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Konrad Lorenz was an Austrian zoologist who is best known for his founding of the science of ethology, which is the study of animal behavior and is also associated with the work of Nikolaas Tinbergen. Lorenz graduated in the field of medicine, following in his father’s footsteps, and then began a career of academic study, interrupted by a period of service in the German army during World War II. He was captured on the Russian front and not repatriated until 1948. Subsequently he joined the Max Planck Institute and the brilliance of his work enabled him to rise to high office within that prestigious organization. His work combines careful observation with a lucid style, which makes it accessible to nonspecialist readers.
Lorenz viewed ethology as a means of understanding different forms of behavior that are common across many different species, rather than evident within any particular type of creature. His work focused on representative forms of animal behavior such as aggression, responses to captivity, and daily routines. His observations centered, in particular, on the concepts of instinctive behavior and imprinting. Although he was not the first to create these concepts, his research reinvigorated the ideas with substantial new data, including that of various birds.
He was able to show how different forms of instinct acting simultaneously become integrated into a single, mostly coherent form of behavior. His work has applications in the study of evolution, and this has provoked controversy among those who seek to deny it. However, by concentrating mostly on group selection approaches to evolution, Lorenz’s work is considered to have been surpassed by more recent work and, more broadly, many of his research findings have been challenged by those who have followed in his wake. His later work moved on to the study of humanity and those forms of behavior that he had earlier identified among animals that could be used to explain the nature of human societies.
Lorenz won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1973 with Nikolaas Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch. Some held his joining of the National Socialist Party in 1938 and the framing of some of his research according to Nazi ideology against him. He apologized for one such paper at his acceptance of the Nobel Prize. In 1984 he became involved in supporting the Austrian Green Party and opposition to a proposed power plant that would have led to the destruction of valuable forestland.
- Konrad Lorenz, King Solomon’s Ring: New Light on Animals’ Ways (Plume, 1997);
- Konrad Lorenz, Man Meets Dog (Routledge Classics, 2002).