I consider early childhood events as most essential to a man’s scientific and philosophical development. I grew up in the large house and the larger garden of my parents in Altenberg. They were supremely tolerant of my inordinate love for animals. My nurse, Resi Führinger, was the daughter of an old patrician peasant family. She possessed a “green thumb” for rearing animals. When my father brought me, from a walk in the Vienna Woods, a spotted salamander, with the injunction to liberate it after 5 days, my luck was in: the salamander gave birth to 44 larvae of which we, that is to say Resi, reared 12 to metamorphosis. This success alone might have sufficed to determine my further career; however, another important factor came in: Selma Lagerlöf‘s Nils Holgersson was read to me – I could not yet read at that time. From then on, I yearned to become a wild goose and, on realizing that this was impossible, I desperately wanted to have one and, when this also proved impossible, I settled for having domestic ducks. In the process of getting some, I discovered imprinting and was imprinted myself. From a neighbour, I got a one day old duckling and found, to my intense joy, that it transferred its following response to my person. At the same time my interest became irreversibly fixated on water fowl, and I became an expert on their behaviour even as a child.
When I was about ten, I discovered evolution by reading a book by Wilhelm Bölsche and seeing a picture of Archaeopteryx. Even before that I had struggled with the problem whether or not an earthworm was in insect. My father had explained that the word “insect” was derived from the notches, the “incisions” between the segments. The notches between the worm’s metameres clearly were of the same nature. Was it, therefore, an insect? Evolution gave me the answer: if reptiles, via the Archaeopteryx, could become birds, annelid worms, so I deduced, could develop into insects. I then decided to become a paleontologist.
At school, I met one important teacher, Philip Heberdey, and one important friend, Bernhard Hellmann. Heberdey, a Benedictine monk, freely taught us Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection. Freedom of thought was, and to a certain extent still is, characteristic of Austria. Bernhard and I were first drawn together by both being aquarists. Fishing for Daphnia and other “live food” for our fishes, we discovered the richness of all that lives in a pond. We both were attracted by Crustacea, particularly by Cladocera. We concentrated on this group during the ontogenetic phase of collecting through which apparently every true zoologist must pass, repeating the history of his science. Later, studying the larval development of the brine shrimp, we discovered the ressemblance between the Euphyllopod larva and adult Cladocera, both in respect to movement and to structure. We concluded that this group was derived from Euphyllopod ancestors by becoming neotenic. At the time, this was not yet generally accepted by science. The most important discovery was made by Bernhard Hellmann while breeding the aggressive Cichlid Geophagus: a male that had been isolated for some time, would kill any conspecific at sight, irrespective of sex. However, after Bernhard had presented the fish with a mirror causing it to fight its image to exhaustion, the fish would, immediately afterwards, be ready to court a female. In other words, Bernhard discovered, at 17, that “action specific potentiality” can be “dammed up” as well as exhausted.
On finishing high school, I was still obsessed with evolution and wanted to study zoology and paleontology. However, I obeyed my father who wanted me to study medicine. It proved to be my good luck to do so. The teacher of anatomy, Ferdinand Hochstetter, was a brilliant comparative anatomist and embryologist. He also was a dedicated teacher of the comparative method. I was quick to realize not only that comparative anatomy and embryology offered a better access to the problems of evolution than paleontology did, but also that the comparative method was as applicable to behaviour patterns as it was to anatomical structure. Even before I got my medical doctor’s degree, I became first instructor and later assistant at Hochstetter’s department. Also, I had begun to study zoology at the zoological institute of Prof. Jan Versluys. At the same time I participated in the psychological seminars of Prof. Karl Bühler who took a lively interest in my attempt to apply comparative methods to the study of behaviour. He drew my attention to the fact that my findings contradicted, with equal violence, the opinions held by the vitalistic or “instinctivistic” school of MacDougall and those of the mechanistic or behavioristic school of Watson. Bühler made me read the most important books of both schools, thereby inflicting upon me a shattering disillusionment: none of these people knew animals, none of them was an expert. I felt crushed by the amount of work still undone and obviously devolving on a new branch of science which, I felt, was my responsibility.
Karl Bühler and his assistant Egon Brunswick made me realize that theory of knowledge was indispensable to the observer of living creatures, if he were to fulfill his task of scientific objectivation. My interest in the psychology of perception, which is so closely linked to epistemology, stems from the influence of these two men.
Working as an assistant at the anatomical institute, I continued keeping birds and animals in Altenberg. Among them the jackdaws soon became most important. At the very moment when I got my first jackdaw, Bernhard Hellmann gave me Oskar Heinroth’s book “Die Vögel Mitteleuropas”. I realized in a flash that this man knew everything about animal behaviour that both, MacDougall and Watson, ignored and that I had believed to be the only one to know. Here, at last, was a scientist who also was an expert! It is hard to assess the influence which Heinroth exerted on the development of my ideas. His classical comparative paper on Anatidae encouraged me to regard the comparative study of behaviour as my chief task in life. Hochstetter generously considered my ethological work as being comparative anatomy of sorts and permitted me to work on it while on duty in his department. Otherwise the papers I produced between 1927 and 1936 would never have been published.
During that period I came to know Wallace Craig. The American Ornitologist Margaret Morse Nice knew about his work and mine and energetically put us into contact. I owe her undying gratitude. Next to Hochstetter and Heinroth, Wallace Craig became my most influential teacher. He criticized my firmly-held opinion that instinctive activities were based on chain reflexes. I myself had demonstrated that long absence of releasing stimuli tends to lower their threshold, even to the point of the activity’s eruption in vacuo. Craig pointed out that in the same situation the organism began actively to seek for the releasing stimulus situation. It is obviously nonsense, wrote Craig, to speak of a re-action to a stimulus not yet received. The reason why in spite of the obvious spontaneity of instinctive behaviour, I still clung to the reflex theory, lay in my belief, that any deviation from Sherringtonian reflexology meant a concession to vitalism. So, in the lecture I gave in February 1936 in the Harnackhaus in Berlin, I still defended the reflex theory of instinct. It was the last time I did so.
During that lecture, my wife was sitting behind a young man who obviously agreed with what I said about spontaneity, murmuring all the time: “It all fits in, it all fits in.” When, at the end of my lecture, I said that I regarded instinctive motor patterns as chain reflexes after all, he hid his face in his hands and moaned: “Idiot, idiot”. That man was Erich von Holst. After the lecture, in the commons of the Harnackhaus, it took him but a few minutes to convince me of the untenability of the reflex theory. The lowering thresholds, the eruption of vacuum activities, the independence of motor patterns of external stimulation, in short all the phenomena I was struggling with, not only could be explained, but actually were to be postulated on the assumption that they were based not on chains of reflexes but on the processes of endogenous generation of stimuli and of central coordination, which had been discovered and demonstrated by Erich von Holst. I regard as the most important break-through of all our attempts to understand animal and human behaviour the recognition of the following fact: the elemental neural organisation underlying behaviour does not consist of a receptor, an afferent neuron stimulating a motor cell and of an effector activated by the latter. Holst’s hypothesis which we confidently can make our own, says that the basic central nervous organisation consists of a cell permanently producing endogenous stimulation, but prevented from activating its effector by another cell which, also producing endogenous stimulation, exerts an inhibiting effect. It is this inhibiting cell which is influenced by the receptor and ceases its inhibitory activity at the biologically “right” moment. This hypothesis appeared so promising that the Kaiser-Wilhelmsgesellschaft, now renamed Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, decided to found an institute for the physiology of behavior for Erich von Holst and myself. I am convinced that if he were still alive, he would be here in Stockholm now. At the time, the war interrupted our plans.
When, in autumn 1936, Prof. van der Klaauw convoked a symposium called “Instinctus” in Leiden in Holland, I read a paper on instinct built up on the theories of Erich von Holst. At this symposium I met Niko Tinbergen and this was certainly the event which, in the course of that meeting, brought the most important consequences to myself. Our views coincided to an amazing degree but I quickly realized that he was my superior in regard to analytical thought as well as to the faculty of devising simple and telling experiments. We discussed the relationship between spatially orienting responses (taxes in the sense of Alfred Kühn) and releasing mechanism on one hand, and the spontaneous endogenous motor patterns on the other. In these discussions some conceptualisations took form which later proved fruitful to ethological research. None of us knows who said what first, but it is highly probable that the conceptual separation of taxes, innate releasing mechanisms and fixed motor patterns was Tinbergen’s contribution. He certainly was the driving force in a series of experiments which we conducted on the egg-rolling response of the Greylag goose when he stayed with us in Altenberg for several months in the summer of 1937.
The same individual geese on which we conducted these experiments, first aroused my interest in the process of domestication. They were F1 hybrids of wild Greylags and domestic geese and they showed surprising deviations from the normal social and sexual behaviour of the wild birds. I realised that an overpowering increase in the drives of feeding as well as of copulation and a waning of more differentiated social instincts is characteristic of very many domestic animals. I was frightened – as I still am – by the thought that analogous genetical processes of deterioration may be at work with civilized humanity. Moved by this fear, I did a very ill-advised thing soon after the Germans had invaded Austria: I wrote about the dangers of domestication and, in order to be understood, I couched my writing in the worst of nazi-terminology. I do not want to extenuate this action. I did, indeed, believe that some good might come of the new rulers. The precedent narrow-minded catholic regime in Austria induced better and more intelligent men than I was to cherish this naive hope. Practically all my friends and teachers did so, including my own father who certainly was a kindly and humane man. None of us as much as suspected that the word “selection”, when used by these rulers, meant murder. 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.
In 1939 I was appointed to the Chair of Psychology in Köningsberg and this appointment came about through the unlikely coincidence that Erich von Holst happened to play the viola in a quartette which met in Göttingen and in which Eduard Baumgarten played the first violin. Baumgarten had been professor of philosophy in Madison, Wisconsin. Being a pupil of John Dewey and hence a representative of the pragmatist school of philosophy, Baumgarten had some doubts about accepting the chair of philosophy in Köningsberg – Immanuel Kant’s chair – which had just been offered to him. As he knew that the chair of psychology was also vacant in Köningsberg, he casually asked Erich von Holst whether he knew a biologically oriented psychologist who was, at the same time, interested in theory of knowledge. Holst knew that I represented exactly this rather rare combination of interests and proposed me to Baumgarten who, together with the biologist Otto Koehler and the botanist Kurt Mothes – now president of the Academia Leopoldina in Halle – persuaded the philosophical faculty in Köningsberg of putting me, a zoologist, in the psychological chair. I doubt whether perhaps the faculty later regretted this choice, I myself, at any rate, gained enormously by the discussions at the meetings of the Kant-Gesellschaft which regularly extended late into the night. My most brilliant and instructive opponents in my battle against idealism were the physiologist H. H. Weber, now of the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, and Otto Koehler’s late first wife Annemarie. It is to them that I really owe my understanding of Kantian philosophy – as far as it goes. The outcome of these discussions was my paper on Kant’s theory of the à priori in the view of Darwinian biology. Max Planck himself wrote a letter to me in which he stated that he thoroughly shared my views on the relationship between the phenomenonal and the real world. Reading that letter gave me the same sort of feeling as hearing that the Nobel Prize had been awarded to me. Years later that paper appeared in the Systems Year Book translated into English by my friend Donald Campbell.
In autumn 1941 I was recruited into the German army as a medical man. I was lucky to find an appointment in the department of neurology and psychiatry of the hospital in Posen. Though I had never practised medicine, I knew enough about the anatomy of the nervous system and about psychiatry to fill my post. Again I was lucky in meeting with a good teacher, Dr. Herbert Weigel, one of the few psychiatrists of the time who took psychoanalysis seriously. I had the opportunity to get some first-hand knowledge about neurosis, particularly hysteria, and about psychosis, particularly schizophrenia.
In spring 1942 I was sent to the front near Witebsk and two months later taken prisoner by the Russians. At first I worked in a hospital in Chalturin where I was put in charge of a department with 600 beds, occupied almost exclusively by cases of so-called field polyneuritis, a form of general inflammation of nervous tissues caused by the combined effects of stress, overexertion, cold and lack of vitamins. Surprisingly, the Russian physicians did not know this syndrome and believed in the effects of diphteria – an illness which also causes a failing of all reflexes. When this hospital was broken up I became a camp doctor, first in Oritschi and later in a number of successive camps in Armenia. I became tolerably fluent in Russian and got quite friendly with some Russians, mostly doctors. I had the occasion to observe the striking parallels between the psychological effects of nazi and of marxist education. It was then that I began to realize the nature of indoctrination as such.
As a doctor in small camps in Armenia I had some time on my hand and I started to write a book on epistemology, since that was the only subject for which I needed no library. The manuscript was mainly written with potassium permanganate solution on cement sacking cut to pieces and ironed out. The Soviet authorities encouraged my writing, but, just when it was about finished, transferred me to a camp in Krasnogorsk near Moscow, with the injunction to type the manuscript and send a copy to the censor. They promised I should be permitted to take a copy home on being repatriated. The prospective date for repatriation of Austrians was approaching and I had cause to fear that I should be kept back because of my book. One day, however, the commander of the camp had me called to his office, asked me, on my word of honor, whether my manuscript really contained nothing but unpolitical science. When I assured him that this was indeed the case, he shook hands with me and forthwith wrote out a “propusk”, an order, which said that I was allowed to take my manuscript and my tame starling home with me. By word of mouth he told the convoy officer to tell the next to tell the next and so on, that I should not be searched. So I arrived in Altenberg with manuscript and bird intact. I do not think that I ever experienced a comparable example of a man trusting another man’s word. With a few additions and changes the book written in Russia was published under the title “Die Rückseite des Spiegels”. This title had been suggested by a fellow prisoner of war in Erivan, by name of Zimmer.
On coming home to Austria in February 1948, I was out of a job and there was no promise of a chair becoming vacant. However, friends rallied from all sides. Otto Storch, professor of zoology, did his utmost and had done so for my wife even before I came back. Otto König and his “Biologische Station Wilhelminenberg”, received me like a longlost brother and Wilhelm Marinelli, the second zoologist, gave me the opportunity to lecture at his “Institut für Wissenschaft und Kunst”. The Austrian Academy of Sciences financed a small research station in Altenberg with the money donated for that purpose by the English poet and writer J. B. Priestley. We had money to support our animals, no salaries but plenty of enthusiasm and enough to eat, as my wife had given up her medical practice and was running her farm near Tulln. Some remarkable young people were ready to join forces with us under these circumstances. The first was Wolfgang Schleidt, now professor at Garden University 1 near Washington. He built his first amplifier for supersonic utterances of rodents from radio-receivers found on refuse dumps and his first terrarium out of an old bedstead of the same provenance. I remember his carting it home on a wheel-barrow. Next came Ilse and Heinz Prechtl, now professor in Groningen, then Irenäus and Eleonore Eibl-Eibesfeldt, both lady doctors of zoology and good scientists in their own right.
Very soon the international contact of ethologists began to get re-established. In autumn 1948 we had the visit of Professor W. H. Thorpe of Cambridge who had demonstrated true imprinting in parasitic wasps and was interested in our work. He predicted, as Tinbergen did at that time, that I should find it impossible to get an appointment in Austria. He asked me in confidence whether I would consider taking on a lectureship in England. I said that I preferred, for the present, to stick in Austria. I changed my mind soon afterwards: Karl von Frisch who left his chair in Graz, Austria, to go back to Munich, proposed me for his successor and the faculty of Graz unanimously concurred. When the Austrian Ministry of Education which was strictly Catholic again at this time, flatly refused Frisch’s and the faculty’s proposal, I wrote two letters to Tinbergen and to Thorpe, that I was now ready to leave home. Within an amazingly short time the University of Bristol asked me whether I would consider a lectureship there, with the additional task of doing ethological research on the water-fowl collection of the Severn Wildfowl Trust at Slimbridge. So my friend Peter Scott also must have had a hand in this. I replied in the affirmative, but, before anything was settled, the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft intervened offering me a research station adjunct to Erich von Holst’s department. It was a hard decision to take; finally I was swayed by the consideration that, with Max Planck, I could take Schleidt, Prechtl and Eibl with me. Soon afterwards, my research station in Buldern in Westfalia was officially joined to Erich von Holst’s department in a newly-founded ” Max-Planck-Institut für Verhaltensphysiologie”. Erich von Holst convoked the international meeting of ethologists in 1949. With the second of these symposia, Erich von Holst and I celebrated the coming-true of our dream in Buldern in autumn 1950.
Returning to my research work, I at first confined myself to pure observation of waterfowl and of fish in order to get in touch again with real nature from which I had been separated so long. Gradually, I began to concentrate on the problems of aggressivity, of its survival function and on the mechanisms counteracting its dangerous effects. Fighting behaviour in fish and bonding behaviour in wild geese soon became the main objects of my research. Looking again at these things with a fresh eye, I realized how much more detailed a knowledge was necessary, just as my great co-laureate Karl von Frisch found new and interesting phenomena in his bees after knowing them for several decades, so, I felt, the observation of my animals should reveal new and interesting facts. I found good co-workers and we all are still busy with the same never-ending quest.
A major advance in ethological theory was triggered in 1953 by a violent critique by Daniel D. Lehrmann who impugned the validity of the ethological concept of the innate. As Tinbergen described it, the community of ethologists was humming like a disturbed bee-hive. At a discussion arranged by Professor Grassé in Paris, I said that Lehrmann, in trying to avoid the assumption of innate knowledge, was inadvertently postulating the existence of an “innate school-marm”. This was meant at a reduction to the absurd and shows my own error: it took me years to realize that this error was identical with that committed by Lehrmann and consisted in conceiving of the “innate” and of the “learned” as of disjunctive contradictory concepts. I came to realize that, of course, the problem why learning produces adaptive behaviour, rests exclusively with the “innate school-marm”, in other words with the phylogenetically programmed teaching mechanism. Lehrmann came to realize the same and on this realisation we became friends. In 1961 I published a paper “Phylogenetische Anpassung und adaptive Modifikation des Verhaltens”, which I later expanded into a book called “Evolution and Modification of Behaviour” (Harvard University Press, 1961).
Until late in my life I was not interested in human behaviour and less in human culture. It was probably my medical background that aroused my awareness of the dangers threatening civilized humanity. It is sound strategy for the scientist not to talk about anything which one does not know with certainty. The medical man, however, is under the obligation to give warning whenever he sees a danger even if he only suspects its existence. Surprisingly late, I got involved with the danger of man’s destruction of his natural environment and of the devastating vicious circle of commercial competition and economical growth. Regarding culture as a living system and considering its disturbances in the light of illnesses led me to the opinion that the main threat to humanity’s further existence lies in that which may well be called mass neurosis. One might also say that the main problems with which humanity is faced, are moral and ethical problems.
Todate I have just retired from my directorship at the Max-Planck-Institut für Verhaltensphysiologie in Seewiesen, Germany, and am at work building up a department of animal sociology pertaining to the Institut für Vergleichende Verhaltensforschung of the Austrian Academy of Science.
1. According to Professor Wolfgang Schleidt, on July 22 1998, there is no Garden University. He was professor at the University of Maryland, College Park Campus from 1965 to 1985.
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.
Konrad Lorenz died on February 27, 1989.
Their work and discoveries range from cancer therapy and laser physics to developing proteins that can solve humankind’s chemical problems. The work of the 2018 Nobel Laureates also included combating war crimes, as well as integrating innovation and climate with economic growth. Find out more.