Koehler, Otto

views updated


(b. Insterburg [near Königsberg, now Kaliningrad], East Prussia, Germany, 20 December 1889; d. Freiburg, Breisgau, Germany, 7 January 1974)

animal physiology, ethology.

Koehler is remembered as one of the pioneers in the study of animal behavior, or ethology. Together with Konrad Lorenz, he was a founding editor of the internationally recognized journal Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie (Journal of animal psychology, now Ethology). He also contributed to general and methodological perspectives in the life sciences and did some seminal work in human ethology.

Life and Career . Koehler, son of the Lutheran minister Eduard Koehler and Karoline Koehler, was born in Insterburg, East Prussia. He attended secondary school in Schulpforta, a former monastery and (after 1543) a famous boarding school, Landesschule zur Pforta, in Sachsen-Anhalt. After he had passed the final examination, the Abitur, he studied mathematics, physics, zoology, and botany, first at the University of Freiburg, Breisgau, and then at the University of Munich. However, under the influence of August Weismann, Richard Goldschmidt, and Karl von Frisch, he paid attention mainly to biological sciences, especially zoology. He obtained his PhD in 1911 and took the position of an assistant at the University of Freiburg. In 1912 and 1913 he worked at the Stazione Zoologica di Napoli (Zoological Station in Naples), a prestigious institution that offered excellent conditions for students doing research work in different fields of biology. Koehler’s objects of interest while in Naples were sea urchins.

After Koehler returned to Germany, he again held the position of an assistant, this time at the University of Munich. In 1916, however, he worked with the zoologist Alfred Kühn in a epidemiological laboratory in Strasbourg. In 1918 Koehler moved to the University of Wroc aw in Poland, where—after spending two more years as assistant—he finished his Habilitation (in zoology and comparative anatomy and physiology) and worked as a privatdozent. In 1923 he was appointed associate professor at the University of Munich’s Institute for Zoology and in 1925 full professor and head of the Zoology Department and Museum at the University of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad), the capital of East Prussia. In 1940 Konrad Lorenz, with the help of Koehler, was appointed full professor for comparative psychology in Königsberg. He and Lorenz were founding editors of the Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie, which soon developed as the leading ethological journal in continental Europe.

From 1946 until his retirement in 1960, Koehler was full professor of zoology and director of the Zoological Institute at the University of Freiburg. During his first years there he spent much energy in rebuilding and rehabilitating the institute, in addition to considerable teaching obligations. Nevertheless, he continued his experimental research work. In Freiburg he died in 1974 at the age of eighty-four. Koehler was married twice. His first wife, Annemarie (née Deditius), died in 1944; his second wife, Amélie (née Hauchecorne), was twenty-six years old when he married her in 1955.

It should also be mentioned that Koehler, in his later years, was considered by many as the “doyen” of German zoologists. This “meant that in the last resort he had almost overwhelming power, through his advisory relations with the State, over all zoological posts and departments in the country” (Thorpe, 1979, p. 82).

Scientific Work . Koehler was deeply interested in various questions and problems in biology. Early in his career, soon after he had obtained his PhD, he worked with Franz Theodor Doflein on microorganisms. He wrote a considerable part of Doflein’s chapter, “Überblick über den Stamm der Protozoen” (Survey of the phylum protozoa), which was published in a comprehensive, multivolume handbook of pathogenic microorganisms, Handbuch der pathogenen Mikroorganismen (2nd ed., 1912). As a medical orderly during World War I, he devoted his interest to questions of tropical medicine. Later, during his years at the University of Munich, he studied orientation in unicellular animals and color vision in lower crustaceans and was also concerned with certain general problems of ontogeny and genetics.

Koehler’s further research work was strongly influenced by the young discipline of ethology, of which he became an influential promoter. Starting with investigations in sensory physiology and mainly concerned with phenomena like kinesis and taxis, he turned to the study of the number sense, or “counting ability,” in animals and used pigeons, ravens, parrots, and squirrels for his experiments. He reached a most interesting and stimulating conclusion: some animal species have a number sense similar to that of humans.

Previously, there had been attempts for the best part of a hundred years to show that animals were able to count, but there was always some deficiency in the experimental procedure, some loophole left unclosed which rendered the results suspect. It was the outstanding feat of Otto Koehler and his pupils to produce the final but absolutely unequivocal results which showed that animals, especially birds, can “think un-named numbers”—that is, they have a pre-linguistic number sense; to some extent, they think without words. This is an achievement with which Otto Koehler’s name will always be linked. (Thorpe, 1979, p. 113)

His studies on “un-named numbers” and “un-named thinking” brought Koehler conveniently to some reflections that are anthropologically relevant.

Koehler was particularly interested in animal and human communication, and he tried to discover some basic patterns of “language” in various species. He maintained that there are prototypes of human communication in animals. Generally, his aim was to close the traditional gap between animals and humans and to show that any specific human ability has roots in some capacities displayed by animals. Thus, for example, he found parallels between music and birdsong. Some experimental studies led him to recognize the close connections and interrelations between hereditary and environmental factors in the ontogenetic development of animal and human behavior. In contrast to the empty-organism doctrine of behaviorism, he—like all other ethologists—was convinced that each living being is born with some specific innate capacities that are the results of the phylogenetic paths of the respective species. In his seminal paper on the smiling of the human infant as an innate expression, he gave some impetus to human ethology, which emerged as a subdiscipline of ethology, offering a new and broad perspective in the understanding of human nature.

Finally, it should be noted that Koehler also dealt with methodological questions of biology. He tried to separate sound ethological research from popular animal psychology and to establish clear and unambiguous concepts and notions in the behavior sciences. Also, he quite successfully combined the holistic perspective and the causal, analytical approach in the study of behavior and biology in general.



“‘Zähl’-Versuche an einem Kolkraben und Vergleichsversuche an Menschen.” Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie 5 (1943): 575–712.

“Die Analyse der Taxisanteile instinktartigen Verhaltens.” Symposia of the Society of Experimental Biology 4 (1950): 269–302.

“Der Vogelgesang als Vorstufe von Musik und Sprache.” Journal für Ornithologie 93 (1951): 3–20.

“Vom unbenannten Denken.” Zoologischer Anzeiger (Supplement) 16 (1952): 202–211.

“Vom Erbgut der Sprache.” Homo 5 (1954): 97–104.

“Vom Spiel bei Tieren.” Freiburger Dies Universitatis 13 (1966):1–1-32.

“Prototypes of Human Communication Systems in Animals.” In Man and Animal, edited by Heinz Friedrich. London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1972.


Hassenstein, Bernhard. “Otto Koehler—sein Leben und sein Werk.” Zeitschrift fürTierpsychologie 35 (1974): 449–464.

Schmidt, Isolde. “Kurzbiographien.” In Geschichte der Biologie, edited by Ilse Jahn. Heidelberg, Germany: Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, 2000.

Thorpe, William H. The Origins and Rise of Ethology. London: Heinemann, 1979.

Franz M. Wuketits

About this article

Koehler, Otto

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article