Konrad LorenzThere is some personal facets not entirely clear to the public in what concerns Konrad Zacharias Lorenz (7 November 1903 – 27 February 1989), the Austrian zoologist, ethologist and ornithologist that shared the 1973 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with Nikolaas Tinbergen and Karl von Frish. For some, he is regarded as one of the founders of modern ethology.

Konrad Lorenz was a committed Darwinist, believing that instincts were shaped by natural evolution (being encoded on the genome or defined by behavior) and optimize the chances for survival by allowing the organism to fit the needs of the environment. According to philosopher Theodora Kalikow «Ideology played a triple role in Lorenz’s speeches and writings during the years from 1938 to 1943. (1) He saw changes in the instinctive behavior patterns of domesticated animals as symptoms of decline. (2) He assumed a homology between domesticated animals and civilized human beings that is, he assumed there must be similar causes for effects assumed to be similar, and he further believed that civilization was in a process of “decline and fall”. Finally, (3) he connected the preceding concerns to racial policies and other features of the Nazi program.» [1]

Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen were major thinkers that independently and later conjointly raised to a formal discipline the study of animal behavior. However, their destiny was quite different. When at the onset of World war II, Lorenz become a high figure of the National Socialist regime, while Tinbergen resigned from the University of Leiden in protest to the German occupation and become a prisoner of war. Lorenz was happy with the Nazi success when Austria was occupied in 1938 (believing that with this situation his career would gain a boost). His idea that the study of animal behavior and the breakdown of instinctive behavior patterns in domesticated animals might show up comparable dangers of genetic deterioration in our civilizations [2] could potentially make of his writings one of the ideologue biologists of the Third Reich.



[1] – Theodora J. Kalikow, “Konrad Lorenz’s Ethological Theory: Explanation and Ideology, 1938-1943”, Journal of the History of Biology, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Spring, 1983), pp. 39-73, Published by: Springer, URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4330842

[2] Patterns of Behavior: Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen,and the founding of Ethology, by Richard W. Burkhardt, ISBE Newletter, Vol. 18(2)