Number 25

Relecture 1

Konrad Lorenz and Civilized Man's Eight Deadly Sins*

(1903–89) doctor of medicine, ethologist, zoologist, Nobel Prize winner 1973


Konrad Lorenz is most famous for his scientific studies into the behavior of animals, especially geese. He studied and investigated animal behavior for around 60 years. Later in life he also became a close observer of human behavior, both individual and collective. Despite having a generally optimistic outlook, what he discovered gave him cause for concern. Lorenz said, "We live in an age in which it is scientific researchers who are able to see specific dangers quite clearly. Therefore they have a duty to speak out." This was his introduction to a series of radio lectures, later published as his most popular book "Civilized Man's Eight Deadly Sins"* – which is now, unfortunately, mostly forgotten.

Konrad Lorenz was a kind of person who is rare today: a committed advocate of a virtuous civil society and of science as a servant of humankind. In response to contemporary developments in the 1960s and 1970s, he believed it was his duty to stand up, be counted, and express his worldview in a comprehensive, understandable and accessible manner. He was convinced that, "... every danger becomes less frightening when its causes are known." This is a valuable insight, which also applied for politics and business management. Lorenz was an ecologist in a holistic and social sense, who investigated and explained genetic and behavioral interactions.

The eight pathologies identified by Konrad Lorenz are summarized and considered in this essay. They are explained and corresponding therapies are proposed.

1. Overpopulation

A high-density population causes a loss of humanity, community and solidarity

If a population is too dense with overcrowding, then disinterest, disengagement and unfriendly behavior becomes widespread. This can be witnessed daily at rail stations, airports, shopping centers, stadiums and mega-events. Excessive social contact causes people to become unnaturally disinterested in each other. Close proximity can trigger aggression, and breeds mass behavior and indifference. Translated for the present day, this means that social media like Facebook and similar, while appearing to promote friendship and solidarity, actually encourage more disconnected and superficial communication. The lesson to be learned is that lasting solutions are to be found in a world of communities which are overseeable: human-scale, local and controllable – and not national or global.

2. Devastation of the Environment

Greed and profit maximization lead to destructive exploitation of resources

Farmers know that nature can be exhausted by over-farming; conservationists know that sudden minor interventions can have catastrophic consequences: invasive species of animals or plants can quickly multiply and conquer native species; a little pesticide can contaminate huge volumes of water. In the same way, evidence of the destructive power of profit-oriented commerce is everywhere. The evolutionary benefit of biological variety is being carelessly squandered; and while in agriculture smaller farmers are forced out by agribusinesses, in communities small retailers are forced out by the outlets of mega-corporations. Lorenz also uses the analogy of the tumor, a group of abnormal cells characterized by unrestricted growth, to describe the geographic spread of suburbia and high-rise apartments as an unnatural form of housing. He deplored the new ugly face of our towns and industrialized countryside.

Applying Lorenz's criticisms to the present time, we have the unpleasant scenario of agribusiness and food corporations who supply masses of consumers and retail chains: Wal-Mart (around 2 million employees) with a global procurement chain, and universal retailers like Amazon, whose ambition is to displace the small retailer. Corporations like these, and global logistics corporations like UPS, will eventually help to create a standardized world of monopolized markets and a land-consuming, energy-intensive infrastructure. A society built this way will "... lose respect for the abundance and beauty of creation". Trade and craft skills will become extinct and the bonds that hold communities together will unravel, while city office centers become night-time deserts as workers commute to suburbia. Humankind's "... sensitivity to the ethically objectionable" will fade away. This systematic confusion of means and ends will ultimately lead to the dissolution of communities and civic society.

3. Humankind Competing Against Itself

Fear leads to accelerated work rates and the desire for instant gratification

Today it is not only Western civilization that is driven by technical progress and unbridled consumption. The fear of being overtaken, in status, career, or consumption, has become a collective paranoia, and the cause of many an illness. The diagnosis made by Oskar Heimroth, Konrad Lorenz's teacher, was short and succinct: a high work rate is the "stupidest product of intraspecific selection" that endangers health, steals time for reflection, and makes us blind to moral values. Greed and haste are mirrored by the images of modern media and the deafening noise of events. The unstoppable race to save time has become a maddening race. What good is any time saved anyway? The growing number of psychological illnesses and cases of work exhaustion (burnout) are a dire warning.

The American critic of consumption, Vance Packard, warned in his 1950s book The Hidden Persuaders of the continuing growth of consumerism and consumer waste. This same perspective was adopted by Lorenz, who criticized the inherent drive for growth of the capitalist market economy.

4. Emotional Entropy

Degeneration leading to a loss of empathy

Where instant gratification is the rule, the direct link between effort and reward, between like and dislike, is lost. Then genuine liking (or desire) will be replaced by apathy. As Lorenz puts it, the natural waves of pain and joy will degenerate into minor oscillations of nameless boredom. He identified a manifestation of this in neophilia; an addiction to a constant search for something new and for permanent change. Practical examples of this are collecting new friends (Facebook) or heartlessly abandoning pet dogs when moving house. Lorenz saw a specific danger in raising youngsters who are used to excessive consumption and continual praise. As an alternative to such a soul destroying upbringing he points to the positive outcomes from experiential education as developed and advocated by Kurt Hahn, the great educationalist.

5. Genetic Decay

Selfish (free) economic competition leads to negative selection

According to Lorenz, a natural feeling of justice and legal traditions will generate a positive selective pressure on standards of social behavior which are essential for modern civilization. This type of group pressure encourages altruistic behavior. As long as a repugnance of anti-social behavior functions properly and deviant moral behavior is punished, such group pressure has an advantageous civilizing effect on human groups. Lorenz quotes a study by legal scholar Peter H. Sand who attributes key significance to a natural feeling of justice, which he investigated as part of his study into a common core of legal systems. An approach based upon positivism or objective science is not suitable for understanding the natural behavior of human beings, because humans are, as the anthropologist Arnold Gehlen explained, cultural beings: their instinctive drives and the mastery of those instinctive drive are not separate but complementary.

Lorenz was intensely opposed to erroneous pseudo-democratic doctrines which argue that human behavior can be conditioned and therefore easily modified. According to his observations, contemporary lifestyles leave insufficient space for decency and virtuous behavior. Lorenz considered the need for ethical standards an undisputable fact. Consequently, an essential criterion when selecting a group leader is virtuousness (such as truthfulness and honesty). Innumerable recent scandals in the financial sector demonstrated why integrity and virtuousness (truth and honesty) are obvious and essential prerequisites for appointing someone to a responsible position such as CEO or senior executive. However, ethical attributes such as a selfless devotion to family, group and community, an instinctive form of behavior, is now believed to be incompatible with commercial and economic 'progress'. Infantilism and adolescent crime is another form of regressive behavior which increasingly robs humankind of the ability to distinguish between good and evil actions.

6. The Break with Tradition

Addiction to novelty leads to a loss of culture

Should communication between generations and the identification of youth with their elders no longer function properly, then accumulated traditions will be lost. Analogous to genomes, which evolve to create new species, it is more important to retain whatever is fitting (tried, tested and successful) as a requisite for survival than it is to adopt new characteristics. Culture has an interactive effect and it is crucial that its composite elements are not needlessly sacrificed. Culture can neither be artificially created nor arbitrarily modified. This also applies to companies: aggressive change management within business enterprises can easily and carelessly destroy that which exists without creating anything new of value.

Lorenz lamented that knowledge without an apparent rational foundation was underestimated, and he criticized the erroneous belief that only rationally determined knowledge is valid. At that time, this was exemplified in the Western world by the generation conflict during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and in China by the Cultural Revolution (in both cases the younger generation rejected everything old, including the older generation). Recent forms of social neophilia under the banners of justice and equal rights are obstacle to genuine cultural progress because they sacrifice the former on the alter stone of the latter. Historically, egalitarianism has always been detrimental. In fact, it has been those in 'progressive circles', of all places, who failed to grasp that is it impossible to achieve real cultural progress merely by destroying that which already exists.

Lorenz saw a growing problem in the making due to non-frustration education. Children raised in such a permissive way can, according to Lorenz, easily turn into spoilt adolescents with a predisposition to neuroticism. Parents and teachers without the willpower to impose their authority, a lack of contact between parents and children, and constant distraction by media; nowadays Facebook, Twitter and other forms of Social Media leave little space for young people to participate and commit to a forward-looking cohesive community. A properly functioning community within an integrated civil society is the requisite foundation for a powerful economy and profitable commerce. This will not happen if instead large sections of youth become a burden upon society; which will happen anyway if they are denied employment opportunities.

7. Indoctrinability

Domination by natural science and positive economics will lead to mechanistic ideas

The public opinion formed by many visible and invisible channels exhibited a high degree of uniformity. According to Lorenz, such doctrines dominated in many fields: behaviorism, Freudianism, the market-efficiency hypothesis and homo economicus. Whoever rejected these mainstream doctrines was considered a pathological outsider.
Lorenz talked in this context of "sins against human nature". He was a harsh critic of the imperialism of Big Science and its tendency to overestimate the value of the newest trends in academic teaching. He had no sympathy with the American-style preference for practical, easy-to-understand, mechanistic theories. He also rejected micro-economic and macro-economic theories that aim to get by 'without the human factor'. As the regard for empirical sciences grew, so did respect for other valuable methods of research decline. As mathematics increases its share of what is scientific (knowledge) then its practical value and applicability to human society declines.
Lorenz was suspicious of the dominant role of advertising and continuing growth in consumption and the associated waste. According to Lorenz, "The growing avalanche of production and consumption is undoubtedly just as mindless as it is bad – in an ethical sense" (p. 96). He believed that mass producers (major corporations) represented a threat to democracy, because they are both able and willing to manipulate the masses.

8. Nuclear Weapons

As Lorenz perceived it, forty to fifty years ago, nuclear weapons were the deadly sin which could be most easily controlled and avoided. He considered the real damage they cause, at that time, to be the widespread doom and gloom which they spread. 

Consequences for the Economy

In addition to his work in the field of natural science, Konrad Lorenz was also a forward-looking and courageous critic of society and culture. He abhorred the so-called pseudo-democratic doctrine. This leads to the instrumentalizing and conditioning of people, which is a form of dehumanizing (turning people into human resources or consumers) and of amorality (blind to moral values). This destroys the basis for cultural progress and moral improvement. Lorenz took the business world to court due to the excessive economic competition they defended (humankind economically competing against itself), the negative selection this generated, and the destruction of variety and the environment it causes, which can never be justified by mere economic efficiency. Lorenz believed that utilitarian thinking is irresponsible if it becomes self-serving and no longer serves a higher moral purpose and ignores that the economy and commerce exist to serve humankind, and not the other way round.

The message of Konrad Lorenz was an indictment of unrestricted market capitalism and a clarion call for a human-scale and ethical economy.

Manfred Hoefle, 8 February 2012


* This book was first published in German in 1973.