Swans Commentary » swans.com January 30, 2012  



On Konrad Lorenz
Part II of II


by Michael Barker



[Read the first part of this essay.]


(Swans - January 30, 2012)   Desperate to reinvent himself, Konrad Lorenz found it hard to escape his past, and in 1950, his "candidacy for the professorship of zoology at the University of Graz [in Austria] was scuttled when opponents brought to the attention of the minister of education Lorenz's 1940 Der Biologe article." In view of such ongoing employment problems, Lorenz began cultivating stronger links to British biologists in the hope of securing a suitable academic position in England where the other founding father of ethology, Niko Tinbergen, was based. Banking on the fact that foreign scientists were less likely to know the full extent of his support of the Reich, in mid-1950 he wrote to Julian Huxley and William Thorpe, assuring them that contrary to what they might hear from his critics, especially regarding his article in Der Biologe, he had never been a Nazi. To Huxley, the soon-to-be president of the British Eugenics Society, Lorenz admitted that he "had at the time, [been] rather taken with the idea of making Eugenics a sort of state religion" but added that he "really did not suspect then that it was only an excuse to kill off the Jews and other 'racially inferior' peoples." Such comments apparently assured Lorenz's colleagues that he was no racist, and in 1966 Huxley honored his friendship to Lorenz by writing the foreword to his heavily publicized book On Aggression. (1)

While Lorenz and his fellow ethologists were able to shrug off most criticisms of their work, (2) "the attack they soon received from the American comparative psychologist Daniel Lehrman cut deeper." His critique was published in the December 1953 issue of the Quarterly Review of Biology and was titled "A Critique of Konrad Lorenz's Theory of Instinctive Behavior."

Lehrman's foremost complaint was that Lorenz's definitions of instinct and innateness left unexplored the whole question of behavioral development. He leveled two other major charges as well. The first was that the ethologists had no basis for assuming, as they did, that the same physiological mechanisms were at work in the behavior of animals representing widely disparate taxonomic groups and levels organization. The second was that the ethologists had moved too readily and uncritically in their discussions from the behavior of animals to the behavior of humans. (p.385)

But although Lehrman's paper took on the political implications of Lorenz's work, it turns out that Lehrman had been encouraged by the article's reviewers to downplay some of the more aggressive criticisms he had included in the first draft of the paper. According to Burkhardt, Lehrman's draft had "built toward a final section" that argued that Lorenz's support of the Nazi's ideas on racial hygiene were in fact "the ideological consequences of Lorenz's scientific theorizing." (3) As is common in the peer-review process, the aggressive tone of the paper met "objections" from the journals editors and from a number of other scientists who had read the draft, and so...

... Lehrman was persuaded to restructure his paper and tone it down. He acquiesced to the argument that too much attention to the political dimensions of Lorenz's thinking would distract readers from the paper's main scientific arguments against Lorenzian instinct theory. Lehrman still mentioned Lorenz's politics, but he did so in a less emotional fashion, and in the middle of the paper, where the discussion was less conspicuous than it would have been at the end. (p.385)

So although Lorenz certainly "lent his scientific authority to the broad eugenic enterprise of Nazi race policy," Burkhardt adds that, "He never explicitly endorsed the notion of Nordic racial supremacy." In time this careful approach by Lorenz would make his transition away from his Nazi colleagues much easier, allowing him to deny the fact "that his own behavior as a scientist under the Third Reich might have helped sanction the ideas and actions of others whose work he may not have fully endorsed himself." (4) However, other critics have charged that Lorenz merely dropped the Nazi rhetoric, as in subsequent years he only apologized for his previous terminology, but never for his biologically determinist ideas. Richard Lerner is one such critic, (5) and after reviewing Lorenz's contributions to science he concluded that:

There is a core theme uniting Lorenz's Nazi-era and post-Nazi-era work: the threat posed by domestication-induced degeneration of human instincts for the survival and further evolution of human moral, or ethical, being and thus for the future survival or progress of civilization. It is my belief that Lorenz's post-World War II interpretation of this theme continued to be identical to that in his Nazi-era papers... (p.308)

Furthermore, the evidence seems to suggest that Lorenz deliberately overlooked research findings that contradicted his own narrow views relating to animal behavior and human nature. In his book King Solomon's Ring: New Light on Animal Ways (Methuen, 1952) -- a text first published in 1949 (in German) -- Lorenz used the example of doves in an attempt to shed light on the instinctive roots of aggression. Yet by using the example of aggressive doves, Lorenz was making precisely the opposite point of the conclusion reached by ringdove and pigeon specialist Wallace Craig -- an individual who obtained his Ph.D. in 1908 for a doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago titled "The Expression of Emotions in the Pigeon." In 1921, Craig, drawing on his research on doves and pigeons, had published a paper titled "Why Do Animals Fight?" in which he argued that pigeons had no instinctive drive that makes them aggressive. (6)

Craig concluded that "no distinctively 'biological' need for fighting" exists. Fights do indeed take place among animals and among humans, but this, Craig insisted, arises out of conflicts of interests, not out of any fundamental biological need to behave aggressively. (p.453)

This observation is all the more significant because Craig had sent Lorenz this very paper in the 1930s, and Lorenz had then cited it within his work in 1935; and so it appears that in King Solomon's Ring Lorenz deliberately "ignored the fundamental claim of Craig's discussion of why animals fight." "And this was despite the fact," Burkhardt reminds us, that Craig "was the person whom Lorenz once described to Stresemann as 'the best animal-understanding man' he knew, after Heinroth." In Lorenz's subsequent best seller On Aggression (Methuen, 1966) -- which was first published in German in 1963 -- Lorenz laid out his argument that instincts "are not just reactions to external stimuli" but instead "are drives that build up spontaneously within the organism and that need ultimately to be discharged." For Lorenz, aggression was considered to be the most significant instinct operating in this way, but while he credits Craig with having supported this idea through his research on ringdoves, he fails to mention "that Craig had specifically denied that aggression is an instinct that works this way..." (7)

Ignoring all evidence to the contrary, Lorenz asserted that the most dangerous way by which the aggression instinct shows itself within humans is through a "powerful, phylogenetically evolved behavior" that exists as "a specialized form of communal aggression" that he referred to as "militant enthusiasm." (8) Lorenz waxed lyrical about the alleged power of this instinctive drive:

Every man of normally strong emotions knows, from his own experience, the subjective phenomena that go hand in hand with the response of militant enthusiasm. A shiver runs down the back and, as more exact observation shows, along the outside of both arms. One soars elated, above all the ties of everyday life, one is ready to abandon all for the call of what, in the moment of this specific emotion, seems to be a sacred duty. (p.231)

In response to this definition of militant enthusiasm, Burkhardt observes that:

Although he did not say so in On Aggression, he was simply restating here much of what he had already said in his 1943 paper "On the Inborn Forms of Possible Experience." Missing from his 1960s account, however, was his belligerent comment of twenty years earlier: "I charge with emotional feebleness [Gefuhlschwache] every young man who has not himself experienced this reaction in politically meaningful situations!" (p.455)

Likewise Richard Lerner correctly points out that "it is possible to interpret Lorenz's formulation of instinctual militant enthusiasm as excusing the past -- perhaps, more specifically, his past -- while providing hope for the future." (9) Although, that said, a future in which such biological determinism has a prominent place in guiding human relations is not an especially progressive prospect.

Lorenz, however, counselled his readers of the necessity for coming to terms with their aggressive nature if we, as a species, were to ever overcome the problems that it caused. This conclusion led him to make suggestions for how humans could work to ensure that such dangerous instincts were channeled into harmless activities, like for example sports. And although he admitted that it was "theoretically possible... to breed out the aggressive drive [of humans] by eugenic planning," he concludes that this is "highly inadvisable" because: "It would have quite unpredictable consequences if... one of the strongest [human instincts]... were to disappear entirely." (10) That is to say, such an approach is not inadvisable for Lorenz because eugenic policies are necessarily negative.

On Lorenz's eugenic inclinations, it is critical to consider his longstanding commitment to eugenics alongside that of the broader eugenically-inspired intellectual community in, say, England and the United States, which included the likes of Julian Huxley and Margaret Sanger. As one might say: "Once a biological determinist, always a biological determinist." And with the defeat of the Nazis, Lorenz, like many other elitist cultural commentators, maintained his interest in eugenics albeit in a more palatable form -- whose key themes now revolved around the more publicly acceptable concepts of population control and reproductive health. So it is hardly surprising that Burkhardt should note how:

In the immediate postwar period, while disavowing he had ever harbored any genuine Nazi sympathies, [Lorenz] continued to rail about the genetic and moral dangers of domestication. Indeed, he continued to do so for the rest of his career. His book Civilized Man's Eight Deadly Sins, published in 1973, contains a chapter on "genetic decay." There he once more set forth the analogy between the barnyard and civilized society and warned that the phenomena of domestication in animals were paralleled by the decay of genetically determined social behavior patterns in humans. (p.277)

With aggression being Lorenz's guiding concern, the first deadly sin outlined in his book was "overpopulation," and he warned that overcrowding "leads, not only indirectly, through exhaustion of interhuman relationships, but also directly, to aggressive behavior." (11) Lorenz compared human populations to those of rats, observing that the "explosive rise in human populations" means that humanity's chances of long-term survival are less favourable than rats, because "in the case of rats [on a ship] reproduction stops automatically when a certain state of overcrowding is reached, while man as yet has no workable system for preventing the so-called population explosion." Lorenz had evidently picked up on the environmental zeitgeist of the day, with another of his deadly sins being the devastation of the environment; but as noted before, ultimately it was hereditary issues that he lost most sleep over. He warned that "progressive infantism and increasing juvenile delinquency" were sure signs of genetic decay, which, Lorenz feared, meant that "humanity as such is in grave danger." The end was nigh, and he concluded: "There is no doubt that through the decay of genetically anchored social behavior we are threatened by the apocalypse in a particularly horrible form." (12)

Appropriately, Lorenz's concern with overpopulation combined with his longstanding worries about genetic decay was very much in keeping with the so-called reform eugenics that flourished in the wake of World War II; a reform movement that arose in large part because of the troubles caused by the strong association between eugenics and Hitler's genocidal reign of terror. But as Burkhardt reminds us: "Simply condemning Lorenz as a Nazi or, alternatively, ignoring or excusing this part of his career does nothing to enhance our understanding of science in the Third Reich, or Lorenz's part in it." (13) It is for this reason that this essay has summarized Lorenz's engagement with the world of Nazi eugenics and attempted to deepen Burkhardt's analysis by suggesting reasons why Lorenz's commitment to biological determinism remained so strong, even after the end of World War II. Contrary to popular conceptions, eugenics was never a uniquely Nazi phenomenon: which is precisely why reviewing the work and life of Konrad Lorenz provides such a fertile means of understanding the evolution and longevity of eugenic-inspired thinking.


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1.  Richard Burkhardt, Patterns of Behavior: Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and the Founding of Ethology (University of Chicago Press, 2005), p.258, p.259. Lorenz's political fortunes were now changing, and have secured a couple of job offers from the biological community in England. Indeed, in 1950, William Thorpe, Niko Tinbergen, Alister Hardy, Peter Scott, and Max Nicholson "jointly formulated a plan" for Lorenz to work at Bristol University (in the UK) with his salary being provided by the Nature Conservancy. "Lorenz had additionally learned, via a letter from his wife in Altenberg, that Peter Scott was also making him an offer: nine hundred pounds per year, plus use of Scott's boat the Beatrice, to work at Slimbridge." Lorenz, however, decided to reject these job offers and finally took up a post in December 1950 with the Max Planck Society, which enabled him to form the Lorenz Institute for Behavioral Physiology (based at Buldern) where he stayed for the next six years. Lorenz subsequently remained with the Max Planck Society and in 1958, he transferred to Seewiesen. Burkhardt, Patterns of Behavior, p.356, p.357.  (back)

2.  "Two early critiques [from outside the ethological community] came from the Canadian comparative psychologist D. O. Hebb and the Cambridge physiologist J. S. Kennedy. The papers appeared in The British Journal of Animal Behaviour in 1953 and 1954. Hebb's paper was a reworking of an address he had given at a meeting of the British Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour in 1952. His main target was the way ethologists juxtaposed instinctive and learned behavior. That distinction, he insisted, was a false one: "We cannot dichotomize behaviour into learned and unlearned, environmentally determined and hereditarily determined." Burkhardt, Patterns of Behavior, p.383.  (back)

3.  Burkhardt, Patterns of Behavior, p.385.  (back)

4.  Burkhardt, Patterns of Behavior, p.278. As Burkhardt points out:

"His stance, when he was later confronted about his past political behavior, was that whatever political gestures he made in the service of his biology were understandable and excusable as such. This, together with the explanation that he was "naive" about the intentions of the Nazis, constituted the essence of the 'apology' he finally offered to the public, long after the war's end, on the occasion of his receipt of the Nobel Prize in 1973. He did not specifically acknowledge that as a scientist in the Third Reich, in promoting ideas of racial hygiene and using a language of 'elimination,' he had possibly made an indirect or inadvertent contribution to a program that resulted in genocide." (p.278)  (back)

5.  Richard Lerner, Concepts and Theories of Human Development -- 3rd Edition (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002), p.309. Lerner goes on to discuss the parallel that existed between the ideas of Lorenz and the sociobiologists who followed in his footsteps. (pp.317-8) Edward O. Wilson, the author of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Harvard University Press, 1975) by his own recounting noted that it was Lorenz who inspired him to move into animal behavior studies after he had heard him lecture at Harvard University in the fall of 1953. Burkhardt, Patterns of Behavior, p.461.  (back)

6.  Burkhardt, Patterns of Behavior, p.37, p.453.  (back)

7.  Burkhardt, Patterns of Behavior, p.453, p.454, p.455. With regard to more friendly criticisms, Burkhardt notes how: "Late in February 1968 [Niko] Tinbergen delivered his inaugural lecture in a newly created position at Oxford, Professor of Animal Behavior. He chose as his subject 'On War and Peace in Animals and Man.' This gave him the opportunity to explain publicly, yet diplomatically (or as he so hoped), the ways in which his own approach to the question of animal and human aggression differed from those expressed in two recent, best-selling books. One was Konrad Lorenz's On Aggression. The other was Desmond Morris's The Naked Ape. Tinbergen's critique of his two friends was not that they were talking as ethologists about human behavior. He fully agreed that ethologists needed to bring their insights to bear on serious problems of human behavior, especially the problem of human aggression. The problem with the books in question, he allowed, was they offered as certainties what were 'no more than likely guesses.'" (p.440)

Tinbergen's talk was later published as "On war and peace in animals and man: an ethologist's approach to the biology of aggression," Science 160 (1968), pp.1411-8. Moreover, "In his correspondence with [Ernst] Mayr the previous month, Tinbergen agreed with Mayr's assessment that Konrad Lorenz often wrote things with which one had to disagree, and that Lorenz furthermore was 'always weakest when he talks about man.' Mayr to Tinbergen, 23 January 1968; and Tinbergen to Mayr 25 January 1968, copies courtesy of Ernst Mayr." Burkhardt, Patterns of Behavior, p.573.  (back)

8.  Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression (Methuen, 1966), p.231.  (back)

9.  Lerner, Concepts and Theories of Human Development, p.310.  (back)

10.  Lorenz, On Aggression, p.239. Clearly, for someone who was so excited by Nazi politics, it is fitting that Lorenz has no clear conception of politics, and at one point he notes that "no economic necessity compels" nation states to compete: a strange comment to say the least. (p.203)  (back)

11.  Lorenz, Civilized Man's Eight Deadly Sins, p.9. The "problem" of overpopulation was, of course, singled out in his earlier work, On Aggression -- where he had drawn much inspiration from the ongoing environmental revival of Malthus.  (back)

12.  Konrad Lorenz, Civilized Man's Eight Deadly Sins (Methuen, 1974), p.204, p.43, p.44. Despite the utility of Lornenz's book in promoting the mythology of capitalism, Lorenz, like many other elitist environmental thinkers of his epoch, also highlights some of the problems caused by commercial competition. For example, he wrote:

"In order to understand the dangers arising from hereditary instinct defects we must realize that under conditions of modern civilization there is not a single factor exerting selection pressure in the direction of goodness and kindness, unless it is our innate feeling for these values. Whoever is lacking in this purely emotional sense of values is automatically deaf to all admonitions and sermons; and in the commercial competition of Western civilization there is a plainly negative premium on them! It is fortunate that commercial success is not necessarily positively correlated with reproductive rate." (pp.39-40)

However, that said, he did not see the problems associated with commercial competition as having an especially large influence on genetic decay, and instead Lorenz identified civilization itself, and factors like overcrowding, as contributing most towards societies' symptoms of decay.  (back)

13.  Burkhardt, Patterns of Behavior, p.476.  (back)


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Published January 30, 2012