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Lorenz, Konrad

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Summary Article: Lorenz, Konrad Zacharias (1903–1989) from The Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Subject: biography, biology

Place: Austria

Austrian zoologist who is generally considered to be the founder of modern ethology. He is best known for his studies of the relationships between instinct and behaviour, particularly in birds, although he also applied his ideas to aspects of human behaviour, notably aggression. He received many honours for his work, including the 1973 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, which he was awarded jointly with Karl von Frisch and Niko Tinbergen.

Lorenz was born in Vienna on 7 November 1903, the son of an orthopaedic surgeon. From an early age he collected and cared for various animals, and kept a detailed record of his bird observations. He was educated at the high school in Vienna, then in 1922, following his father's wishes, went to the USA to Columbia University and studied medicine. After two years he returned to Austria and continued his medical studies at the University of Vienna, from which he graduated in 1928. In the previous year he had married Margarethe Gebhardt, and they later had a son and two daughters. After graduation he studied comparative anatomy as an assistant in the anatomy department of Vienna University, where he remained until 1935 – having gained his doctorate in 1933. In 1936 the German Society for Animal Psychology was founded and in the following year Lorenz was appointed co-editor in chief of the society's new journal Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie, which became one of the world's leading ethology journals; he held the post for many years. Also in 1937 he became lecturer in comparative anatomy and animal psychology at Vienna University, remaining there until 1940, when he was appointed professor and head of the department of general psychology at the Albertus University in Königsberg. From 1942–44 he was a physician in the German army, but was captured in the Soviet Union and spent four years as a prisoner of war there. He returned to Austria in 1948 and in the following year was appointed head of the Institute of Comparative Ethology at Altenberg. In 1951 he established the comparative ethology department in the Max Planck Institute at Buldern, becoming its co-director in 1954. He then worked at the Max Planck Institute of Behavioural Physiology in Seewiesen 1958–73 (as its director after 1961), when he was appointed director of the department for animal sociology at the Austrian Academy of Sciences' Institute for Comparative Ethology.

Lorenz made most of his observations and basic discoveries during the late 1930s and early 1940s. From 1935 to 1938 he carried out intensive studies on bird colonies he had established, including those of jackdaws and greylag geese, and published a series of papers on his observations, which gained him worldwide recognition. In 1935 he described the phenomenon for which he is perhaps best known: imprinting. He discovered that many birds do not instinctively recognize members of their own species but that they do possess an innate ability to acquire this capacity. He observed that during a brief period after hatching a young bird treats the first reasonably large object it sees as representative of its species – the object becomes imprinted. Normally this object is the bird's parent but Lorenz found that it is possible to substitute almost any other reasonably sized object, such as a balloon or a human being, in which case the bird does not respond in the usual manner to other members of its species. There has since been evidence that imprinting may also occur in human children, although this is still a matter of controversy because it is extremely difficult to differentiate between innate and learned responses, especially in humans and other higher animals.

After this research, Lorenz collaborated with Niko Tinbergen on further studies of bird behaviour. They showed that the reactions of many birds to birds of prey depend on attitudes or gestures made by the predators and on a particular feature of their shapes – the shortness of their necks, which is common to all birds of prey. Lorenz and Tinbergen found that the sight of any bird with a short neck – or even a dummy bird with this feature – causes other birds to fly away.

On the subject of instinct and behaviour, Lorenz hypothesized that every instinct builds up a specific type of ‘desire’ in the central nervous system. If there is no appropriate environment that helps to release the behaviour pattern corresponding to the desire, then tension gradually increases, eventually reaching such a level that instincts take control, even when the correct stimulus is lacking. For example, a pregnant ewe acts in a maternal manner towards a new-born lamb, although the ewe herself has not yet given birth.

In his later work Lorenz supplied his ideas to human behaviour, most notably in his book On Aggression (1966), in which he argued that aggressive behaviour in human beings has an innate basis but, with a proper understanding of instinctual human needs, society can be changed to accommodate these needs and so aggression may be diverted into socially useful behaviour.

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