by Liam Heneghan
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.
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. 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.”
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