The Rats of War: Konrad Lorenz and the Anthropic Shift

by Liam Heneghan

What we might remember most about the London 2012 Olympics are the medal ceremonies. The proud, the tearful, the exhausted, the awestruck, the lip-syncing, and occasionally the unimpressed. We might also call to mind the relative equanimity with which silver and bronze medalists tolerated the national anthems of the winning nation. Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989), an Austrian zoologist and co-founder with Niko Tinbergen of the field of ethology – the biology of behavior – remarked in his popular book On Aggression (1966) that the Olympic Games are the only occasion when the playing of the anthem of another nation does not arouse hostility. Athletic ideals of fair play and chivalry, he said, balance out national enthusiasm. Olympic sports, you see, have all the virtues of war without all that unpleasant killing and plundering and, importantly, without aggravating international hatred. To surrogate for war, Olympic sports should be as dangerous as possible and should call for a measure of self-sacrifice. This being the case, one wonders why jousting is not an Olympic sport. Perhaps NBC simply chose not to screen it.


The destructive intensity of the aggressive drive that propels us to war is mankind’s hereditary evil, as Lorenz termed it, and its evolutionary origins can be sought in tribal conflict. In the early Stone Age intra-tribal skirmishes would have paid out some evolutionary dividends: dispersion of the population, the selection of the strong and especially in the defense of the brood. But in more contemporary times having overcome our most immediate environmental limitations, that is, not for the most part starving or being prey items, and now that we are equipped with weapons, a more dangerous, indeed an “evil” intra-specific selection prevails. What was once healthy for the species in the form of an instinctive behavior called “militant enthusiasm” has now turned pathological.

Lorenz’s analysis was based upon a lifetime studying a variety of animals, though he is especially known for his bird work. Together with Tinbergen and other classical ethologists he proposed several important hypotheses: behaviors come in constellations of instinctive activities called fixed action patterns; these get released by specific stimuli; the behaviors should be regarded as adaptive response shaped evolutionary forces; the adoption of certain behaviors can be phase specific occurring at certain life stages – for instance, imprinting where young Graylag goslings instinctively mimic their parents, even if the parent is substituted by Lorenz himself! When in 1973 Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for the development of ethology it was recognized that they had created a new science. However, in addition to shedding light of the behavior of lower animals it had implications for “social medicine, psychiatry, and psychosomatic medicine”. If this new discipline had no conceivable bearing on an understanding of the human condition, it is unlikely that the ethologists would have had won a Nobel Prize.

Ethology’s shift from a basic zoological discipline to an applied one was not without controversy among its practitioners, some of whom wanted to restrict it to fundamentals for a more extended period. However, there is, it seems, a special, apparently inevitable, moment in works on animal behavior where the author switches from their account of chimps, bees, fishes, geese, rats or another favored organism and tells us what it means to be human. I call this the anthropic shift. The behavior of the human animal need not be an area of particular expertise for the author; the switch is presumed to be validated by the evolutionary continuity of humans with other animals.

An inclination toward an anthropic shift is anticipated in the work of Charles Darwin. Although the implications of natural selection for humans occupied Darwin for some time before the publication of On the Origin of Species (1859), nevertheless humans are scarcely mentioned in that volume. It took Darwin more than a decade before publishing his version of the anthropic shift which he eventually did in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) and in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). One could call this the classic anthropic shift – the author waits a respectful period of time before pronouncing on human affairs.

There are some early attempts in Lorenz’s work to make the implications of his work on the specific behavior of specific organisms apparent for humans including infamously his attempts to reconcile his science with the aims of National Socialism (which I discuss here). It is in Lorenz’s On Aggression, the work of his maturity, where there is a full flowering of his thoughts on human behavior and misbehavior. Although this book is dominated by observations of other animals Lorenz reserves the final chapters of On Aggression for his assessment of human affairs. This version of writing the anthropic shift – the succinct but confident summary of the implications of the study of other animals for human affairs – is characteristic of our age where the scientist has lost all bashfulness in opining on human nature.

In what follows I summarize Lorenz’s diagnosis of the human condition, our current predicament and the remedies he suggested grounded in ethological principles. In the Lorenzian anthropic shift he is attentive to our aggressive tendencies especially the instinctive behavior that he calls militant enthusiasm. If the lessons learned from an ethological inspection of lower animals are correctly applied we might just be able to avert a global catastrophe. Some time soon, no doubt.

An unbiased observer from another planet reflecting on human behavior from a perch close enough to capture the broad strokes of human conduct, but far enough away not to sweat the details of our separate behaviors would surmise that we are rats. Or so Lorenz concluded in On Aggression. The extraterrestrial would infer this based upon the observations that both rats and humans are “social and peaceful beings within their clans, but veritable devils towards all fellow-members of their species not belonging to their own communities.” Our Martian would have more optimism about the future of rats than humans, says Lorenz, since rats stop reproducing when a state-of overcrowding is reached. We do not.

Lorenz provided an edifying, if somewhat chilling, account of rat group-on-group violence, much of which seemingly was worked out in experimental arenas. The work is mainly from one F Steiniger and summarized by Lorenz. Steiniger found that when rats were introduced into an enclosure, aggression grew incrementally after a period of wariness. Once pair formation between male and female rats occurred violence escalated and within a couple of weeks a mated couple typically killed all other residents. Death often came to a rat in the form of peritoneal sepsis – a rat dies of multitude of suppurating cuts. That being said, a skilled rat can deftly inflict a nip on the carotid artery. Exhaustion and nervous-overstimulation leading to adrenal gland disruption were another leading cause of death among beleaguered rats.

The basis of most groups of rats are genetically related families – rat mothers, rat fathers, rat grandparents, rat siblings and rat cousins all getting along with mutual accord. Tender and considerate are rats to members of their family group. Larger animals will, for example, “good humouredly allow smaller one to take pieces of food away from them.” In matters of reproduction they’ll generously step aside and let “half- and three-quarter grown animals…take precedence of the adults.” An intruder, however, is not treated so solicitously and they are routed rapidly and killed by bites. Since rats identify family members by smell, the experimenter can manipulate the odor of an animal and turn a beloved family member into a threatening intruder. Grandpa had never been so bewildered. In one such experiment Lorenz assured the reader, though with a note of apology to the biologist who one supposes will want to view the spectacle to its ghastly end, that the experimental animal was spared his fate and removed into protective custody.

On viewing humans and rats Lorenz’s extraterrestrial may find these species indistinguishable because aspects of their social behavior are so head-scratchingly difficult to fathom. Group hatred between rat-clans and the human appetite for war seem inexplicable viewed functionally. Because of the difficulty in deriving a evolutionary explanation for rat-on-rat attacks from the perspective of natural selection Lorenz obliquely speculated that rat-clan gang fights are the outcome of sexual selection (selection based on differential mating success) where there is “grave danger that members of a species may in demented competition drive each other into the most stupid blind alley of evolution.” But Lorenz is equivocal here, conceding that unknown external factors may still at work. “It is quite possible”, he concluded, that “group hate between rat-clans is really a diabolical invention which serves no good purpose.” That being said, he seems more confident that human group loyalty and generosity arose from tribal conflict. That rat and human tribes evolved cooperative tactics in the face of intra-group conflict, a group selection argument, has fallen out of favor with evolutionary biologists and is the basis for some of the criticism leveled at Lorenz. “The trouble with these books [the books of Lorenz and some other ethologists]”, Richard Dawkins fulminated in The Selfish Gene (1976), “is that their authors got it totally and utterly wrong because they misunderstood how evolution works”.

Humanity’s greatest paradox is that those gifts which we treasure above all others, our braininess and our capacity for speech, are the ones which may bring about our extinction. We have, says Lorenz been driven “out of the paradise in which [we] could follow [our] instincts with impunity.” Our evolutionarily derived capacity for culture confers on humans a facility for rapid change. What we gained with this capacity outstripped the limited injunctions we have against employing this capacity in those circumstances when we should not. Our aggravated competence in mayhem – aggression against others and destruction of the environment, is not sufficiently kept in check. A centerpiece of Lorenz’s claim, one that he repeats in several books, is that species which in the ordinary course of matters have a limited capacity to inflict damage on conspecifics have a correspondingly feeble inhibition against killing. When a dove is trapped with another dove it has no phylogenetically derived compunction against gouging its peaceful neighbor to death.[1] So it is with humans and their rapidly evolving capacity for mischief. We are like a dove that “suddenly acquired the beak of a raven”. We don’t know how to turn the killer off, because we’ve never really had to before.

Lorenz may not have been to first to formulate the thesis that although we are certainly of nature, subject to the same evolutionary laws as other species, we are yet spat out of nature as a consequence of the forces of cultural flexibility. Paul Sears, the American ecologist, wrote in a similar vein in the late 1950s: “With the cultural devices of fire, clothing, shelter, and tools [Man] was able to do what no other organism could do without changing its original character. Cultural change was, for the first time, substituted for biological evolution as a means of adapting an organism to new habitats in a widening range that eventually came to include the whole earth.”[2]

Now the human aptitude for carnage may have swollen beyond the easy reaches of our inhibitions but that does not mean that such moral inhibitions do not exist. Nor does it mean that we cannot amplify them. Balancing our aggression against others is our capacity for love and forbearance within the clan. What Lorenz has in mind is not to coolly rational morality of a Kantian categorical imperative. (Lorenz was, by the by, one of the inheritors of Kant’s professorial chair in University of Königsberg.) The love of which Lorenz speaks is a phylogenetically inherited moral regard for one another. The fate of humanity, Lorenz said, rests on whether this instinct can cope with “its growing burden.”

Manning the defensive walls alongside moral responsibility is our “phylogenetically programmed” love for custom. Institutionalized ritual and custom acts like a skeleton around which a culture develops. Specific rituals are passed from generation to generation. Of course, custom can be irrational and may misfire as it does in the case of “jeering at a fat boy” (Lorenz’s example). Grosser errors still can arise from customs associated with warrior culture, adaptive at one time but obsolete in present ecological and sociological times.

Lorenz cautioned against unconsidered elimination of cultural components, even in the case of “mild reciprocal head hunting” (apparently Margaret Mead’s term). This is because culture develops as an integrated whole. What assembles together sunders – so goes the theory. A possible source of cultural unraveling comes from the mixing of cultures. This was an argument that Lorenz had insisted up since the 1930s when he first pronounced it in a publication calculated to show a resonance between his work and National Socialism. At the time of receiving the Nobel Prize he apologized for his naivety, an apology that satisfied some colleague but certainly not all. The argument remained intact in On Aggression. But in addition to the temptations to deliberately remove unfortunate culture attributes, elements of culture were unraveling as Lorenz saw it under the influence of break in the traditional intergenerational transmission of information. He dates an especially major shift to about 1900. After this kids stopped listening to parents and teachers.

A detailed examination of the case of militant enthusiasm is the centerpiece of Lorenz’s anthropic shift. Enthusiasm, for short, is “a specialized form of communal aggression”, but this behavior interacts with culturally ritualized activities and thus may be controlled by rational insight. In other words, there is nothing we can do to ablate enthusiasm from our behavioral repertoire – the eye may still mist during the National Anthem but Olympiads disincline to jump each other. In fact, this is the nub of the matter: aggression is rooted so deep that it attaches to those things most dear to us. The conclusion from this is that man (Lorenz wrote at a time when “man” stood in unblushingly for all of humankind) was Janus-headed with an evolutionary endowed potential to commit to all sorts of noble things, but meanwhile will readily dispatch his brother for the sake of these same values.

Lorenz’s solutions to the problems of aggression, set out so elaborately in On Aggression, are disarmingly simple; banal, in fact, is his word for them. So simple that one senses that he worried that one might not, after all, have needed all that ethological labor to propose them. There are four solutions: Know thyself, ethologically; cathartically sublimate the aggressive (and libidinous) drives; promote international friendship; and most importantly channel of militant enthusiasm into just causes. En passant, he advises against mere suppression of instincts since aggression builds up hydraulically (an analogy in Lorenz that links him to Sigmund Freud); it cannot long be controlled. You may be glad to learn that eugenic planning is excluded as highly inadvisable. He is also enthusiastic about the role of humor in puncturing the pretensions of those who might lead us along false paths (“we do not as yet take humour seriously enough”).

In his roster of solutions international sport figures prominently as an opportunity to discharge aggressive instincts. The discharge of that particular form of aggression, militant enthusiasm, can be achieved by redeploying them to causes as diverse as civil rights, the prevention of war (though not, admittedly as appealing as war itself), and in the “three great enterprises” of art, science, and medicine.

Lorenz ended On Aggression on a note of optimism. “I believe”, he wrote, “that reason can and will exert a selection pressure in the right direction. I believe that this, in the not too distant future, will endow our descendents with the faculty of fulfilling the greatest and most beautiful of all commandments.”

In 1975 when E. O. Wilson published his groundbreaking and controversial book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis he predicted that ethology would simply be subsumed by sociobiology, behavioral ecology, neurophysiology, and psychology. In fact, by time the ethologists won their Nobel Prize in 1973 the phase of classical ethology was over. So many of the foundation concepts of Lorenz and Tinbergen had fallen into disuse that later in his life a note of exasperation crept into Lorenz’s writing. Thus the apparatus with which Lorenz reached his conclusion was considered largely unnecessary by the contemporary students of human behavior.

This does not mean that Lorenz was wrong. Few biologists might contradict a conclusion that aggression has an instinctive component and that an evolutionary understanding of aggression can contribute to solutions. Nor might many be averse to learning about the nature of war from rats. Nevertheless, extending ethology to humans with a confidence seen in Lorenz’s work might strike many as hubristic. Indeed, it is clear that Niko Tinbergen thought so, and he remained more modest in his claims. But at the end of the day all anthropic shifts may be hubristic, even if such claims are accompanied by that most charming cousin of hubris: unbounded optimism.

It may be apparent to some readers of this piece that there exists an extravagant parallel between Lorenz’s On Aggression and E O Wilson’s new book The Social Conquest of Earth (2012). Like many writers of the anthropic shift both have an expertise in “lower organisms” (Wilson famously is an ant guy); both invoke a group selection hypothesis to explain altruism and loyalty within human tribes; both think that the aggression that leads to war are our hereditary curse (Wilson) or evil (Lorenz); both think that the better and lesser aspects of our natures are at war with one another; both have invoked the wrath of Richard Dawkins in almost identical fashion; both have unbridled optimism about the future, if only we listen to them. This is not the place to explore these similarities though I encourage you to read both books, and if you care to join us in conversation about them (see here).

The anthropic shift, the compulsion to draw upon evolutionary insights from other organisms to bring to bear on the human condition, is solid it seems to me, and both Lorenz and Wilson have important things to say. Nevertheless, the zoological approach taken alone, without insights from humanistic disciplines, or from the social sciences that are committed directly to the study of humans, or from the arts, offers us quite little. After all global events since Lorenz wrote On Aggression suggest that his formula was either unheeded or unworkable on scale that matches the immensity of our problems. Wilson seems to acknowledge this, and makes enthusiastic noises about interdisciplinarity while also noting that pure philosophy has “abandoned the foundational questions about human existence. The responses from both within and beyond his academic discipline nevertheless seem aggressively hostile to his latest attempt to save humankind. Jousting never looked more lethal.

Follow me on Twitter @DublinSoil for 140 character updates on my columns. Links to previous 3QD columns here. For the DePaul Institute for Nature and Culture on Facebook go here.

[Note: I was given a copy of On Aggression by my mother as a requested Christmas gift when I was 19. It has, therefore, taken me 30 years to write about it. At this rate I'll have a piece of writing on Infinite Jest in 2042].

[1] It’s been pointed out that doves do not in fact behavior as Lorenz repeatedly asserted that they do, that is, torture a neighbor to death when that unfortunate neighbor can not escape.

[2] Sears PB. 1957 The Ecology of Man. [Oregon State System of Higher Education, Condon Lectures.] Eugene, OR: University of Oregon Press.