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French Toast

Nor is the operation of selection uniquely “necessary,” either. Both in variation and selection there is room for historical contingency. An unforeseen burst of high frequency solar radiation may trigger off an unpredictable (and so “chance”) wave of mutations. But so, too, the unforeseen incursion of novel predators into a territory may subject an organic population to an equally unpredictable change in selective pressures; and who is to say that these predators may not have entered the territory concerned “by chance”?

For one who is scornful of bad philosophy, Monod is curiously sloppy in his use of the terms “chance” and “necessary,” which are—to say the least—problematic terms. Indeed, I suspect that his motives for placing such great weight on the notion of “chance” are not scientific but polemical. The contemporary opponents of neo-Darwinism (e.g., Arthur Koestler) themselves attack the Darwinian account of organic variation for making it “blind” and “random”: instead of coolly rejecting these attacks as emotional and even meaningless, Monod prefers to stand firm and accept them full in the chest.

In the second place, was it necessary to delay the acceptance of Monod’s first thesis until the last biochemical details were worked out? More than a century ago English readers recognized that the argument of Darwin’s Origin, if accepted, was fatal to traditional natural theology. In fact, the battle over Monod’s “old covenant,” which still goes on in France today, had in England been largely fought over issues in geology and paleontology, even before Darwin wrote. Nearly ten years before the Origin, Tennyson’s In Memoriam was already suffused with just that “anguish” which Monod diagnoses as a phenomenon of the mid-twentieth century.4 Only in Paris could the rapprochement between the Marxist Garaudy and the followers of Teilhard still have been taken dead seriously in the 1960s: to onlookers elsewhere, this was obviously a last-ditch alliance between defenders of two equally super-annuated forms of Lamarckism.

Outside France, the theoretical work of Auguste Weismann on the isolation of the germ cells from environmental influence, in the 1890s, merely confirmed what biologists already suspected, viz., the effective decoupling of variation and selection. In this respect, molecular biology has only reinforced still further an already well-established position. The real question is, rather, why the work of Darwin and Weismann was for so long found unconvincing in France. Did the hesitation of French biologists to accept Darwinist ideas reflect the enduring influence of some strain of mechanistic Cartesianism? Was it Darwin’s and Weismann’s inability to supplement their powerful theories with detailed biochemical mechanisms that (like Newton’s inability to explain the “cause” of gravity) stood in the way, until now, of their full acceptance in France?

Thirdly—and most important for what follows—Monod’s arguments for the first thesis must be challenged at the point where he begins to write about behavior, in particular about human behavior. Though he makes passing allusions to “the second evolution, that of culture,” his account of behavioral, and even cognitive, development is for the most part as strictly genetical as his account of physiological development:

To the extent that all the structures and performances of organisms result from the structures and activities of the proteins composing them, one must regard the total organism as the ultimate epigenetic expression of the genetic message itself.

There is a clumsiness in Monod’s phrasing here that is also present in the French original. (Does he mean, “Given that all the structures and performances are…”; or does he mean, “To the extent that the structures and performances are…,” with the crucial word all omitted?) So long as we consider only bodily structures, this ambiguity may be trivial.

Leaving aside the effects of mutilation, disease, and undernourishment, we need not question that the adult form of, say, a man’s liver, was in some sense “written into” the genome that he inherited at birth. Behavioral performances, however, are a very different story. Certain behavioral capacities, like organic structures, may be regarded as “epigenetic expressions of the genetic message,” i.e., expressions that derive from the genetic code an individual has inherited. But the actual performances which manifest these capacities are also affected by cultural influences, and in the higher primates these cultural factors can be of dominant importance. When the snow-monkeys of Koshima were observed discovering how to swim, walk upright, wash sweet potatoes, and so on—none of which their ancestors had apparently done—they must evidently have had the “physiological prerequisites” to do these things. But does it follow that they possessed a native, genetically inherited “natatory capacity,” or that this novel behavior was solely an “epigenetic expression was solely an “epigenetic expression of the genetic message itself”? Surely these monkeys can have had “genes for swimming” only in a virtus dormitiva sense!

The moment we begin to consider topics like human language, the distinctions between bodily structures and physiological prerequisites, intellectual capacities and manifest performances become crucial. At this stage in the argument, Monod would like to incorporate Chomsky’s “nativist” linguistics into his own biological philosophy; yet he does not trouble to remark that Chomsky himself, both in his John Locke Lectures and elsewhere, has denied that either Darwinism or brain physiology throws any light on the status of human language. That, of course, is the beginning of another long story. But it does help to underline the fact that Monod’s preoccupation with cellular mechanisms and physiological structures leaves him vulnerable when he turns to discuss thought, reasoning, language, and all those other “performances” in which “higher mental functions” are manifested: that is to say, those topics which, from the time of Descartes on, have been the specific concern of philosophers.

So much for Thesis One, which Monod is highly qualified to discuss. When he turns to his attack on philosophers, he is at once out of his depth, and proceeds by a sequence of sweeping and unsupported assertions. Nowhere in his book, for instance, does he pause to ask whether his picture of all previous philosophy as the a posteriori rationalization of preconceived value systems has a foundation in fact. On the contrary, this unexamined assumption is his only reason for denouncing all philosophers for their “subjective commitment to the old covenant,” in contrast with the “scientific objectivity” required of any future system of ethics. Yet from the centuries of philosophical writing, the only philosophers whose positions he actually discusses are Bergson, Teilhard de Chardin, and Engels. (Otherwise he takes on no opponents of greater philosophical stature than Polanyi and Koestler.) And, of all these, the only man whose doctrines he states explicitly, and criticizes more than cursorily, is…Friedrich Engels!

Such recklessness takes one’s breath away. For how would Monod himself react to a layman who gave an equally slapdash account of biology? Certainly it would not be hard to put together an equally well-based (or ill-based) defense of the thesis, “All theoretical biology has been an a posteriori construction designed to justify preconceived metaphysico-theological theories.” Monod may classify Teilhard as a philosopher, but one can equally call him a paleontologist, and so a “biologist”; Jacques Loeb never disguised the fact that his interest in physiology was motivated by a deeper concern with the problem of free, will; and with two or three other similar illustrations we should have as strong a case for equating biology with theology as Monod has for equating philosophy with ideology.

At this point Monod’s argument is simply broken-backed. Those who share his scornful and dismissive attitude toward all previous philosophy may stay with him the rest of the way, but this attitude will inevitably alienate even his most sympathetic allies among serious philosophers of science.5

In philosophy, quite as much as in theoretical biology, there has been a continuous genealogy of authentic intellectual problems, which have had nothing essentially to do with post hoc ideological rationalization; and only in exceptional cases (e.g., a few of the nineteenth-century German historicists) have the resulting analyses been designed, among other things, to “justify preconceived ethico-political theories.” From Aristotle’s Metaphysics, by way of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, to Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, the major documents of Western philosophy present complex and serious arguments. Monod cheerfully dismisses these arguments as eyewash, yet they are entitled to the same intellectual respect and attention—in their contexts—as any of the arguments of their scientific contemporaries.

From this point on, Monod’s ignorance of philosophy robs his case of all force. For everything turns on the adequacy of his characterization of “science” as distinguished from “philosophy” by its commitment to the systematic confrontation of logic and experience. About this “postulate of objectivity,” Monod remarks wistfully:

It is hard to understand how, in the kingdom of ideas, this one, so simple and so clear, failed to come fully through until a hundred thousand years after the emergence of Homo Sapiens….

So simple and so clear? But each of the four key words in Monod’s postulate is burdened with theoretical problems and complexities at least as grave as those surrounding the terms “chance” and “necessity”; and the history of serious, non-ideological philosophy has been largely concerned with just those problems. Thus, when it comes to testing scientific—or, indeed, ethical—concepts and principles, what is to count as “experience”? In what sense, if any, can scientists bring “logic” face-to-face with empirical facts? Just what is involved in “confronting” human theories with the facts about nature? And how far can that procedure really be “systematized”?

About these crucial questions Monod says nothing at all. Instead, he simply muddles along, using his four key terms in a loose and unexplained manner. In one place he refers to the neural synapse as “the primary logical [sic] element” in the central nervous system. (By “logical,” does he here mean “theoretical,” or is he comparing the synapse to a “logic” unit in a computer?) In another, he hints at a physiological basis for the synthetic a priori, such as Kant toyed with in his younger days but later abandoned. Nowhere does he acknowledge the ambiguities that are built into his position by the obscurity of his own basic “postulate.”

If Monod had taken more care in reading the philosophy that he dismisses he might have understood that the task of clarifying these complexities in the notion of “objectivity,” and of refining the procedures of scientific investigation in the light of that clarification, has been a major preoccupation of Western philosophers since the seventeenth century; and that, in this activity—which still goes on today—philosophers and natural scientists have been not mutually socrnful rivals but effective and necessary allies. The scientific work of Helmholtz, for instance, was greatly indebted to epistemological analyses carried out by Kant half a century earlier; while in the theories of Einstein, who knew his Hume, and Bohr, who admired William James, the line between epistemology and theoretical physics became paper thin. In this difficult work nineteenth- and twentieth-century French philosopher-scientists, such as Bernard, Duhem, Poincaré, Meyerson, and Bachelard (not one of whom Monod even mentions), have played a significant part.

By the time he comes to defend his third thesis, Monod has no solid shots left in his locker. In fact, he has inadvertently talked himself into an existentialist position. For the basic structure of his ethical arguments was already familiar many years back to Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. (Once again he seemingly forgets that there were existentialists long before Camus, and that away from Paris the “old covenant” between value and nature has been under powerful attack for a century and a half.)

So after all the fanfares and promises, he has no way of redeeming his earlier promissory notes. In response to the “anguish” at the breakdown of the “old covenant” which he diagnoses in the “modern soul,” he has nothing to offer except rhetorical phrases. A slogan like “the knowledge of ethics must be founded on the ethics of knowledge” sounds all too impressive in French, yet it does no more than the thoughts of Chairman Mao to bind up “the wounds in the modern soul.” Nor does the emptiness of Monod’s prescriptions give one any better confidence in his diagnosis of this mal du siècle. Rather, some of his passing remarks make one wonder whether, even now, the full force of the Darwinian methodology has really struck home in France.

In late nineteenth-century Britain and America the intellectual assimilation of Darwinism did much to encourage pluralism, pragmatism, and utilitarianism—especially in the social and political realm—of kinds that make Monod unhappy. In the London discussion, referred to above, an Indian participant quizzed Monod about his demand for an “ultimate justifying criterion” for our “value system”: provided that one approached ethical issues always in a critical spirit, was not the search for “ultimates” a wild goose chase? Monod replied, “Well, this is a typical criticism from a typical British empiricist,” and went on to insist that mankind cannot survive without a systematic code of values, backed up by some sort of a myth—even if one rooted in science.

Yet this reply is simply not good enough. Why do all our “values” have to be linked together into a single “system” at all—to say nothing of a system bolstered up by a “myth”? A truly Darwinian thinker would surely view the values, institutions, and social structures of a people as forming not a “system” but a “population”—a population which is more or less well adapted to the needs of the men concerned, and within which individual practices can change more or less independently in the face of new socio-historical situations, in a pragmatic manner, and with more or less “adaptive” consequences. So it is probably no accident that Monod’s own exposition of evolution theory is preoccupied with biochemical mechanisms, and neglects the other equally indispensable aspect of the subject: ecology and population dynamics.

From the beginning Darwin himself thought of species and evolution in ecological and populational terms; and the construction, during the last fifty years, of an integrated neo-Darwinist biology owes quite as much to the sophisticated population dynamics of men like R.A. Fisher and Sewall Wright as it does to the molecular biologists. Indeed, if neo-Darwinism is to be seen as offering a method and an example to thinkers in other fields (e.g., ethics, sociology, and political theory), the reanalysis of such notions as “adaptation” in the light of the behavior of populations has intellectual implications at least as profound as those of the new mechanistic biochemistry.

In Paris Maurice Merleau-Ponty is dead. Jean-Paul Sartre is given over entirely to politics. Only a very few of the established philosophers (notably Michel Foucault) are clearly concerned with the same subjects as their colleagues in other countries. The Priest and the Schoolmaster have been joined by the Commissar in a triangular battle over “truth.” As a result, Monod’s Le Hasard et la Nécessité has been the sensation of the season, and the object of a grand ideological debate.

Historically, perhaps, we can see the book as a return swing of the same pendulum that, fifty years ago, carried French intellectuals away from the “scientism” of Taine and Renan to the Catholic “anti-scientism” of Péguy and Maritain. Certainly, Marxists and Catholics alike have attacked Monod’s views in the name of a natural theology that died long since elsewhere among all but a fringe of philosophers and biologists. Yet there is something essentially unfruitful about this ideological way of linking biology and philosophy, and all the associated brouhaha only distracts attention from Monod’s initial plea: that we should look for the true points of contact between the novel insights of contemporary biology and the outstanding problems of philosophy and epistemology.

As early as the turn of the century, men like Ernst Mach and Georg Simmel, John Dewey and Charles Sanders Peirce were already taking hold of the constructive philosophical issues arising out of Darwinian theory: it was the successors of that notorious “Social Lamarckist,” Herbert Spencer, who got hold of the wrong end of the stick and perpetuated the pre-Darwinian debate within the social sciences. It is only Monod’s personal involvement in molecular biochemistry that leads him to exaggerate its broader philosophical implications today.

For why should the results of all this splendid scientific work on the sub-cellular mechanisms of mitosis, meiosis, and so on, come as any kind of shock or surprise to Kant, or Descartes, or Aristotle? Could not all these men have accepted the idea that the exact structure of, say, an adult human liver is prefigured in the “form” of the embryo, without the slightest difficulty? Of course, it is a fine thing to know just how that prefiguring is in fact achieved and expressed: yet, even for a modern Aristotle, the new molecular biology would simply demonstrate in explicit detail the manner in which the potentiality, or “genetic message,” of an organism is actualized, or “epigenetically expressed.”

Philosophers do indeed have much to learn from contemporary biology, and no one in either camp can afford attitudes of professional specialization. But almost all of these significant points of contact are in fields that Monod’s book says very little about. There is, for instance, the large topic that he referred to in his inaugural lecture: the process of conceptual variation and intellectual selection responsible for the “second evolution” of culture and ideas. Behind this, there is a further exciting and important topic: namely, the manner in which the products of culture—language, ideas, conceptual discriminations, and the rest—are embodied and “represented” in the cortex, during infancy and childhood, as the physiological counterparts of computer “software.”6

Then, again, there is all that we have yet to learn from studies of animal behavior: about communication, behavioral capacities, and the beginnings of cultural learning and social structure. In each of these cases, however, the part played by molecular biology may be intriguing, but its implications are not crucial. The significance of theoretical biology for philosophy—such as it is—still lies in its power to throw light on those perplexing problems that faced Descartes and Kant, and still face philosophers today: that is to say, the nature, interrelations, and embodiments of “rationality,” “consciousness,” “thought,” “language,” and the other higher cognitive functions.

  1. 4

    It was in fact not philosophers but conservative scientists who fought the most bitter rearguard action to preserve the “old covenant.” So Darwin’s geology teacher, Adam Sedgwick, acknowledged his presentation copy of the first edition of the Origin with a letter deploring Darwin’s implied attack on the “essential link” between the moral and material world:

    You have ignored this link; and, if I do not mistake your meaning, you have done your best in one or two pregnant cases to break it. Were it possible, which, thank God, it is not, to break it, humanity, in my mind, would suffer damage that might brutalize it, and sink the human race into a lower grade of degradation than any into which it has fallen since its written records tell us of its history.

    For an account of this early nineteenth-century debate in natural theology, see Charles Gillispie’s excellent book Genesis and Geology (Harvard, 1951).

  2. 5

    As one who studied at Cambridge with both Dirac and Wittgenstein, and so was in a position to compare the intellectual seriousness and rigor of first-rate science and equally first-rate philosophy, I can only say that Monod’s judgment on philosophy is irresponsibly ignorant. So is his account of it. He writes: “Even since its birth in the Ionian Islands almost three thousand years ago, Western philosophy….” It would be amusing to reconstruct the lost speculations of Hermogenes of Corcyra, Isostrates of Ithaca, and the pseudo-Zeno of Zante; but does not Monod see that to dogmatize about philosophy, while confusing sixth-century Ionia with the ninth-century Ionian Islands, makes him appear ridiculous—like a non-biologist’s making pronouncements about physiology while assuming that an “antigen” must be an inhibitor of gene action? This is not a plea for specialization: quite the contrary. Peter Medawar has shown that a contemporary theoretical biologist can make highly distinguished contributions to philosophy, if only he approaches philosophical problems in the same informed frame of mind as he does scientific ones.

  3. 6

    In this respect, the book Higher Cortical Functions in Man by A.R. Luria (Basic Books, 1966) is very suggestive: particularly in relation to the secondary layers of the sensory regions.

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