Chance and Necessity:
An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology

Jacques Monod

translated from the French by Austryn Wainhouse
Vintage 1971
A book review by Danny Yee © 1994
Jacques Monod's Chance and Necessity is one of my favourite works on the philosophy of biology. For some reason it doesn't seem to be very well known (at least in the English-speaking world), perhaps because it is not, like the works of Dawkins or Gould, really aimed at a popular audience, and perhaps because of the slightly unfamiliar language and approach that mark it as French in origin. But Monod's work is one of the most original attempts to work out the philosophical implications of the modern synthesis in biology, and deserves more attention.

Chance and Necessity begins with a philosophical consideration of topics such as the natural/artificial distinction, reproduction, teleonomy and invariance. Here Monod highlights the apparent epistemological contradiction between the teleonomy of living organisms and the principle of objectivity. This is followed by a scathing analysis of various kinds of vitalist obscurantism (including modern "scientific" vitalisms which go by other names) and of animist approaches to evolution (from dialectical materialism to Teilhard de Chardin). Monod concludes:

We would like to think ourselves necessary, inevitable, ordained from all eternity. All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even a part of science testify to the unwearying, heroic effort of mankind desperately denying its own contingency.
It is the contingency of human existence that is the central message of Chance and Necessity; the same message that many will know from the writings of Stephen Jay Gould.

The core of Chance and Necessity is about the workings of biological systems, with an emphasis on the biochemistry. It is not an introductory account, and at least a basic knowledge of modern biology is assumed. The emphasis is on proteins rather than on nucleic acids, and in particular their status as teleonomic agents: their catalytic ability, their role in cellular control systems and their ability to self-assemble. Only after three chapters on proteins is one devoted to nucleic acids and replication. This differs from the usual viewpoint, which sees the genome as fundamental and proteins as secondary. A chapter on evolution is focused towards understanding human evolution and the development of characteristic human features such as language. Monod also devotes a chapter to considering some of the issues at the frontiers of biology, from the origins of life to the nature of perception. All this material is related back to the philosophical issues raised in the first chapter.

Finally Monod tries to draw some ethical and political conclusions. Ultimately the appeal is to scientific objectivity, but to a scientific objectivity that is recognised as an ethical choice in itself.

Where then shall we find the source of truth and the moral inspiration for a really scientific socialist humanism, if not in the sources of science itself, in the ethic upon which knowledge is founded, and which by free choice makes knowledge the supreme value — the measure and warrant for all other values? An ethic which bases moral responsibility upon the very freedom of that axiomatic choice. ...
A utopia. Perhaps. But it is not an incoherent dream. It is an idea that owes its force to its logical coherence alone. It is the conclusion to which the search for authenticity necessarily leads.

While some might choose to build a world-view on this, you don't have to subscribe to any of it; by Monod's own cognisance, you can make your own "free choice". Immediately after this, however, in the final sentences of the book, the more fundamental conclusion of Chance and Necessity is reiterated.

The ancient covenant is in pieces; man knows at last that he is alone in the universe's unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty. The kingdom above or the darkness below; it is for him to choose.

If you can not face this, if you insist that your choice of value system is any less arbitrary than Monod's own, if you cling to a "covenant" between man and the universe, then you will find Chance and Necessity unsettling. In my opinion, Monod comes close to demonstrating that any such belief must be essentially irrational or anti-scientific.

Chance and Necessity will be enjoyed by anyone of a philosophical bent interested in the fundamental questions of human existence, with the proviso that they should have at least a basic knowledge of biology. And of course those with an interest in biology may want to read Chance and Necessity just for that — Monod did win a Nobel prize for his work in biochemistry, and his perspective on the subject is sufficiently distinctive to be worth putting up with some philosophy for.

November 1994

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%T Chance and Necessity
%S An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology
%A Monod, Jacques
%M French
%F Wainhouse, Austryn
%I Vintage
%D 1971
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0394718259
%P xiv,199pp