Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Konrad Lorenz and Nazism

In 1973 Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology.  In the awards ceremony Professor Börje Cronholm of the Royal Karolinska Institute identified ethology, behavioral physiology in his words, as an important new science.  In addition to its significance for the understanding of lower organisms, insects, birds and so on, Cronholm noted that ethology had had a far-reaching influence on “social medicine, psychiatry, and psychosomatic medicine”.  Ethology, he said will provide us with “new approaches to the human mind, human behavior and human disbehavior.”  Not only had ethology the distinction of being a new discipline, this new discipline could be brought to bear on an understanding of the human condition.  If it were not for the potential for an anthropic shift – that moment when an expert switches from ants, geese, or other organism and opines on the human condition – it would have been unlikely that ethology would have had won a Nobel Prize.[1][2] 

Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989), an Austrian, was perhaps the least reluctant of the first generation of ethologists to dare the anthropic shift, translating insights derived from behavioral observations of other animals to humans.  His enthusiasm for the task had some pronounced political implications and his involvement with and contribution to the ideology of National Socialism trailed him for the latter half of his career. 

After the Anschluss, the unification of Austria and German in March 1938, a political union which Lorenz gustily welcomed in letters to several colleagues, he hastened to illustrate the usefulness of ethology in assessing human behavior.  In a paper published in 1940 he hypothesized that both the domestication of animals and, by analogy, of people living in civilized conditions, especially in large cities, sported deficiencies compared with wild types of those species.[3]  People, Lorenz argued, instinctively disincline from the domesticated versions of most species, finding them uglier.  Since the direction in which “big-city humanity” was moving was towards more not less domestication, with all the adherent ugliness and pathology that Lorenz predicted in this, one solution, he argued, was for “the preservation and care of our people of the highest hereditary goodness.”  

Another Lorenz paper from 1940 appeared in the German biology teacher’s journal Der Biologe pointed to the consistency of Darwinism with Nazi ideology.  This was in contrast to other Nazi ideologues who were critical of evolutionary explanations.  Darwinian thinking, Lorenz suggested, served as a basis for National Socialism because of its emphasis on race as a biological factor.  In this insistence on race as the proper evolutionary unit Lorenz runs counter to the contemporary understanding of evolutionary processes, where the individual, or the gene, is emphasized as the basis for natural selection.  Nevertheless, as Lorenz saw it, however incorrectly, as race rather than humanity taken as an egalitarian whole was central to progress, an evolutionary perspective leads to National Socialism, rather than less desirably political solutions, such as communism.  Teaching such exalted truths was for Lorenz he said “one of the greatest joys of my existence.”    

During the war, after a brief stint as a military motorcycle instructor, Lorenz was posted to Pozen, Poland where he became a military psychologist.  In Poland one of his duties was to assist in work being performed by Rudolf Hippius to determine the Germanizing potential of the local population.  Those individuals considered more problematically un-Germanizable were subject to a battery of psychological tests.  One conclusion: children born of German-Polish marriages were likely to lose the good qualities of both races.  Richard Burkhardt in his analysis of this episode concedes that we only have Hippius’ word for Lorenz’s involvement.  Nevertheless Lorenz wrote a manuscript around that time entitled the Inborn Forms of Possible Experience in which he asserted a value to retaining racial purity in animals and people.  Lorenz’s review is very wide ranging and deals with more than issues of racial purity, but nonetheless Lorenz reasserted his claims about “the perils of domestication.”[4]

This theme of the dangers of inter-cultural breeding was one that Lorenz retained in his later writing.  In the signature work of his later life, On Aggression (1966) he wrote: “The balanced interactions between all the single norms of social behavior characteristic of a culture accounts for the fact that it usually proves highly dangerous to mix cultures.  To kill a culture it is often sufficient to bring it into contact with another, particularly if the latter is higher, or at least regarded as higher, as the culture of a conquering nation usually is”.[5]

That Konrad Lorenz compromised himself with National Socialism has been reasonably well documented.  Burkhardt provides a fine analysis of both Lorenz’s activity and of the papers he wrote during this period.  He noted that much of his writing remained apolitical at that time.  After the war he attempted to obfuscate on these matters, and to a large extent he was successful.  Lorenz’s autobiographical account for his Nobel Prize provides his account of what had occurred.

“I was frightened - as I still am - by the thought that analogous genetical processes of deterioration [as a consequence of “domestication”] 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.”

This was good enough for many scientists at the time.  Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, expressed shock that questions about Lorenz’s Nazism were still being raised and stated that Lorenz was a prisoner in Russia through World War II and had "been systematically persecuted ever since."[6]  Lorenz’s Dutch collaborator and co-creator of ethology Niko Tinbergen’s experience of the war was quite different.  Along with many fellow faculty members of Leiden University, Tinbergen refused to comply with the nazification of the university and he was interned at St Michielsgestel in the southern Netherlands.  After the war, Tinbergen chose to forgive Lorenz and to “put the experience of the war behind them, and get on with the scientific work that the war had interrupted.”[7]  Even at the time of his acceptance of Nobel Prize, Lorenz continued to claim that he was guilty of little more than naivety with respect to Nazi intentions.  Tinbergen corroborated the account.

The classic concepts of ethology – the innateness of behavior, fixed action patterns, innate release mechanism, action specific energy and so forth – had been greatly modified or diminished in its influence by the time the Nobel Prize was awarded.  One of the earliest substantial critiques of Lorenzian ethology came in 1953 in a now famous paper published in the Quarterly Review of Biology by Daniel Lehrman from Rutgers University.  Lehrman took aim not only at the central ethological concept of the innateness of certain behaviors, arguing that the European ethologists had not fully inspected the ontology, or development, of specific behaviors, but he also was critical of the glibness with which insights from animals were translated into accounts of human behavior.  That is, Lehrman argued that the anthropic shift in Lorenz’s work was especially feeble.  In translating the Lorenzian oeuvre from German, Lehrman had come across the papers that were written the ‘30s with their distasteful political message.  In his review he wrote
“The interpretation of human behavior in terms of physiological theory based on lower levels is carried one step further when Lorenz (1940) equates the effects of civilization in human beings with the effects of domestication in animals. He states that a major effect (of unrestricted breeding) is the involution or degeneration of species-specific behavior patterns and releaser mechanisms because of degenerative mutations, which under conditions of domestication or civilization are not eliminated by natural selection. He presents this as a scientific reason for societies to erect social prohibitions to take the place of degenerated releaser mechanisms which originally kept races from interbreeding. This was presented by Lorenz in the context of a discussion of the scientific justification for the then existing (1940) German legal restrictions against marriage between Germans and non-Germans."    

Lehrman’s published account of Lorenz’s politics was less forceful than it had been in its manuscript form.[8]  He modified it based upon the comments from reviewers before it went to press; so, this aspect of his critique was perhaps not as influential as it might otherwise have been (initially, he had intended on closing his review paper on this note).  However, though Lorenz and other European ethological community fulminated at it, nevertheless Tinbergen and others saw some merit in the critique.  When twenty years later ethology won the Nobel Prize the central tenets of classic ethology were, according to Burkhardt “no longer providing the field with its sense of identity and purpose.”  Lehrman’s review did not itself overthrow the ethological kingdom but it certainly pointed out the weaknesses in its foundation. 

Lorenz was not, of course, the only academic to have had some explaining to do regarding his record during the war.  Nor was he even the most famous of those that had apparently compromised themselves.  That title might be conferred on Martin Heidegger, often regarded as the most significant 20th Century philosopher in the continental tradition.  Heidegger joined the Nazi party (NSDAP) in May 1933, shortly after being elected Rector of the University of Freiburg.  A number of talks at the time, including a famous inaugural address as rector of the university are read by some as an endorsement of Nazi principles.  Although he stepped down as rector less a year later, the damage to his reputation was done.  Heidegger was less inclined than Lorenz to speak of this period, other than in a posthumously published interview with Der Spiegel magazine where, like Lorenz, he claimed that it was better for his discipline for him to play along with the Nazis rather than work from the outside.[9]  There were other similarities between Lorenz and Heidegger that would be worth exploring – for instance, they shared an ambivalence about technology, cities, industrialism and so forth – but I must take this up at some other time.

One might respond to this by refusing to read the works of those who have been besmirched by their involvement with so heinous a regime as the Third Reich.  In fact, a number of my academic colleagues in philosophy do just this with respect to Heidegger, claiming that what is good in Heidegger can be found in the work of others, and what is bad in Heidegger is fatally bad, sullying his thought in its entirety.  With this assessment I do not agree, and as David Farrell Krell wrote in his influence general introduction to Heidegger’s Basic Writings, “It is of course convenient to decide that Heidegger’s involvement in political despotism taints his philosophical work: that is the quickest way to rid the shelves of all sorts of difficult authors from Plato through Hegel and Nietzsche…”[10]  It seems clear to me that Heidegger is so inextricably hitched to the philosophy that succeeded him that to ignore his works inflicts harm upon the reader.  Can the same be said of Lorenz?  Since Lorenzian ethology, that is, classic ethology, has gone into a decline, and (opinions differ here) ethology has been somewhat absorbed into sociobiology, behavioral ecology, and evolutionary psychology, it may be that one can chose to leave the works of Lorenz on the shelf.  Besides, scientists seem to seem less incline to patiently learn from their elders than are philosophers.  It would be a mistake though to ignore Konrad Lorenz though.  Lorenz remains important because of his consistent attempts to extend the insights of his science to the human condition.  After all, this may have been the gesture that earned him, Tinbergen and von Frisch their Nobel Prize.  So what’s the lesson?

The lesson from Lorenz is a cautionary one.  Even if his translation of ethology’s insights into terms that might appease Nazis seems unconvincing, the fact it was possible to stretch it in this way should give us pause.  Could one for instance make it fit other, diametrically opposed, ideologies?  My suspicion is that it could, primarily because the analogies linking the animal models studied by Lorenz and human circumstance had always appeared to be forced.  Daniel Lehrman made this point as early as 1953.  In his 1953 review he ends his critique by indicating there there is a serious flawed in ethology’s “application to human psychology and sociology, it leads to, or depends on, (or both), a rigid, preformationist, categorical conception of development and organization."  As a consequence it seems to me that the Lorenzian anthropic shift always appears to be unsoundly plastic and can be shaped to too many purposes.

Towards the end of his life Tinbergen, always the least hubristic of the early ethologists, became, according to Burkhardt, even more modest that he had been before.  He emphasized in his last lectures and writings to “how much we do not know.”[11] 

When it comes to applying insights from our sciences to matters of human concern, especially when those sciences do not entail a close inspection of the human animal, modesty may be more than a virtue; it may be the bulwark against unseemly and horrifying mistakes. 

[1] This post is mainly a summary of an account of Lorenz’s involvement with National Socialism by Richard W Burkhardt’s in Patterns of Behavior: Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and the Founding of Ethology.  The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005
[2] This opinion is fully developed in Richard W Burkhardt’s superb Patterns of Behavior: Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and the Founding of Ethology.  The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005
[3] Domestication-Caused Disruptions of Species Specific Behavior, Journal for Applied Psychology and Character Study.
[4] Burkhardt’ 272
[5] On Agression, p261
[7] Burkhardt, 309.
[8] Burkhardt’s account of this is excellent.  See also the National Academy of Science’s website: http://www.nap.edu/readingroom.php?book=biomems&page=dlehrman.html
[9] In Heidegger’s case he argued that it was better for the university to have him as Rector than to have someone potentially less critical of National Socialism, Lorenz claimed that he was able to champion evolutionary studies by couching them in Nazis terminology.
[10] Basic Writings, Heidegger, Martin. (ed.) David Farrell Krell (HarperCollins, 1977), fn31, p28
[11] Burkhardt, 484

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