Autobiographical Reflections on Science

Madrid, Triunfo, No. 56, March 1981

I think the many influences that have helped shape me can be classified, at first glance, into two categories. Some influences have acted on me through affinity, through agreement with my own nature. The most decisive of these were the earliest influences (received at a time when I was more open to them) and the ones that were most in agreement with my nature. They are the dearest parts of my past, and recalling them offers the attraction of delving into my emotional life in search of the sources of my character. These are the memories of my parents, grandparents and siblings; friends of childhood and adolescence; comrades of the passionate youthful political life that allowed me to experience the epic Spanish Civil War with lucid intensity; the woman who has been the centre of my emotional life for forty-six years; and the family we have raised. I have lived through all of this in a very short succession of natural scenarios (I have always been little inclined to travel and very inclined to become fond of the setting I am in), some of which came to be so much a part of me that, after nearly half a century, I can clearly recall their times and seasons and I am even moved to remember some of the pets that shared my life. However, in this autobiographical note I have not included memories of this type, mainly through modesty and piety, and also because -though of great interest to me- they are the autobiographical information of others. Therefore, I have accepted the kind invitation by Triunfo to recall the influences that have shaped my career and given meaning to my work, the only thing that may, at best, be of interest to someone.

El Prior estate, Fregenal de la Sierra, Extremadura, 1934

In these autobiographical notes on science, I think the most interesting influences were not those that were in line with my past and my natural inclination, but rather those to which I was initially -and sometimes intensely- resistant. Indeed, science can only fulfill its function of illuminating the truest thought by denying weak or erroneous aspects of current thought (nothing comes from a void), so obviously in science the only way forward is to fight one’s own prejudices. Consequently, I think that the story of a scientist’s life is the succession of contradictory acts in which his or her thought takes place. The more deeply rooted the prejudice overcome, the more important and decisive these acts are. The more concealed the prejudice is to the scientist’s introspection, the more essential it was to his former general order of ideas.

Following this line of thought, I think the most significant period of learning and training of scientists is what shapes them so that, on reaching maturity, they have the contradictory ability to deeply assimilate the social thought that is offered to them and to react with increasing freedom to what is erroneous or weak in this thought. In short, what may remain (if anything) of the creative stage of scientists must be the result of living acts of will, in each of which they deny themselves for the sake of what is to come. Therefore, the interesting part of their learning consists of the external influences that lead them to adopt a position of full awareness of the continuing insecurity that is proper to humans: in other words, the influences that taught them that today’s certainty is no more than the way towards tomorrow’s perplexity, the influences that made them what scientists should be: professionals in ignorance.

Faustino Cordón: Biólogo Evolucionista by Herederos de Faustino Cordón, licensed under a Creative Commons Reconocimiento-NoComercial-CompartirIgual 4.0 Internacional License. Licencia de Creative Commons