National Book Award nominee Sean B. Carroll’s new work, Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize, is the story of an unusual friendship shared by two of the twentieth century’s most brilliant minds: biologist Jacques Monod and philosopher Albert Camus. It was a friendship built on the strength of mutual conviction, as much as anything else. Both men vehemently opposed censorship and oppression, and had risked their lives battling the Nazis as members of the French Resistance. While the Germans were soon defeated, Camus’ and Monod’s battle had only just begun. The philosopher and the scientist stood firm against repression, publicly criticizing the policies of the USSR and the United States, even when it cost them professionally and personally to do so.
Signature recently spoke with Carroll about how he discovered the story of this remarkable friendship.
Signature: I think that the most obvious question I could ask is how a molecular biologist became a writer of such rich, prose-like nonfiction. Really, Brave Genius is a gorgeous piece of work. Was there always a writer underneath the academic?
SEAN B. CARROLL: Thank you for the very generous compliments. They are much appreciated. As to the origin of the writer, my agent Russ Galen once told me that I had inherited the Irish “bullshitter” gene. He was speaking, of course, about the inclination to tell stories. And that is true about me, but a knack for storytelling is just as important for scientists as it is for artists. I appreciate that we may be perceived as nerds in white lab coats, but science is a way of finding out about the world, and then hopefully sharing that perspective. Whether communicating with one another, with students, or with the general public, telling a good story well is key. So, I have been trying to become a better storyteller.
SIG: There were quite a few notable men and women involved in the French Resistance; there’s so much history to riffle through. How did you discover the story of Camus and Monod, and what compelled you to write about their friendship?
SBC: The epigraph to Monod’s well-known book Chance and Necessity is the last two paragraphs from Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. It appeared to me that what Monod had done in his book was to embrace Camus’ reasoning, and then to add new scientific evidence to arrive at a deeper perspective of humanity’s place in the universe. I was curious to know more about how the great writer-philosopher had influenced the biologist, and whether the reverse was also true.
I had picked up just little snippets about Monod’s life over decades. Horace Freeland Judson’s The Eighth Day of Creation mentioned both his time in the Resistance and his friendship with Camus, but did not delve into details. Only one Camus biography mentioned Monod, and just in passing.
I decided that if I was going to write about Monod, I had to have original material and to be able to illuminate his relationship with Camus.
So, I started digging. I learned about a letter from Camus to Monod and obtained a copy. That letter reflected a warmth and intimacy that encouraged me to keep searching. I kept gathering pieces: a letter from Monod, a story from a lab member, a French journalist’s story of an evening together, and more that revealed a long-running and mutually meaningful friendship. Indeed, I was able to figure out that Camus’ friendship with Monod was blossoming at the same time that his friendship with Sartre was dissolving, and for the same reason: opposition to Stalin and Soviet-style communism.
I was also learning what the two men went through during the war. My crucial source for Monod’s experiences was his assistant in the Resistance, Genevieve Noufflard, a remarkable woman who gave me a treasure trove of material. Her stories helped me to see why Monod and Camus would have bonded after the war and found many common causes. The book then had to be about how those war experiences shaped these men, and then how they in turn shaped the world.
SIG: I found the structure of the book particularly interesting in the sense that the men don't meet until 300 pages in. Until that point you chart the course of Camus’ and Monod's lives separately. That seems like a risky decision when you're writing a book about a friendship, but it ultimately pays off. Were you tempted at any point to begin this book in medias res instead?
SBC: You are right that was a risk. I felt anxiety about that in plotting the book, and I still feel anxiety about it in that I am sure readers will notice. But I hope that I have provided a page-turning, immersive account of what the men (and their family, friends, and all of France) went through during the war that will propel readers forward into the second half of the story when they do connect.
I thought about beginning in the middle, as you indicated, but then I would have had to back up too frequently. I decided that making the first part of the book about that joint experience of France’s collapse and the long road back to freedom would offer insights into the motivations of each man during the rest of their lives.
SIG: These were two men for whom life held many mysteries to unravel: Camus with the question of how and why life should be lived, and Monod with how life continues to evolve. Both seemed to live their own lives in conscious rebellion against limits, heroic ones at times: fascism, war, and oppression. Were they aware of these parallels in their lives, or was their friendship more based on compatible personalities and the bond of shared hardships?
SBC: Camus’ and Monod’s common perspective, arrived at by different paths, was that this life is the only one we have. What Camus did for Monod and many others was to suggest how to live fully with that knowledge, and what values one might embrace.
Above all, Camus emphasized and Monod seconded the primary value of human freedom. So, their friendship was tied closely to these shared concerns, manifested as their opposition to Soviet policies, their involvement in Hungary, etc. I was very excited to uncover very clear evidence of Monod having assisted Camus with his criticism of the Soviet perversion of science in The Rebel. That and Camus’ inscription to Monod (“an answer to some of our questions”) revealed an intellectual collaboration, something much more than friendship.
SIG: Their personal lives were radically different in some ways. Camus was a bit of a womanizer, and Monod a family man. Do you consider some degree of friction to be good for a friendship?
SBC: I’ll largely pass on this question. I don’t have any particular insight here except to say that this was a different time and a different culture. I doubt that Camus and Monod would have discussed their love interests, let alone pass any judgments on one another.
SIG: I have admired Camus for many years, but found his position on French Algeria to be a little disappointing. I got the feeling that this might have played a role in his later troubles with Sartre and the intellectual Left, although it wasn't overtly stated as such. As a man who has spent some time researching Camus, how did you feel about that? It seems to otherwise complicate the image of a man who fought for freedom at every stage.
Algeria was a no-win situation for Camus. He abhorred the violence on both sides, and criticized both the terrorists and the French government for their excesses. After some time, he concluded that nothing he said publicly was able to mitigate the violence. Camus wanted a peaceful resolution with Algeria still connected to France in some way that accommodated its large French population. He was criticized by all factions, including the French Left, for his positions. So he decided to become silent on the matter in public, while working behind the scenes to appeal for justice in cases where Algerians were wrongly accused, and for clemency when young Algerians faced capital punishment.
I think that with family and roots in Algeria, Camus’ position is understandable. His decision to act privately, which included appeals to France’s leaders, was his way of balancing what he perceived to be Algerian realities with his peaceful ideals.
SIG: You did an admirable job of communicating the complexities of Monod's experiments for a layman like myself. How did you even begin unboxing such a difficult topic?
SBC: Science uses a system of reasoning that is exactly like that of a detective. So, the key is to get the reader engaged in the mystery, then to follow the logic of the sequence of the major experiments that unraveled it. That includes presenting the wrong ideas or missteps, not only because that is the way the right idea is often found in science, but I think that keeps the reader in on the quest.
I am pleased that you think I was successful in this case. Monod was an exceptional logician who laid out all possible alternatives and systematically analyzed them. That gave me a great road map to follow. I also have a lot of experience teaching this material to students, so perhaps that was good practice. One more device I used was to provide a brief appendix with the science all in one place so that readers can refresh that part of the story if needed.
SIG: You also did a great job of communicating the horrors of both the Vichy government and the Soviet state. Both Monod and Camus rejected both and chose to resist them, even though collaboration and turning the other way may have been better for their own comfort or, at later times, their careers. What motivated them to take such incredible risks when many others just kept their heads down?
SBC: I think that the loss of freedom and the conditions imposed by the Germans were intolerable for both men. So when the opportunity emerged to take some action against their oppressors, they seized it.
It was also the case that many people in their immediate circles – academics and artists – were repulsed by German policies and the complicity of their French collaborators, and gravitated toward the Resistance. Camus and Monod were incapable of just standing aside and letting others do the dangerous work of liberation.
As for the Soviets, the experience of the Occupation forged each man’s resolve to fight against all forms of oppression. The Nazi regime was founded on the delusions of a tyrant. Camus and Monod saw many of the same risks in Stalin and Soviet communism. Both men fervently believed in their responsibility, as scientists and artists, respectively, to speak out against those who lied and killed in the name of some ideology.
SIG: At the risk of overstating the case, I have seen our own government take some turns to the oppressive in the years since 9/11. How do you think that Camus and Monod would have reacted to things like "free speech zones" and NSA surveillance? Would they have seen this in a similar light?
SBC: I am going to sidestep a bit on this one. I think that if the two men were alive today, there are many things they would be concerned about. For one, I think they would find some common cause in the many dangers of religious fundamentalism, in every form.