French Toast

Chance and Necessity

by Jacques Monod, translated by Austryn Wainhouse
Knopf, 199 pp., $6.95

The rhetorical, disputatious, ideological cultural life in France (as Mary McCarthy recently reminded us) obeys different rules from those in les pays anglophones. To Jean-François Revel, exaggeration can even become “an artistic form” in itself; yet this fact is concealed by the belief that French is the supremely logical language. So, however ideological their aims, intellectual debates in France always affect a strict Cartesian form, according to the demands of the esprit géométrique. The Priest and the Schoolmaster who symbolize French intellectual life still assault each other with syllogisms. As a result, Parisian best-sellers are particularly likely to be misunderstood by Anglo-Saxons, who read their debating points as assertions, their exaggerations as dogmas, and their oratory as rigorous proof.

To make matters worse, intellectual debate in France has always been exceptionally resistant to outside ideas. Voltaire could not get anyone in Paris to take Newton’s Principia seriously until half a century after its original publication, while Darwin’s theory of variation and natural selection has taken even longer to gain acceptance. By 1859, in fact, French bien-pensants scientists and philosophers were already hostile to evolutionary ideas. The term évolution implied to them the unidirectional, progressivist view of cosmic development found in Herder and Lamarck: a historicist conception, belonging as much to natural theology as to natural science, and embracing the whole development of the universe—prebiotic, organic, and social—in a single, sweeping trajectory. Throughout the subsequent hundred years, most French intellectuals have continued to understand the term in this wholly non-Darwinian sense, seeing as the most representative “evolutionary” thinkers such men as Herbert Spencer and Friedrich Engels, Teilhard de Chardin and Roger Garaudy.

Jacques Monod’s book Le Hasard et la Nécessité has to be read against this background. Monod, who has been the leading cellular biochemist at the Institut Pasteur since 1954, gave an inaugural lecture at the College de France in November, 1967, which was all that such a lecture should be: a striking call for the reintegration of fundamental biological theory with a purified “natural philosophy,” and for its application to human affairs. While philosophers were still fiddling away at out-of-date problems, he argued, intellectual changes were going on under their noses, notably in biology, which should be leading them to reformulate their very questions in a new frame. In particular, he called for a revival of interest in the mechanisms of intellectual history, which lead to “a natural history of the selection of ideas,” and so make the evolution of human culture as intelligible, in its own way, as Darwinism made organic speciation and evolution.

Coming from one of the first generation of French biologists to have fully grasped Darwinian ideas, this appeal was highly attractive, especially to those philosophers of science who had already been moving in the same direction for other reasons. Surely, philosophers cannot seriously tackle today the epistemological problems about the formation of concepts first posed by John Locke nearly 300 years ago, without paying attention to the work …

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