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Posts Tagged ‘Jacques Monod

“Real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present”*…

Iwan Rhys Morus suggests that we’re enthralled to a Victorian paradigm that haunts us still: the idea that inventors and entrepreneurs hold the keys to the utopian future…

Tech titans like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos present themselves as men who could single-handedly shape the future. For their supporters, their ruthless drive toward success is their key virtue. And their showmanship — Musk sending a Tesla Roadster into space on a Falcon Heavy rocket, or Bezos sending Captain Kirk into orbit with Blue Origin — is a way of demonstrating that virtue and asserting they are in control.

We owe to the Victorians the idea that there is a firm link between virtue and technological agency. They established a powerful paradigm that continues to haunt us: that the future is (or can be) a utopia, and inventors and entrepreneurs are the ones who know how to get there.

While our notions of virtue have shifted today, we still assume that future-making is the prerogative of very specific sorts of innovators — even as their imagined identities have fractured and transformed. The assumption that innovation is the property of charismatic individuals still underlies the way we think about technology.

The seductive power of Victorian thinking about the relationship between character, technology, and the future remains pervasive, even if views about just what the proper character of the inventor should be have shifted….

With its focus on individual virtue, the Victorian vision of the future is an exclusive one. When we subscribe to this paradigm about how — and by whom — the future is made, we’re also relinquishing control over that future. We’re acknowledging that tomorrow belongs to them, not to us.

Back To The Victorian Future,” by @irmorus1 in @NoemaMag. Eminently worth reading in full.

* Albert Camus


As we ponder power and its purpose, we might send inclusive birthday greetings to Jacques Lucien Monod; he was born on this date in 1910. A biochemist, he shared (with with François Jacob and André Lwoff) the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1965, “for their discoveries concerning genetic control of enzyme and virus synthesis.”

But Monod, who became the director of the Pasteur Institute, also made significant contributions to the philosophy of science– in particular via his 1971 book (based on a series of his lectures) Chance and Necessity, in which he examined the philosophical implications of modern biology. 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 seen in his influence on philosophers, biologists, and computer scientists including Daniel Dennett, Douglas Hofstadter, Marvin Minsky, and Richard Dawkins.


“In the space between chaos and shape there was another chance”*…

Prince Hamlet spent a lot of time pondering the nature of chance and probability in William Shakespeare’s tragedy. In the famous “To be or not to be” speech, he notes that we helplessly face “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” — though a little earlier in the play he declares that “there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow,” suggesting that everything happens because God wills it to be so.

We can hardly fault the prince for holding two seemingly contradictory views about the nature of chance; after all, it is a puzzle that has vexed humankind through the ages. Why are we here? Or to give the question a slightly more modern spin, what sequence of events brought us here, and can we imagine a world in which we didn’t arrive on the scene at all?

It is to biologist Sean B. Carroll’s credit that he’s found a way of taking a puzzle that could easily fill volumes (and probably has filled volumes), and presenting it to us in a slim, non-technical, and fun little book, “A Series of Fortunate Events: Chance and the Making of the Planet, Life, and You.”

Carroll (not to be confused with physicist and writer Sean M. Carroll) gets the ball rolling with an introduction to the key concepts in probability and game theory, but quickly moves on to the issue at the heart of the book: the role of chance in evolution. Here we meet a key historical figure, the 20th-century French biochemist Jacques Monod, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on genetics. Monod understood that genetic mutations play a critical role in evolution, and he was struck by the random nature of those mutations…

Carroll quotes Monod: “Pure chance, absolutely free and 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.”

“There is no scientific concept, in any of the sciences,” Monod concludes, “more destructive of anthropocentrism than this one.”

From there, it’s a short step to the realization that we humans might never have evolved in the first place…

Preview(opens in a new tab)

The profound impact of randomness in determining destiny: “The Power of Chance in Shaping Life and Evolution.”

See also: “Survival of the Luckiest.”

* Jeanette Winterson, The World and Other Places


As we blow on the dice, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet, the French mathematician and physicist who is probably (if unfairly) better known as Voltaire’s mistress; she was born on this date in 1706.  Fascinated by the work of Newton and Leibniz, she dressed as a man to frequent the cafes where the scientific discussions of the time were held.  Her major work was a translation of Newton’s Principia, for which Voltaire wrote the preface; it was published a decade after her death, and was for many years the only translation of the Principia into French.

Judge me for my own merits, or lack of them, but do not look upon me as a mere appendage to this great general or that great scholar, this star that shines at the court of France or that famed author. I am in my own right a whole person, responsible to myself alone for all that I am, all that I say, all that I do. It may be that there are metaphysicians and philosophers whose learning is greater than mine, although I have not met them. Yet, they are but frail humans, too, and have their faults; so, when I add the sum total of my graces, I confess I am inferior to no one.
– Mme du Châtelet, to Frederick the Great of Prussia


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