Konrad Lorenz

An Austrian behaviorist and early leader in the field of ethology.

Konrad Lorenz played a leading role in forging the field of ethology, the comparative study of animal behavior, and helped regain the stature of observation as a recognized and respected scientific method. Along the way, his observations, particularly of greylag geese, led to important discoveries in animal behavior. Perhaps his most influential determination was that behavior, like physical traits, evolves by natural selection. In On Aggression, one of his many books, he wrote, “Historians will have to face the fact that natural selection determined the evolution of cultures in the same manner as it did that of species.” In 1973, Lorenz and two other ethologists jointly accepted the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for their behavioral research.

Born on November 7, 1903, in Vienna, Austria, Konrad Lorenz was the younger of two sons born to Adolf Lorenz and his wife and assistant, Emma Lecher. His father was an orthopedic surgeon whose new hip-joint operation brought him renown on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Konrad Lorenz received his schooling in Vienna at a private elementary school and at the Schottengymnasium, one of the city's best secondary schools. His love of animals began outside of school, primarily at the family's summer home in Altenberg, Austria. Lorenz's parents indulged his interests, allowing him to have many pets as a youth. His interests became more grounded in science when he read about Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory at the age of ten.

Austrian scientist Konrad Lorenz.

Austrian scientist Konrad Lorenz.
(©Nina Leen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Although Lorenz had an interest in animals, his father insisted that he study medicine. In 1922, he began premedical training at Columbia University in New York, but returned early to Austria to continue the program at the University of Vienna. Despite his medical studies, Lorenz found time to informally study animals. He also kept a detailed diary of the activities of his pet bird Jock, a jackdaw. In 1927, his career as an animal behaviorist was launched when an ornithological journal printed his jackdaw diary. During the following year, he received a medical degree from the University of Vienna and became an assistant to a professor at the anatomical institute there. Lorenz recalled that period n his 1982 book The Foundations of Ethology: “When studying at the university under the Viennese anatomist, Ferdinand Hochstetter, and after I had become thoroughly conversant with the methodology and procedure of phylogenetic (evolutionary) comparison, it became immediately clear that the methods employed in comparative morphology were just as applicable to the behavior of the many species of fish and birds I knew so thoroughly, thanks to the early onset of my love for animals.” His interests led him to study zoology at the University of Vienna, and in 1933, Lorenz earned a Ph.D. in that field.

Spends “goose summers” in Altenberg

Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen, future Nobel Prize co-winner, also developed the concept of the innate releasing mechanism. Lorenz found that animals have instinctive behavior patterns, or fixedaction patterns, that remain dormant until a specific event triggers the animal to exhibit this behavior for the first time. The fixed-action pattern is a specific, ordered series of behaviors, such as the fighting and surrender postures used by many animals. He emphasized that these fixed-action patterns are not learned but are genetically programmed. The stimulus is called the releaser, and the nervous system structure that responds to the stimulus and prompts the instinctive behavior is the innate releasing mechanism.

In The Foundations of Ethology, Lorenz explained that animals have an “innate schoolma rm” that reinforces useful behavior and checks harmful behavior through a feedback apparatus. “Whenever a modification of an organ, as well as of a behavior pattern, proves to be adaptive to a particular environmental circumstance, this also proves incontrovertibly that information about this circumstance must have been ‘fed into’ the organism.” This information can take one of two routes: learning or genetic programming.

Lorenz later devised a hydraulic model to explain an animal's motivation to perform fixed-action patterns. In this model, he explained that energy for a specific action accumulates until either a stimulus occurs or until so much energy has built up that the animal displays the fixed-action pattern spontaneously. He witnessed the spontaneous performance of a fixed-action pattern first when, as a boy, he watched his pet starling suddenly fly off its perch to the ceiling of the room, snap at the air in the same way it would snap at an insect, then return to eat the “insect” on the perch, and finally swallow.

These exciting years for Lorenz did not go without controversy. He wrote a paper, “Disorders Caused by the Domestication of Species-Specific Behavior,” which some critics felt contained a strong Nazi flavor in its word choice. While Lorenz repeatedly condemned Nazi ideology, many still believed the paper reflected a pro-Nazi stance.

Tells of his life with animals

While his research continued, Lorenz accepted an appointment in 1937 as lecturer in comparative anatomy and animal psychology at the University of Vienna. In 1940, he became professor of psychology at the University of Konigsberg in Germany but a year later answered the call to serve in the German Army. In 1944, Lorenz was captured by the Russians and sent to a prison camp. It was not until 1948 that he was released. Upon his return, Lorenz went back to the University of Vienna before accepting a small stipend from the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science to resume his studies at Altenberg. By 1952, Lorenz had published a popular book King Solomon's Ring, an account of animal behavior presented in easily understood terminology. Included in the book are many of his often-humorous experiences with his study subjects. The book also includes a collection of his illustrations.

In 1955, with the increased support of the Max Planck Society, Lorenz, ethologist Gustav Kramer, and physiologist Erich von Holst established and then co-directed the Institute for Behavioral Physiology in Seewiesen, Bavaria, near Munich. During the ensuing years at Seewiesen, Lorenz again drew attention, this time for the analogies he drew between human and animal behavior, which many scientists felt were improper, and his continuing work on instinct. The latter work gave further support to ethologists who believed that the innate behavior patterns found in animals evolved through natural selection, just as anatomical and physiological characters evolved. This drew arguments from many animal psychologists who contended that all behavior is learned.