Konrad Lorenz was a founder of ethology, the biological study of animal behavior. Ethologists study animals in natural and seminatural conditions rather than in the laboratory. They assume that natural selection is largely responsible for species-specific behavior and that the ecology to which the animals have adapted is essential for normal behavior. Lorenz won the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this pioneering work. He shared the award with fellow Austrian Karl von Frisch and one-time Dutch collaborator Nikolass Tinbergen.
Lorenz grew up in Altenberg near Vienna, Austria, and was a born naturalist. He possessed a unique combination of patience, keen powers of observation, and intuition that allowed him to appreciate the world as his animals experienced it. He kept hundreds of pets. Even before he could read, Lorenz discovered imprinting in ducks, a phenomenon reported incidentally by others at least as early as the 1500s but only first studied in detail by Lorenz.
Lorenz earned his M.D. in 1928 and his Ph.D. in 1933, both at the University of Vienna. Much of his early work centered on a highly social corvid, the jackdaw. He kept a flock in his barn, and in studying them he discovered social imprinting as well as the innate cues used by these birds to respond to food, danger, and each other. His work on jackdaws and other animals is described in his deservedly famous and entertaining book King Solomon’s Ring.
In 1937, Lorenz and Tinbergen brought their two highly distinctive styles together for a series of experiments on geese that revolutionized our understanding of behavior. In studying an apparently simple response by which geese roll eggs back into their nests, Lorenz and Tinbergen were able to show that there are innate cues (sign stimuli) that trigger the behavior when motivation (drive or what Lorenz called “action-specific energy”) is high enough. The resulting behavior is a fixed-action pattern (often called a motor program), a highly coordinated series of muscle movements that proceeds even if the sign stimuli are removed after it is initiated.
Together with imprinting and other innately directed learning, Lorenz and Tinbergen discovered all of the basic units of innate behavior that guide animals in the wild. After World War II brought their work to a stop for nearly a decade, Tinbergen continued with empirical studies that worked out the detailed nature of sign stimuli, motor programs, drive, and innate learning. Lorenz, on the other hand, began to focus on broader theoretical issues and the relevance of ethology to humans.
In one of his most famous books, On Aggression, Lorenz argued by analogy with animals that human aggression is designed for a particular group size and involves a set of rituals designed to create and maintain a dominance hierarchy with a minimum of physical conflict. He argued that as human societies grew from the small communities of hunter/gatherers into towns and cities, innate mechanisms were no longer well suited to the challenge. Group loyalty and territoriality, scaled up to a national level, creates the potential for devastating wars. The anonymity of cities makes high crime levels and pointless violence the norm. He even argued that organized sport is an attempt to satisfy our innate urges for small-scale aggression. Anyone dispassionately watching enthusiastic fans at a game cheering on people they have never met must wonder at the underlying urges.
The provocative writings of Lorenz inspired many others to try to find evolutionary lessons in human behavior, both normal and deviant. He began what decades later would become the field of evolutionary psychology, and his impact on at least popular anthropology was reflected in Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape, Robert Ardrey’s The Territorial Imperative, and scores of other books.
- Gould, J. L. (1982). Ethology: The mechanisms and evolution of behavior. New York: Norton.
- Lorenz, K. Z. (1952). King Solomons ring. New York: Thomas Crowell.
- Lorenz, K. Z. (1967). On aggression. New York: Bantam.
- Lorenz, K. Z., & Tinbergen, N. (1938). Taxis and instinctive action in the egg-retrieving behavior of the Greylag goose. In C. H. Schiller (Ed.), Instinctive behavior (pp. 176-208). New York: International Universities Press. (English translation published 1957)