Konrad Lorenz

2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Human Scientists

Konrad Lorenz
Lorenz being followed by his imprinted geese
Lorenz being followed by his imprinted geese
Born November 7, 1903
Vienna, Austria-Hungary
Died February 27, 1989 (aged 85)
Vienna, Austria
Residence Austria, Germany
Nationality Austrian
Fields Ethology
Notable awards Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1973)

Konrad Zacharias Lorenz ( November 7, 1903 in Vienna February 27, 1989 in Vienna) was an Austrian zoologist, animal psychologist, ornithologist and Nobel Prize winner. 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 behaviour 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 behaviour of nidifugous birds.

He wrote numerous books, some of which, such as King Solomon's Ring and On Aggression became popular reading. In later life his interest shifted to the study of man in society.


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, Adolf, Lorenz began a premedical curriculum 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, at an international scientific symposium on instinct, Lorenz met his great friend and colleague Niko Tinbergen. Together they studied geese - wild, domestic, and hybrid. One result of these studies was that Lorenz "realized that an overpowering increase in the drives of feeding as well as of copulation and a waning of more differentiated social instincts is characteristic of very many domestic animals." Lorenz began to suspect and fear "that analogous processes of deterioration may be at work with civilized humanity."

In 1940 he became a professor of psychology at the University of Königsberg. He was drafted into the Wehrmacht in 1941. He sought to be 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. In captivity he continued to work as a medical doctor and "got quite friendly with some Russians, mostly doctors." When he was repatriated, he was allowed to keep the manuscript of a 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. The Max Planck Society established the Lorenz Institute for Behavioural Physiology in Buldern, Germany, in 1950.

In 1958, Lorenz transferred to the Max Planck Institute for Behavioural Physiology in Seewiesen. He shared the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for discoveries in individual and social behaviour patterns" with two other important early ethologists, Niko Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch. In 1969, he became the first recipient of the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca.

Lorenz retired from the Max Planck Institute in 1973 but continued to research and publish from Altenberg (his family home, near Vienna) and Grünau im Almtal in Austria.

Konrad Lorenz died on February 27, 1989, in Altenberg.

Lorenz was also a friend and student of renowned biologist Sir Julian Sorell Huxley (grandson of "Darwin's bulldog," Thomas Henry Huxley). He and Sir Peter Scott were good friends.


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 NSDAP 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 behaviour patterns were congenial to the Nazi authorities, but there is no evidence to suggest that his experimental work was inspired 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.

Contributions and legacy

With Nikolaas Tinbergen (left), 1978
With Nikolaas Tinbergen (left), 1978

Together with Nikolaas Tinbergen ( Stefan Zeller), Lorenz developed the idea of an innate releasing mechanism to explain instinctive behaviors ( fixed action patterns). Influenced by the ideas of William McDougall, Lorenz developed this into a "psychohydraulic" model of the motivation of behaviour, 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 , 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. 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 favour humanity's destruction (Gli otto peccati capitali della nostra civiltà - Civilized Man's Eight Deadly Sins, Adelphi edizioni, Milano, 1974, p.26; the citation is translated from the Italian version of the book). 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 (page 31) 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 (page 53). 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 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 (page 35). Not only, but human ecology (economy) is governed by mechanisms of POSITIVE feedback, defined as a mechanism which tends to encourage behaviour rather than to attenuate it (page 43). 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 (page 44).

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

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.

Bekoff on Lorenz

"I remember meeting Lorenz at an ethological conference in Parma, Italy, and his passion and enthusiasm were incredibly contagious. For hours, he told stories of the animals with whom he had shared his life and never once repeated himself. He clearly loved what he did and loved his animal friends." Marc Bekoff, Animal Passions and Beastly Virtues (2006), ISBN 1-59213-347-9


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)

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