To the world François Jacob is best known as the scientist who in 1965 won a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work in gene regulation, but to Jacob his life resembles a procession of various selves, all of which depend on a hidden image buried deep in his unconscious. He uses the symbol of an inner statue to characterize this image that has formed his strongest desires and guided his most important decisions. This statue, which has been with him since childhood, has given his life continuity and formed the nucleus of his personality. His “statue within” has also changed throughout his life, and he himself has been involved in shaping, retouching, and polishing it.
Jacob’s use of symbols, metaphors, and images in his memoirs reveals that his is not an ordinary scientific autobiography. Traditionally, scientists have not been known for the perceptiveness with which they have analyzed their lives. In his “Autobiographical Notes,” Albert Einstein had many interesting things to say about the evolution of his scientific ideas, but his account fails to enlighten the reader about his psychological development. Indeed, Einstein once wrote that readers had no right to this information, which was useless in understanding the scientist’s work. Unlike Einstein, Jacob manifests great psychological insight in recounting his development both as a man and as a scientist. His skill at seeing science in its humanistic and historical contexts was already evident in his books La Logique du vivant: Une Histoire d’héredité (1970; The Logic of Life: A History of Heredity, 1982), which traces the history of genetics, and Le Jeu des possibles (1981; The Possible and the Actual, 1982). Themes from these earlier works—sex, aging, death, survival, chance, and above all evolution—recur in his autobiography, but his approach in the latter is different—more meditative, philosophical, even poetic. Although the overall structure of his memoirs is chronological, he feels free, in his search for the meaning of various incidents, to draw on material from all periods, an approach that can sometimes be confusing. For example, he fails to mention his birth in Nancy in June of 1920 or his family’s move to Paris when he was three years old. Instead, the book begins with the story of a former soldier with an amputated leg who came to Jacob seeking help. Jacob could see that his friend was asking to be free from further suffering, but Jacob, in what he later saw as an act of cowardice, ignored this emotional plea.
In showing his readers a significant failing resulting from his excessive rationalism, Jacob reveals from the start that he is striving for an honest depiction of himself, one encompassing both his faults and his virtues. This opening incident also discloses some of the basic themes of his life: suffering, war, the fear of death, and his search for order and meaning. As a youth, Jacob admired the deaths of Cleopatra and Socrates, though in everyday life he realized that it is impossible to live as if under death’s sentence. What fascinated Jacob in youth and in middle age was that, although he was not responsible for his birth, he could now control his death. He fears losing control over his life by a debilitating illness, but if this occurs, poison will become his ally, as it did for Cleopatra and Socrates.
The central figure of Jacob’s formative years was his mother, who, in his eyes, taught him everything: how to look at the world and speak, how to stand and walk, how to read. Simon Jacob, his father, represented for him the manly virtues of boldness, strength, and courage, but he often frightened François and at times precipitated his hate, especially when he quarreled with Thérèse. Simon populated their home with antique statues, paintings, and porcelain figures, and François’s encounters with these art objects revealed to him that new realities could be created by the imagination.
Because François was an only child, he was often alone, a circumstance that caused him to develop a rich interior life, one aspect of which was his obsessive love of reading. His maternal grandfather, the first Jew in France to attain the rank of four-star general, guided his reading, first of the classics, Homer and Vergil, and then of Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and Jules Verne. François idolized his grandfather and resolved to pursue a military career.
Before he could attend the École Polytechnique, François had to complete his elementary education at the Lycée Carnot. His experiences at this school were not happy. He encountered anti-Semitism. He was unhappy with the classes—cages, he called them, whose prisoners’ fortunes depended on the goodwill of the teachers. He was also bothered by the compartmentalizing of his subjects. One hour he translated Seneca and the next he studied the steam engine. In the world things seemed to be well interrelated, but education, which was supposed to teach students about the world, divided it up into unrelated parts.
Outside school François had a happy childhood, with summers spent at the family’s vacation retreat in...