Swans Commentary » swans.com January 16, 2012  



On Konrad Lorenz
Part I of II


by Michael Barker



"Konrad Lorenz is the father of modern ethology, that rapidly growing branch of science which is destined to provide a strong foundation for the science of human behavior and psychology."
—Sir Julian Huxley, 1966. (1)


(Swans - January 16, 2012)   Konrad Lorenz is the well-known author of numerous international bestselling books, with the most politically significant and widely known being On Aggression (Methuen, 1966). Having studied the behavioral biology of animals his entire life, Lorenz along with intellectuals like Niko Tinbergen and Sir Julian Huxley are considered to be the founding fathers of ethology -- the zoological study of animal behavior. Like many scientists of his day, Lorenz was quick to extrapolate the findings of his studies of animals to human behavior, which led him to assert that aggression served as one of the most powerful of all human instincts. This misleading hypothesis was, as one expects, readily seized upon by all manner of mainstream political commentators, who eagerly sought out and publicized deterministic scientific arguments that conveniently excused the brutality of capitalism. Other more critical writers, however, like Stephen Jay Gould, dismissed Lorenz and his capital-friendly cohorts as "pop ethologists." (2) But in spite of, or perhaps because of, Lorenz's biological determinism, his work still remains popular today. A longevity that is all the more intriguing given Lorenz's longstanding commitment to eugenic thinking, which at one point saw him as an ebullient member of the Nazi Party at the height of the Third Reich's power. Consequently, with the publication of Richard Burkhardt's biographical study of Lorenz, Patterns of Behavior: Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and the Founding of Ethology (University of Chicago Press, 2005), it seems appropriate to re-trace the evolution of Lorenz's biological career in an attempt to understand the reasons for his enduring popularity.

Based in Austria, Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989) published his first scientific paper titled "Observations of Jackdaws" in October 1927, and soon after received a doctorate in medicine. Lorenz, however, wanted to be a zoologist, so he continued with his university studies and in July 1933 eventually obtained his doctoral degree in zoology. But the future was far from assured for Lorenz, and despite undertaking scholarly research throughout the 1930s, it was his wife who during this time served as the "primary breadwinner" for Lorenz and his family. In the face of such financial problems Lorenz was still making good headway career-wise, and had already had the good fortune to meet and impress Niko Tinbergen, the fellow founding father of ethology. Nonetheless, even though Lorenz was attaining "growing authority among biologists and psychologists [this] was not sufficient to secure him gainful academic employment." (3)

By 1937 Lorenz was still working as "an unpaid lecturer" at the University of Vienna, and so in search of much-needed capital, in January 1937 he began exploring the potential for obtaining research funding from Germany. Yet despite his best efforts to win favor with Walter Greite, a key power-broker in the Deutsche Forschungsegemeinschaft (the German Research Organization), his initial funding application was rejected "because someone had called both his politics and his ancestry into question." (4) Lorenz correctly assumed that he had been badmouthed by a former colleague who bore a grudge against him, and so he sought to rectify the situation by gaining personal recommendations from a number of highly placed scientists. Otto Antonius was one of five scientists to provide such a supportive testimony, and Burkhardt writes:

Antonius observed that Lorenz had "never made a secret of his admiration for the new situation in Germany." He added further that Lorenz and his wife's genealogies were fine and that the autobiography recently written by Lorenz's father was "a decidedly Nazi book." (p.235)

In early 1938 the German funding agency eventually began dealing with the finer details of Lorenz's now successful funding application, and the few remaining bureaucratic problems were soon overcome by the Anschluss, in March and April of 1938. These were happy times for Lorenz and he "was ecstatic" about the political changes that saw the union of Austria with Germany, especially as he recognized that the National Socialists "had a clear commitment to viewing human behavior and the body politic in biological terms"; thus he believed that his own ideas "were finally going to be 'ideologically welcome.'" On April 11, 1938, Lorenz wrote to the influential German ornithologist, Erwin Stresemann, (5) writing of his hope that future changes would put the squeeze on human psychology and put some "'properly' German" in its place. In the hope of securing the professorship of psychology at the University of Vienna, Lorenz confided to his mentor ("in the strictest confidence") that...

... human psychology in its modern German versions is always still from an expert's point of view noticeably derived from the thought of Jewish-babbling, verbose, Jewish. One of the few cases, where I fully acknowledge the perniciousness [Schaedlingstum] of the Jews. There are greed-addicted [raffsuechtige] and asocial Aryans enough, but making nonsense of science through multiple discourses, that really [is something that] only Jewish human psychologists bring about. (pp.240-1)

On June 28, 1938, Lorenz applied for membership of the Nazi Party, (6) and the following month he had his first opportunity to demonstrate the utility of his biological theories to the Third Reich at the joint meeting of the Society for Animal Psychology and the German Society for Psychology (that was held in Bayreuth). Drawing upon his research on geese, his planned lecture was titled "Breakdowns in the Instinctive Behavior of Domestic Animals and Their Social-Psychological Meaning." In preparing for this important lecture, Lorenz corresponded with his mentor and German biologist, Oskar Heinroth; and in a letter (dated March 28, 1938) Lorenz highlighted the implications of his research for race hygiene by extrapolating his findings from geese to humans, writing:

I believe man has an inborn abhorrence for humans who have degenerate instincts. This abhorrence has also certainly a species-preserving value, since in humans degenerate mating drives and similar brood-care reactions go along with each other, as, e.g., with my greylag/domestic goose crosses." Noting that greylag geese themselves had an abhorrence for "street-walkers" (Strassendirnen), Lorenz concluded: "The social 'morality' of humans is thus most certainly in the greatest part inborn and one must consequently distinguish this most sharply from the traditional taboo- and 'duty-controlled' social behaviors of humans." (pp.242-3)

When the time finally came for Lorenz to give his Bayreuth lecture in July 1938, it was clear that he had "enthusiastically enlisted animal behavior studies in the cause of race hygiene," and even prior to the lecture he had already impressed "ardent Nazi" and racist professor Erich Jaensch (who was president of the German Society for Psychology), with Jaensch evidently being so pleased with Lorenz's work that he had given him "a third more time for his presentation" than any of the other conference speakers. (7)

Summoning up an image with which the Nazis were obsessed, the naturalist who only a few days before had applied for membership in the Nazi Party likened degenerate members of society to cancerous cells in an organism: "Nothing is more important for the health of an entire people [Volk] than the elimination [Ausschaltung] of invirent types, which, with the most dangerous and extreme virulence, threaten to penetrate the body of a people like the cells of a malignant tumor." (p.244)

Between 1938 and 1943 Lorenz continued to espouse eugenic claims in a series of academic papers, allying them "with his argument that the degeneration of instinctive behavior patterns in domesticated animals paralleled a breakdown in the instinctive behavior patterns of humans in civilized society." (8) Unfortunately, such eugenic concerns were far from confined to Germany, as there "had been ardent eugenicists in many countries over the first third of the century." However, while Burkhardt does acknowledge that "some non-German eugenicists expressed admiration" for the Nazis' initial race purity laws that were enacted in 1933, he fails to highlight the fact that many of these supporters were based in England and the United States -- the two countries that arguably did most to promote the science of eugenics. (9)

In the United States, the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, which was set up with funding from the Carnegie Institution of Washington, was headed by evolutionary geneticist and leading eugenicist Charles Davenport -- an individual who was to later found the Eugenics Record Office (in 1910), which was likewise based at Cold Spring Harbor. Both Cold Spring Harbor and the Carnegie Institution are mentioned by Burkhardt in relation to the support they lent to early research into the study of animal behavior in America. However, Burkhardt studiously avoids any mention of eugenics. That said, Burkhardt does point out that around this time Robert Yerkes had formed the Journal of Animal Behavior, which, owing to the War, "ceased publication in 1917"; and Burkhardt observes that: "The war channeled Yerkes' own interests into more practical activities, most notably devising psychological tests for the army." (10) Although, again not mentioned by Burkhardt, Yerkes was an influential member of the American eugenics movement, and his war-time research was key to the development of IQ testing. Furthermore, Yerkes was not only a member of the leading eugenic organization, the Galton Society, but in 1917 he became chairman of the Eugenics Record Office's Committee on Inheritance of Mental Traits, and went on to become a key member of the National Research Council (which in its early days was considered to be the Rockefeller Foundations very own scientific front-group). (11)

Either way, Lorenz's studies were certainly compatible with the Nazis' quest for race purity, and in 1940, drawing upon his studies on the "degenerative features" that arose in domesticated geese, Lorenz "warned that it took only a small amount of tainted blood to have an influence on a pure-blooded race." In the same article...

Lorenz gladly pointed out that his conclusions were fully consistent with the ideals of the Nordic movement. As Jaensch had done the previous year, he observed that the Nordic movement had long been concerned with the deleterious effects of domestication: "The Nordic movement has from time immemorial been emotionally directed against the 'domestication' of the human being; all its ideals are among those that would come to be destroyed by the biological consequences of civilization and domestication described here; it struggles for an evolutionary direction that is directly opposite to that in which civilized, big-city humanity is moving." Lorenz concluded his monograph with a rousing call for "the preservation and care of our people of the highest hereditary goodness [Erbgueter]." (p.254)

Other critical commentators have pointed out that in this article -- which was written "during the Nazi extermination campaign" -- Lorenz also added that:

The selection of toughness, heroism, social utility ... must be accomplished by some human institutions if mankind in default of selective factors, is not to be ruined by domestication induced degeneracy. The racial ideas as the basis of the state has already accomplished much in this respect. (12)

In the same year, Lorenz published another article in the Nazi biology teacher's journal, Der Biologe, where he "argued that evolutionary theory and Nazi race hygiene concerns were mutually compatible." In this article, titled "Systematics and Evolutionary Theory in Teaching," Burkhardt explains how Lorenz maintained "that Darwinism, properly understood, led not to communism or socialism, but instead to national socialism." Yet despite his evident enthusiasm for the Reich and its racial policies, Lorenz "never cited Nazi political authorities in support of his views" and "in none of his published writings did he make derogatory remarks about Jews." (13) However, race-political concerns did come to the fore in Lorenz's private correspondence.

Writing to [Oskar] Heinroth after Britain declared war on Germany, Lorenz observed that from a "purely race-biological standpoint," it was a shame to have the two best "German peoples" of the world at war with each other while all the "nonwhite, black, yellow, Jewish and mixed races" stood by, rubbing their hands with glee. (p.276)

With the fall of the Nazi regime, the scientific world (including Lorenz) was keen to separate itself from any similarities between themselves and the genocidal Reich, and so Lorenz was compelled to distance himself from his former views. For Lorenz, however, this process of transformation began during the war as he had spent three and a half years as a prisoner of war in Russia, only being released in February 1948. Thus during his internment his writings dropped all references to eugenics and race hygiene, which is not really surprising given that the Russians "viewed eugenics as a fascist enterprise." (14)

But despite the utility of Lorenz's ideas to all manner of ruling elites (both Nazi and capitalist ones), his prior association with the Reich could not easily be overlooked by powerful funding bodies in the West. For instance, in 1949, when Lorenz considered organizing a lecture tour in the United States to enhance his chances of getting the Rockefeller Foundation to fund his research institute at Altenberg, his past came back to haunt him with a vengeance (temporarily, anyway). This is because Lorenz's friend, Karl von Frisch, who had already inquired as to the possibility of such aid for Lorenz, was "only to be told, as Lorenz put it to [Ernst] Mayr, 'that I had been a member of the German Army, Psychological Division, and therefore a dangerous Nazi.'" (15) In his subsequent letter to Mayr (dated November 20, 1949), Lorenz not only downplayed his short foray in the Army's Psychological Division, (16) but added:

I consider it potentially useful if I let you know the following as well: I was not a member of the NSDAP [Nazi Party] (by the way, again not owing to my own merits, but due to a lucky coincidence, i.e. invited to join I clashed in time with the party organization) and am presently newly appointed at the University of Vienna. (p.346)

Lorenz was, however, being more than a little flexible with the truth, because in actual fact he had applied to be a member of the Nazi Party in 1938 and been accepted as such. As Burkhardt observes: "In 1949, however -- and here he was lucky -- the Austrian authorities chose to say that he had not received his party membership card and thus had never officially become a party member." (17)


[Continue to the second part of this essay.]



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1.  Julian Huxley, "Foreword," in: Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression (Methuen, 1966), p.vii.  (back)

2.  Stephen Jay Gould, Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History (Burnett Books, 1978). For further criticisms of Lorenz's biological determinism as exhibited in On Aggression, see Ashley Montagu (ed.), Man and Aggression (Oxford University Press, 1968); Eric Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (Pimlico, 1997 [1973]); and Alexander Alland, Race in Mind: Race, IQ, and Other Racisms (Palgrave, 2004).  (back)

3.  Burkhardt, Patterns of Behavior, p.176, p.233.  (back)

4.  Burkhardt, Patterns of Behavior, p.233, p.234.  (back)

5.  Erwin Stresemann "occupied the most important ornithological post in the country as curator of ornithology at the Natural History Museum in Berlin." Burkhardt, Patterns of Behavior, p.135.  (back)

6.  Burkhardt, Patterns of Behavior, p.238, pp.241-2. In a footnote, Burkhardt notes: "Theodora Kalikow was the first historian to tackle systematically the subject of Lorenz's career in the Third Reich. See Theodora J. Kalikow, 'Konrad Lorenz's ethological theory: explanation and ideology, 1938-1943,' Journal of the History of Biology 16 (1983): 39-73. ... More recently, [Ute] Deichmann, Biologists under Hitler, discussed Lorenz at length, describing him as a scientist who not only joined the Nazi Party but who also advocated various speeches and publications on the 'weeding out' (Ausmerzung) of the elements of decay in the social body. The work that now offers the most detail on Lorenz's politics is Benedikt Foger and Klaus Taschwer, Die andere Seite des Spiegels: Konrad Lorenz und der Nationalsozialismus (Vienna: Czernin Verlag, 2001)." (pp.533-4) The latter book was reviewed in the Journal of the History of Biology in Spring 2002.

With regard to Peter Klopfer's article "Konrad Lorenz and the National Socialists: on the politics of ethology," International Journal of Comparative Psychology, 7, 1994, pp.202-8, Burkhardt writes: "I believe Klopfer is wrong in his suggestion that Nazi sympathies had anything to do with the inspiration of the primary concepts of Lorenzian ethology. [...] It appears to the contrary that Lorenz developed his basic concepts of releasers, innate releasing mechanisms, and action-specific energy well before he began to display any interest in ways that his work might be seen to intersect with the interest of the Nazis." (p.534)  (back)

7.  Burkhardt, Patterns of Behavior, p.244, p.243. "Lorenz had not written previously about human cultural or racial degeneration, aside from noting in 1935 in his 'Kumpan' monograph that Europeans were much more genetically diverse than Negroes or Chinese (a claim that was wholly unfounded but corresponded to his belief that Europeans represented a more advanced state of civilization)." (p.244)  (back)

8.  Burkhardt, Patterns of Behavior, p.249. "He allowed that the conditions of civilization, including the practices of modern medicine, were the occasion for genetic decay because they allowed the reproduction of types that would otherwise have been weeded out by selection. Moreover, he imagined that the conditions of big-city life might themselves be mutagenic. In conjunction with these warnings, he sounded themes that had been expressed earlier in the century and had since come to figure prominently in Nazi ideology. These included the genetic and the moral superiority of the peasant over the city dweller, the exaltation of instinct over reason, the insignificance of the individual as contrasted with the all-importance of the Volk, and the necessity of maintaining racial purity." (p.249)  (back)

9.  Burkhardt, Patterns of Behavior, p.248. For a comprehensive and critical history of eugenics, see Allan Chase, The Legacy of Malthus: The Social Costs of the New Scientific Racism (Random House, 1976).  (back)

10.  Burkhardt, Patterns of Behavior, pp.32-3, p.66.  (back)

11.  Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (Penguin Books, 1997 [1981]); Clarence J. Karier, "Testing for Order and Control in the Corporate Liberal State," in Ned Block and Gerald Dworkin, The IQ Controversy: Critical Readings (Quartet Books, 1977), p.377.  (back)

12.  Steven Rose, Richard Lewontin and Leon Kamin, Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology and Human Nature (Penguin Books, 1990 [1984]), p.30.  (back)

13.  Burkhardt, Patterns of Behavior, p.250, p.276.  (back)

14.  Burkhardt, Patterns of Behavior, p.279.  (back)

15.  Burkhardt, Patterns of Behavior, p.346. Liberal foundations like the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations had always been extremely supportive of research promoting eugenics in the United States, but given that Germany was still considered to be the global powerhouse of science, it is not surprising that such foundations were generous in their support of both science and eugenics in Germany. For example, in December 1936 the influential journal Science reported that the Rockefeller Foundation had "granted $655,000 to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Germany in fulfillment of pledges made before the Hitler regime came into power." "The Rockefeller Foundation and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute," Science, 84, December 1936, p.526; for further details, see Paul Weindling, "The Rockefeller Foundation and German Biomedical Sciences 1920-1940: From Educational Philanthropy to International Science Policy," in Nicolaas Rupke (ed.), Science, Politics and the Public Good: Essays in Honour of Margaret Gowing (Macmillan, 1988).  (back)

16.  "Lorenz was drafted for military service in October 1941." He was first called up to serve as a motorcycle-riding instructor, but when the military became aware of his background he became a military psychologist in Poznan, Poland (in 1942). This assignment only lasted a short time as Army psychological testing ended in May 1942, but in the "two months or so" between the end of this work and Lorenz's reassignment to the reserve hospital he wrote his "major manuscript, "The Inborn Forms of Possible Experience." Burkhardt notes: "One of the themes of the monograph was race purity and the way that, under the conditions of civilization, innate inhibitions against mating with individuals of different racial types break down, leading to a dangerous race mixing." (p.269) That said, Burkhardt does point out that Lorenz presented "a much more ambiguous view of domestication" and toward "the end of the monograph, he emphasized not so much the dangers of racial decays as the precariousness, yet still the possibilities, of the human condition." (p.273) During the time he was writing this monograph Lorenz was also assisting "race psychologist Rudolph Hippius on the psychological worthiness and character of the inhabitants of Poznan." (p.269) Unfortunately, as Burkhardt observes, the extent of the relation between Lorenz and Hippius remains unclear. (p.270)  (back)

17.  Burkhardt, Patterns of Behavior, p.347.  (back)


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Published January 16, 2012