Konrad Lorenz


Konrad Lorenz : biography

November 7, 1903 – February 27, 1989

Together with Nikolaas Tinbergen, Lorenz developed the idea of an innate releasing mechanism to explain instinctive behaviors (fixed action patterns). They experimented with "supernormal stimuli" such as giant eggs or dummy bird beaks which they found could release the fixed action patterns more powerfully than the natural objects for which the behaviors were adapted. Influenced by the ideas of William McDougall, Lorenz developed this into a "psychohydraulic" model of the motivation of behavior, which tended towards group selectionist ideas, which were influential in the 1960s. Another of his contributions to ethology is his work on imprinting. His influence on a younger generation of ethologists; and his popular works, were important in bringing ethology to the attention of the general public.

Lorenz claimed that there was widespread contempt for the descriptive sciences. He attributed this to the denial of perception as the source of all scientific knowledge: "a denial that has been evaluated to the status of religion." He wrote that in comparative behavioral research, "it is necessary to describe various patterns of movement, record them, and above all, render them unmistakably recognizable."Lorenz (1979), p. 7.

There are three Konrad Lorenz Institutes in Austria; one is housed in his family mansion at Altenberg , and another at his field station in Grünau.

Lorenz, like other ethologists, performed research largely by observation, or when experiments were conducted, they were conducted in a natural setting. Animal welfare advocates like to point out that Lorenz won a Nobel Prize without ever using invasive techniques.

Lorenz’s vision of the challenges facing humanity

Lorenz also predicted the relationship between market economics and the threat of ecological catastrophe. In his 1973 book, Civilized Man’s Eight Deadly Sins, Konrad Lorenz addresses the following paradox:

"All the advantages that man has gained from his ever-deepening understanding of the natural world that surrounds him, his technological, chemical and medical progress, all of which should seem to alleviate human suffering… tends instead to favor humanity’s destruction" The citation is translated from the Italian version of the book.

Lorenz adopts an ecological model to attempt to grasp the mechanisms behind this contradiction. Thus "all species… are adapted to their environment… including not only inorganic components… but all the other living beings that inhabit the locality." p31.

Fundamental to Lorenz’s theory of ecology is the function of feedback mechanisms, especially negative ones which, in hierarchical fashion, dampen impulses that occur beneath a certain threshold. The thresholds themselves are the product of the interaction of contrasting mechanisms. Thus pain and pleasure act as checks on each other:

"To gain a desired prey, a dog or wolf will do things that, in other contexts, they would shy away from: run through thorn bushes, jump into cold water and expose themselves to risks which would normally frighten them. All these inhibitory mechanisms… act as a counterweight to the effects of learning mechanisms… The organism cannot allow itself to pay a price which is not worth paying". p53.

In nature, these mechanisms tend towards a ‘stable state’ among the living beings of an ecology:

"A closer examination shows that these beings… not only do not damage each other, but often constitute a community of interests. It is obvious that the predator is strongly interested in the survival of that species, animal or vegetable, which constitutes its prey. … It is not uncommon that the prey species derives specific benefits from its interaction with the predator species…" pp31–33.

Lorenz states that humanity is the one species not bound by these mechanisms, being the only one that has defined its own environment:

"[The pace of human ecology] is determined by the progress of man’s technology (p35)… human ecology (economy) is governed by mechanisms of POSITIVE feedback, defined as a mechanism which tends to encourage behavior rather than to attenuate it (p43). Positive feedback always involves the danger of an ‘avalanche’ effect… One particular kind of positive feedback occurs when individuals OF THE SAME SPECIES enter into competition among themselves… For many animal species, environmental factors keep… intraspecies selection from [leading to] disaster… But there is no force which exercises this type of healthy regulatory effect on humanity’s cultural development; unfortunately for itself, humanity has learned to overcome all those environmental forces which are external to itself" p44.