonstrable. For it is obviously impossible to imagine an experiment which could prove the nonexistence anywhere in nature of a purpose, of a pursued end.But the postulate of objectivity is consubstantial with science; it has guided the whole of its prodigious development for three centuries. There is no way to be rid of it, even tentatively or in a limited area, without departing from the domain of science itself.

Objectivity nevertheless obliges us to recognize the teleonomic character of living organisms, to admit that in their structure and performance they act projectively — realize and pursue a purpose. Here therefore, at least in appearance, lies a profound epistemological contradiction. In fact the central problem of biology lies with this very contradiction, which, if it is only apparent, must be resolved; or else proven to be utterly insoluble, if that should turn out indeed to be the case.
(Chance and Necessity, pp.21-2)

Monod’s resolution of his “profound epistemological contradiction” is to make teleonomy secondary to – and a consequence of – reproductive invariance.

Since the teleonomic properties of living beings appear o challenge one of the basic postulates of the modern theory of knowledge, any philosophical, religious, or scientific view of the world must, ipso facto, offer an implicit if not an explicit solution to this problem.{T]he single hypothesis that modern science here deems acceptable: namely, that invariance necessarily precedes teleonomy. Or, to be more explicit;` the Darwinian idea that the initial appearance, evolution, and steady refinement of ever more intensely teleonomic structures are due to perturbations occurring in a structure which already possesses the property of invariance — hence is capable of (preserving the effects of chance and thereby submitting them to the play of natural selection.

Ranking teleonomy as a secondary property deriving from invariance — alone seen as primary — the selective theory is the only one so far proposed that is consistent with the postulate of objectivity. It is at the same time the only one not merely compatible with modern physics but based squarely upon it, without restrictions or additions. In short, the selective theory of evolution assures the epistemological coherence of biology and gives it its place among the sciences of “objective nature.”
(Chance and Necessity, pp.23-4)

Monod summarizes the history of philosophy more or less as we do (and asKarl Popper does), along the lines of the great division, or dualism, between idealists and materialists.

We see the distinction as between those who think information is an invariant and those who see it as constantly increasing. Monod’s focus onreproductive invariance may prevent him seeing the importance of novelty and creation of new information. Ever since its birth in the Ionian Islands almost three thousand years ago, Western philosophy has been divided between two seemingly opposed attitudes. According to one of them the authentic and ultimate truth of the world can reside only in perfectly immutable forms, by essence unvarying. According to the other, the only real truth resides in flux and evolution. From Plato to Whitehead and from Heraclitus to Hegel and Marx, it is clear that these metaphysical epistemologies were always closely bound up with their authors’ ethical and political biases. These ideological edifices, represented as self-evident to reason, were actually a posteriori constructions designed to justify preconceived ethico-political theories.
(Chance and Necessity, p.99)

Monod on Knowledge and Value

Like many scientists, Monod regards the open search for knowledge and truth as of intrinsic value. Can he go on to make knowledge itself a value in the objective world of “value-free” science? Monod seeks an “ethic of knowledge.”

Must one adopt the position once and for all that objective truth and the theory of values constitute eternally separate, mutually impenetrable domains? This is the attitude taken by a great number of modern thinkers, whether writers, or philosophers, or indeed scientists. For the vast majority of men, whose anxiety it can only perpetuate and worsen, this attitude I believe will not do; I also believe it is absolutely mistaken, and for two essential reasons.First, and obviously, because values and knowledge are always and necessarily associated in action just as in discourse.

Second, and above all, because the very definition of “true” knowledge reposes in the final analysis upon an ethical postulate.

Each of these two points demands some brief clarification.

Ethics and knowledge are inevitably linked in and through action. Action brings knowledge and values simultaneously into play, or into question. All action signifies an ethic, serves or disserves certain values; or constitutes a choice of values, or pretends to. On the other hand, knowledge is necessarily implied in all action, while reciprocally, action is one of the two necessary sources of knowledge.

The moment one makes objectivity the conditio sine qua non of true knowledge, a radical distinction, indispensable to the very search for truth, is established between the domains of ethics and of knowledge. Knowledge in itself is exclusive of all value judgment (all save that of “epistemological value”) whereas ethics, in essence nonobjective, is forever barred from the sphere of knowledge.

The postulate of objectivity…prohibits any confusion of value judgments with judgments arrived at through knowledge. Yet the fact remains that these two categories inevitably unite in the form of action, discourse included. In order to abide by our principle we shall therefore take the position that no discourse or action is to be considered meaningful, authentic unless — or only insofar as — it makes explicit and preserves the distinction between the two categories it combines. Thus defined, the concept of authenticity becomes the common ground where ethics and knowledge meet again; where values and truth, associated but not interchangeable, reveal their full significance to the attentive man alive to their resonance.

In an objective system…any mingling of knowledge with values is unlawful, forbidden. But — and here is the crucial point, the logical link which at their core weds knowledge and values together — this prohibition, this “first commandment” which ensures the foundation of objective knowledge, is not itself objective. It cannot be objective: it is an ethical guideline, a rule for conduct. True knowledge is ignorant of values, but it cannot be grounded elsewhere than upon a value judgment, or rather upon an axiomatic value. It is obvious that the positing of the principle of objectivity as the condition of true knowledgeconstitutes an ethical choice and not a judgment arrived at from knowledge, since, according to the postulate’s own terms, there cannot have been any “true” knowledge prior to this arbitral choice. In order to establish the norm for knowledge the objectivity principle defines a value: that value is objective knowledge itself. Thus, assenting to the principle of objectivity one announces one’s adherence to the basic statement of an ethical system, one asserts the ethic of knowledge.

By the very loftiness of its ambition the ethic of knowledge might perhaps satisfy this urge in man to project toward something higher. It sets forth a transcendent value, true knowledge, and invites him not to use it self-servingly but henceforth to enter into its service from deliberate and conscious choice. At the same time it is also a humanism, for in man it respects the creator and repository of that transcendence.

The ethic of knowledge is also in a sense “knowledge of ethics,” a clear-sighted appreciation of the urges and passions, the requirements and limitations of the biological being. It is able to confront the animal in man, to view him not as absurd but strange, precious in his very strangeness: the creature who, belonging simultaneously to the animal kingdom and the kingdom of ideas, is simultaneously torn and enriched by this agonizing duality, alike expressed in art and poetry and in human love.

Conversely, the animist systems have to one degree or another preferred to ignore, to denigrate or bully biological man, and to instill in him an abhorrence or terror of certain traits inherent in his animal nature. The ethic of knowledge, on the other hand, encourages him to honor and assume this heritage, knowing the while how to dominate it when necessary. As for the highest human qualities, courage, altruism, generosity, creative ambition, the ethic of knowledge both recognizes their sociobiological origin and affirms their transcendent value in the service of the ideal it defines.
(Chance and Necessity, pp.173-9)

Monod’s Historical Error on Chance and Necessity

Monod took the title of his work from a statement by Democritus that he imagined or misremembered (an example of the Cogito Model for human creativity). He opens his book with this quotation,

Everything existing in the Universe is the fruit of chance and necessity. Democritus

Unfortunately, Democritus made no such statement. As the founder of determinism, he and his mentor Leucippus were adamantly opposed to chance or randomness. Leucippus insisted on an absolute necessity which leaves no room in the cosmos for chance.

“Nothing occurs at random (maten), but everything for a reason (logos) and by necessity.”οὐδὲν χρῆμα μάτηῳ γίνεται, ἀλλὰ πάντα ἐκ λόγου τε καὶ ὑπ’ ἀνάγκης

See Jacques Monod on I-Phi

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