Konrad Lorenz

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Human Scientists

Konrad Zacharias Lorenz ( November 7, 1903 in Vienna February 27, 1989 in Vienna) was an Austrian zoologist, animal psychologist, and ornithologist. 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.

At the request of his father, 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 1940 he became a professor of psychology at the Immanuel Kant University in Königsberg (later the Soviet port of Kaliningrad). 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 1944 to 1948. 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).


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 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.

Contributions and legacy

Together with Nikolaas Tinbergen, 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. These ideas were influential as ethology became more popular in the 1960s, but they are now regarded as outdated because of their use of an energy flow metaphor; the nervous system and the control of behaviour are now normally treated as involving information transmission rather than energy flow. Lorenz's writings about evolution are also now regarded as outdated , because he tended towards group selectionist ideas which have been heavily reinterpreted since the rise of sociobiology in the 1970s. Lorenz's most enduring contributions thus seem to be his empirical work, especially on imprinting; his influence on a younger generation of ethologists; and his popular works, which were enormously 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.

The Example of his Methodology

Some would say that Lorenz' most significant contribution and legacy does not lie in any of his theories but in the good example he set with his methodology. He never deprived the animals of basic physical or emotional needs. He never killed them, mutilated them or tortured them. All these cruel methods were once considered indispensable for animal studies, but Lorenz proved it was possible to win a Nobel Prize without using them.

Lorenz's Plan for Improving the Human Race

In his 1974 book, Civilized Man's Eight Deadly Sins, Konrad Lorenz addressed, among other things, the question of how the human race can be genetically improved. His answer comes from a Jewish story about a rich handsome young man who visited a Marriage Broker to look for a wife. He was offered very beautiful potential brides. He replied that he and his family already were good looking enough, and his future wife did not need to be beautiful. The same with wealth - his family had a plethora of money, and the bride could just as well be poor as a synagogue mouse. And of course, the same for a distinguished ancestry. So what was he looking for? A good and kind heart. That was not so common in his family - or anywhere. Lorenz concludes that the best hope for humanity is for all of us to imitate this wise rich young man, and to not look for good looks or wealth or distinguished lineage in our mates, but just for goodness and kindness.

His contribution to philosophy

In his 1973 book Behind the Mirror, 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 ( 1952)
  • Man Meets Dog ( 1954)
  • 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 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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