Man and superman

The Natural Science of the Human Species
February 21, 1997

It is very unusual, if not unique, to review a science book 50 years after it was written, but this book by the Nobel prizewinner Konrad Lorenz is unique in many ways. The foreword by Lorenz's daughter, who edited the manuscript, makes it clear that it was written under the most difficult circumstance, while Lorenz was a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union from 1944 to 1948. The manuscript itself is a testament to these conditions: some of the pages are pieces of cement sacks cut to size and the ink was either diluted or hand-made from potassium permanganate. Although usually short of food, kept in freezing conditions and having to barter for or improvise his writing material, Lorenz managed to write a 750-page manuscript from memory of material used in his lectures before he was called up. Not only was the enterprise heroic, but so was the scale of the projected work. Lorenz's plan was for four parts of which this manuscript was only the first, general part. The other parts were to be a discussion in detail of the varieties of animal behaviour, a detailed presentation of the psychological and physiological principles governing centrally coordinated motor sequences and a final part on humans. Evidently all of these were covered, at least in outline, in lectures that he gave to his fellow medical POWs.

Although Lorenz never published this book in his lifetime, indeed it was lost for over 25 years and only found after his death, he did use it as a source of lectures, and he published material in much of the area covered in it over the years, principally The Other Side of the Mirror in 1977 and The Foundations of Ethology in 1981. This book is obviously an important source for the history of behavioural research, presenting as it does the background to the foundation of ethology, but does it have any value other than historical? Any scientific book published 50 years after it was written will seem to be concerned about issues that are no longer consequential, and this is true of Lorenz's book. The first part is taken up with a discussion of his philosophical position. It is unlikely that anyone writing such a book today would discuss Kant's a priori forms of thought. Indeed, I suspect that very few could. Lorenz was concerned to show that these forms of human thought, found by Kant to be independent of sense experiences, are determined by the structures of the human brain. "For Kant there was no comprehensible, logical tangible relationship between the objective world and the intelligible world comprising only those a priori schemata that create images in our perceptual world.'' Lorenz maintained that the relationship between the objective world and the perceptual world is that the a priori forms of thought are the functions of the internal structures of the central nervous system and were developed over a long evolutionary history in the same way as the sense organs. Since Lorenz was concerned to have his research programme taken seriously by psychologists (at the time he held Kant's chair at the University of Konigsburg in philosophy and psychology), a careful exposition of the philosophical foundations may have been a necessary step.

I suspect that few will want to read carefully the philosophical foundations, but, once Lorenz turns to the programme of comparative behavioural research, students of animal behaviour will find themselves on more congenial ground. Lorenz argued that behavioural research would only make progress if it was properly phylogenetic. This is a familiar argument in his later writings, and it was fully appreciated by his predecessors Whitman and Heinroth. In a very interesting section Lorenz discusses their contribution and methods. Heinroth, in particular, comes over as engagingly eccentric with his insistence on detail and distaste for speculation.

The careful studies of imprinting in waterfowl that were to become one of Lorenz's best-known contributions to ethology are unmentioned, but he discusses in detail what he thought at the time was his major contribution to the study of behaviour, the psychohydraulic model for the release of motor patterns (known as the water closet model). As far as I know, this was the first full development of a model that tied a wide range of behavioural observations together, and Lorenz's intellectual excitement is palpable. He had found that the longer the time that had elapsed since the last activation of a motor pattern, the less the stimulus had to resemble the optimal one to release the behaviour. He hypothesised that behaviour-specific energy accumulates and results in a lowering of the threshold for release of a particular behaviour pattern. For some activities, after a long enough interval, the response is elicited by no stimulus at all. A weaver bird deprived of material with which to make a nest long enough would go through the precise complex sequence of motor patterns involved in tying a plant fibre to a branch without any object in its bill. Animals responding to inadequate stimuli as though they were the normal ones for that response had been noted before by Heinroth, but Lorenz focused on them in a bid to quantify the thresh-old at which the response would be elicited.

Although he did not mention it in this section, this model also was central to his concern that human behaviours are affected by our phylogenetic history and frequently adversely. We are still performing behaviours that were once adaptive, but no longer are, and these need to be channelled and expended harmlessly.

Since most of the scientific issues that Lorenz discussed in this first book will be familiar to those who have read his other works, the best reason for reading this book is the insight it gives into Lorenz himself. His influence on the development of the study of animal behaviour as a scientific discipline has been immeasurable, and this book will make it abundantly clear why he was so influential.

Jeff Graves is senior scientific officer, school of biological and medical sciences, University of St Andrews.

The Natural Science of the Human Species: An Introduction to Comparative Behavioural Research - The "Russian Manuscript" (1944-48)

Author - Konrad Lorenz
Editor - Agnes von Cranach
ISBN - 0 262 12190 5
Publisher - MIT Press
Price - £29.50
Pages - 337
Translator - Robert D. Martin

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