The liberal arts roots of genius

In his new book Brave Genius, biologist Sean Carroll, PhD, AB ’79, moves beyond science and into World War II history, the French Resistance, philosophy and Cold War politics to tell the story of two extraordinary men. But crossing disciplines is something Carroll has been doing since he was a liberal arts major at Washington University.

The book traces the careers, wartime exploits and friendship of two ultimate Nobel Prize winners, biologist Jacques Monod and writer Albert Camus. Over the two-and-a-half years Carroll spent writing and researching the book — after it had gestated for some eight years — the scientist found himself playing the role of historian, journalist, storyteller and more.

“Science has a place in our culture, yet great ideas come from all walks of life. My undergraduate education at Washington University exposed me — both through study and osmosis, from the people around me and what they were studying — to philosophy, history, the arts, architecture, literature and political science, broadening my horizons,” Carroll says. “I am 100 percent convinced that without these chance events this book wouldn’t exist.”

One of those events occurred as a freshman, when he was assigned a work-study job in the lab of biologist Simon Silver.

“He took me under his wing and showed me how science worked. He also exposed me to Jacques Monod,” who 35 years later would become one of the two main Brave Genius protagonists. “Simon also told me about the treatment of dissident scientists in the Soviet Union,” says Carroll, which figured importantly in Monod’s career and thus in Carroll’s book.

Another chance event that ultimately led to the birth of Brave Genius was Carroll’s enrolling in a French class taught by James Jones. He did so only to secure credit for an advanced-placement French class he had taken in his Toledo, Ohio, high school, having no intention of studying the language any further. But, says Carroll, “Professor Jones’ talent and charisma changed my plans.”

Carroll ended up taking six courses from Jones. “He introduced me to many great thinkers, from Diderot and Voltaire to Sartre and Camus” — the second central Brave Genius protagonist.

Further, Carroll says that writing in French and studying French grammar under Jones “exercised muscles I wouldn’t normally exercise and had something to do with my writing style for Brave Genius and its structure.” Carroll also notes that he gained “some language skills that, even though badly rusted, later turned out to be very handy” on the three trips he made to Paris to research the book, including interviewing contemporaries, colleagues and relatives of Monod and Camus.

But all that came about only after decades, while what he had been exposed to as an undergraduate “simmered in the background.” Meanwhile, he did his own research in animal genetics and evolution. Then he happened to read brief mentions that Monod had been in the Resistance and was friends with Camus, an important Resistance figure.

“I became curious to know what was left untold. How did their war experiences shape their future work and worldview? What was their life like during the Occupation? What drew Monod and Camus together? What common ground did the scientist and the writer-philosopher find?”

While in France, Carroll, when interviewing those who knew Monod, heard him described with the phrase, “He had culture.” Meaning, says Carroll, “that he had a sense of history, the arts and literature as well as science. That was highly valued by those who had experienced it.”

All those disciplines benefit, Carroll says, from one overarching skill: storytelling. “We communicate via stories. Great storytelling is something all disciplines have in common — whether music, poetry, literature or science. All knowledge must be conveyed so people can absorb it. I want to be a better storyteller — as a teacher, writer, speaker and filmmaker.”