Chance and Necessity

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In 1970, Jacques Monod published Le hasard et la nécessité – English translation Chance and Necessity (1971) that was written for a gneral audience, and so ignored by English-speaking academics.

Everything that exists in the Universe is just the fruit of Chance and Necessity. - Democritus


Much of this section is an abstract of content in Wikipedia.

Monod's book is a short but influential examination of the philosophical implications of modern biology. [1] Monod acknowledges his connection to the French existentialists in the epigraph of the book, which quotes the final paragraphs of Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus. In summarizing recent progress in several areas of biology, including his own research, Monod highlights the ways in which information is found to take physical form and hence become capable of influencing events in the world. For example, the information allowing a protein enzyme to "select" only one of several similar compounds as the substrate of a chemical reaction is encoded in the precise three-dimensional shape of the enzyme; that precise shape is itself encoded by the linear sequence of amino acids constituting the protein; and that particular sequence of amino acids is encoded by the sequence of nucleotides in the gene for that enzyme.

In the title of the book, "necessity" refers to the fact that the enzyme must act as it does, catalyzing a reaction with one substrate but not another, according to the constraints imposed by its structure. While the enzyme itself cannot be said in any meaningful way to have a choice about its activity, the thrust of Jacob and Monod's Nobel prize-winning research was to show how a bacterial cell can "choose" whether or not to carry out the reaction catalyzed by the enzyme. As Monod explains, one way the cell can make such a choice is by either synthesizing the enzyme or not, in response to its chemical environment. However, the synthesis/no synthesis choice is in turn governed by necessary biochemical interactions between a repressor protein, the gene for the enzyme, and the substrate of the enzyme, which interact so that the outcome (enzyme synthesis or not) differs according to the variable composition of the cell's chemical environment. The hierarchical, modular organization of this system clearly implies that additional regulatory elements can exist that govern, are governed by, or otherwise interact with any given set of regulatory components. Because, in general, the bacterial activity that results from these regulatory circuits is in accord with what is beneficial for the bacterial cell's survival at that time, the bacterium as a whole can be described as making rational choices, even though the bacterial components involved in deciding whether to make an enzyme (repressor, gene, and substrate) have no more choice about their activities than does the enzyme itself.

Monod shows a paradigm of how choice at one level of biological organization (metabolic activity) is generated by necessary (choiceless) interactions at another level (gene regulation); the ability to choose arises from a complex system of feedback loops that connect these interactions. He goes on to explain how the capacity of biological systems to retain information, combined with chance variations during the replication of information (i.e., genetic mutations) that are individually rare but commonplace in aggregate, leads to the differential preservation of that information which is most successful at maintaining and replicating itself. Monod writes that this process, acting over long periods of time, is a sufficient explanation (indeed the only plausible explanation) for the complexity and teleonomic activity of the biosphere. Hence, the combined effects of chance and necessity, which are amenable to scientific investigation, account for our existence and the universe we inhabit, without the need to invoke mystical, supernatural, or religious explanations.

While acknowledging the likely evolutionary origin of a human need for explanatory myths, in the final chapter of Chance and Necessity Monod advocates an objective (hence value-free) scientific worldview as a guide to assessing truth. He describes this as an "ethics of knowledge" that disrupts the older philosophical, mythological and religious ontologies, which claim to provide both ethical values and a standard for judging truth. For Monod, assessing truth separate from any value judgement is what frees human beings to act authentically, by requiring that they choose the ethical values that motivate their actions. He concludes that "man at last knows he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he has 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". While apparently bleak, in comparison to the concepts that humanity belongs to some inevitable, universal process, or that a benevolent God created and protects us, an acceptance of the scientific assessment described in the first part of the quotation is, for Monod, the only possible basis of an authentic, ethical human life. It is reasonable to conclude that Monod himself did not find this position bleak; the quotation he chose from Camus to introduce Chance and Necessity ends with the sentence: "One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

It might be useful to suggest that Monod sought to include mind and purpose within the purview of scientific investigation (teleonomy), rather than attributing them to supernatural or divine causes (teleology). While Monod does not explicitly address mind or consciousness, his scientific research demonstrated that biology includes feedback loops that govern interacting systems of biochemical reactions, so that the system as a whole can be described as having a purpose and making choices. Monod's philosophical writing indicates that he recognized the implication that such systems could arise and be elaborated upon by evolution through natural selection. The importance of Monod's work as a bridge between the chance and necessity of evolution and biochemistry on the one hand, and the human realm of choice and ethics on the other, can be judged by his influence on philosophers, biologists and computer scientists such as Daniel Dennett, Douglas Hofstadter, Marvin Minsky and Richard Dawkins.

A Definition of Life

Monod uses these conditions:

  1. Purpose = What Monod called the teleonomy of an object is purpose for which the entity was created.
  2. Reproducibility = Monod insisted on Reproduction Invariance which for software can mean that the code is exactly what it claims to be and has not been changed by some untrusted entity.
  3. Complexity = the shortest program that could produce the desired effect is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for life. Monod claims they must be adaptively complex. So, an AI that learned and adapted could be alive in this definition.

It is important to note that this definition appears to be in conflict with the Scientific Objectivism which declares that a scientist should not seek for a purpose of nature, but just describe what it is. But life appears to have a purpose, even if it just reproduction and adaption to a changing Ecosystem.

Teleonomy is the quality of apparent purposefulness and of goal-directedness of structures and functions in living organisms brought about by natural processes like natural selection. The term derives from two Greek words, tele ("end", "goal", "purpose") and nomos ("law").

Teleology, on the other hand, is understood as a purposeful goal-directedness brought about through human or divine intention. The term derives from logos, or The Word.

Containers, cells or small animals were discovered in 1674 by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek. He determined that these moved with purpose. Now John Glass and company are trying to create the minimal viable cell (MVC) to determine what is the minimum complexity to still live.[2] The comparison with Docker images should be obvious. But the MVC has no purpose, like a computer with a minimal operating system, it literally needs a purpose to be alive.

Reductionism has been the core of physical science for centuries or even millenniums. As noted above the attempt to create an MVC moves to the space where reductionism fails, and a more natural science is required. Now even the physicists have come to realize that, like the myth of the continuum, reductionism cannot make reality.[3]


  1. Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity. Penguin ISBN 0140256466
  2. James Somers, The Final Frontier New Yorker (2022-03-07) p 16 ff
  3. Natalie Wolchover, A Deepening Crisis Forces Physicists to Rethink Structure of Nature’s Laws Quanta 2022-03-01