Konrad Lorenz

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Konrad Lorenz
Lorenz in 1978
Born7 November 1903
Died27 February 1989(1989-02-27) (aged 85)
AwardsNobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1973)
Scientific career

Konrad Zacharias Lorenz (Vienna, 7 November 1903 – Vienna, 27 February 1989) was an Austrian zoologist, naturalist, ornithologist and Nobel Prize winner. He is one of the founders of studies on animal behaviour (ethology). Lorenz studied instinctive behavior in animals, especially in Greylag geese and jackdaws.

Biography[change | change source]

In his autobiographical essay, published in 1973 in Les Prix Nobel (people who win the Nobel Prize are asked to write essays about their lives), Lorenz said that his parents were the main reason he was so successful. He also said that a book by Selma Lagerlof called The Wonderful Adventures of Nils that he read as a child was the reason he became interested in wild geese.

Lorenz began his studies in 1922 at Columbia University, but he returned to Vienna in 1923 to continue his studies at the University of Vienna until 1928. At this university he became an assistant professor from 1928 to 1935. In 1936, Lorenz met his great friend and colleague Niko Tinbergen. Together they studied geese – wild, domestic, and hybrid.

In 1940 Lorenz became a professor of psychology at the University of Königsberg. He was drafted into the Wehrmacht in 1941. He tried to become a motorcycle mechanic, but instead he was assigned as a medic. He was a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union from 1942 to 1948. During this time, he continued to work as a medical doctor and "got quite friendly with some Russians, mostly doctors". When he was sent back home after the war, he was allowed to keep both the manuscript of the book he had been writing and his pet starling. He arrived back in Altenberg "with manuscript and bird intact." The manuscript became his book Behind the Mirror.

Lorenz shared the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for discoveries in individual and social behavior patterns" with two other important early ethologists, Niko Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch. In 1969, he became the first person to receive the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca.

Lorenz retired from the Max Planck Institute in 1973 but continued to research and publish from his family home, in Austria. Konrad Lorenz died on 27 February 1989, in Altenberg.

Politics[change | change source]

Lorenz joined the Nazi Party in 1938 and accepted a university position under Nazi Germany. In his application for membership to the Nazi-party NSDAP he wrote in 1938: "I'm able to say that my whole scientific work is devoted to the ideas of the National Socialists."

When he accepted the Nobel Prize in 1973, Lorenz apologized for a 1940 publication that included Nazi views of science, saying that "many highly decent scientists hoped, like I did, for a short time [that] National Socialism [would produce good results], and many quickly turned away from it with the same horror as I [did]."

Lorenz' ideas[change | change source]

Together with Niko Tinbergen, Lorenz formed the idea of an innate releasing mechanism to explain instinctive behaviors (fixed action patterns). Building on the ideas of William McDougall, Lorenz developed this into a "psychohydraulic" explanation of the motives (reasons) of behavior. Another contribution is his work on imprinting. His influence on a younger generation of ethologists, as well as his books, were important in bringing ethology to the attention of the general public.

Lorenz' vision of the challenges facing humanity[change | change source]

Lorenz predicted that market economics could eventually destroy Earth's ecosystem. In his 1973 book, Civilized Man's Eight Deadly Sins, Lorenz considered the following paradox:

"All the advantages that man has gained from his ever-deepening understanding of the natural world that surrounds him, his technological, chemical and medical progress, all of which should [help] to [ease] human suffering... tends instead to [make] humanity's destruction [more likely than it was before]."

Lorenz adopts an ecological model to attempt to explain how this contradiction can exist:

"To gain a desired prey, a dog or wolf will do things [that they would normally not do, such as] run through thorn bushes, jump into cold water and expose themselves to risks which would normally frighten them. All these inhibitory mechanisms... act as a counterweight to the effects of learning mechanisms... The organism cannot allow itself to pay a price which is not worth paying". p53

In nature, these mechanisms tend towards a 'stable state' among the living beings of an ecology:

"A closer examination shows that these beings... not only do not damage each other, but often constitute a community of interests. It is obvious that the predator is strongly interested in the survival of that species, animal or vegetable, which constitutes its prey. ... It is not uncommon that the prey species derives specific benefits from its interaction with the predator species...". pages 31–33

Lorenz states that humanity is the only species that is not controlled by these mechanisms. This is because humans are the only species that can change its own environment: "[The pace of human ecology] is determined by the progress of man's technology". Not only that, but human ecology (economy) is governed by mechanisms of positive feedback, defined as a mechanism which tends to encourage behavior rather than to discourage it. p43

Positive feedback always involves the danger of an 'avalanche' effect... One particular kind of positive feedback occurs when individuals of the same species enter into competition among themselves... For many animal species, environmental factors keep... intraspecies selection from [leading to] disaster... But there is no force which exercises this type of healthy regulatory effect on humanity's cultural development; unfortunately for itself, humanity has learned to overcome all those environmental forces which are external to itself". p44

Lorenz does not see human independence from natural ecological processes as necessarily bad. Indeed, he states that "a completely new [ecology] which corresponds in every way to [humanity's] desires... could, theoretically, prove as durable as that which would have existed without his intervention" p36. However, the principle of competition, typical of Western societies, destroys any chance of this:

"The competition between human beings destroys with cold and diabolic brutality... Under the pressure of this competitive fury we have not only forgotten what is useful to humanity as a whole, but even that which is good and advantageous to the individual. [...] One asks, which is more damaging to modern humanity: the thirst for money or consuming haste... in either case, fear plays a very important role: the fear of being overtaken by one's competitors, the fear of becoming poor, the fear of making wrong decisions or the fear of not being up to snuff...". pages 45-47

In this book, Lorenz proposes that the best hope for mankind lies in our looking for mates based on the kindness of their hearts rather than good looks or wealth.

Philosophical ideas[change | change source]

In his 1973 book Behind the Mirror: a search for a natural history of human knowledge, Lorenz considers an old philosophical question: Do our senses actually tell us about the world as it is? Or do they only give us an illusion? Lorenz' answer comes from evolutionary biology. Only things that help a species to survive and reproduce are kept. Anything that does not benefit a species is quickly removed through the process of natural selection. Lorenz argued that if our senses gave us wrong information about our environment, humanity would soon be extinct. Therefore we can be sure that our senses give us correct information, for otherwise we would not be here to be deceived.

Books and essays[change | change source]

Lorenz's best-known books are King Solomon's Ring and On aggression, both written for a popular audience. His scientific work appeared mainly in journal articles, written in German; they became widely known to English-speaking scientists through the descriptions of it in Tinbergen's 1951 book The study of instinct, though many of his papers were later published in English translation in the two volumes titled Studies in animal and human behaviour.

  • King Solomon's Ring (1949)
  • Man meets Dog (1950)
  • Evolution and modification of behaviour (1965)
  • On aggression (1966)
  • Studies in animal and human behaviour, Volume I (1970)
  • Studies in animal and human behaviour, Volume II (1971)
  • Behind the mirror (1973)
  • Civilized Man's eight deadly sins (1974)
  • The year of the Greylag Goose (1979)
  • The foundations of Ethology (1982)
  • The natural science of the human species: an introduction to comparative behavioural research – the Russian manuscript (1944-1948). (1995)

Other websites[change | change source]