Autobiographical Reflections:


The event that belatedly decided my scientific fate was unexpected but not fortuitous. At the IBYS Institute, traditionally dedicated to preparing serums and vaccines, practical problems related to immunity were omnipresent, and I had to deal with them.

My latent interest in biology soon made me realize that immunization (the ability to respond specifically to foreign proteins), a very general phenomenon with highly diverse manifestations, must be caused by something with a profound scientific significance. My keen curiosity led me to study with experimental rigour an approachable phenomenon of immunity: casein anaphylaxis in guinea pigs. In the course of time, a well-prepared experiment led me to discover that injected casein (what is called an antigen in immunology) multiplied some of its structures in the animal, so, apparently, the primary factor of all immunization is a kind of self-reproduction of the antigen rather than, as is commonly thought, a production of defensive substances (antibodies) triggered by the presence of the antigen.

This discovery seemed to suggest a change in the interpretation of immunity. In accordance with the requirements of experimental science, I had to contrast this change with the prevailing theory of immunity with regard to all known relevant phenomena and, if possible, foresee any unknown phenomena that could be involved according to the new way of understanding things.

I fulfilled the first requirement by studying a brilliant treatise on immunology, currently pending publication, which brought order to a vast number of publications, Die Immunitätsforschung by Robert Doerr, Volumes I to VIII (my translation of which was published by La Revista de Occidente), and by verifying its agreement with the facts of the two theories in my first book Inmunidad y automultiplicación proteica (Spanish), published in 1954 by La Revista de Occidente. Spanish). Regarding the second requirement, under the encouragement of Professor Hallauer of Berne, I performed a carefully designed experiment that gave the expected response: guinea pigs inoculated with tetanus toxin multiply in their brain not the toxin but immunological determinants of it in an amount that rises in the course of the induced tetanus until it significantly exceeds that of the inoculated determinants. Thus, with the field of experimental research open, “the theory to work with” seemed very rich in subjects, and in my forties and fifties I thought I had found my place as an experimental researcher.

This experimental work was to have a more important influence on my career. Obviously, the observed phenomenon and immunization in general seemed inexplicable without understanding the living being in which they occur. Therefore, my attention was divided between the antigen (dispersed molecules incorporated from outside) and the intimacy of the cell (a unitary being that is able to react to these molecules and can be disturbed so disproportionately and persistently), which provided an initial -albeit tenuous- key to understanding these phenomena. Contrary to mainstream science, my first approach to these experimental works transformed my biochemical problems into biological ones, because the central theme of biology is the nature of the living being as an individual. But above all, using the familiarity that I achieved in this experimental work led me naturally to a diametrical change in the problems that I was considering, which I have followed tenaciously since then (somehow the conclusions of this experimental work formed an instrument for achieving new knowledge). Since then I have striven to explain the particular and the ephemeral through the whole of which it forms part and through the co-evolution of this whole; in turn, this whole cannot be understood (in its emergence and evolution) without knowing the parts that depend on it today. Therefore, the experimental science that provides knowledge of the particular and concrete is obviously essential in order to understand the whole and its evolution. Since the beginning two centuries ago (and it will always be so), the branches of evolutionist thought have been no more than experimental science elevated to problems of a new level.

We thus come to the commencement of the work to which I am still committed. Although it began twenty-five years ago, it is still current or so directly affects the present that it is included in my recent books. The history of my work during these years of maturity, from 1950 to 1970, is set out briefly in the preface to my book Evolucionist Treatise of Biology. Parte One. The Origin Nature and Evolution of protoplasmic individuals and their association, pages XXXI to XXXV. In this autobiographical note I have focused my memory on my background, which has shown little variation in the overall conception and methods since I started my work as a biologist, and above all on my perception of how I organized and still organize experimental knowledge into evolutionist thought.

With his assistant Eloy Terrón at the IBA. Madrid, 1980

I will therefore merely state that, after I took the new direction of scientific research, from the age of 45 to 65 years my persistent efforts to interpret the specific experimental data through the whole of which they form part and vice versa led, with varying degrees of success, to a number of steps. Each of these steps marked an equivalent progress over the previous one and they can be characterized as follows: 1) the step was initially triggered by an experimental observation that unexpectedly led to a new field (Note 2); 2) each new stage lasted about five years and started through the theoretical work of the previous stage (our thought had reached sufficient maturity to interpret the observations); 3) in each step the new problems referred to relations of an additional order that established a greater sphere of reality (a greater whole) with specific data of an order of size (a level of complexity) that was, however, lesser than that studied in the previous stage; and 4) every step led us to study systematically and objectively the body of empirical and experimental knowledge of an area of biological science that had previously been considered with less attention. The major milestones in this process of reflection are laid down in the following books: La introducción al origen y evolución de la vida (Spanish)(1958), La evolución conjunta de los animales y su medio (Spanish)(1966), La función de la ciencia en la sociedad (Spanish)(1978), Evolucionist Treatise of Biology. Part One (1978), La naturaleza del hombre a la luz de su origen biológico (Spanish) (1981).

In general, I think that these years of maturity were characterized by continuous and increasingly productive work, part of which is laid down in my publications. Much of the production was laid down in highly detailed working notes that remain unpublished due to the nature of the results that began to emerge and my need to apply myself to them conscientiously. Indeed, the solutions to the problems rapidly raised new, more general and specific problems that drove me to disregard what I thought I knew for the sake of what I needed to know. The working hypotheses led to other, more profound ones, so this period is characterized by the pursuit of ever firmer foundations of thought. This feature of my research in this period was undoubtedly not due to my own qualities (whose previous originality had been modest) but to the objective nature of the field of exploration that I had discovered, which affected new fields if suitably studied. Thus, if my efforts are not in vain and bear some fruit, my merit has only been that I was almost forced to follow something that had kept me occupied and that imperiously demanded daily development. I think this period of great submission to suprapersonal objectives was, paradoxically, a time of joyful personal fulfillment.

At the Institute of Applied Biology (IBA). Madrid, 1976

Because I perceived the fragility of some principles of accepted science in my forties (I demythified science and saw it as it is, not a finished building but a job to be done), my thought took on a new quality: it tended towards fruitful denial, the boldness of heterodoxy. I think, then, that scientists, supported by the dictates of reason, must encourage their creative imagination, transmuting the knowledge they have gained into method for attaining new thought. This somewhat radical trend imposed on me by the course of my work was greatly tempered by my idiosyncrasies, education and experience. When my reflections so require, I venture into uncharted territory, but I do so with an acute sense of caution and uncertainty.

I have never dared to imagine abstract theories or felt the inclination to do so. To avoid losing themselves in theorizing efforts, scientists have no alternative but to stick to the facts, to become familiar with an increasing range of facts (in the Universe subjected to a process of coherent interactions). Specifying the facts, considering all their relationships, is a habit of ours imposed by insecurity, by the prudence of people who have to venture alone in their career.

There is a second rule that life has taught me: one must combine incorruptible fidelity to the dictates of one’s own reason with respect for what others think. The basis of thought of all men is obviously common, so the strength of our convictions and respect for those of others have the same basis. I always base my thinking on the certainty that any opinion different from my own necessarily has some point of truth to be discovered; either our interpretation takes into account that of others (resolves it) or that of others discovers a weak side of our own (assuming that it is not erroneous, that it also has its point of truth). I know that the massive process of science is accomplished in collaboration and that our mainstay is the truth rather than the weaknesses of the thoughts of others. I therefore think that I have always tried to adopt a constructive criticism that seeks to fully assimilate not the gaps and weaknesses of what I read (which is generally easy), but the basis of truth that has been discovered, which is sometimes still imperfectly understood by the author. For example, it was easy to perceive the errors of Weismann and Lamarck but far more difficult (and rewarding!) to understand the thread of true thought that they glimpsed confusedly. I therefore think that personal discussion rather than the generous consideration of facts and ideas is anti-scientific. Moreover, aware of how discredited freethinking has come to be in science (today so fettered), I have tended not to deny my own conviction, to which I devote myself passionately, but to seek support in generally accepted knowledge so that my conviction loses the personal stamp as far as possible.

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