Chance and Necessity

War and justice brought together two of the greatest minds of the 20th century, a scientist and a writer.

Nov 1, 2013
Sean B. Carroll

CROWN, SEPTEMBER 2013Zoologists and playwrights hardly seem like dangerous men. But in the spring of 1944, the Nazi Gestapo in Paris would have loved to get their hands on one zoologist and one writer in particular.

You see, both men were members of the French Resistance, living double lives—plying their crafts under their real identities for part of the day, and plotting sabotage or inciting resistance under aliases in their off-hours.

The Gestapo captured a lot of their comrades, and almost caught the two of them. It’s a good thing they didn’t, because the worlds of science and literature would be poorer without the pair. The zoologist was Jacques Monod, who would go on to become one of the founders of molecular biology. The writer was Albert Camus, who wielded one of the most influential pens of his time. After the war, the two men became good friends, and each won a Nobel Prize in his field.

Of course, had the Nazis nabbed them, we would have been deprived not only of their creative brilliance, but I would not have had the opportunity to chronicle their many wartime and postwar adventures in my new book Brave Genius. And these two facts underscore one of the most important elements in the course of individuals’ lives, famous or otherwise—chance.

Several years after he won the Nobel Prize, Monod wrote Chance and Necessity (1970), a popular, philosophical perspective on the significance of modern biology. The title came from Democritus’s purported dictum that “Everything in the universe is the fruit of chance and of necessity.” In researching my book, I discovered that it would have been an equally apt title for Monod’s or Camus’s autobiography.

Well before the dangers of war, chance spared Monod when he chose not to sail on a natural history expedition. The ship sank in a hurricane. Camus had an even narrower escape when he was just 17 and stricken with tuberculosis, a disease that was often fatal in his poor Algiers neighborhood.

But it was World War II that most shaped their futures. When his immediate superior in the Resistance was arrested, Monod had to go completely underground and avoid his laboratory at the Sorbonne. He needed a place to work, and André Lwoff, a colleague at the Pasteur Institute, offered refuge in his laboratory. After the war, Lwoff also offered space to a young physician, François Jacob, whose surgical career had been aborted due to severe combat injuries. It was in that cramped attic laboratory that these refugees forged one of the most creative and influential collaborations in modern biology, which resulted in Monod, Jacob, and Lwoff sharing the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

For Camus, the continued attrition of comrades happened to leave him in charge of the underground newspaper Combat just as the battle for the liberation of Paris was about to unfold. His editorials, crafted in the chaos of the uprising, are some of the most stirring and eloquent pieces in the history of journalism. Camus then used that pulpit after the liberation to influence the direction of France’s renewal.

It was the outbreak of another war—the Cold War—that brought Camus and Monod together. In 1948, Stalin’s lackey T.D. Lysenko decreed that modern genetics was erroneous and must be abandoned. Monod responded with a devastating article in Combat condemning the Soviet Union’s “ideological terrorism.” As it turned out, Camus was having similar thoughts about Stalin’s regime, and the two men were introduced at a meeting of a human rights group. They became firm friends, united by their opposition to Soviet-style communism. Monod even helped Camus with part of his damning indictment of the Soviet system in The Rebel, which helped him win the 1957 Nobel Prize in Literature.

The writer Henry van Dyke said, “Genius is talent set on fire by courage.” That was certainly true for Monod and Camus, but I would have to add “and fanned by chance.” 

Sean B. Carroll heads the Department of Science Education of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and is a professor of molecular biology and genetics at the University of Wisconsin. He is the author of Remarkable Creatures, a finalist for the National Book Award. Read an excerpt of Brave Genius.