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Konrad Lorenz

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Lorenz

Lorenz being followed by his imprinted geese

Konrad Zacharias Lorenz (November 7, 1903 in Vienna – February 27, 1989 in Vienna) was an Austrian ethologist. He is often regarded as one of the founders of modern ethology, developing an approach that began with an earlier generation, including his teacher Oskar Heinroth. Lorenz studied instinctive behavior in animals, especially in greylag geese and jackdaws. Working with geese, he rediscovered the principle of imprinting (originally described by Douglas Spalding in the 19th century) in the behavior of nidifugous birds.


Biography

In his autobiographical essay, published in 1973 in Les Prix Nobel (winners of the prizes are requested to provide such essays), Lorenz credits his career to his parents, who "were supremely tolerant of my inordinate love for animals," and to his childhood encounter with Selma Lagerlof's The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, which filled him with a great enthusiasm about wild geese.

At the request of his father, Lorenz began to study medicine in 1922 at the Premedical School of 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 1940 he became a professor of psychology at the Immanuel Kant University in Königsberg (later the Soviet port of Kaliningrad). He joined the Wehrmacht in 1941, and was a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union from 1944 to 1948. The Max Planck Society established the Lorenz Institute for Behavioral Physiology in Buldern, Germany, in 1950.

In 1958, Lorenz transferred to the Max Planck Institute for Behavioral Physiology in Seewiesen. He 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. Lorenz retired from the Max Planck Institute in 1973 but continued to research and publish from Altenberg, Austria (his family home, near Vienna) and Grünau im Almtal in Austria. Lorenz died on February 27, 1989, in Altenberg.

Politics

Lorenz joined the Nazi Party in 1938 and accepted a university chair under the Nazi regime. In his application for membership to the Nazi-party National Socialist German Workers Party he wrote in 1938: "I'm able to say that my whole scientific work is devoted to the ideas of the National Socialists." His publications during that time led in later years to allegations that his scientific work had been contaminated by Nazi sympathies: his published writing during the Nazi period included support for Nazi ideas of "racial hygiene" couched in pseudoscientific metaphors.

When accepting the Nobel Prize, he 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 for good from National Socialism, and many quickly turned away from it with the same horror as I." It seems highly likely that Lorenz's ideas about an inherited basis for behavior patterns were congenial to the Nazi authorities, but there is no evidence to suggest that his experimental work was either inspired or distorted by Nazi ideas.

During the final years of his life Lorenz supported the fledgling Austrian Green Party and in 1984 became the figurehead of the Konrad Lorenz Volksbegehren, a grass-roots movement that was formed to prevent the building of a power plant at the Danube near Hainburg an der Donau and thus the destruction of the yet untouched woodland surrounding the planned site.

File:Lorenz and Tinbergen1.jpg

Together with Nikolaas Tinbergen, Lorenz developed the idea of an innate releasing mechanism to explain instinctive behaviors (fixed action patterns). They experimented with "supernormal stimuli" such as giant eggs or dummy bird beaks which they found could release the fixed action patterns more powerfully than the natural objects for which the behaviors were adapted. Influenced by the ideas of William McDougall, Lorenz developed this into a "psychohydraulic" model of the motivation of behavior, which tended towards group selectionist ideas, which were influential in the 1960s. Another of his contributions to ethology is his work on imprinting. His influence on a younger generation of ethologists; and his popular works, were important in bringing ethology to the attention of the general public.

There are three Konrad Lorenz Institutes in Austria; one is housed in his family mansion at Altenberg [1], and another at his field station in Grünau.

Lorenz, like other ethologists, performed research largely by observation, or where experiments were conducted they were conducted in a natural setting. Occasionally there were long-term problems from his research, for example when geese imprinted on baby buggies as goslings were later released into Vienna's parks, some later had an unforeseen propensity for attempting to mate with similar objects [citation needed]. Nevertheless, animal welfare advocates like to point out that Lorenz won a Nobel Prize without ever using invasive techniques.


Lorenz's vision of the challenges facing humanity

Lorenz also predicted the relationship between market economics and the threat of ecological catastrophe. In his 1973 book, Civilized Man's Eight Deadly Sins, Konrad Lorenz addresses 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 seem to alleviate human suffering... tends instead to favor humanity's destruction" [1]

Lorenz adopts an ecological model to attempt to grasp the mechanisms behind this contradiction. Thus "all species... are adapted to their environment... including not only inorganic components... but all the other living beings that inhabit the locality." p31.

Fundamental to Lorenz' theory of ecology is the function of feedback mechanisms, especially negative ones which, in hierarchical fashion, dampen impulses that occur beneath a certain threshold. The thresholds themselves are the product of the interaction of contrasting mechanisms. Thus pain and pleasure act as checks on each other:

"To gain a desired prey, a dog or wolf will do things that, in other contexts, they would shy away from: 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..." pp31–33.

Lorenz states that humanity is the one species not bound by these mechanisms, being the only one that has defined its own environment:

"[The pace of human ecology] is determined by the progress of man's technology (p35)... human ecology (economy) is governed by mechanisms of POSITIVE feedback, defined as a mechanism which tends to encourage behavior rather than to attenuate 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 (36).

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..." pp45–47.

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. He illustrates this with a Jewish story, explicitly described as such.

Lorenz was one of the early scientists who recognised the significance of overpopulation. The number one deadly sin of civilized man in his book is overpopulation, what leads to aggression.

Philosophical speculations

In his 1973 book Behind the Mirror: A Search for a Natural History of Human Knowledge, Lorenz considers the old philosophical question of whether our senses correctly inform us about the world as it is, or provide us only with an illusion. His answer comes from evolutionary biology. Only traits that help us survive and reproduce are transmitted. If our senses gave us wrong information about our environment, we 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.

Works

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 Geese and Waste Behavior.

References

Template:No footnotes

  1. Gli otto peccati capitali della nostra civiltà. - Civilized Man's Eight Deadly Sins, Adelphi edizioni, Milano, 1974, p26; the citation is translated from the Italian version of the book.

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