Friday, December 6, 2013

Brave Genius 2: A profound imminent alliance

I’d enthusiastically hoped that Sean Carroll’s Brave Genius* might, in its discussion of the exchange of ideas between Camus and Monod, talk about how biology informed philosophy, politics, and ethics for the better.** And it does, somewhat, in the final chapters about Monod’s writing and activism after Camus’ death. But it also illustrates how, as they’ve entered the cultural vortex, important parts of biology’s message have been distorted and lost.

Carroll describes the central arguments in Monod’s 1970 book Chance and Necessity. He says that “Monod sought to establish the new biology’s place at the philosopher’s table, as well as in the minds, if not the hearts, of thinking people.” Monod was influenced by his friend Camus’ existentialist philosophy, particularly the ideas expressed in The Myth of Sisyphus. But, Carroll contends, while Camus drew only on philosophy, Monod “began with new empirical scientific facts” which he rightly believed had something important to contribute to our understanding of the human situation.

Monod’s argument had four “essential points,” which Carroll describes in turn. The first is that “Biology has revealed that the emergence of humans is the result of chance, and therefore not a matter of any preordained plan.” The second, that “All belief systems that are founded on a special place or purpose of man in nature are no longer tenable.” Religious and secular claims about a special status or cosmic purpose for humans are in fact, as James Rachels argues, shattered by biology.

So far, so good. But the trouble comes when Monod elaborates on the meaning of biological discoveries. In a surprising shift owing nothing to science and everything to culture, Monod interprets the recent advances in biology as confirming our alienation and isolation from the rest of the universe as part of our existential condition:
The common flaw in all of these systems, Monod underscored, is that they assume ‘between Man and the Universe, between Cosmology and History an unbroken continuity, a profound immanent alliance’. However, Monod argued, ‘the scientific approach reveals to Man that he is an accident, almost a stranger in the universe, and reduced the “old alliance” between him and the rest of creation to a tenuous and fragile thread’.

Moreover, Monod asserted that molecular biology had snapped the last thread: ‘It remained for modern Biology…blossoming into Molecular Biology, to discover the ultimate source of stability and evolution in the Biosphere [DNA and mutation], and thus blow to shreds the myth of the old alliance.”

…‘Man must wake out of his millenary dream…wake to his solitude, his fundamental isolation’, Monod urged. ‘Now does he at last realize that, like a gypsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien universe. A universe that is deaf to his music, just as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his suffering or his crimes’.

…[Monod argued that:] “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’. [emphasis added]
No, I say. No. We’re not strangers, isolated, alien, alone, with no imminent connection to the rest of life and the cosmos. Precisely the opposite. Monod’s own discoveries, and all of the biological and other discoveries preceding them from Darwin on, and all of those that have followed – including Carroll’s! - have only confirmed and deepened the human understanding of our relatedness to the rest of the natural world. Far from contributing to an appreciation of our supposed condition of alienation, they’ve chipped away at the notion of our separateness or isolation.

Science has destroyed old and arrogant myths about our place in the universe, “overturn[ing] all previous, long-cherished notions of humans’ special significance in the universe,” but has replaced them with real knowledge about our deepest relationship with the rest of nature. Scientists have shown that we’re wholly natural stuff. We’ve evolved, as have all of the other forms of life on the planet. We’re animals. The processes through which we develop are shared, as Monod himself recognized, with other living beings. There are no walls separating us, in any aspect, from the rest of life or nature. Science shows a deep connection, not a separation.

This reality is enormously consequential. It doesn’t just dislodge self-serving myths about our situation and relationship to the rest of nature. It also informs the conclusions that follow from the abandonment of those myths. If people believe that their only relationship to others in their community is that they’re living under the same absolute monarchy, and that monarchy falls, they might feel isolated and alone. But if they realize that they’re in fact an ancient community of common origin, sustained by a shared nature and characteristics, and united by action, they’ll find a community of truth to replace the mythic vertical identity.

The idea that our existential situation is one of abandonment and alienation is a sad relic of belief in a cosmic deity and human specialness. It was damaging to existentialist philosophy and morality, and has hobbled philosophy and morality ever since. Scientific reality contests it.

Monod felt, in his words, that “the most important results of science have been to change the relationship of man to the universe, or the way he sees himself in the universe.” And it’s true that modern biology has forever upset mythical views about a human-centered cosmos. But it has never challenged a vision of the cosmos in which we form a part and from which we emerge in every element of our being.

* I’ll probably post a full review in the future.

** This is territory covered, as I’ve discussed, by James Rachels.

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