Spat out of Nature by Nature: Konrad Lorenz and the Rise and Fall of Ethology

Jackdaws (Corvus monedula), widespread crows throughout Ireland, make delightful pets.  A school friend of mine in Dublin, Sean Farrell, kept one for a few months back in the late 1970s when we were both in our early teens.  The bird had broken its wing and Sean nursed it back to health.  The jackdaw was a noisy fellow and had his species penchant for shiny things.  Sometime later I was happy to read that Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989), the Austrian ethologist, published a behavioral study of a colony of Jackdaws that he maintained and included an account of the birds in his charming book King Solomon’s Ring.  King Solomon’s Ring, the title taken from the legend that Solomon had a ring that allowed him to talk to the animals, was a popularization of the emerging science of ethology, that is, the biological study of behaviour, was perhaps the first book that confirmed to me that there was a to make a living out of what I happened to like to do.
I progressed from the lighter but nonetheless delightful accounts of animal behavior in King Solomon’s Ring and in Niko Tinbergen’s Curious Naturalists to the greater heft of Lorenz’s classic On Aggression (1966) which I read as a zoology undergrad at University College Dublin in the 1980s.  In this book, published later in his career when he was in his sixties, Lorenz shared his mature analysis of how insights from the study of the instinctual behaviour of animals can be helpful in thinking about the human condition.  As we shall see, as a good Darwinian he regarded human conduct as revealing much about our essentially animal nature, but unlike other animals we posses, he argued, a characteristic of being able to overcome this legacy.  In fact, he deemed it critical to our species survival that we simultaneously evaluate the evolution of aggressiveness in a clear-headed way while we find cultural solutions to discharging these unavoidable tendencies in a harmless way.  More harmless than war, that is.  Lorenz had lived through a war and he was committed to helping humanity avoid another one on that scale.
Read on here

About dublinsoil

Professor of Environmental Science
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