Biology, Fundamentals

On What the Founding Father of Ethology, Konrad Lorenz Has To Say On Human Instinctive Behavior

instinctive behavior

“One asks, which is more damaging to modern humanity: the thirst for money or consuming haste… in either case, fear plays a very important role: the fear of being overtaken by one’s competitors, the fear of becoming poor, the fear of making wrong decisions or the fear of not being up to snuff.”

Every mother knows this fear of which Konrad Lorenz, one of the founding fathers of ethology, speaks. In a highly competitive world, mothers everywhere want to know that they are doing everything possible to insure their child’s ability not just to survive, but to thrive. Unfortunately, this fear is often expressed by mothers competing rather than co-operating with one another to achieve maximum benefits for themselves and their children. Conflicting guidelines offered by “experts” often result in more stress as parents struggle to differentiate instinctive behavior from learned behavior.

Too often, this stressful competition takes the form of using general developmental guidelines established by experts to compare themselves with others. For example, if the guidelines say that the average child learns to walk at a year old, mothers whose children learn to walk at ten months may imagine that their children are extraordinarily gifted, while those who don’t learn to walk until 15 months of age are considered developmentally delayed. Mothers often suffer unwarranted shame as well as pride in comparing their child’s development to both the guidelines and the development of their friends’ children.

Konrad Lorenz is best known for his study of instinctive behavior in Greylag geese and his elaborate description of the principle of attachment, called imprinting. Born into a family of physicians, after completing his M.D. degree at the University of Vienna in 1928, he earned a Ph.D. in zoology in 1933. He observed that certain behaviors of ducklings and goslings were triggered by visual and auditory stimuli from the parent object. Further, he observed that the following response elicited by either the parent or a foster parent continued to affect their adult behavior.

His observation of the interbreeding of species of birds and the resulting hybrids led to his belief that similarly, human racial interbreeding could cause dysgenic effects. These scientific beliefs helped justify Nazi eugenics policies against “race mixing”. Of his writings during that time, he later said

“I regret those writings not so much for the undeniable discredit they reflect on my person as for their effect of hampering the future recognition of the dangers of domestication”.

After the founding of the German Society for Animal Psychology in 1936, Lorenz became the editor of the ethology journal “Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie”. From 1937 to 1940, he lectured in animal psychology and comparative anatomy at the University of Vienna. He was head of the psychology department at Albertus University in Königsberg, Germany from 1940 to 1942. His lectures on instinctive behavior included his theories on the function of positive and negative social feedback mechanisms that serve to help override impulses.

Lorenz is equally well known for his extensive research on the roots of aggression and wrote the book “On Aggression”. He had the opportunity to personally experience the effects of aggression when he was drafted into Hitler’s army. While there, he served as a psychologist in the Office of Racial Policy from 1942-1944 before being captured by the Soviet army and being held as a prisoner of war until 1948. Upon his return to Austria, he served as director of the Institute of Comparative Ethology in Altenburg until 1951. He became a co-director at the Max Planck Institute for Behavior Physiology in 1954, and remained there as director from 1961 to 1973.

In 1973, along with his colleagues Nikolaas Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch, he was honored with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for “for discoveries in individual and social behavior patterns”. Today, the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research, relocated in 2013 from the family mansion in Altenberg to Klosterneuburg, near Vienna, still plays an important role in the university research community. A second institute named for Lorenz is located in Grünau.

In addition to his gift for detailed recording of the instinctive behavior of animals, he also rigorously avoided any form of animal cruelty during his research. He was also one of the first to warn of the ecological dangers of market economics. His thoughts upon receiving the Nobel Prize reveal that perhaps because of the role that his research played during the Nazi regime, he recognized the moral and ethical problems associated with the misuse of scientific research.

He concluded that

“The competition between human beings destroys with cold and diabolic brutality…. Under the pressure of this competitive fury we have not only forgotten what is useful to humanity as a whole, but even that which is good and advantageous to the individual….”

Perhaps that’s why he advocated choosing mates based not on looks or wealth, but the quality of kindness, as the best hope for the future of mankind. His research proved that while we, like animals, possess instinctive behavior, as humans we also have the capacity to override our instinctive behavior and choose cooperation.

If you are intrigued by Konrad Lorenz, like I am, you can find here another article posted earlier on Konrad Lorenz and how he proved the “biological mother” can be utterly ignored.

instinctive behavior
Lorenz and Tinbergen. Source: Wikimedia Creative Commons
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