Monod gladly took on challengers in debates on television and radio, and in print. What Sproul and other theologians argued, or perhaps at least hoped, was that what scientists perceived as chance merely reflected a lack of knowledge of the true causes of events, that is, God’s intervention or some other undiscovered natural law ordained by God. Like the Soviets before them, they were unable and unwilling to budge from their dogmatic stance against chance, regardless of the evidence.
If Monod were alive today, even he would not be able to imagine all the realms in which chance has revealed itself. Fifty years later, chance only plays a bigger role in what we know about nature and our origins.
As scientists have learned much more about the history and workings of the planet, they have been startled to discover how the course of life has been buffeted by a variety of cosmological and geological accidents—without which we would not be here. The most surprising and famous is the discovery in 1980 that life’s history was rewritten in an instant by a very rare, large asteroid strike 66 million years ago. That impact triggered the demise of the great dinosaurs and three-quarters of all animal and plant species on the planet, but it also cleared the way for the rise of mammals, our primate ancestors, and, eventually … us.
At the opposite end of the scale, at the atomic level, biochemists have caught chance red-handed. They have captured the fleeting moment when a subtle shape-shift within DNA causes a mutation, the change that is at the very root of all the diversity and beauty in living things, as well as of pandemics and cancer. This spectacular accomplishment reveals how mutation is a built-in feature, not a bug, in DNA, an unavoidable, inevitable consequence of DNA chemistry and DNA-based life.
Monod’s hope was that society would come to embrace science and the reality of our chance-driven existence. “Modern societies accepted the treasures and the power that science laid in their laps,” he wrote. “But they have not accepted—they have scarcely even heard its profounder message; the defining of a new and unique source of truth.” After a lifetime of confronting all sorts of menacing isms—Nazism, Stalinism, Communism, and Lysenkoism— truth and the courage to tell it remained the values he cherished most.
In the last months of his life, although weakened by anemia and easily fatigued, he found time to reply to some letters, including one from a 13-year-old boy who asked him for advice on what maxim had helped guide his life. His reply is as fitting now as it was in 1976. “All I can tell you are the qualities that appear most important to me,” Monod answered. “They are: courage, as much moral as physical, as well as the love of truth, or rather, the hatred of lies. I prefer to speak of the hatred of lies rather than the love of truth, since one is never sure of holding the truth, whereas with lies, one is almost always able to detect them, to discover them, and to denounce them.”