l return to my blog site, after a rather long break, in order to attempt to answer a self-imposed question that I had no hope of adequately tackling in a social media post. Have I bitten off more than I can chew? I can’t answer that until I reach the end of this story but, having now more or less been forced by my own arrogance to face my own inadequacy in the contemplation of deep issues and the shallowness of my own depth of knowledge, coupled with the potential shattering of my own cherished illusions, we shall see.
I will give it my best shot, because the subject, it appears, has far reaching consequences, not only for anyone who may read this, but for my own personal view of myself and the world into which I was born and which we all inhabit. A world of so many questions, and a search for answers that have largely been obscured by illusions of our own making. All of us, throughout time.
So, let’s make a start. And this all really started with a quotation by an eminent person of the last century, actually a Nobel Laureate, which I read in a book by a prolific author of the current century, actually written in the current year. Something about that quotation made me jump up and begin to question its basis, little knowing where it would lead. Here is what it said, and its source:
“The ancient covenant is in pieces; man knows at last that he is alone in the universe’s unfeeling immensity, out of which he 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.” —Jacques Monod: Chance and Necessity
This quote represents the final words in the final Chapter of that book, so they were obviously meant to be taken seriously.
Now, Jacques Monod (1910-1976) was a highly respected Nobel Prize-winning French Bio-scientist whose thinking and studies obviously went far beyond the boundaries of Biology and Evolution, the subject of his book – Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology (1971).
I specifically use the term ‘the subject of his book’ because, having read it (I will explain that in a moment), I get the feeling that he was merely using what is the basis of his life’s work – Biology and Evolution – as a familiar medium to convey and explain his profound ideas on the condition of mankind in the context of, to pull in another quote from another author’s work, ‘life, the universe, and everything’. I love thinking on that level. It beats by far being caught up and enmeshed in the trivia of everyday life and the idiosyncratic melodramas of personal issues that many of us fail to escape and untangle ourselves from.
Having claimed to have read ‘Chance and Necessity’, a book I was unfamiliar with until the past few days, let me explain. As with most books that are written with the object of conveying a particular idea which this one, while coevally being a scientific treatise, obviously was, a short-cut to understanding the conveyed premise can usually be utilised. It is this: A reading of the author’s Preface, Chapter I (to gain a view of the book’s tempo and direction – though in this particular case I would impress the non-technical reader to skip Chapter I in favour of Chapter II), and of course making sure to read the final chapter – where all is usually revealed. By all means skip lightly (unless enthusiastically intrigued with the subject matter) over the intervening chapters (in this case lingering for a while at Chapters VII and VIII) will usually suffice.
Exhibiting extraordinary openness, the author encourages readers un-engaged with the rather dry subject matter, to do just that – skip over the boring bits. He really wants more than just scientific minds to get his message.
OK, so now I feel a little more competent to tackle this task. Let us begin. At the beginning.
Well, not quite at the beginning but in the latter half of the first sentence of which this quote comprises:
“…man knows at last that he is alone in the universe’s unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance.”
‘Man knows that he is alone in the universe’, the immense, unfeeling, bereft of life universe, in which he is the sole sentient denizen, and that by a complete and unrepeatable fluke of nature. Does man really know that? Well if we for the moment accept its truth, and the logic of science would indicate that it is true, then why are scientists still looking for life elsewhere and not only that but continually striving to extend their search range further and further out into that immense universe? I hope to answer that question later. Meanwhile, it is without doubt that the fact that we are even here at all, even that the whole universe is here at all, or indeed that life chose to spring up on planet Earth, is nothing more than pure chance and that the probabilities of it ever happening are negligible. Here is some of what Monod says on that:
“Pure chance, absolutely free but 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. And nothing warrants the supposition – or the hope – that on this score our position is ever likely to be revised.”
Later he says:
Monod has hit on something there – symbolic communication – our learned ability, unique among the life-forms we exist among, although not necessarily unique among the potential capabilities of some of them (so why us?), to communicate ideas between individuals (now so refined that I can talk in this way to you though I may never know who or where you are, or even potentially use the same symbolic language that you do) was the beginning of the end (of the importance at least) of human physical evolution in favour of what is now undoubtedly the major evolutionary driver for humanity – cultural evolution.
I have long thought that we may have passed the pinnacle of our physical evolution and be on the downward path to a physically degenerate species, needing mechanical or automated machine parts to replace some or, eventually, potentially all of our physical frame. Humanity lost to the machine. It’s already in some people’s minds or imaginations. Is that the way we will exit?
So, the science says that we were not destined to be. The universe, nor even the world, was designed for or around us. We, it, that, were all a complete, unexpected and un-forecastable accident of evolutionary nature. And we, our ancient forebears, somehow managed to rationalise all that under the sheltering umbrella of a covenant of animism (more on that later) which for a long, long time served us very well and formed a basis for our survival.
Then, one day, as Monod suggests, that all changed when:
“Australanthropus or one of his kin managed to express the content of a subjective experience… On that day a new world was born, the world of ideas; and a new evolution, that of culture, became possible. From there on and for a long time, man’s physical evolution must have been intimately connected with and profoundly influenced by the development of the linguistic capacity, which so thoroughly changed the conditions of selection.”
With the arrival of cultural evolution our cosy (meaning well wrapped up against the harsh realities of life) world of the safety and comfort of the ancient covenant with nature was forever turned upside down. Man was now able to formulate rules and laws for social cohesion – and also to express questions.
“We are the descendants of such men. From them we have probably inherited our need for an explanation, the profound disquiet which goads us to search out the meaning of existence. That same disquiet has created all the myths, all the religions, all the philosophies, and science itself. (emphasis is mine)
That this imperious need develops spontaneously, that it is inborn, inscribed somewhere in the genetic code, strikes me as beyond doubt.”
Monad has much to say on man’s cultural evolution, mostly in his final chapter which I will include in full at the end of this piece. [Edit – I didn’t do that, but I do provide a link.]
It is important here to realise that with mankind’s evolutionary progression from ancient hominids to modern man, that progression somehow uniquely on Earth drew out in man this ability to express ideas among themselves and the capability to raise, discuss and perhaps answer their own questions and, for those more difficult or unanswerable questions, to set up methods of inquiry, methods of study, to bring more and more understanding around these issues. Man’s disquiet with lack of knowledge and the growing culture of inquiry came, over time, as Monod says, to create “all the myths, all the religions, all the philosophies, and science itself.”
All of these things, I emphasize, were and are the creation of man, gradually informed by and through his ‘covenant’ and affinity with nature, that being the only point of reference and experience that he had. And therefore these creations of man were imbued and permeated with those ancient subjective ideas, even those ideas which may have been, in its infancy, labelled as science, until his enquiring and enculturation brought about the formation of objectivity in the scientific method. Such things persisted, not just ‘until’, but ‘well beyond’ that scientific breakthrough, and are even still very firmly in evidence today. So strong are those comforting subjective influences and so deeply ingrained into human culture that, generally throughout the world, even among the vast majority of people in populations which can claim to be educated and living in modern advanced societal cultures, people still prefer to trust in the old forms of animism, broken as the ancient covenant now is in the light of scientific objectivity, than to fully accept the new alternative and all the ideas that it both closes off or offers to open to the receptive mind. This is one of the major problems facing our world today. And so intransigent is the issue, that it may never be solved.
With that said, let’s go back to the real beginning, with the phrase, actually the quite explicit statement that:
“The ancient covenant is in pieces”
This, the use of the word ‘covenant’, is the what first drew my interest and raised the first question. If man is truly alone in the universe, then what is this ‘ancient covenant’? It takes two parties to make a covenant. Often such things are recorded to be between gods and men, regents and their subjects, legal contracts between parties. On the face of it, this doesn’t make sense. Until we read further – and this being the final paragraph, ‘reading further’ means starting closer to the beginning – actually back to Chapter II.
Dealing with Vitalisms and Animisms, of which for our current purposes we need concern ourselves only with animisms, Chapter II relates how our early ancestors, having found themselves quite by unpredictable accident living in a strange world of nature and looking around them, while trying to understand that world, they saw that every living thing – plants, animals, humans, all had the same major purpose – the need to survive, which of course includes the need to reproduce themselves. They therefore felt a natural affinity with all of nature, to which they also ascribed the same purpose. This was the birth of Animism as a comfort and refuge for mankind. A form of covenant which Monod describes as the ‘Ancient Covenant’:
“Primitve animism,” the author goes on to say, “formulated this hypothesis with complete candour, frankness and precision, populating nature with gracious or awesome myths and myth-figures which have for centuries nourished art and poetry.”
“Animism established a covenant between nature and man, a profound alliance outside of which seems to stretch only terrifying solitude. Must we break this tie because the postulate of objectivity requires it?” These are the key words here. Objectivity forms the basis of science. It has no place in an animistic paradigm. But science was not yet born, and the ancient covenant reigned supreme and embedded in the hearts and minds of mankind for countless millennia, uncontested. And it firmly remained so, even after the birth of science. Even largely also today. Even, I dare say, though in a more or less weakened form, within my own heart and mind and also those of most all of anyone who reads this.
Yes, while we can acknowledge that with the knowledge we have today, the knowledge brought to us by scientific discovery, that “The ancient covenant is in pieces,” we cannot tear ourselves away completely from, or give up the comforting assurance gained from the myth, religion, philosophy, of our long time and deep-rooted covenant with nature.
Why? Because science offers none of those things in return. No comfort. No assurance of our own value as a living person. No separation of brain and mind. No me. No expression of hope for the future, no continuance of life, no hereafter. Not much of a choice. What hope does science have to gain the hearts of men and women for whom these things are important – whether that importance was gained and garnered as a direct result of the comforting musings of ancestral animism entrenched deep within our collective soul, or through some later arising of mythical, religious, or philosophical concepts still operating under the aegis of that ancient covenant?
Jacques Monod too saw this. He says of objective science, after the statement that any acceptable explanation as to why science needs replace the ancient tradition:
“…if to appear genuine, meaningful, soothing, the ‘explanation’ must blend into the long animist tradition, then we understand why it took so many thousands of years for the kingdom of ideas to be invaded by the one according to which objective knowledge is the only authentic source of truth.”
I think I have almost said enough here. Let me quickly move onto the last two sentences which complete the original quote which both started this discourse and ended the author’s book.
“His (that is ‘man’s’) destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty. The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose.”
This passage raised the second question that sparked my interest in Monod’s words, and it really is an offshoot of my first question.
If man is alone in the universe, where on Earth (or anywhere else for that matter) does this concept of a ‘kingdom above’ or a ‘darkness below’ arise from? What else is there apart from the cold, heartless, hostile universe and the tender, frail life-forms sheltered beneath the Earth’s shallow band of protective atmosphere? What else is there?
Is the author revealing that he himself is still, at least partly, under the enchantment of the ancient covenant? Does he explain further? Well, as a matter of fact he does.
What Monod is saying here, well one of the things he is saying anyway, is not that mankind has a choice – although I suppose that we do, in that we could choose to abandon objective science altogether, as a concept, which is no choice at all really – but that the ‘kingdom above’ is really the pie-in-the-sky ’empyrean noon hour for mankind’ which was the delusional vision of 19th century scientism – again no choice at all really.
The ‘darkness below’? Well that is simply the only future that awaits us – the ‘abyss of darkness’ we see opening before us today – and again, no choice at all really.
And why is that? Monod provides the exact answer to that supplementary question. At some point in the last three (now approaching four) centuries, humanity, our species, made the choice which is “…binding upon its entire future,” and that choice “unconscious in the beginning” has “launched” our culture “on a one-way path” toward that “abyss of darkness”.
The choice we made? “Scientific practice“. In short – Applied science. The application of science in manufacturing, mining, commerce, business, chemistry, resource utilisation, health (so called), warfare and weaponry, and every other activity involving the plundering and rape of the very planet, the only planet, which we could ever contemplate as being our home. It’s the old Petrie dish syndrome.
We made our choice. OK, it may not have been ‘us’ in person, but we have gone along with everything it means, lately in an orgy of profligacy. The consequences will soon be due.
Whoever said there is no justice in this world, well, they were wrong.
This is the story of our lives, in just over 2,800 words of mine and a lot more from someone who I think knew what he was talking about.
I have gone along with what he said, because I think – in fact I am fairly sure – that this is a reasonable account of how our story began, has played out over time, and how it will end. It was going to be that, since I am not in total agreement with the whole of objective science (and neither is science, or they would not still be searching for knowledge to confirm, expand, or alter their findings to date), I would offer some of my own subjective views on some of the glaring gaps in current objective knowledge. Maybe another time.
There is a lot more useful information in Monad’s final chapter, which is well worth looking up, and also throughout the whole book if you are a biology or evolution nerd. If you find it difficult to obtain a copy of the book, here is a link to a photographed .pdf version (it’s where I obtained the images used here, and it’s in the public domain and downloadable, so why not?):
I think I am done here.