Two of a KindPrint
A postwar friendship
By David Brown
September 5, 2013
Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize, by Sean B. Carroll, Crown, 571 pp., $28
In March 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed 5,000 people at the Palais des Sports in Paris as part of an overseas tour to raise money for the civil rights movement. He had won the Nobel Peace Prize two years earlier and was perhaps the most widely admired American in European eyes. So who was selected to introduce him?
Albert Camus would have been the logical choice, but he was six years dead. Not Jean-Paul Sartre, whose sclerotic Stalinism was barely a decade in the past. Not the aging Charles de Gaulle or any number of French movie stars. Chosen instead was a biologist named Jacques Monod.
Monod, 56, had won a Nobel Prize the year before. But that wasn’t his only qualification, or even the most important one. He had been a confidant of Camus, a leader (albeit not gun-wielding) of the Resistance in Nazi-occupied France, and a defender of Hungary’s aborted 1956 revolution who helped smuggle rebel scientists out of that country. Soon he would join students at the barricades in the upheavals of May 1968.
Why Monod was the right man for the honor is, indirectly, the subject of this fascinating, if unfocused, book. Brave Genius tells the story of Camus and Monod, and in lesser detail of François Jacob, Monod’s colleague at the Institut Pasteur in Paris who (along with another Pasteur scientist, André Lwoff) shared the 1965 Nobel. Beginning with the Nazi invasion of France in 1940 and ending with Monod’s death in 1976, the book chronicles the German occupation, the activities of the Resistance and Free French Forces, the liberation of the country following D-Day, and the postwar war of words as French intellectuals confronted the failure of communism. Threading these events are the two men’s professional and intellectual journeys—Camus’s as a writer of novels and plays, journalist, and philosopher; Monod’s as a molecular biologist, freethinker, and public intellectual.
Sean B. Carroll, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, is a distinguished biologist and author in his own right. He’s also a Francophile and history buff who gained access to unpublished letters by Monod and others and interviewed the few surviving participants of the events described.
Monod was a “true genius,” in Camus’s estimation. He was also brave. A doctoral student in zoology when the occupation began, he joined Francs-Tireurs et Partisans (“free-shooters and partisans”), for which he recruited fighters from France’s demobilized army and coordinated with other underground paramilitary units. He hid documents in the leg bones of a stuffed giraffe at the Sorbonne, sneaked into Switzerland for a summit of Resistance organizations, and picked sabotage targets and set up listening posts in advance of the Normandy invasion. For a while he was underground, wearing disguises and traveling under the pseudonym “Malivert.” All the while he regularly visited his Jewish wife and twin sons ensconced in a village outside Paris, she under an assumed name.
Camus’s story is only a little more straightforward. He moved around France, visited Algeria, collected mistresses, wrote The Stranger and The Plague, socialized with Sartre and Picasso, and wrote unsigned editorials for the Resistance journal Combat.
The two men crossed paths during the war but didn’t become close friends until afterward, when Monod returned to his research and Camus became an outspoken critic of Soviet totalitarianism. Tutored by Monod, Camus took on Trofim Lysenko, Stalin’s favorite biologist, who “proved” that organisms could rapidly change their genetic endowment when put into new environments. Lysenko’s theories fit an ideology determined to create the New Soviet Man but ignored the role of chance in mutation and the long course of natural selection.
“Camus had no independent grasp of the science in question. But with the benefit of Monod’s analysis, he hardly needed a degree in genetics to understand that Lysenko’s ascent was a symptom of the same disease that had led to the purges and trials,” Carroll writes. “Camus, who so treasured the sense of solidarity that existed among the Resistance, had in Monod a new comrade who shared both the deep bond of that wartime experience and an unqualified opposition to a new common enemy.”
Ironically, the phenomenon Monod was seeking to understand in his lab looked disturbingly like Lysenkoism. E. coli bacteria, when fed a solution containing glucose and lactose, grow rapidly until the glucose is gone. Only then do the microbes turn to the lactose, structurally more complex and difficult to break down. Confronted with an environment in which lactose is the only food, E. coli “adapts” to it. But it does so without changing its genes.
What Monod and Jacob determined is that the gene for the enzyme that breaks down lactose lies dormant until it is exposed to a lot more lactose than glucose, its preferred food. Lactose “derepresesses” the gene—essentially releases a parking brake—and allows it to be transcribed. Their discovery gave the first look at how genes are regulated and shed light on a unit of genome architecture, which they termed an “operon.” That Monod and Jacob determined this with little more than radioactive isotopes, bacterial mutants, and powers of deduction “was the reward of very clever experimentation, but more important it was a triumph of the imagination,” Carroll writes.
Jacob went on to be a key player in the discovery of messenger RNA (mRNA), another brain-teasing mystery. Like Monod, he had lived a hero’s life before his scientific accomplishments. A just-graduated physician and a Jew, he escaped to England and joined the Free French Forces. Returning to France two months after D-Day, he was almost killed while tending a dying officer. His wounds prevented him from becoming a surgeon, so he turned to research. He died in April at age 92.
Brave Genius is a long, exciting, and impressively told tale. It’s a bit crowded with walk-ons from the French underground and their noms de guerre. There’s too much quotation from political documents, newspaper editorials, and Camus’s writing. But the biggest problem is the lack of graphics to explain the science. This oversight is astonishing, as Carroll’s previous books had memorably helpful drawings. The experiments recounted in Brave Genius are far more easily seen than described. When readers commit to a book this long, they really deserve all the help they can get, even if that means a few added pages.
So what, in the end, is the connection between the two “brave geniuses?”
The influence they had on each other was subtle, and Carroll rightly doesn’t push it too hard. What’s clear is that their lives followed similar trajectories, with each man ending as a champion of secularism, individualism, and a kind of rugged communitarianism. Monod’s last achievement was a book-length essay, “Chance and Necessity,” still readable and relevant, in which he explores the moral lessons of modern biology. Published a decade after Camus’s death, it was the two men’s closest approach. Writes Carroll: “Through his public commitments to human rights, individual freedoms, and indeed even the necessity of rebellion, Monod emerged as a new incarnation of his friend Camus, albeit in a lab coat.”
David Brown has been a staff writer for The Washington Post since 1991. A journalist and a physician, he works four days a week at the Post and two-thirds of a day at a general internal medicine clinic in Baltimore supervising third-year medical students.