The Forgettable Philosophy of Konrad Lorenz

Konrad Lorenz was a great man.  A careful observer of animal behavior, he noted the many similarities between the innate traits of some of the species he studied and the behavior of human beings.  In view of the fact that we are the products of a similar process of evolution, and the improbability of the supposition that our ancestors had suddenly shed all these innate traits in the relatively short time it took them to evolve large brains, he came to the seemingly obvious conclusion that the ultimate cause of these analogous characteristics was to be found in the genetic programming of the brain.  It was not, however, obvious to a great number of sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and other professional “experts” in human behavior, including the vast majority of them in the United States, over a period of many decades.  They persisted stubbornly in the belief that no such innate traits existed, that all human behavior worth mentioning was a result of culture and education, and that the human mind at birth was actually a “blank slate.”

The absurdities of blank slate orthodoxy are sufficiently obvious that the ease of debunking them is akin to that of shooting fish in a barrel.  In fact, there were numerous debunkers during the decade of the 60’s and early 70’s when the theory was still in vogue.  Of these, Lorenz was the second most effective.  The most effective was Robert Ardrey.  As proof of this assertion, we have the testimony of the blank slaters themselves, conveniently assembled in an invaluable little book published in 1968 and edited by Ashley Montagu entitled, Man and Aggression.

In the fullness of time, blank slate orthodoxy collapsed under its own weight and the pressure of advances in the relevant sciences.  It is one of the more remarkable oddities of this field of study that has always had such an abundance of oddities that its demise was accompanied by the emergence of a whole new orthodoxy in the form of a fantastically imaginary account of its downfall.  The whole, fanciful tale can be found in The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, purportedly a “history” of the blank slate in which he manages to get through 528 pages in paperback with hardly a mention of its two most effective opponents.  Lorenz is dismissed because of his “hydraulic theory,” an hypothesis that made only a minor appearance in his work and was utterly insignificant as far as his fundamental thought on human behavior is concerned.  Ardrey, a brilliant man and the greatest debunker of them all, is waved out of existence with a single mention because, according to Richard Dawkins, no less, he was “completely and utterly wrong.”  This concoction was apparently produced to cover the shame of the academic and professional experts in human behavior who had been so wrong for so long, in part by trotting out E.O. Wilson as the “real” father of opposition to the blank slate.  His book, On Human Nature, was merely a repetition of the fundamental conclusions that had appeared in the work of Lorenz and Ardrey more than a decade earlier.  No matter.  He could plausibly be claimed by the experts as one of their own.  Now, instead of being shamed by a mere playwright, they had actually cleaned their own house.  To add oddity to oddity, it turns out that the reason that Dawkins claimed that Ardrey was “totally and utterly wrong,” was his support for the theory of group selection in his book, The Social Contract.  The theory, still highly controversial, was subsequently embraced by none other than E.O. Wilson!  And what of Lorenz?  He may have been right about innate behavior, but, regrettably, he had linked it with some of the less savory human traits in On Aggression.  For example, from that book,

To the humble seeker of biological truth there cannot be the slightest doubt that human militant enthusiasm evolved out of a communal defense response of our prehuman ancestors.  The unthinking single-mindedness of the response must have been of high survival value even in a tribe of fully evolved human beings.  It was necessary for the individual male to forget all his otgher allegiances in order to be able to dedicate himself, body and soul, to the cause of the communal battle.


Humanity is not enthusiastically combative because it is split into political parties, but it is divided into opposing camps because this is the adequate stimulus situation to arouse militant enthusiasm in a satisfying manner.  “If ever a doctrine of universal salvation should gain ascendancy over the whole earth to the exclusion of all others,” writes Erich von Holst, “it would at once divide into two strongly opposing factions (one’s own true one and the other heretical one) and hostility and war would thrive as before, mankind being – unfortunately – what it is!”

This was a bit much for the orthodox “experts.”  After all, they had been assuring each other for years that the pervasiveness of warfare in virtually all human societies since the beginning of recorded time was merely a regrettable coincidence.  Take away war toys, adjust the “culture” here and there, and fine tune the educational system a bit and, viola!, it would be banished to mankind’s dark past, never to return again.  If something in our genes actually did contribute to this remarkable “coincidence” of warfare, such dreams vanished like the morning fog, and with them all the Brave New Worlds of “human flourishing” that were being planned for a recalcitrant humanity.  Having strained on the gnat of innate behavior, they found this added lump of “aggression” just too much to swallow.  Lorenz had to go.

No matter, in the end, Pinker’s fairy tale doesn’t wash in any case.  The truth will out.  We have Ashley Montagu and his fellow blank slaters to thank for that.  Pinker may have relegated Ardrey and Lorenz to the ranks of unpersons, but they were not quite so delusional.  They knew who their most effective opponents were, and they set it all down in black and white in no uncertain terms in Man and Aggression.  For anyone who cares to fact check Pinker’s “official history,” that invaluable little book is still available in paperback at Amazon for the bargain basement price of one cent.

In a word then, Lorenz deserves a lot more respect than he gets in Pinker’s yarn, or in the sanitized “histories” that are fed to unwitting undergraduates in the current crop of Evolutionary Psychology textbooks, and he deserved the Nobel Prize he was awarded for his work in 1973, two years before Wilson published On Human Nature.  Why, then, do I find his philosophy “forgettable.”  It seems to me that, just as Einstein should have stayed out of politics, a field in which he was easily manipulated by the unscrupulous ideologues of his day, Lorenz should have left the philosophizing to Kant and Hegel.  Alas, he had drunk too deeply in those waters.  Like Don Quixote, who, Cervantes tells us, read stirring tales of knight-errantry until he became a bold knight himself in his imagination, Lorenz thought to save the world with his philosophy.  He could sling epistomologies, ontologies, and teleologies with as much panache as the best of them, and so he did in a number of his lesser known works.

It happens I have just waded through one of them, entitled The Waning of Humaneness, a somewhat rough approximation of the German title, Der Abbau des Menschlichen, which conveys more of the flavor of Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West), a work which Lorenz often cites.  Written in 1983 when Lorenz was 79 years old, the book is a mish-mash of stuff taken, sometimes word for word, from his earlier books, dubious claims about the origin of values, even more dubious prescriptions for restoring them so that humaneness stops waning, all in a melange of simplistic pontification about preserving the environment inspired, we are informed, by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

To enlist the help of others in restoring “humaneness,” it is first necessary to explain to them what it is.  It turns out that humaneness is as similar to all the other noble causes that have disturbed the tranquility of mankind since time immemorial as one pea to all the others in a pod.  In short, Humaneness is what Lorenz thinks is Good.  It’s not very original as Goods go.  In the Foreword we are informed that it consists of restoring the environment and reversing the cultural “decadence” with which its degradation goes hand in hand.  This is to be done by restoring “true” morality and values.  Of course, the rub, as with all such systems, lies in establishing the legitimacy of the Good.  Why is the Good really good?

In the case of Lorenz, the task of establishing this legitimacy would seem particularly daunting.  After all, he was a pioneer in establishing the innate, genetically programmed component of human morality.  By no means does he renounce his earlier work.  In fact, he actually cites it.  For example, reiterating his earlier claims about the ancient wellsprings of the emotions that influence human behavior he writes,

Based on genetic programming are not only the apparatuses for sensory perception and for logical thinking that outline and fill in with color the picture we have of our world; also based on these programs are the complicated feelings that determine our interhuman behavior.  Our social behavior especially is dominated by an immensely old heritage of species-specific action and reaction patterns; these are undoubtedly much, much older than the specific capacities of intelligence associated with our neocortex, that is, with the evolutionarily youngest part of our brain.


It is beyond doubt that a great number of qualitative emotions, recognizable and unmistakable, are common to all mankind, that is, are anchored in the genes of humans.

So far so good.  However, these innate traits, as well as the various culturally transmitted modes of behavior to which they give rise haven’t kept up with the pace of technological and cultural change.

…many of the innate as well as traditional norms of humans that were still well-adapted programs of social and economic behavior just a short while ago today contribute to the waning of what is humane.

Again, if we can drop the “waning of humaneness” jargon and simply say that these behavioral traits have become maladaptive, Lorenz is merely reiterating truths that have, in the meantime, become obvious to all but the most diehard and ancient of blank slaters.  But it is just here that Lorenz, along with so many others who have more or less accepted the facts as set forth above, run off the tracks.

It seems clear to me that, if the ultimate cause of human behavior (and moral behavior, however defined, is merely a subset thereof), lies in the evolved features of our brains, then there can be no possible legitimate basis for one human being to claim that what his subjective emotions portray to him as the Good must also be the Good for everyone else.  This pervasive illusion, cause of so much human misery, should finally be recognized as such and jettisoned once and for all.  But in spite of the demise of the Blank Slate, in spite of a tidal wave of papers in scholarly journals on innate behavior, and in spite of a continuing flood of books on themes such as hard-wired morality and the moral behavior of animals, that isn’t about to happen.  The emotional high of feeling morally superior to lesser mortals is just too sweet and savory to dispense with.  Orgasms of self-righteousness and virtuous indignation are almost as satisfying as the sexual kind, and they last a lot longer.  But to experience them in all their glory, the Good must be justified.

Lorenz goes about the task without much virtuosity, but with a few idiosyncratic twists.  In short, he admits that values are subjective, but claims that they are, nevertheless, real.  As he puts it:

What must be made clear, and convincingly, is that our subjective experiential processes possess the same degree of reality as everything that can be expressed in the terminologies of the exact natural sciences. …Since all of the moral responsibilities of humans are determined by their perceptions of values, the epidemic delusion that only numerical and measurable reality has validity must be confronted and contradicted.

Certainly our subjective impressions are real and do actually exist in the sense that they result from observable and measurable physical phenomena in our brains. The non sequitur here is that, simply by virtue of the fact that they do actually exist in that fashion, they thereby acquire some sort of objective legitimacy.  Some more or less similar leap of faith is always necessary to establish a moral system.  Somehow, a subjective impression must be promoted to the Good, an objective thing in itself.  Only in that form can it acquire the power of serving as an imperative for all mankind.  It seems to have occurred to Lorenz that his claim of objective validity by virtue of subjective reality is a rather threadbare variant of this essential sleight of hand.  To prop it up, he drags in Beauty.

For all the value perceptions of humans that have been discussed up to now, the assumption is justified that these sensibilities assist the individual in advantageous achievements and, therewith, the assumption is also justified that their programs as well, through selection of these achievements, have evolved in typical ways.  But there is the beautiful, the genesis of which in a similar manner must be doubted, for which, in fact, an explication of origin by means of selection seems conspicuously contrived.

If Lorenz’ argument for the special status of Beauty gives you a faint sense of a televangelist arguing for the special status of divine creation, you’re not alone.  Cutting to the chase, in the final chapter the author reveals himself as a theist.  We finally detect the supernatural stiffening behind all this flimsy stuff about Beauty and Values.  Nature is “really beautiful” and “true values” are really legitimate because God wants it that way.

Lorenz’ suggestions for turning the humaneness curve back in the right direction are paltry enough.  Even in 1983 he was still feeling the afterglow of the 60’s youth fetish.  (As a baby boomer myself, I cannot but feel a distinct relief that my generation, the object of all that obsession with “youth,” has finally reached retirement age).   As usual, we were to redeem mankind from its horrible fate:

The predicament of young people today is especially critical.  Forestalling the threatening apocalypse will devolve on their perceptions of value; their sensibilities of the beautiful and worthwhile must be aroused and renewed.

And how was this arousal and renewal to be brought about?

It must still, in some way, be possible to provide even those children born and reared in large cities with some kind of opportunity for developing their capacities to perceive the harmony and disharmony of living systems – if only by means of an aquarium.  Those children who are given a chance to tend to aquarium and to care for its inhabitants come to learn, through necessity, to comprehend a functioning entirety in its harmony and disharmony, an entirety bringing together and combining very many systems consisting of animals, plants, bacteria and an entire range of inorganic givens, systems that complement one another and systems that are antagonistic to one another.  Children would learn how delicate the equilibrium of such an artificial ecological system is.

It may seem uncharitable to dismiss the aquarium idea.  After all, we’ve tried pretty much everything else.  However, I can assure the reader that, as a child, my teachers had me tend to both an aquarium and a beehive for good measure, and look how I turned out.

The Waning of Humaneness contains a good deal more of puerile stuff about corporate war profiteers, the evils of nuclear energy, canned homilies about saving the environment, the stupidity of Americans who live in suburban subdivisions, tiresomely repetitious warnings about the impending suicide of mankind, etc., but that can rest.  Konrad Lorenz was, after all, a great man.  Working in his own specialty, he struck a telling blow at the Blank Slate, one of the most pernicious pseudo-religions that ever claimed the name of science.  Let us remember and honor him for that.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

2 thoughts on “The Forgettable Philosophy of Konrad Lorenz”

  1. I don’t see the connection between what you’ve written here and the contents of The Moral Landscape. “This good is perceived as a real thing, having an existence of its own transcending individual minds.” There is nothing that is explicitly transcendent about the philosophy that Harris promotes in the book. If there is something implicit, I wish you’d expound on it here or point to where you’ve clarified this. More to the point, I’d like to see your response to the comparison Harris makes between “flourishing” and “health”.

  2. There is nothing mysterious about the word “transcendental” in this context. I borrowed it from John Stuart Mill to describe a morality that is objectively valid and legitimate in its own right. As such, it “transcends” individual, subjective judgments. A transcendental Good in this sense is “Good in itself,” valid regardless of the subjective judgment of this or that individual. In fact, Harris is quite explicit about his belief in such a transcendental good. For example, quoting from The Moral Landscape:

    Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood.

    The goal of this book is to begin a conversation about how moral truth can be understood in the context of science.

    I hope to show that when talking about values, we are actually talking about an interdependent world of facts.

    …I am arguing that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want – and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible. My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics.

    and so on. In other words, Harris is presenting us with a utilitarian version of the Good, somewhat similar to Mill’s. However, Mill understood the difference between subjective and objective, or transcendental, good, and was actually quite apologetic about the arbitrariness of associating the Good with utility writ large. Not so Harris. As is evident from the quotes above, and much else in The Moral Landscape, he simply links the Good with “living the best lives possible,” “human flourishing,” etc., as if the link needed no explanation and were intuitively obvious to any intelligent human being. In the first place, one could make no such connection between the Good and “human flourishing,” applicable not just to Sam Harris, but all the rest of us as well, unless the Good actually had an objective existence of its own. In the second place, such a proceeding flies in the face of all the knowledge we have so painstakingly acquired about the wellsprings of morality in the evolved behavioral traits of our species; human nature if you will.

    If you still don’t see the connection, I suggest you Google “Helian,” and “Harris.” I’ve written several other posts on the subject.

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