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

I seldom have chosen books as Hal's Picks that are not relatively recent (although there are precedents for this), but the current controversy over "Intelligent" Design brought vividly to mind the 1971 book, "Chance and Necessity" by Nobelist Jacques Monod. While I appreciate the arguments for evolution by people like Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins, Monod's reasoning appeals to me even more as a molecular scientist. I read "Chance and Necessity" when it was first published those thirty-some years ago, and it is a testament to the power of this book that it has stuck with me so strongly for so long. Monod looks at the biomolecular basis of genetics in search of evidence for any non-random processes, which would be required if some design were imposed on the processes of selection. He finds none. In fact, he can positively rule out the existence of such mechanisms. Modern biology tells us, according to Monod, " follows that 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. His conclusions are precisely those that are an athema to traditional believers. In his words, "The ancient covenant is in pieces; man knows at last that he is alone in the universe's unfeeling immensity, out of which he has emerged only by chance. His destiny is knowhere spelled out, nor is his duty. The kingdom above or the darkness below; it is for him to choose." Find a copy this important book from your library or locate a used one.

Pick Attribution: 

Jacques Monod

Publication Date: 
Friday, January 1, 1971