A 2002 survey endorsed by the American Psychological Association ranked Konrad Lorenz as the 65th most eminent psychologist of the 20th century. He is widely considered to be the father of modern ethology.
Who is Konrad Lorenz?
Konrad Lorenz was an Austrian zoologist and animal psychologist. He made major contributions to the study of animal behavior. Lorenz’s contributions to the fields of zoology, ornithology, and animal psychology led to him sharing the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1973.
Konrad Zacharias Lorenz was born in Altenberg, Vienna on November 7,1903. He was the second of two children born to Emma and Adolf Lorenz, both of whom were physicians. His brother, Albert, was 18 years his senior.
The Lorenz family was very wealthy and enjoyed a high social and cultural standing. Adolf Lorenz was a distinguished orthopedic surgeon who became world-renowned for his innovative treatment of a congenital hip disorder. He was a self-made man who traveled extensively, had numerous publications, and frequently associated with aristocrats and dignitaries. He had high ambitions for the younger Lorenz.
As a boy, Konrad was pampered by his parents. He grew up in a large home with an even larger, park-like garden, surrounded by magnificent views of the Austrian countryside. Lorenz later described the setting in which he grew up as a “naturalist’s paradise.” He loved being outdoors and frequently traversed the waterways and forests near his family’s estate.
Early Interest in Animals
Lorenz developed a keen interest in animals from a very young age. He attributed this interest in part to his nanny, Resi Fuhringer, who had a special gift for raising animals. So obsessed was Lorenz with animals that for a time he wanted to become one. His first desire was to become an owl but after learning that they could not swim, he changed his mind.
After having the book The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, by Selma Lagerlof, read to him at around age six, Lorenz’s interest shifted to wild geese. The story features a boy who magically becomes the size of an elf and flies off with a flock of wild geese. Upon learning that he could not become a goose, Lorenz switched to wanting a wild goose of his own. When his mother refused to satisfy this wish because of the damage it would wreak on her garden, he settled for having a domestic duck instead.
Lorenz acquired a day-old duck from a farmer in his neighborhood and his friend Margarethe Gebhardt (who would later become his wife) got one the day after. They spent many hours together pretending to be “mother ducks,” learning and responding to the sounds and movements of their animal friends. Lorenz eventually became fixated on water fowl and claimed to have been an expert on their behavior even as a child.
Lorenz eventually acquired a large collection of animals, transforming his extensive home garden into a mini zoo of sorts. He had a variety of birds, dogs, cats, rabbits, monkeys, fish, crustaceans, reptiles, and amphibians. Many of these he caught himself while roaming the countryside around his home. According to Lorenz, his parents were “supremely tolerant of [his] inordinate love for animals.”
Lorenz received his elementary and secondary education at private schools in Vienna. He was an excellent student and developed an obsession with the theory of evolution as a child. His first exposure to the theory came at age ten when he saw a picture of Archaeopteryx in a book he was reading. His interest intensified later when he was formally taught Darwin’s theory in school. Lorenz enrolled at the elite high school known as the Schottengymnasium at around age eleven or twelve and graduated at age 19.
To satisfy his father’s wishes, Lorenz decided to study medicine although his primary interests were in zoology and paleontology. He was sent by his father to Columbia University in New York but after becoming homesick and longing to be near Margarethe, he returned to Austria after completing just two terms. The decision to leave Columbia greatly displeased his father but Lorenz agreed to continue pursuing medicine.
Even as a full time medical student, Lorenz continued to raise animals, both at the family home in Altenberg and at the family apartment in Vienna. In 1926, he purchased a young jackdaw and kept a diary in which he documented his observations of its behavior. In 1927, his report on the bird’s behavior was published in an ornithology journal, essentially launching his career in the study of animal behavior.
University of Vienna
Lorenz completed his studies and received his MD in 1928. However, he had no interest in becoming a practicing physician. He went on to pursue a Ph.D. in zoology, which was awarded by the University of Vienna in 1933. During this time, he also attended and participated in psychological seminars. While still a student, Lorenz became an instructor and later, an assistant at one of the university’s anatomical institutes. The institute was headed by Ferdinand Hochstetter, an eminent embryologist and comparative anatomist.
After graduating, Lorenz returned to the family estate to continue his research into animal behavior. His work on the family estate was supported by the modest salary he received as an assistant at the anatomical institute and by his wife who worked as a medical doctor at a local hospital.
Early Professional Life and Military Career
Lorenz began working as a lecturer in comparative anatomy and animal psychology at the University of Vienna in 1937. In 1940, under the Nazi regime, he accepted his first full-time academic position as both chair of philosophy and head of the general psychology department at the University of Konigsberg in Germany. However, his professional life was interrupted when he was called to serve in the German army in the autumn of 1941. He served as an army doctor, working in the department of neurology and psychiatry at a hospital in Posen. In 1944, he was taken by the Russians as a prisoner of war but was released in 1948.
Back in Austria, Lorenz served as head of the Institute of Comparative Ethology at Altenberg from 1949 to 1951. In 1951, he accepted an offer to lead a small behavior research unit in the Max Planck Institute of Buldern, Westphalia. In 1958, he transferred to the Max Planck Institute for Behavioral Physiology in Seewiesen, Bavaria, where he served as co-director, before becoming the sole director in 1961. He remained in that position until his retirement in 1973.
In 1973, Lorenz was appointed as director of the department of animal sociology at the Institute for Comparative Ethology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. The Institute was based at Lorenz’s family home in Altenberg.
Lorenz’s Theory of Imprinting
Lorenz is best known for his description of the process of imprinting. Imprinting is a type of learning that takes place in newborn animals (in some species) when they form a bond with the first large moving object (usually the parent or caregiver) they encounter. During the imprinting process, the newborn animal receives auditory, visual, or tactile stimuli from the object. This elicits a response in the newborn that may also impact its future behavior as an adult. Although Lorenz popularized the principle of imprinting, the phenomenon was first discovered by English biologist Douglas Spaulding in the 19th century and rediscovered by German biologist Oskar Heinroth in the early 20th century.
Work With Geese
Imprinting was first demonstrated in 1935 when Lorenz was working with newly hatched greylag geese. He collected a number of goose eggs and when they were close to hatching, he placed half of them under a mother goose and put the other half in an incubator. Lorenz ensured that he was the first large moving object the goslings from the incubator saw after they emerged from their shells. The goslings that hatched with the mother goose followed her wherever she went. However, the goslings that hatched in the incubator followed and called to Lorenz as they would their real mother. Lorenz later found that newly hatched goslings would accept any moving object as their foster mother if it was the first thing they saw after hatching.
Lorenz then took his experiment a bit further. He marked the goslings so he could identify which had hatched naturally and which had been incubated. Then he covered all the goslings with a box to combine both groups. When the box was removed, the goslings again separated into two groups on their own; the group of naturally-hatched goslings walked toward the mother goose and the group of incubator-hatched goslings walked toward Lorenz.
Work With Ducks
In addition to greylag geese, Lorenz also conducted imprinting experiments on young mallard ducks. For the young ducklings to accept him as their foster mother, Lorenz discovered that he had to squat so that he was closer to their height and he had to quack like a duck. Once the ducklings received the visual and auditory stimuli they needed, they were successfully imprinted. As Lorenz continued his work he realized that imprinting took place only during a very short time span, which he referred to as the sensitive period. He also believed that once imprinting occurred, the young animals were not able to imprint on anything else.
Another important fact that Lorenz discovered is that imprinting may impact the sexual behavior of some animals when they become adults. He noticed that sexually mature animals that had foster parents from a different species tended to approach members of the same species as their foster parents rather than their own. The imprinted animals would mate with other members of their own species if they were placed together, but if given a choice, they preferred to approach an animal that was similar to their foster parents. He also noted that sexual imprinting does not occur in all species.
Why Imprinting is Important for Surival
Lorenz recognized that imprinting affected both the short-term survival and the long-term survival of some species. He claimed that some young animals need to develop an attachment to a parent who can provide food and protection (short-term survival) and older animals need to find a suitable mate to produce viable offspring and pass on their genes (long-term survival). Although imprinting is a form of learning, Lorenz suggested that it differs from other types of acquired behavior in three primary ways:
- It occurs very quickly
- It occurs only in a very small part of the animal’s life
- It is irreversible
Lorenz’s research also led him to put forward an innate releasing mechanism theory. He claimed that an animal may have an innate behavior pattern (also called an innate releasing mechanism) that will stay dormant until a stimulating event (or releaser) activates it.
Lorenz’s Concept of Baby Schema (Kindchenschema)
In 1949, Lorenz suggested that baby schema (Kindchenschema) is a collection of infantile facial and body features that is seen as cute and is able to trigger nurturing responses in adults. He believed that there is an evolutionary reason babies have physical features such as big eyes, fat cheeks, a round face, and a big head. He claimed that these features make babies appear cuter to adults, which motivates adults to smile and provide care. Lorenz argued that from an evolutionary perspective, this type of response greatly increased the likelihood that parents provided for their children and ultimately helped the species to survive.
Applications of Lorenz’s Theories
Lorenz’s work helped researchers to better understand how some behavioral patterns arise and develop during the life of an animal. He challenged the main principles of behavioral animal psychology, which claimed that all behavior is learned. His research provided evidence that attachment is innate and may have a genetic basis for the survival of the species. Lorenz’s insistence on studying animals in their natural environment and his humane investigative methods inspired younger researchers to conduct animal experiments without cruelty.
Lorenz’s concept of baby schema has found widespread application in the film, advertising and toy industries. After scientific studies provided support for Lorenz’s theory, companies such as Disney saw the importance of incorporating infantile features when designing their characters. Evidence of this can be seen by comparing the original design of Mickey Mouse with his design today. Cuter characters have resulted in more popular films, more convincing ads, and increased toy sales.
In the latter stages of his professional life, Lorenz applied his theories to how humans behave as a social species. He viewed humankind as different from animals because we have risen above our basic instincts and are no longer constrained by our environment. While animal species can be kept in check by certain environmental pressures such as predation and intraspecies aggression, Lorenz claimed that intraspecies aggression has become extremely deadly among humans due to our ability to develop powerful long range weapons. He argued that the type of freedom humans possess requires great responsibility if we are not to destroy ourselves. He also warned that the biggest problems affecting the human population right now are ethical and moral issues.
Criticism of Lorenz’s Theories and Approach
Perhaps the biggest criticisms of Lorenz’s work are that his observations were based on personal accounts and he collected his data outside of rigorous laboratory settings. Lorenz also believed that animals experience emotions that are similar to humans and his method involved trying to imagine the mental state of the animals he was studying. While Lorenz argued that it is necessary to observe animals in their natural context to investigate the full range of their behaviors, some critics claimed his methods were neither objective nor scientific.
Konrad Lorenz’s Books, Awards, and Accomplishments
Lorenz was a prolific writer and authored a number of books over the course of his long professional career. His most popular books include:
- King Solomon’s Ring, 1949
- Man Meets Dog, 1950
- Evolution and Modification of Behaviour, 1965
- On Aggression, 1966
- Studies in Animal and Human Behavior, Volume I, 1970
- Studies in Animal and Human Behavior, Volume II, 1971
- Motivation of Human and Animal Behavior: An Ethological View, 1973
- Behind the Mirror: A Search for a Natural History of Human Knowledge, 1973
- Civilized Man’s Eight Deadly Sins, 1973
- The Year of the Greylag Goose, 1979
- The Foundations of Ethology, 1982
- The Waning of Humaneness, 1983
- Here I Am – Where Are You? – A Lifetime’s Study of the Uncannily Human Behaviour of the Greylag Goose, 1988
- The Natural Science of the Human Species: An Introduction to Comparative Behavioral Research – The Russian Manuscript, 1944–1948
Lorenz received an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Salzburg in 1983. However, the degree was revoked in 2015 due to Lorenz’s involvement with the Nazi party during World War II. Some of Lorenz’s other awards include:
- Austrian Decoration for Science and Art, 1964
- Elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society, 1964
- Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science, 1969
- Gold Medal of the Humboldt Society, 1972
- Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1973
- Grand Cross with Star and Sash of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, 1984
- Bavarian Maximilian Order for Science and Art in 1984
Lorenz married his childhood playmate, Margarethe Gebhardt, a practicing gynaecologist, on June 24, 1927. They had two daughters, Agnes and Dagmar, and a son, Thomas. During his time at the Max Planck Institute, Lorenz often invited students and faculty members to his home and around his dinner table where they were further instructed by him. After his retirement from the Institute, he returned to Austria but remained active as a researcher and writer. He also became a spokesman for environmental conservation.
During his mid twenties to mid thirties, Lorenz developed a passion for motorcycle riding. He had a large motorcycle which he used to tour various parts of Europe during his summer vacations, accompanied by his wife and two close friends. He was even involved in motorcycle racing for a brief time but stopped after a crash in which he broke his lower jaw. He grew his distinctive beard in an attempt to hide some of his scars.
Lorenz deeply regretted his association with the Nazi party during World War II. After the war ended, he denied having been a party member until documents confirming his membership were made public. He explained that during his time in the German army, he was unaware of the many atrocities that were taking place across Europe.
Is Konrad Lorenz Still Alive?
Konrad Lorenz died from kidney failure on February 8, 1989, at his home in Altenberg, Austria. He was buried at the St. Andra-Wordern cemetery near Altenberg.
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