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Konrad Lorenz


Konrad Z. Lorenz being followed by his imprinted geese

Konrad Zacharias Lorenz (November 7, 1903February 27, 1989) was an Austrian zoologist and ornithologist. He is often regarded as one of the founders of modern ethology, though strictly speaking he helped to develop an approach that began with an earlier generation, for example his teacher Oskar Heinroth. He studied instinctive behaviour in animals, especially in greylag geese and jackdaws. Working with geese, he rediscovered the principle of imprinting (originally reported by Douglas Spalding in the 19th century) in the behaviour of nidifugous birds, and his writings led to its adoption within psychology. He also made important contributions to the theory of instinct. Lorenz was for a time a member of the Nazi party and that has led many to call his scientific work into question. While much of his theoretical work is outdated, and some of it does seem to reflect the political views he supported at various times, his empirical contributions remain of the first importance.

Lorenz was a Professor at the University of Vienna from 1928-1935, and a professor in Psychology at the Immanuel Kant University of Knigsberg (subsequently the Soviet port of Kaliningrad) in 1940. He joined the German army in 1941, and was a prisoner of war in Russia from 1944 to 1948. The Max Planck Society established the Lorenz institute for behavioural physiology in Buldern, northern Germany in 1950. In 1958 he transferred to the Max Planck Institute for Behavioural Physiology in Seewiesen . He retired from the Max Planck Institute in 1973 but continued to research and publish from Altenberg (his family home, near Vienna) and Grnau in Austria. He died on February 27, 1989, in Altenberg.

Lorenz shared the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with two other important early ethologists, Niko Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch. The prize was awarded "for discoveries in individual and social behavior patterns".

Lorenz was also a friend and student of renowned biologist Sir Julian Sorell Huxley (grandson of "Darwin's Bulldog", Thomas Henry Huxley).

His best known books, King Solomon's Ring and On Aggression, were written for a popular audience. His scientific work appeared mainly in journal articles, mostly written in German; it became widely known to the English-speaking scientific world through the descriptions of it in Tinbergen's 1951 book, The study of instinct, though many of his papers were later published in English translation in the two volumes titled Studies in Animal and Human Behaviour. Lorenz and Tinbergen developed the idea of the "Innate Releasing Mechanism" to explain the occurrence of instinctive behaviours ("Fixed Action Patterns"), and under the influence of the ideas about instinct of William McDougall, Lorenz further developed this into a "Psychohydraulic" model of the motivation of behaviour. These ideas were influential as ethology became more popular in the 1960s, but they are now regarded as outdated because of their use of an energy flow metaphor; the nervous system and the control of behaviour are now normally treated as involving information transmission rather than energy flow. Lorenz's writings about evolution are also now regarded as outdated, because he tended towards group selectionist ideas that were thoroughly debunked by the rise of sociobiology in the 1970s. Lorenz's most enduring contributions thus seem to be his empirical work, especially on imprinting; his influence on a younger generation of ethologists; and his popular works, which were enormously important in bringing ethology to the attention of the general public and are still widely read and appreciated to-day.

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

Lorenz joined the Nazi party in 1938, and this fact, together with his acceptance of a university chair under the Nazi regime, and his publications during that time, led in later years to allegations that his scientific work had been contaminated by Nazi sympathies: his published writing during the Nazi period included support for Nazi ideas of "racial hygiene", couched in pseudo-scientific metaphors. When accepting the Nobel Prize, he apologized for a 1940 publication judged to reflect Nazi views of science, saying that "many highly decent scientists hoped, like I did, for a short time for good from National Socialism, and many quickly turned away from it with the same horror as I." It seems highly likely that Lorenz's ideas about an inherited basis for behaviour patterns were congenial to the Nazi authorities, but there is no evidence to suggest that his experimental work was either inspired or distorted by Nazi ideas.

During the final years of his life Lorenz supported the fledgling Austrian Green Party, becoming the figurehead, in 1984, of the Konrad Lorenz Volksbegehren, a grassroots movement that was formed to prevent the building of a power plant at the Danube near Hainburg and thus the destruction of the yet untouched woodland surrounding the planned site.

Bibliography

(Note: list does not include scientific papers)

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