On Human Nature is a 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, published in 1978 by Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson. The book tries to explain how different characteristics of humans and society can be explained from the point of view of evolution. He explains how evolution has left its traces on the characteristics which are the specialty of human species like generosity, self-sacrifice, worship and the use of sex for pleasure. The book is considered an effort to complete the Darwinian revolution by bringing biological thought into social sciences and humanities
Konrad Zacharias Lorenz (7 November 1903 – 27 February 1989) was an Austrian zoologist, ethologist, and ornithologist. He shared the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Nikolaas Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch. He is often regarded as one of the founders of modern ethology, developing an approach that began with an earlier generation, including his teacher Oskar Heinroth.
Lorenz studied instinctive behavior in animals, especially in greylag geese and jackdaws. Working with geese, he rediscovered the principle of imprinting (originally described by Douglas Spalding in the 19th century) in the behavior of nidifugous birds. In later life, his interest shifted to the study of humans in society.
Lorenz’s work was interrupted by the onset of World War II and in 1941 he was recruited into the German army as a medical man. In 1944 he was sent to the Eastern Front where he was captured and spent 4 years as a Soviet prisoner of war. After the war he regretted his membership of the Nazi party.
He wrote numerous books, some of which, such as King Solomon’s Ring, On Aggression and Man Meets Dog became popular reading.
Lorenz also predicted the relationship between market economics and the threat of ecological catastrophe. In his 1973 book, Civilized Man’s Eight Deadly Sins, Konrad Lorenz addresses the following paradox:
- “All the advantages that man has gained from his ever-deepening understanding of the natural world that surrounds him, his technological, chemical and medical progress, all of which should seem to alleviate human suffering… tends instead to favor humanity’s destruction”
Lorenz adopts an ecological model to attempt to grasp the mechanisms behind this contradiction. Thus “all species… are adapted to their environment… including not only inorganic components… but all the other living beings that inhabit the locality.” p31.
Fundamental to Lorenz’s theory of ecology is the function of feedback mechanisms, especially negative ones which, in hierarchical fashion, dampen impulses that occur beneath a certain threshold. The thresholds themselves are the product of the interaction of contrasting mechanisms. Thus pain and pleasure act as checks on each other:
- “To gain a desired prey, a dog or wolf will do things that, in other contexts, they would shy away from: run through thorn bushes, jump into cold water and expose themselves to risks which would normally frighten them. All these inhibitory mechanisms… act as a counterweight to the effects of learning mechanisms… The organism cannot allow itself to pay a price which is not worth paying”. p53.
In nature, these mechanisms tend towards a ‘stable state’ among the living beings of an ecology:
- “A closer examination shows that these beings… not only do not damage each other, but often constitute a community of interests. It is obvious that the predator is strongly interested in the survival of that species, animal or vegetable, which constitutes its prey. … It is not uncommon that the prey species derives specific benefits from its interaction with the predator species…” pp31–33.
Lorenz states that humanity is the one species not bound by these mechanisms, being the only one that has defined its own environment:
- “[The pace of human ecology] is determined by the progress of man’s technology (p35)… human ecology (economy) is governed by mechanisms of POSITIVE feedback, defined as a mechanism which tends to encourage behavior rather than to attenuate it (p43). Positive feedback always involves the danger of an ‘avalanche’ effect… One particular kind of positive feedback occurs when individuals OF THE SAME SPECIES enter into competition among themselves… For many animal species, environmental factors keep… intraspecies selection from [leading to] disaster… But there is no force which exercises this type of healthy regulatory effect on humanity’s cultural development; unfortunately for itself, humanity has learned to overcome all those environmental forces which are external to itself” p44.
Lorenz does not see human independence from natural ecological processes as necessarily bad. Indeed, he states that:
- “A completely new [ecology] which corresponds in every way to [humanity’s] desires… could, theoretically, prove as durable as that which would have existed without his intervention (36).
However, the principle of competition, typical of Western societies, destroys any chance of this:
- “The competition between human beings destroys with cold and diabolic brutality… Under the pressure of this competitive fury we have not only forgotten what is useful to humanity as a whole, but even that which is good and advantageous to the individual. […] One asks, which is more damaging to modern humanity: the thirst for money or consuming haste… in either case, fear plays a very important role: the fear of being overtaken by one’s competitors, the fear of becoming poor, the fear of making wrong decisions or the fear of not being up to snuff…” pp45–47.
In this book, Lorenz proposes that the best hope for mankind lies in our looking for mates based on the kindness of their hearts rather than good looks or wealth. He illustrates this with a Jewish story, explicitly described as such.
Lorenz was one of the early scientists who recognised the significance of overpopulation. The number one deadly sin of civilized man in his book is overpopulation, which is what leads to aggression.
In his 1973 book Behind the Mirror: A Search for a Natural History of Human Knowledge, Lorenz considers the old philosophical question of whether our senses correctly inform us about the world as it is, or provide us only with an illusion. His answer comes from evolutionary biology. Only traits that help us survive and reproduce are transmitted. If our senses gave us wrong information about our environment, we would soon be extinct. Therefore we can be sure that our senses give us correct information, for otherwise we would not be here to be deceived.
On Aggression (1966) is a book by ethologist Konrad Lorenz written in 1963. As he writes in the prologue, “the subject of this book is aggression, that is to say the fighting instinct in beast and man which is directed against members of the same species.” (Page 3)
According to Lorenz, animals, particularly males, are biologically programmed to fight over resources. This behavior must be considered part of natural selection, as aggression leading to death or serious injury may eventually lead to extinction unless it has such a role.
However, Lorenz does not state that aggressive behaviors are in any way more powerful, prevalent, or intense than more peaceful behaviors such as mating rituals. Rather, he negates the categorization of aggression as “contrary” to “positive” instincts like love, depicting it as a founding basis of other instincts and its role in animal communication.
Additionally, the book addresses behavior in humans, including discussion of a “hydraulic” model of emotional or instinctive pressures and their release, shared by Freud, and the abnormality of intraspecies violence and killing. His ‘hydraulic’ model, of aggression as a force that builds relentlessly without cause unless released, remains less popular than a model in which aggression is a response to frustrated desires and aims.
In the book, Lorenz describes the development of rituals among aggressive behaviors as beginning with a totally utilitarian action, but then progressing to more and more stylized actions, until finally, the action performed may be entirely symbolic and non-utilitarian, now fulfilling a function of communication. In Lorenz’s words,
“Thus, while the message of inciting [a particular aggressive behavior performed by the female of cooperating mated pairs] in Ruddy Shelduck and Egyptian Geese could be described as “Drive him off, thrash him!” in Diving ducks [a related species in which this trait has been further ritualized] it simply means, “I love you.” In several groups, midway between these two extremes, as for example in the Gadwall and the Widgeon, an intermediate meaning may be found: “You are my hero. I rely on you.” (Page 64)
Despite its influence on popular thought, there has been significant criticism of the ideas in On Aggression, notably by Erich Fromm in his book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness.
E. O. Wilson argues, in On Human Nature, that both Lorenz and Fromm are essentially wrong. He lists a variety of aggression categories, each separately subject to natural selection, and states that aggressive behavior is, genetically, one of the most labile of all traits. He maintains that aggression is a technique used to gain control over necessary resources, and serves as a “density-dependent factor” in population control. He argues against the “drive-discharge” model created by Freud and Lorenz, where substitute aggressive activities (such as combative sports) should reduce the potential for war, and in support of Richard G. Sipes’ “culture-pattern” model, where war and substitute activities will vary directly. Wilson compares aggression to “a preexisting mix of chemicals ready to be transformed by specific catalysts that are added,” rather than “a fluid that continuously builds pressure against the walls of its containers.”