Konrad Lorenz, National Socialism, and Epistemology

Konrad Lorenz, National Socialism, and Epistemology

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Let me say how very touched and appreciative I was that so many people wrote to me about my December column on the Great War.  I know now that I am very much not alone in the way that it haunts me, for all that I was born over twenty years after it ended.  For many, particularly of my generation, and even more particularly those born in Europe, it has been a lifelong cloud – at the same time both dreadfully depressing and fearfully fascinating – which has hung over their lives.  I was moved particularly by the way in which people shared thoughts and ideas with me.  For those of you convinced that he must have horns and a tail, let me tell you that Richard Dawkins – whom I am glad to count as a friend and for whom I have great respect, especially when we differ – shared with me some of the poetry that he finds particularly important and evocative.  At the moment, at the recommendation of another friend, I am in the middle of reading Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks (first published in 1993).  It is a novel centring on the War and one of the most gripping and poignant that I have ever read.

One jarring note for several people was my glancing reference to Konrad Lorenz, the great ethologist whose labours were marked by a Nobel Prize.  I referred to his connection with the Nazis, something that some found somewhat distasteful and inappropriate.  Surely one should not blacken someone’s character, merely because they had the misfortune to be born in central Europe (Austria) at the wrong time?  Not everyone who lived and worked under the Hitler regime was a National Socialist.  Indeed, one person warned me that I should withdraw my remarks, else I find myself sued by Lorenz’s family for slander.  In fact, I am not at all sure that you can slander someone who is dead, but whether or not this is so, I certainly do not want to deprecate someone alive or dead, if there is no good or well-founded reason.  I have therefore been doing a little bit of research on this question, and it is this which leads me into this month’s column.

I am afraid that the picture is black.  “Dr Lorenz has repeatedly displayed to me his constantly growing interest for National Socialism and has expressed himself positively about its idea.  As far as I am acquainted with his biological studies, they are in keeping with the world view prevailing in the German Reich.”  Lorenz became a card-carrying National Socialist as soon as he could after the Anschluss.  “To us Volk and race are everything, the individual is virtually nothing.”  More than this, he actively participated in Nazi activities.  He even spent time as part of a group who were trying to sort out true Aryan Poles from others, Untermenschen.  And Lorenz wrote pieces – essays and articles – which expressed Nazi sentiments about the differences between the true Nordic type and the other degenerate forms of human, with ideas about the corrupting effects of the softness of so-called civilization and the virtues of a vigorous physically challenging way of life.

“Our species-specific feeling for the beauty and ugliness of our fellow members of our species is most intimately related to the manifestations of decay that are caused by domestication and threaten our race.  One can see in this feeling almost a distinction of species-preserving importance for the elimination of such manifestations of decay.”

There is lots more stuff about the eradication as a cancerous growth of those “members of the Volk who have become asocial through defects,” but I hardly need to go on.  Lorenz was not an Eichmann nor was he a concentration camp commandant, but there is an ugly stain.  This is not just a chap keeping his head down in bad times, but someone fully exploiting and endorsing the situation.  There were probably various reasons for this.  We know that in prewar Catholic Austria, Lorenz had had trouble with the prevailing climate.  The Nazis provided opportunities which did not exist before.  This may explain.  It does not excuse.

Yet need this be of any more than historical or antiquarian interest to us now?  Specifically for those of us interested in the science/religion relationship, does it have any real significance?  Traditionally, philosophers draw a distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification.  They would argue that in the case of religion, for instance, it truly is relevant who is saying something, and where and why.  Last year, Pope John Paul the Second issued a papal encyclical, Fides et Ratio, where he discussed the relationship between faith and reason, and while he praised the latter he made it very clear that where there is a conflict or matter of dispute it is faith – as represented by the Church (as represented by him!)  – that is all definitive.  Most of the rest of us would say that we take this kind of thing in context.  You may accept it, but the rest of us would think that the Pope speaks from his own cultural circle, with his own Catholic training (of a particularly authoritarian, Polish kind), with his own interests (and to be fair that of the Church as he sees it) in mind and to the forefront.  The Pope is not interested in a democracy of interests because – well, because he is the Pope!

But these selfsame philosophers would argue that when it comes to science things are different.  Here you can properly draw a distinction between those who come up with an idea – people who are very human, caught in their culture and with all of the prejudices and then some of the rest of us – and the ideas themselves.  In science, the idea itself is beyond culture and the individual personality.  No matter how much of a rotter Lorenz may have been, his ideas speak for themselves and they are no more bogged down in the Third Reich than is Copernican astronomy bogged down in sixteenth century Europe or Darwinian biology in Victorian Britain or (to take a pertinent example closer to home) the relativity theory of the German Jew Albert Einstein in the land of Kaiser Wilhelm or the synagogues and ghettos of his ancestors.  As people, we may not and should not forget the personality of Konrad Lorenz.  As scientists, we can and must.

But is this so?  Marxists, feminists, social constructivists, literary theorists, and many others would argue that even making the discovery/justification dichotomy is an example of false consciousness, trying to present science as something that it is not.  Trying, as followers of Michel Foucault would argue, to present subjective science as objective knowledge, thereby giving it a power and authority, which it may not deserve but which serves its practitioners very well in our society.  When did you ever hear of religion getting the support that is shovelled toward science?  And yet does anyone truly think it justifiable to spend billions on Mars rangers – or non-rangers – when so many of our fellow citizens go to bed hungry for want of a little Christian charity?  If science did not put up the charade of disinterested love of truth, it would have the societal status and support of Hare Krishna.

One thing is surely certain.  A great deal of what passes for genuine science, even from reputable scientists, has but a tenuous relationship with reality, being truly a mishmash of wishful thinking and pleading and covering up of ignorance and confident assertions on little evidence.  And it can be very difficult for anybody, let alone everybody, to sort out the straw from the gold.  Lorenz, for instance, was certainly being taken seriously as a scientist by the time he started to pronounce on inferior races.  Why should one immediately question the validity of what he said about human differences?  How many people in the 1930s were up on genetics, and in any case the knowledge of the genetics of populations was but in its infancy.  There were reasons perhaps even then to judge Lorenz false and self-serving, but not necessarily reasons that were immediately obvious to all, especially to lay people.

But grant all of this.  Surely at bottom there is an essential difference between science and something like religion.  Eventually with science the truth will out.  All of the early heliocentric enthusiasts, including Copernicus himself, were heliocentrists because they were sun worshippers – Pythagoreans and Platonists.  But no one today thinks that you must be a sun worshipper to accept that the earth goes around the sun, rather than vice versa. Likewise with the science in which Lorenz made his mark.  Today no one could take seriously his vile beliefs, if only because we know from DNA studies that all of that nonsense about the racial purity of the Germans and other Nordic peoples is just that – nonsense.  In any case, Konrad Lorenz was not uniquely the founder of ethology, the study of the biology of social behavior.  The Dutchman Niko Tinbergen was also very important (and co-winner of the Nobel Prize).  So far from being in bed with the Nazis, Tinbergen was persecuted by them!  In the 1970s, it suited the purposes of the critics of the evolution of social behaviour to bring up the Lorenz connection and to suggest that everyone – notably Ed Wilson – who thinks about the biology of human nature is tarred by the Nazi brush, but this was surely a silly if not malicious misrepresentation.

Perhaps there is some truth in this defense of the objectivity of science.  Let me not pussyfoot around.  Of course, there is truth in this defense!  Without now raising the other related issue of whether religion is quite as subjective as critics complain – is Fides and Ratio simply a fiction from the frenzied brain of Pope John Paul the Second, or could it be telling us something about the way that things really are?  – let me say that I take it as established beyond doubt that the earth goes around the sun and that organisms are the product of evolution and that the continents slide around on plates and ….  If you tell me that Copernicus or Darwin was a freemason or a transvestite or a Soviet spy or anything else, I shall be greatly interested.  I will write a column on the subject!  But I will think it of no matter when it comes to their great scientific achievements.  At some level, you can surely draw a distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification.

Nevertheless, notwithstanding what has just been said, let me say that the more I study the history of science, the more I become convinced that – just as, in my opinion, you cannot truly divorce religion and philosophy from its culture – so you cannot divorce science completely from its culture.  (I say the history of science, because it is through studying history that you can get the distance to look dispassionately at the way science is done and at the results of this effort.  We are too close to contemporary science to start straight in on the task of deconstructing it, even though it may be contemporary science which is — as it is certainly for me — our ultimate concern.  I seem to remember that someone once said something about the comparative ease and difficulty of seeing motes and beams in the eyes of yourself and of others.)

Why do I so stress the significance of culture?  Take an example.  Take in particular the idea of a division of labour, something which states that you will get things done much more efficiently if you divide up tasks and give them to different people who can then specialize.  This is a powerful idea from the eighteenth century, from the political economy of Adam Smith specifically, and was certainly something appreciated and cherished by those canny Scotsmen, even if today we are someone more reserved about it full worth and benefits and desirability.  In evolutionary biology, the division of labour has played and continues to play an incredibly large role.  Darwin made much use of it, both at the individual level – the parts of the body function more efficiently because of the division – and at the group level – different species are produced and thrive because they occupy different niches.  Today, someone like Wilson makes much of the division as it operates among the ants – with queens doing one thing, nest workers doing another, foragers a third, and finally the soldiers doing something yet different.

I simply do not see how evolutionary theory as we know it could function without the division, and since the division is something deeply embedded in our industrialized society as we know it – and since I think it highly improbable that we might have found the biological division without the cultural division – I do not think that evolutionary theory as we know it could have been produced without our cultural and society as we know it.  We might have a different theory, it might be better, it might be worse.  It would not be ours.  This is not to say that biologists necessarily approve of the division, as Lorenz surely approved of the racial differences he was postulating.  Darwin surely did approve of the division.  Wilson is more noncommital: sometimes he seems in its favour, sometimes he comes across as just plain neutral.  The point is that Darwinian evolutionary theory, yesterday and today, is connected to its culture.  You cannot just separate out the context of discovery from the context of justification, once and for all.

One swallow does not make a summer and one cultural idea does not make the whole of science cultural.  But it is a start, and I am sure that if you went on to the struggle for existence (Malthusian populational thinking of the early nineteenth century), natural selection (breeders’ thinking in the agricultural revolution), evolutionary tree (progressivist thinking of the Enlightenment), arms races (twentieth century military games theory), you could provide lots of additional backing.  Enough has been said here.

So what then are the conclusions I would draw?  First, specifically, Lorenz was tainted by an evil regime, and in part this was of his own doing.  I myself would want to look carefully before I endorsed any of his ideas.  You may feel that you can find work of real worth.  I myself much like Lorenz’s thinking on evolutionary epistemology and about the way in which our understanding is filtered through our phylogenetic past – I like it even though it came just at the time when Lorenz was promoting the stuff about degeneration.  But, like it or not, caveat emptor.  Second, generally, whatever the ultimate status of religion, there is probably a strong subjective element to it.  Whatever the ultimate status of science, there is surely a strong objective element to it.  But do not think that we have simply subjective epistemological chalk and objective epistemological cheese.  You can separate out the context of discovery from the context of justification, but anyone who studies real science will see that it is deeply cultural impregnated.  I do not see this as necessarily a bad thing – some parts of culture are good, some parts bad, some parts neutral – but I do see it as a real thing.

Not that this should be any great surprise — except to your average scientist.  Only those who have been indoctrinated to think that science is uniquely a thing beyond culture could hold such a daft cultural belief that science is uniquely a thing beyond culture.

Bibliographical note: The two books which tell much about Lorenz (and others for that matter) are Ute Deichmann, Biologists Under Hitler (Harvard University Press, 1996); and Peter H. Klopfer, Politics and People in Ethology: Personal Reflections on the Study of Animal Behavior (Bucknell University Press, 1999).  The first of these books contains in full a most moving letter written by Tinbergen to a friend just after the Second World War.  I myself explore the question of the objectivity of science and its relationship to culture in two recent books: Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology (Harvard University Press, 1996), and Mystery of Mysteries: Is Evolution a Social Construction (Harvard University Press, 1998).