9 minute read

Konrad Lorenz

Spends "goose summers" in Altenberg, Tells of his life with animals

Austrian behaviorist and early leader in the field of ethology.

Konrad Lorenz played a lead role in forging the field of ethology, the comparative study of animal behavior, and helped regain the stature of observation as a recognized and respected scientific method. Along the way, his observations—particularly of greylag geese —led to important discoveries in animal behavior. Perhaps his most influential determination was that behavior, like physical traits, evolves by natural selection. In one of his many books, On Aggression, he wrote, "Historians will have to face the fact that natural selection determined the evolution of cultures in the same manner as it did that of species." In 1973, he and two other ethologists jointly accepted the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine for their behavioral research. Born on November 7, 1903, in Vienna, Austria, Lorenz was the younger of two sons born to Adolf Lorenz and his wife and assistant, Emma Lecher. His father was an orthopedic surgeon whose new hip-joint operation brought him renown on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The young Konrad Lorenz received his schooling in Vienna at a private elementary school and at the Schottengymnasium, one of the city's best secondary schools. But his love of animals began outside of school, primarily at the family's summer home in Altenberg, Austria. Lorenz's parents indulged his interests, allowing him to have many pets as a youth. His interests became more grounded in science when he read about Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory at the age of 10.

Although Lorenz had an apparent interest in animals, his father insisted he study medicine. In 1922, Lorenz began premedical training at Columbia University in New York but returned early to Austria to continue the program at the University of Vienna. Despite his medical studies, Lorenz found time to informally study animals. He also kept a detailed diary of the activities of his pet bird Jock, a jackdaw. In 1927, his career as an animal behaviorist was launched when an ornithological journal printed his jackdaw diary. During the following year, he received an M.D. degree from the University of Vienna and became an assistant to a professor at the anatomical institute there. Lorenz recalled that period in his 1982 book The Foundations of Ethology: "When studying at the university under the Viennese anatomist, Ferdinand Hochstetter, and after I had become thoroughly conversant with the methodology and procedure of phylogenetic (evolutionary) comparison, it became immediately clear that the methods employed in comparative morphology were just as applicable to the behavior of the many species of fish and birds I knew so thoroughly, thanks to the early onset of my love for animals." His interests led him to study zoology at the University of Vienna, and in 1933, Lorenz earned his Ph.D. in that field.

Spends "goose summers" in Altenberg

Lorenz then turned to animal behavior research for several years. It was during this time, 1935–38, that Lorenz developed the theories for which he is best known. He spent what he called his "goose summers" at the Altenberg home, concentrating on the behavior of greylag geese and confirming many hypotheses that he had formed while observing his pet birds. In his later book The Year of the Greylag Goose, Lorenz explains that he studied greylag geese for "many reasons, but the most important is that greylag geese exhibit a family existence that is analogous in many significant ways to human family life." While working with the geese, Lorenz developed the concept of imprinting. Imprinting occurs in many species, most noticeably in geese and ducks, when— within a short, genetically set time frame—an animal will accept a foster mother in the place of its biological mother,

Konrad Lorenz (UPI/Corbis-Bettmann. Reproduced with permission.)

even if that foster mother is a different species. Lorenz raised goslings which, deprived of their parents and confronted instead with Lorenz, accepted him and attached themselves to him as they normally would to their mother. Lorenz has often been photographed in Altenberg walking down a path or rowing across the water with a string of goslings following, single-file, behind him. He similarly found that mallard ducks would imprint on him, but only when he quacked and presented a shortened version of himself by squatting. While he enjoyed his close contact with animals, it did present some awkward situations. On one occasion, while walking his ducklings, which were hidden in the tall grass behind him, he stopped quacking for a minute and looked up from his squatted position to see a group of tourists quizzically watching from beyond the fence.

In addition he and Nikolaas Tinbergen, future Nobel Prize cowinner, developed the concept of the innate releasing mechanism. Lorenz found that animals have instinctive behavior patterns, or fixed-action patterns, that remain dormant until a specific event triggers the animal to exhibit this behavior for the first time. The fixed-action pattern is a specific, ordered series of behaviors, such as the fighting and surrender postures used by many animals. He emphasized that these fixed-action patterns are not learned but are genetically programmed. The stimulus is called the "releaser," and the nervous system structure that responds to the stimulus and prompts the instinctive behavior is the innate releasing mechanism.

In The Foundations of Ethology, Lorenz explained that animals have an "innate schoolmarm" that reinforces useful behavior and checks harmful behavior through a feedback apparatus. "Whenever a modification of an organ, as well as of a behavior pattern, proves to be adaptive to a particular environmental circumstance, this also proves incontrovertibly that information about this circumstance must have been 'fed into' the organism." This information can take one of two routes: learning, or genetic programming.

Lorenz later devised a hydraulic model to explain an animal's motivation to perform fixed-action patterns. In this model, he explained that energy for a specific action accumulates either until a stimulus occurs or until so much energy has built up that the animal displays the fixed-action pattern spontaneously. He witnessed the spontaneous performance of a fixed-action pattern first when, as a boy, he watched his pet starling suddenly fly off its perch to the ceiling of the room, snap at the air in the same way it would snap at an insect, then return to beat the "insect" on the perch, and finally swallow.

These exciting years for Lorenz did not go without controversy. He wrote a paper, "Disorders Caused by the Domestication of Species-Specific Behavior," which some critics felt contained a strong Nazi flavor in its word choice. While Lorenz repeatedly condemned Nazi ideology, many still believed the paper reflected a pro-Nazi stance; he had to weather many criticisms.

Tells of his life with animals

While the research continued, Lorenz accepted an appointment in 1937 as lecturer in comparative anatomy and animal psychology at the University of Vienna. In 1940, he became professor of psychology at the University of Konigsberg in Germany but a year later answered the call to serve in the German Army. In 1944, Lorenz was captured by the Russians and sent to a prison camp. It was not until 1948 that he was released. Upon his return, Lorenz went back to the University of Vienna before accepting a small stipend from the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science to resume his studies at Altenberg. By 1952, Lorenz had published a popular book King Solomon's Ring, an account of animal behavior presented in easily understood terminology. Included in the book are many of his often-humorous experiences with his study subjects. The book also includes a collection of his illustrations. As he writes in the book: "Without supernatural assistance, our fellow creatures can tell us the most beautiful stories and that means true stories, because the truth about nature is always far more beautiful even than what our great poets sing of it, and they are the only real magicians that exist."

Lorenz writes that he was prompted to pen King Solomon's Ring by an occasion when his assistant and friend Dr. Alfred Seitz and he were working on a film about the greylag geese. Seitz was trying to call in some ducklings and accidentally used the language of the geese. When he realized his error, Seitz apologized to the ducklings before switching to their quacking. Lorenz recalls in the book, "it was at that very moment that the thought of writing a book first crossed my mind. There was nobody to appreciate the joke, Alfred being far too preoccupied with his work. I wanted to tell it to somebody and so it occurred to me to tell it to everybody."

In 1955, with the increased support of the Max Planck society, Lorenz, ethologist Gustav Kramer, and physiologist Erich von Holst established and then codirected the Institute for Behavioral Physiology in Seewiesen, Bavaria, near Munich. During the ensuing years at Seewiesen, Lorenz again drew attention, this time for the analogies he drew between human and animal behavior—which many scientists felt were improper—and his continuing work on instinct. The latter work gave further support to ethologists who believed that the innate behavior patterns found in animals evolved through natural selection, just as anatomical and physiological characters evolved. This drew arguments from many animal psychologists who contended that all behavior is learned.

Following the deaths of codirectors von Holst and Kramer, Lorenz became the sole director of the Seewiesen institute in 1961. In 1966, Lorenz again faced some controversy with his book On Aggression. In the book, Lorenz describes aggression as "the fighting instinct in beast and man which is directed against members of same species." He writes that this instinct aids the survival of both the individual and the species, in the latter case by giving the stronger males the better mating opportunities and territories. The book goes on to state that animals—particularly animals that can inflict severe damage to one another with sharp canines or horns—will use rank, territory, or evolved instinctual behavior patterns to avoid actual violence and fatalities. Lorenz says only humans purposefully kill each other—a fact that he attributes to the development of artificial weapons outpacing the human evolution of killing inhibitions. Critics say the book's conclusions encourage the acceptance of violence in human behavior. On Aggression is an example of Lorenz's shift in the 1960s from solely animal behavior to include human social behavior.

Accepts nobel prize for behavioral research

In 1973, Lorenz, Tinbergen, and Karl Frisch, who studied bee communication, jointly accepted the Nobel Prize for their behavioral research. In the same year, Lorenz retired from his position as director of the Seewiesen institute. He then returned to Altenberg where he continued writing and began directing the department of animal sociology at the Austrian Academy of Science. In addition, the Max Planck Society for the Promotion of Science set up a research station for him at his ancestral home in Altenberg. In 1978, Lorenz gave a more personal view of his work with his picturebook The Year of the Greylag Goose. As he begins the volume: "This is not a scientific book. It would be true to say that it grew out of the pleasure I take in my observations of living animals, but that is nothing unusual, since all my academic works have also originated in the same pleasure. The only way a scientist can make novel, unexpected discoveries is through observation free of any preconceived notions."

In 1927, the same year his career-launching diary was published, Lorenz married childhood friend Margarethe "Gretl" Gebhardt, a gynecologist. They had two daughters, Agnes and Dagmar, and a son, Thomas. Lorenz was 85 years old when he died February 27, 1989 of kidney failure at his home in Altenburg, Austria.

See also Imprinting

Leslie Mertz

Further Reading

Evans, Richard I., Konrad Lorenz: The Man and His Ideas, Harcourt, 1975.

Nisbett, Alec, Konrad Lorenz, Harcourt, 1976.

Nisbett, Alec, Nobel Prize Winners, Wilson, 1987, pp. 645–47.

Nisbett, Alec, Time, (March 13, 1989): B6.

Nisbett, Alec, Washington Post, (March 1, 1989).

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists