Sean B. Carroll’s “Brave Genius” — Albert Camus, Jacques Monod, and their Remarkable Friendship

Brave Genius Sean B. Carroll’s BRAVE GENIUS: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize is  about two Nobel Prize winners — writer and philosopher Albert Camus, and scientist Jacques Monod.   As the title says, these two Nobel Prize winners both fought in the French Resistance — Camus edited the influential underground newspaper Combat at a time when his words and views were desperately needed to hearten spirits, while Monod (known as “Malivert”) was one of the highest-ranking men in France fighting against the corrupt, Nazi-appeasing Vichy government.

The strongest part of BRAVE GENIUS deals with Camus and Monod’s adventures while in the Resistance, when they did not know each other (except perhaps by reputation).  Both men were deeply principled atheists who nevertheless believed that the human spirit contains something extremely important that must not be muzzled. And both had something transcendent to offer the world — Camus in the field of letters and philosophy, while Monod worked with enzymes and simple sugars, trying to figure out why enzymes sometimes did one thing and sometimes did another.  (Being able to isolate why each aspect of an enzyme did what is the main reason Monod and his team eventually won a Nobel Prize.)  But at the time the Vichy government became ascendant in 1940, they both were little known, lightly regarded, and at the very beginning of their careers at absolute best.

Monod himself was a family man; his wife, Odette, was Jewish by heritage but atheist by temperament, yet of course the Nazis didn’t care that Odette wasn’t a practicing Jew.   Monod was in the French military before it disbanded after the Germans overran France in 1940, but continued to fight on as a member of the Resistance precisely because of how fearful he was that his wife and family would be taken, tortured and killed.  He urged his wife to “hide in plain sight” and then did his best to disappear into the Resistance in order to drive the Nazis out of the country.  Later on, he made sure that those appeasers who’d taken part in the provisional government in Vichy never again had any power whatsoever.

Monod’s spirit was great, so of course he was worried about all of France, whether he knew the people personally or not.  But his fight, ultimately, was driven by his personal belief system that the Nazis were utterly corrupt and that they must be driven out again.  Everything else — up to and including his own life, if it came to that — was subordinate to that need.

Camus, of course, was far more profligate than Monod ever was.  Camus in his prime was married and also had three or four lovers on the side.  (This book never does explain what Camus’ wife thought of his lovers, but she must have known about them.  Camus did not believe in dissembling.)  Camus was not well enough due to a past attack of tuberculosis to enlist in the French military in the same way as Monod.  But when the time came, he actively helped to resist the Vichy appeasers and the Nazi overlords, partly because Camus believed that the Nazis were evil — not just wrong, evil — and felt that the Vichy appeasers, who had to know that the Nazis were loathsome, vicious thugs, was somehow worse than most of the Nazis because the Vichys could’ve chosen to resist.

They just didn’t do it.

Anyway, both men made their stands.  Monod took part in various active efforts of the Resistance, helping to round up financing to buy guns, ammunition and other war materiel (such as bombs to blow up railways, a necessity that helped the United States when they landed on Omaha Beach in 1944), while Camus wrote stirring editorials and helped report the real news that the Vichy appeasers and the Nazi overlords wanted to suppress.

Then the War ended, and Camus was able to unveil himself.  The French people were overjoyed with relief, and their pleasure in Camus and his ideas cannot be overestimated.  (Monod’s involvement was not as well-known, and the French mostly overlooked it at the time.  It came to light later after Monod won the Nobel Prize.)  They eagerly went back and bought up The Myth of Sisyphus and The Plague (both published during the Vichy appeasement), then bought everything else Camus ever published.  And they loved Camus’ philosophy, later called “existentialism” (Camus himself never used this term and there’s evidence he actively disliked it), which, roughly stated, goes like this: “Human lives are short and perhaps they don’t matter.  But live like they do.”

This is what made Camus’ reputation — his service in the Resistance — and if it matters, it shows that Malcolm Gladwell was right in OUTLIERS (reviewed here) in that sometimes you have to be the right person at the right time and get the right breaks in order for your ideas to be seen to have worth and value.  You also must persist, mind you — Camus certainly had to persist during the Vichy government, as Camus disagreed profoundly with everything they did and wasn’t shy about saying so, either — but without having all of the right skill set plus being in the right place at the right time, Camus’ ideas might’ve died with him.

Instead, Camus won a Nobel Prize and was considered one of the strongest moral thinkers in the 20th Century.

Jacques Monod’s life was far less dramatic than Camus’, partly because Monod lived longer, partly because Monod was a family man and Camus just wasn’t, and partly because most people just don’t understand what scientists do very well.  What was understood was this — after Camus’ early death in 1960 at age 46 due to a car accident, Monod became the strongest voice French intellectuals had to combat the creeping tide of Communism, the remnants of Fascism, and the problems of pseudo-scientific bunk like Lysenkoism (basically, Lysenko believed that things would happen, genetically, just because Lysenko thought they would, and that’s nonsense, which Monod said far more eloquently than I just did right now).

So in that sense, Monod became Camus’ spiritual heir, which would’ve amused Camus no end as Camus was, of course, an atheist — as was Monod.

Monod also later published what might be the most unlikely bestselling book of all time, CHANCE AND NECESSITY: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology.  This book is a naturalistic look at biology, and discusses how important it is to come at science honestly — without preconceptions, without undue moral bias (not to mean that you should directly proceed to an immoral bias, mind you — just don’t have any biases at all if you can help it), and only that way can we as a species really learn anything worth knowing.

Now, this book isn’t exactly an easy read, even though Monod did tone down his academic jargon quite a bit and the English translator did even more to make things as comprehensible as possible.  Still, this book sold like a house on fire, and was on the bestseller list of more than one country, which just goes to show you the power of ideas can sometimes win out over just about anything, providing that particular idea’s time has come in the first place.

For whatever reason, I kept thinking about Malcolm Gladwell, though, when I read BRAVE GENIUS.  These two men were forged in the fire of the French Resistance, and without that, it’s unlikely their ideas would’ve come to fruition in the same way or perhaps at all.  So without that precipitating event, it’s unlikely either one of them, Monod or Camus, would’ve had a life that people still celebrate today, long after both have gone to dust . . . yet because of that event, and because of their responses to that event, their ideas have stood the test of time.

Overall, BRAVE GENIUS is a very strong and very entertaining book.  It’s better when it comes to the World War II descriptions — those live and breathe, and the suspense even at a sixty-plus year remove is palpable — but the scientific breakthroughs Monod and his team discovered are well rendered and probably would’ve been standouts in their own right if not for the absolute vitality of the depictions of the French Resistance.  (This is not altogether a surprise when you consider that Carroll is a scientist himself and is particularly good at explaining science to the layman.)  And the reasons that Monod and Camus became friends after the War — the compelling, heart-rending reasons — are thrown into sharp relief that resonates long after the book has been finished, as are the ideas that these two influential and important men propagated during their lifetimes.

Bottom line?  This is a book that everyone who loves writing, philosophy, science, or World War II should read — and it contains perhaps the best nonfiction treatment I’ve ever seen of the French Resistance, much less why it was so very important that the French continue to resist up until the Allies finally liberated France.

So what are you waiting for?  Go grab this book and settle in — it’s not a light read, and it will take time, but BRAVE GENIUS is a book that will reward your efforts.  Guaranteed.

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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  1. Just Reviewed “Brave Genius” at SBR | Barb Caffrey's Blog

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