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Variations on an Idée Fixe

The Year of the Greylag Goose

by Konrad Lorenz, translated by Robert Martin, photographs by Sybille Kalas, by Klaus Kalas
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/a Helen and Kurt Wolff book, 199, 147 illus pp., $25.00

Admirers of King Solomon’s Ring and Man Meets Dog will be relieved that Konrad Lorenz has reverted to his earlier vein. His last two books must have been a bitter disappointment, even to those who accepted On Aggression as a work of oracular significance. One of them, entitled Behind the Mirror, purported to be a “search for a Natural History of Human Knowledge,” but was impenetrable to the nonacademic reader. The other, Civilized Man’s Eight Deadly Sins, was easy enough—a diatribe in the language of the world-saver that dragged out the musty metaphors of social Darwinism and could have been written in the late Thirties. Overpopulation and the ruin of landscape were galloping cancers. He inveighed against the inertia of public opinion; the universal mania for the new; the lack of courtship rituals that made for stable marriages; and he feared that our civilization would fall to the less pampered peoples of the East.

The Year of the Greylag Goose, however, proves he has not lost his light touch or ability to charm. He presents the book as the record of four seasons spent studying his favorite bird in the “fairytale surroundings” of Lake Alm in Austria. The result is extremely pretty and will doubtless beguile a wide audience, partly through the color photographs of Sybille and Klaus Kalas, partly through Lorenz’s special gift of getting under the skin of other creatures. The mountains are beautiful; the air is crystalline, and the greylag itself is a marvelous bird of muted grays and whites, with a beak the color of red coral and slightly paler feet. On page after page exquisite images illustrate the flowers, the other animals of Lake Alm, and the geese themselves, courting, mating, nesting, hatching, fighting, swimming, moulting, flying, or feeding in the snow. On the last three spreads, a goose closes its eyelids and drifts into the deepest sleep.

Lorenz himself, in bathing shorts, sou’wester, or anorak, appears as the venerable, white-bearded naturalist, the Nobel Prize winner, who has never lost his capacity to marvel at the wonders of nature. When wild geese answer his call, he feels he has stepped back into a “paradise of peaceful coexistence” with his fellow creatures. On the other hand, his knowledge of evolution has earned him the right to preach sermons that will be understood by anyone who takes the trouble to read between the lines. In the postscript, he hopes that the book “will inspire overworked people who are alienated from nature with a sense of what is good and of their duty to protect and preserve nature’s living things.”

Lorenz grew up at Altenberg on the Danube, and still lives in the fantastical neo-baroque mansion built by his father, a rich Viennese surgeon. His love affair with greylag geese began when he was a little boy watching them migrate downriver. By the age of six he had absorbed a popular account of Darwinism by Wilhelm Boelsche (through whose chief work Vom Bazillus zum Affenmenschen Hitler first latched onto the idea of evolution). He decided to become a palaeontologist and, in the garden, played at being iguanadons with the girl who became his wife. Later, as a young scientist, he kept a flock of greylags in and around the house; and one of the funniest passages in King Solomon’s Ring describes Lorenz Senior entertaining the geese to tea in his study, where they made messes on the Persian carpet. Frau Lorenz once asked a psychiatrist friend: “What is this mania of Konrad’s for geese?” “It’s a perversion,” he said. “Same as any other.”

Lorenz has always been at pains to preface his books with avowals of scientific objectivity. At the start of On Aggression, he promised to lead his readers “by the route which I took myself…for reasons of principle. Inductive natural science always starts without preconceptions and proceeds from this to the abstract laws they all obey.” In the new book, the observer is the lens of the camera, “the very symbol of objectivity.” Yet, though Lorenz claims to have written the text around the photographs, that doesn’t stop him repeating the ingrained prejudices he has been hammering out, for over forty years, with the persistence of the Vicar of Bray.

His professional colleagues prefer to distinguish two Lorenzes. One is the “Father of Ethology” (the book jacket calls him the “Father of the Greylag Geese”), who pioneered the study of “blocs” of genetically inherited behavior in the vertebrates and contributed the valuable concept of “imprinting.” The second Lorenz is the blustering philosopher-politician, whose argument from animals to man rests on rather shaky foundations. Yet his theses are so closely worked, and his career is so much of one piece, that I find it impossible to divide the Lorenzes.

His message is that all human behavior is biologically determined: that when we speak of love, hate, anger, grief, ambition, loyalty, friendship, and so forth, we are speaking on precisely the same level as the ethologist who uses “aggressivity,” “rank-order drive,” “male bonding,” or “territoriality” to describe the behavior of other species. Once the “drives,” or appetites, of human beings are isolated, it will be possible to propose a biology of ethics that will supplant the half-truths of religion or secular morality. We are not free, but bound by evolutionary law. The function of reason is not to free us from our instincts, but to protect us from our own sins against nature. “Animals,” he writes in this book, “do not need a sense of moral responsibility, since under natural conditions their inclinations lead them to what is right.” Man, however, is a domesticated species, whose innate schemes of behavior have been blunted by the process of becoming human, and tend to get hopelessly brutalized in the conditions of the big modern city.

Now it happens that the family life of the greylag goose is an ideal mirror for Lorenz to show up the flaws of instinct in man. He quotes his father as saying: “After the dog, the greylag goose is the most suitable animal for association with human beings.” In fact, he never tires of quoting his father as a reservoir of sound, old-fashioned common sense; and it must have been most reassuring for both to find that greylag society should conform to the ideals of an upper-middle-class family in the late Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The geese are monogamous. They fall in love and stay in love. They have long courtship rituals that end in a kind of marriage ceremony. The ganders work off their aggressive drives in fights that establish a hierarchy of breeding. Defeated rivals go off alone, get depressed, and are liable to accidents. Sometimes a gander seduces another gander’s goose and a divorce results. If one partner dies the survivor goes into mourning. Low-ranking geese look up to their elders and betters and stand around, as spectators, when the aristocrats fight. The whole goose colony drums up militant enthusiasm when threatened by an outside menace.

The hereditary principle is confirmed in that well-born goslings shoo off a grown-up commoner, providing they are on their own home ground. Sometimes two, and even three, ganders will form a homosexual bond, though none will consent to the passive role. These blood-brothers are stronger than “any normal pair in courage and fighting strength,” and “always occupy a high rank in the social hierarchy.” It goes without saying that full-blooded greylags are superior—morally and physically—to the farmyard geese, whose services are sometimes enlisted at Lake Alm to hatch a clutch of eggs: “These creatures, rendered stupid by many years of domestication, are incapable of reliable incubation: they have lost the well-defined instinctive behavior patterns a wild goose exhibits.”

Lorenz shows no sign of abandoning his view of the Big City as a magnified barnyard that favors the selection of genetic deviants, whose unscrupulous behavior is as repugnant as their stunted appearance. When I called on him a few years ago, he said: “Since I have lived here at Altenberg, I have noticed a progressive cochonification of the boys swimming in the Danube. How would you say that in English? Porkification! Fat boys and fat men! The same in domesticated animals…. Complete unselectivity of feeding habits!”

But surely,” I said, “that’s the fault of the food-manufacturers. It’s not genetic.”

I don’t care if it’s cultural devolution, or genetic devolution. I know cultural devolution moves ten times faster than genetic devolution. But a culture behaves exactly like a species!

Now if you let Lorenz carry you any further with this argument, you might find yourself drawn to the conclusion that the finest specimens of humanity, “the strong, manly men” he is always hoping for, have a duty to suppress the inferiors—and that that, briefly, is what the “aggressive drive” is for. But those who were taken in by On Aggression might have had second thoughts had they known large chunks of it closely resemble a paper, written in 1942, with the Final Solution in full swing, when he was Professor of Psychology at the University of Königsberg in East Prussia.

The Innate Forms of Possible Experience,”1 which has been omitted from the two volumes of his collected papers published in English, evoked Gestalt perception and the principles of ethology to recommend a “self-conscious scientifically based race policy” to eliminate the degenerates who preyed on the healthy body of society like the profiteering growth of a malignant cancer. The arbiters of this scheme were to be “our best individuals” (führer-individuen) whose intolerant value judgments would decide who was—or was not—stricken with decay. Lorenz rejected Spengler’s pessimistic conclusion that nations declined through a logic inherent in time. Applied biology would forestall Spengler’s “inevitable fate.”

Then, as now, the greylag goose is pressed into the argument. A pure-blooded gander has “a more sharply contoured head, straighter posture, redder feet, broader shoulder,” etc., whereas a barnyard goose develops a stunted appearance, not to mention a complete breakdown of morals. Similarly, he says, we admire in men tight hips, wide shoulders, and an eagle-like stare.2 And we recoil from the features of decay: “Loss of muscle, shortening of the extremities, growth of fat and a quantitative increase of eating and copulation drives.” “Not one feature of domestication do we instinctively approve of.”

Again, he illustrated the text with photographs: a fish from the stream, a wild greylag gander, a wolf, and a bust portrait of Pericles—all long featured—are juxtaposed against a pop-eyed goldfish, a domesticated goose, an Old English Bulldog (the date is 1942), and a marble head of Socrates—all of which had the squashed-up features of genetic decay.

The lesson of this paper was that it was positively heroic to act with intolerance: attempts to discover why you rejected a person simply obscured your original judgment. And he exhorted the racial biologists to be quick: “There is indeed need to hurry!”—though there were more than two years left.

I quote this passage if only for the style:

Just as in the case of a surgeon who, in removing a growing cancer tumor, draws with his knife an arbitrary and”unfair” sharp line between what is to be removed and what is to be preserved, and consciously prefers to remove healthy tissue than let diseased tissue remain, so must the a priori value judgment, when it comes to determine a frontier, decide on a point where plus is transformed into minus….

There is a lot more to the paper, including a fantastic rigamarole that attempted to resolve the headache of every racial biologist. Why should the gene for beauty go sauntering off in a different direction from the gene for goodness? How was it that a perfect Teuton soul had nested in the body of the Führer?—to say nothing of the fact that by 1942 the racists had to accommodate the Japanese?

Of course, one could dismiss all this as a temporary, if lethally ingenious, aberration, had Lorenz not continued to churn out many of the same ideas, the same metaphors, sometimes even the same passages, doctored here and there for postwar sensibilities, from 1950 to the present day. For example, when he discusses the “social fighting reaction” in On Aggression, he regrets the misuse of this primeval drive by demagogues and hopes that “our moral responsibility may gain control over it.” In a paper written in 19503 he says that anyone is pleased to find a substitute, or “dummy,” as a target for his pent-up aggression, adding that “without this purely physiological basis all of the past cases of demagogically directed mass cruelty, such as witchcraft trials or anti-Semitic persecution,” would not have been possible. But in 1942 he had only an exhortation to offer: “I accuse any young man who has not experienced this reaction on politically significant occasions of emotional weakness!”

In 1942 he never named the Jews. He could, arguably, have been referring to the Euthanasia Program which did away with about 70,000 Gentile degenerates before the Nazis set to work elsewhere. But then Lorenz usually appeals to general principle, not to the sordid detail of a particular problem.

Going through Daniel Gasman’s brilliant and disturbing book, The Scientific Origins of National Socialism, one is struck, also, by how few of Lorenz’s ideas on human behavior rest on “inductive natural science” but how many of them repeat the tenets of Monism,4 the movement created by the biologist Ernst Haeckel to interpret Darwinism for social purposes and to combat socialist ideologies as contrary to nature’s plan. The Monists were the first to attempt a fusion of biology and social science, and it was under the umbrella of Monist ideas that German academic circles were united with the most strident demands of German nationalism. The point made by Gasman, which cannot be emphasized too strongly, is that the Nazis believed in the final solution as “scientific” and thus sanctioned by Natural Law.5

Alfred North Whitehead once wrote: “Nature is patient of interpretation in terms of laws that happen to interest us.” And Lorenz’s career is surely a warning to anyone who presumes to write an objective “biogrammer” or “ethological paradigm” for the human species. For it shows just how far the “facts” of our evolutionary past can be stretched or patterned to conform with the wilder flights of prejudice.

In a historical context, Lorenzian ethology falls into the category of what Lovejoy and Boas6 called “Animalitarianism”—“the tendency to represent the beasts—on one ground or another—as creatures more admirable, more normal, or more fortunate than the human species.” That man himself is a flawed, aberrant being, that his Fall occurred even before he became human, is a constant theme in Western thought from the fourth century BC onward, especially among societies which have lost their nerve. For if the concept of the Good Savage encouraged reformers of a leveling temper to hope for a simpler and more equable life, the Myth of the Happier Beast damned hopes for a better world, engendered in man a disgust for himself and his works, absolved him from responsibility for his actions, and led him, in his desperate search for remedies, to fall into a collective moral anesthesia and bow his neck to tyranny.

Letters

The Call of Nature April 3, 1980

  1. 1

    Die angeborenen Formen möglisher erfahrung in Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie, bd 5, heft 2, 1943, pp. 235 ff. In this work Lorenz’s old father is quoted in a less genial mood: “From the standpoint of racial biology, the whole of medical practice is a disaster for mankind.”

  2. 2

    This “ideal form for our race” is illustrated with a photo of Arno Brekker’s epicene statue of Dionysus, a favorite of Hitler and Speer; the fact that savages had quite different canons of beauty merely proved their innate inability to acquire civilization.

  3. 3

    Part and Parcel in Animal and Human Societies,” in Lorenz, Studies in Animal and Human Behaviour (Harvard University Press, 1971), Vol. II, pp. 115-195.

  4. 4

    Monism,” as opposed to “Dualism,” signifying the indivisibility of man from the rest of nature—often very similar, inform and content, to the new sociobiology.

  5. 5

    The Scientific Origins of National Socialism: Social Darwinism in Ernst Haeckel and the German Monist League (MacDonald, London; N.Watson, N.Y.,1971).

  6. 6

    Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas, Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity (repr. Octagon Books, 1965), pp. 19-22.

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