Book: Chance and necessity - Livre d'Or

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Book: Chance and necessity
Wednesday, 26 November 2008 at 10:52 pm
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Author: Jaques Monod

Details: Originally published 1970 as Le Hasard et la Nécessité; Pub Penguin books 1997; ISBN 0-14-025646-6; Translated Austryn Wainhouse; translation (c) 1971 Alfred A Knopf

Verdict: Chance and necessity is an interesting snapshot of the history of biology.

Reasons for reading it: I was interested in Monod's account of molecular biology, since he's really one of the fathers of modern genetics. I was spurred to read a book I've had lying around for a while because of attending a popular science course and wanting to look at a real example, and partly because I had somewhat run out of novels to read. (cartesiandaemon is planning to lend me a nice little pile when he gets here tomorrow, though!)

How it came into my hands: I bought it in a charity shop years ago and never quite got round to picking it up; I'm not always good at motivating myself to read non-fiction.

It's hard to judge Chance and necessity fairly, partly because it's forty years old, and partly because it's trying to explain my own professional field at a lay level. In many ways it's a very interesting precursor to Dawkins' The selfish gene; it is fairly light on the actual biochemistry, but concentrates on the philosophical consequences of molecular Darwinism. There's even a glimmer of the idea that Dawkins later developed into meme theory: Monod writes:
Ideas have retained some of the properties of organisms. Like them, they tend to perpetuate their structure and to breed; they too can fuse, recombine, segregate their conent; indeed they too can evolve, and in this evolution selection must surely play an important role.
Like Dawkins, Monod is adamant that evolution can completely explain the emergence and diversification of life and that a modern scientist should therefore reject religious belief. He's rather less ranty about religious creationism than his English counterpart, and indeed reserves much of his vitriol for Marxism and dialectical materialism, which he classifies as a new animism. As you might expect from a French intellectual of the 1970s, he concludes that the theory of evolution supports exisentialist freedom, rather than Dawkins' Thatcherite materialism. But it's reasonably easy to ignore his philosophical conclusions (which he clearly marks as personal) and absorb his main message, which does a good job of explaining the fundamental mechanisms underlying biology, without getting into too much detail about either chemistry or cell biology.

I found the book mostly readable, with a lively style, but it's not at the level of more modern popular science classics. It pretty much assumes that the reader is going to be interested in the subject and prepared to put serious thought into understanding it, so it doesn't go out of its way to be entertaining or sound-bitey. The fact that it was originally French is a problem for two reasons: firstly it assumes that anyone who has finished highschool has a pretty solid basic grounding in philosophy, which makes it rather opaque to an English reader who is reasonably well-read but has had no formal education in philosophy. And secondly the translation feels clunky; it's possible that this is an accurate reflection of the original, I don't know, but in any case there are a lot of technical terms being used in completely non-standard ways. Some of this is probably because of Monod's era; he uses epigenetics to mean "differentiation", which is not at all how the term is employed nowadays. I can forgive him making up the word teleonomy to mean "apparent purpose", because the whole point is to show that evolution doesn't have any actual purpose. But in general there are a lot of really strange, often misleading and definitely inaccessible, choices of vocabulary, such as invariance for "heredity".

I think Monod gives a really good account of what molecular genetics is, and a convincing, intelligent argument for how all of biology is an emergent property of chemistry but can't be directly predicted from chemical first principles. He is comfortable bringing in things like information theory, and thermodynamics, and generally gives a really solid explanation of the relationship between genetics and phenotypic outcome. This would be a good book to convey to a 1970s reader with an arts background exactly what is meant by the Darwininian principle of evolution by mutation and natural selection (the "chance and necessity" of the title), and as much of an understanding as any non-scientist needs of the biochemical mechanisms for how this works. But because it's out-of-date (just a couple of its assertions are actually wrong in the light of what we've learnt since it was written), and because of its slight tendency to get bogged down in French philosophical esoterica, it doesn't really rise above the level of a historical curiosity. That's a shame, because it's more intelligent both in its biology and its philosophy than The selfish gene, which itself is badly out of date these days.

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