Konrad Lorenz considered aggression an appetitive instinct. It had its own rhythms. It “speaks up when it has been silent too long, and forces the animal or human to get up and search actively for the special set of stimuli which elicit it and no other hereditary co-ordination.”1
He observed this rhythmicity in the threat display behaviors in geese, and identified a contrapuntal instinctual dance, one pulse a dance of appeasement, the other a dance of aggression.
Graylag Goose Threat Display/Appeasement Dance2
Lorenz insisted that aggression was the basic support for social life. It preceded all ties of affection—in fact caused them. Enmity was the root and trunk upon which later expressions of altruism grew. “Personal bonds belong to the aggression- inhibiting, appeasing behavior mechanisms…”3 The aggression/appeasement system – one side advances, the other submits – left little room for a primary erotic instinct. Appeasement was the source of bonding behavior. “Intra-specific aggression,” Lorenz argued, “is millions of years older than personal friendship and love.”4 Evolution, he concluded, had “chosen, of all unlikely things, the rough and spiny shoot of intra-specific ag-gression to bear the blossoms of personal friendship and love.”5
The aggression-appeasement system worked within species between members of a social group. Without group membership, there were no grounds for appeasement. The great benefit of the appeasement system was that it affirmed belonging. And belonging is necessary for the well-being of social animals, including human beings.
“That indeed is the Janus head of man,” Lorenz concluded. “The only being capable of dedicating himself to the very highest moral and ethical values requires for this purpose a phylogenetically adapted mechanism of behavior whose animal properties bring with them the danger that he will kill his brother, convinced that he is doing so in the interests of these very same high values. Ecce Homo!”6
For Lorenz, wider inter-communal aggressions presuppose an “us” that defends against a “them”. The “themness” of the “them” follows from the “usness” of the “us”. And the “usness” came from the aggression/appeasement dance.
The “us and them” mentality produced a condition Lorenz described as “militant enthusiasm” – a “specialized form of communal aggression”, that could “be elicited with the predictability of a reflex when the following environmental situations arise. First of all, a social unit with which the subject identifies himself must appear to be threatened by some danger from outside…second…is the presence of a hated enemy from whom the threat to the above ‘values’ emanates… third…is an inspiring leader figure… fourth… is the presence of many other individuals, all agitated by the same emotion.”7
Tough positions. Cold and hard. A bitter controversy flared over Lorenz’ analysis. Leon Eisenberg, a psychiatrist and professor at Harvard Medical School, wrote that
“To believe that man’s aggressiveness of territoriality is in the nature of the beast is to mistake some men for all men, contemporary socie-ties for all possible societies, and, by a remarkable transformation, to justify what is as what needs be,” adding that “Pessimism about man serves to maintain the status quo. It is a luxury for the affluent, a sop to the guilt of the politically inactive, a comfort to those who continue to enjoy the amenities of privilege.”8
In rejecting Lorenz, most researchers argued that there were no grounds for treating aggression as an appetitive instinct. In their view aggression functioned as a kindled drive that moved along pre-structured, definable biochemical pathways. It flares, shoots, fires, and then abates. People do not go spoiling for a fight when they haven’t been in one for a long time. Nor do they build up an appetite for war from too much peace, or for misery from too much happiness.
John Hurrell Crook arguing contra Lorenz, in an interesting collection of essays in Man and Aggression edited by Ashley Montague expressed the consensus view that “aversive behavior is a response to undesirable or harmful stimulation and persists until the individual flees or until the stimulation is removed… According to this account, aggressive behavior is non-rhythmic and lacks an appetitive phase…”9
Ashley Montague himself went so far as to deny the reality of all instincts.
“Everything he is and has become he has learned, acquired, from his culture, from the man-made part of the environment, from other hu-man beings… his brain, far from containing any ‘phylogenetically programmed’ determinants for behavior, is characterized by a su-premely highly developed generalized capacity for learning; that this principally constitutes his innate hominid nature…”10
The heated reaction against Lorenz had a great deal to do with his politics. His critics reminded their readers that Lorenz willingly participated in the intellectual life of Nazi Europe. His "Ecce Homo!” remark carried echoes from Nietzsche that did not sit well with people still pondering German war crimes. Lorenz denied the accusations.
What actually happened?
Freud and Lorenz were both in Vienna in 1938. Freud, 80 years old, ill with oral cancer, lived in danger of being swept into the Holocaust as a Jew and enemy of the Third Reich. Lorenz was a young man of a prominent family whose father was an avid Nazi supporter and propagandist for the Anschluss ( March 12, 1938.) Lorenz with family help pursued career advancement.
To advertise his availability, he published an article in a German journal deploring racial degeneration, making the point that mankind, like other domesticated animals, was losing its instinctual strength through ‘self-domestication’. He saw us undergoing a kind of genetic drift to decadence that included an attraction to mixed race breeding and hence to ugliness and demeaning sexual selection.
Even his sympathetic biographer, Alec Nesbitt, maintains that the genetic decay paper was ‘angled’ at Germany’s Nazi masters and was “clothed in Nazi terminology” to promote his career as a natural scientist.”11
It worked. On September 2, 1940, Lorenz was given Kant’s chair in psychology at the Albertus University of Konigsberg. But the war on the Eastern front pushed him into military service in the German army as a medical officer posted to a psychiatric unit in Poznan in the Polish Corridor.
Vienna Medical Faculty
Poznan was an S. S. center. Himmler visited there in October 1943 and spoke to the assembled SS officers, “whether nations live in prosperity or starve to death like cattle interests me only in so far as we need them as slaves to our Kultur; otherwise it is of no interest to me.”12
In 1974 Lorenz told Nesbitt he was unaware of the German atrocities until 1943 when by chance he saw a transport of Gypsy prisoners passing through Poznan, an odd failure of perception for a future expert on aggression considering the prominent position Poznan played in the SS role in conquered territories.
According to Nesbitt, Lorenz was transferred to the German army in Vitebsk in White Russia where he was captured by the Russians and taken prisoner on June 24, 1943. During his imprisonment, Lorenz wrote his first book on aggression.
Freud‘s fate ran a different course. With the help of American and British diplomats, he received exit visas for himself, his family and staff, paid the various bribes and taxes, had his bank accounts confiscated, and went into exile in London. He provided money under Austrian guarantees to care for his four elderly sisters who were too frail to travel. In a final humiliating gesture before his departure, the Gestapo required Freud to sign a document stating he had been treated with extreme fairness by the authorities. To this official communication he appended a remark wise in Jewish irony: “I would recommend the Gestapo to anyone.”
The money he provided for his sisters was stolen by the authorities. The sisters were exterminated in the gas chambers. Freud died in London in 1940.