Lorenz, Konrad (1903–1989)

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LORENZ, KONRAD (1903–1989)


Primary founder of ethology.

Konrad Lorenz was the second son of Adolf Lorenz (1854–1946), a rich and internationally famous Viennese orthopedic surgeon. His family indulged him in his boyhood passion for raising animals, and later in his career he would claim that his mature scientific practices were continuous with the habits he developed in his youth as an animal lover. Urged by his father to become a physician, he enrolled as a medical student at the University of Vienna, where his teachers included the comparative anatomist Ferdinand Hochstetter (1861–1954), who taught him how to study evolution through the comparative method. Lorenz earned his doctorate in medicine in 1928 and then enrolled at the university's Zoological Institute, where he received a PhD in 1933.

Throughout his years as a student Lorenz continued his hobby of raising animals, especially birds. His observations of a hand-reared jackdaw initiated for him a series of researches and insights on bird behavior that soon brought him to the attention of Germany's leading ornithologists, most notably Oskar Heinroth (1871–1945) and Erwin Stresemann (1889–1972). Key to Lorenz's early ornithological work was the idea that the methods of comparative anatomy could be applied to innate animal behavior patterns just as effectively as they could be applied to animal structures. In other words, the comparative study of animal instincts could help zoologists reconstruct the evolutionary affinities of different animal species. Lorenz, however, was not content to study innate behavior patterns solely from the perspectives of evolutionary history and taxonomy. He also wanted to make sense of their physiological causation and their social and biological function. In an important monograph of 1935 he argued that birds are adapted to their environments not so much by acquired knowledge as by highly differentiated innate behavior patterns, built up over time by evolution. For these behavior patterns to be effective, they need to be "released" by stimuli emanating from appropriate objects in their environment, including other birds of the same species. Lorenz at this time also drew attention to the phenomenon of "imprinting." He went on to develop a theory of instinct featuring "releasers," "innate releasing mechanisms," "action-specific energies," and innate, fixed motor patterns. Distinguishing sharply between instinctive behavior patterns on the one hand and learned behavior on the other, he advocated studying the former first. He quickly became a leader in the newly established German Society for Animal Psychology.

Notwithstanding his rapid rise to prominence in the field of animal psychology, Lorenz found it difficult in the mid-1930s to gain a paid academic position. He attributed his lack of success to the Catholic educational establishment in Austria, which was unsympathetic to his idea of making sense of human, social psychology in terms of its continuities with the social instincts of lower animals. When Austria was incorporated into Germany in 1938, Lorenz welcomed the change. He believed that the National Socialist regime would welcome his general worldview and support his research. Claiming there to be a parallel between "domestication"-induced behavioral degeneration in animals and humans, he promoted his work as being consistent with the Third Reich's concerns about race purity. He also joined the Nazi Party. Scholars differ in their assessments of this part of his career. He was called to the chair of psychology at the Albertus University of Königsberg in 1940. The following year he was drafted for military service. Captured by Russian forces in 1944 while serving on the eastern front, he did not return to Austria until 1948.

Prior to the war Lorenz's greatest wish had been to have the Kaiser Wilhelm Society establish a research center for him in Altenberg, Austria, the site of his family home and his own private research station. Although this did not occur, after the war, in 1950, the Max Planck Society, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society's successor, established a research institute for him in Buldern, Westphalia. That operation was subsequently relocated in 1956 to Seewiesen, near Starnberg, in Bavaria, as a major institute for behavioral physiology, codirected by Lorenz and the physiologist Erich von Holst (1908–1962). Lorenz settled at Seewiesen in 1957 and remained there until his retirement in 1973, when he returned home to Altenberg.

In the postwar period Lorenz continued to be a dominant figure in animal behavior studies, sharing the leadership of the new field of ethology with his friend, the Dutch-born naturalist Nikolaas Tinbergen (1907–1988), who established a major center for animal behavior studies at Oxford University. Lorenz attracted attention and controversy in the 1960s with his popularly written book, On Aggression (originally published in German as Das sogenannte Böse: Zur Naturgeschichte der Aggression). He also was a pioneer in the field of evolutionary epistemology, promoting the idea that the human brain apprehends the world in ways that reflect how that organ has been shaped by natural selection in the course of evolutionary history.

For his contributions to the study of animal behavior Lorenz was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973. He shared this honor with Karl von Frisch (1886–1982) and Tinbergen.

See alsoAustria; Science .


Burkhardt, Richard W., Jr. Patterns of Behavior: Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and the Founding of Ethology. Chicago, 2005.

Nisbett, Alec. Konrad Lorenz. New York, 1976.

Taschwer, Klaus, and Benedikt Föger. Konrad Lorenz: Biographie. Vienna, 2003.

Richard W. Burkhardt Jr.

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Lorenz, Konrad (1903–1989)

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