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The Call of Nature

In response to:

Variations on an Idée Fixe from the December 6, 1979 issue

To the Editors:

As an ardent admirer of Konrad Lorenz’s ethological and philosophical pioneer work and at the same time appalled by the clearly Nazi inspired concluding sections of his 1942 paper on “The Innate Forms of Possible Experience,” I am somehow vexed by Bruce Chatwin’s review of Lorenz’s recent The Year of the Greylag Goose (NYR, December 6, 1979). Mr. Chatwin sets out depicting the nice and good Lorenz, the “father” of pretty geese and prattling ethology, then warns us of the blustering preacher denouncing the sins of civilization, tells us he cannot and will not keep the two apart, and as it turns out he lets them merge in the person who authored the 1942 paper advocating the elimination of degenerates.

Now I am convinced that one can, after all, distinguish the scientist from the preacher and the preacher from the man of 1942, though they obviously are not disconnected. Otherwise one would have to dismiss the work of Lorenz altogether, and that clearly is not the case. The very fact that a friendly and harmless picture volume like The Year of the Greylag Goose makes reviewers muster their forces to me seems a hint that there must be more to Lorenz than can be discarded by a reference to former Nazi affinities.

Mr. Chatwin’s central statement seems to be this: “His [Lorenz’s] message is that all human behavior is biologically determined.” Now no matter how long I look at this sentence, I am not sure I understand what it is meant to say. I am perfectly sure, however, that if it is meant to say what it seems to say it is altogether wrong. I suspect that there is some fundamental misunderstanding here which blurred Mr. Chatwin’s picture of Lorenz. Lorenz simply never was a freak of the nature versus nurture controversy. He does not say that all human behavior is genetically determined. As a matter of fact, he most explicitly described the world of the human spirit, i.e., culture, as a world of its own, based on the biological order just the way this one is based on the anorganic order but not to be explained fully by its laws. Marshall Sahlins couldn’t draw the distinction between nature and culture more forcibly than Lorenz did. Mr. Chatwin would have known this if he had taken the trouble to read Lorenz’s Behind the Mirror instead of pronouncing it “impenetrable” which it is not. It is a misunderstanding to make Lorenz a partisan of that kind of biological determinism. which justly would give all cultural anthropologists a fright if it really were to be found outside their own imagination.

What Lorenz does contend is that undoubtedly the human apparatus of perception, feeling, and reasoning was evolved biologically and that we retained some of our pre-human predecessors’ methods of coping with the world instinctively. That is, Lorenz suspects that some elements of human behavior may be genetically outlined at least in part, which is a sound proposition to make in the light of what we know, but from there to assuming the “biological determination” of the whole of human behavior seems to me a very long way. The contents of cultures are not genetically coded, Lorenz says, but handed on by tradition. But cultures undergo changes just the way species undergo them. They develop at their own risk like animal populations; each one is a fresh trial, setting out to learn about its adaptiveness. There is a cultural evolution which may be studied just as natural evolution is. Natural (biological) evolution finds out by trial and error if a trait it is developing is really to the purpose; if it is not, its bearers have less reproductive success and are bound to disappear. Every biological trait has to pass the test of the reality it is born into. In Lorenz’s point of view the same holds true of cultural traits. From this he is led to argue that there are good, that is to say adaptive cultural inventions and bad ones that will reduce the propagation chances of their inventors. I think it is perfectly safe to follow him up to this point. If one rather wished not to, one would in any case have to say why cultures are not comparable to species and in what respect they are exempt from the evolutionary law of success. I think there is no shortcut to discredit Lorenz. His scientific position cannot be disposed of by asserting that it seduced him to preaching or, at one time, worse, to eugenics. Where one can very well and without discarding the rest start arguing with him is at this point: what cultural inventions and attitudes are rightly considered detrimental to human welfare? But that debate is exactly what’s going on in the newspapers every day. It certainly can do no harm to know what ways to secure welfare nature has figured out.

Dieter E. Zimmer

Hamburg, West Germany

Bruce Chatwin replies:

I do not agree. The Year of the Greylag Goose is not a “friendly and harmless picture volume,” but a sugar-coated pill. The exquisite photographs merely served Lorenz with a vehicle to air, yet again, a philosophical credo that may have changed in tone, but never in substance, since his successful application for membership of the Nazi Party (No. 6,170,554) eight weeks after the Anschluss on May 1, 1938. For this detail, as well as an assessment of Lorenz’s contribution to racial biology, readers are referred to the brilliant series of papers by Professor Theo Kalikow of Southeastern Massachusetts University (the latest being: Konrad Lorenz’s Ethological Theory: Explanation and Ideology, 1938-1943 in Naturwissenschaft und Techniken Dritten Reich, edited by Mehrtens and Richter, Suhrkamp, 1980).

One should never minimize Lorenz’s capacity to charm the public—or influence events. It remains for future historians of ideas to document the impact of On Aggression on our own times. For just as, in 1942, the biologists confirmed Hitler in his belief that the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem concurred with his Duty to the Creator, so in the 1960s the notion of “ritualized,” limited combats seems to have lulled certain strategists (and apologists) of the Vietnam war into a belief that they were answering the Call of Nature.

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