Monday, January 12, 2015

Brave Genius

Brave Genius is an unlikely dual biography of a biologist and a writer who shared a friendship and a common philosophy. Both were active in the French resistance to the German Occupation and both would later receive a Nobel prize. Sean B. Carroll forges an inspiring story from seemingly incongruous elements: the desperate defiance of a few in an occupied country, the exhilarating pursuit of an open scientific question, and a lonely stand on the moral high ground.

In 1940, Jacques Monod was a newly married father of twins and a researcher at the Sorbonne. Albert Camus, having already published a couple of books of essays, departed his native Algeria for France in March of that year to find work.

On May 10 1940, German troops crossed into Holland and Belgium. Panzers raced towards the Atlantic coast severing Allied lines and stranding French and British troops in the low countries. French defenses collapsed and Germans arrived in an undefended Paris on June 14. The armistice signed on June 22nd marked the beginning of four years of occupation.

During those years, Camus edited and wrote for the underground newspaper Combat urging resistance to the occupation. As the tide of the war turned, Monod organized sabotage attacks and armed resistance ahead of the approaching liberators.

“I have always believed that if people who placed their hopes in the human condition were mad, those who despaired of events were cowards. Henceforth, there will be only one honorable choice: to wager everything on the belief that in the end words will prove stronger than bullets.” Camus, Combat (November 30, 1946)

François Jacob, André Lwoff and Jacques Monod were awarded a Nobel prize in 1965 for their work on the control of gene expression, elucidating the regulation of the lac operon by which bacteria switch on metabolism of the sugar lactose.

In his writing, Camus confronts the absurdity of the human search for clarity and meaning in a world that offers only indifference. The attempt to derive meaning and morality without resort to mysticism links Camus's philosophy to Monod's scientific work, which provided some of the first direct evidence that life is mechanistic rather than the result of some magical "vital force" and that its workings could be understood.

“The scientific approach reveals to Man that he is an accident, almost a stranger in the universe.” Monod, in On Values in the Age of Science (1969)

“One of the great problems of philosophy, is the relationship between the realm of knowledge and the realm of values. Knowledge is what is; values are what ought to be. I would say that all traditional philosophies up to and including Marxism have tried to derive the 'ought' from the 'is.' My point of view is that this is impossible.” Monod

Carroll, a biologist himself, embeds philosophy and science into the personal lives of his protagonists and the geopolitical events unfolding around them. Both men did brilliant work in the darkest of times, and did so not by retreating but by fully engaging at great risk with the struggles that faced them. The book serves as a warning of what happens when good people overlook the malfeasance of their leaders, but also as confirmation of the resilience of intellect, creativity and humanity.

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