Abir-Am, Pnina G. "Essay Review: How Scientists View Their Heroes: Some Remarks on the
Mechanism of Myth Construction," Journal of the History of Biology 15 (Summer, 1982), pp.
This is an essay review of a book, Origins of Molecular Biology: A Tribute to Jacques Monod,
edited by Andre Lwoff and Agnes Ullmann. (New York: Academic Press, 1979). It is a very
unfavorable view of the work; it is based on the assumption that volumes written to honor
deceased or retiring comrades are meant to be honest descriptions of the person's work. But
volumes written "in honor of..." are just that. They are meant for other than "scientific" purposes.
They are, professional eulogies. They are functionally quite distinct from truth-telling.
Heroes in French science are different in many ways from other nations' heroes in science. In
France, science is highly politicized. One is expected to be more than a scientist. One is expected
to be a philosopher, writer, propagandist, administrator, and just about everything else, including
a politician. Indeed, if for nothing else, Monod is to be remembered as having put the team
together that invented molecular biology, a discovery second only to Crick and Watson's work
on the structure of DNA.
The articles here are ceremonial and formal rather "substantive." If a tall tale is told here, it is to
be forgiven because it is told as a memorial. It is, rather, in the writing of texts that myth making
is attempted in earnest. Myths do not get written as encomiums, even in France where, for
example, Fontenelle delivered every important scientific eulogy for 50 years. Substantively, this
article says a great deal about the stuff out of which myths might be attempted, even if they have
not been attempted yet. Tales may be mythic but this makes for good reading.