On Aggression by Konrad Lorenz

Konrad Lorenz’s book, On Aggression, wasn’t what I was expecting at all.  I thought it would be an in-depth look at human aggression, and how it affects humanity in general and small populations in particular.  Instead, what the book is about is Lorenz’s studies of the aggressive behavior of fish and bird species.  While these studies are interesting to read about, and may provide insight into some of the behavior of people, I found it ultimately unsatisfactory in meeting its goal of explaining human aggression.

Let me also say that, had I known about Lorenz’s history with the Nazi party during World War II, I would never have picked the book up.  I felt a little dirty while finishing it after I found out.  I wish I had known beforehand, so I could have avoided the entire thing.

I must say, though, that the sections Lorenz writes about animal behavior were very interesting.  I liked the discussions on how fish behave toward members of their own species depending on whether they have a mate, whether they’re defending a clutch of eggs, and how big they think their territory should be.

Especially interesting to me was the fact that some species depend on color markings to determine whether to attack another fish of their species.  Lorenz talks about coloring a drab female fish with crayons (I’m not sure this is true, or an artifact of imperfect translation) and then reintroducing her to her mate; he attacked her until he realized, most likely through chemical signals, that she was female.  Afterward, he would check invading males to ensure they weren’t female instead.  That’s interesting.

Also interesting was some of Lorenz’s examples of how geese behave toward members of their own families and those of other groups.  It was easy to see how, to a certain extent, those findings might help explain human aggressive behavior and triggers that are in place to protect those familiar to us from our own aggressive impulses.

I do, however, have some issues with Lorenz’s conclusions.  He bases human behavior on animal instincts.  Humans have the ability to reason.  Lorenz himself devotes the last chapter to uniquely human developments — art, humor, science, and medicine.  These are not extensions of some sort of inhibitory drive, in my opinion.  They are conscious, constantly developing attributes of a species that has the capability to make decisions based on more than just whether someone presents to us an aggressive or appeasing stance.

I also have an issue with how Lorenz considered the youth of his day — he complains several times throughout the book about how young adults of the time (which is 1966, in case you’re curious) are aimless, shiftless, and lazy in America.  Well, sure, maybe some of them were.  But others took the mood of the time and did good things, like helping push civil rights forward.  People can’t be painted with such a broad brush, no matter how annoying or frustrating one finds some members of the group.

My last big issue with Lorenz was actually a very small part of the book overall, but was something that bothered me greatly.  He talks in great detail about male homosexual relationships between male geese with considerable insight and compassion.  He then turns around and states that the behavior of the geese is “far less ‘animal’ than that of most human homosexuals, for they seldom if ever copulate or perform substitute actions”.  Ignoring the fact that I’m not sure what he’s referring to as a “substitute action”, my first thought about homosexual geese is that there’s proof of a genetic inclination for some of us to be attracted to individuals of the same sex.  It disgusts me that he could have such a compassionate understanding of geese while considering other humans to be no more than debauched men and women.

Overall, I found Lorenz’s description of animal behavior insightful and informative.  His attempts to connect that behavior to the ways humans act, however, I found lacking in the extreme.  He should have stuck to a simple exploration of aggression and aggression-inhibiting behavior and attributes.

Rating: 2.5/5.

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Filed under 2.5/5, Book review, Mixed, Nonfiction

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