The Hunt for Human Nature

The Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz embodied the ideal of a white-maned sage. Acclaimed by readers in German and English alike for his books King Solomon’s Ring (1949) and Man Meets Dog (1949), he enjoyed worldwide renown as an expert on the behavior of fowl, fish and beast. These delightful popular introductions to evolutionary theory and animal behavior circulated through the publishing world accompanied by photographs that depicted Lorenz surrounded by imprinted goslings at his rural research institute at Seewiesen in Germany. At the age of 60, Lorenz published On Aggression (1963). Readers again loved it, although the stark warnings it offered differed from the cheerful tone of his earlier books.

Lorenz asked readers to imagine the perspective of an unbiased observer on another planet—perhaps Mars. He specified that the observer should possess a telescope of sufficient power so as to perceive the “migration of peoples, wars and similar great historical events,” but weak enough that it couldn’t identify individuals. What would this Martian naturalist think of the behavior of humans on Earth? Lorenz insisted that his imagined observer “would never gain the impression that human behavior was dictated by intelligence, still less by responsible morality.”

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