Photography by CALLE EKLUND

He Told Animal Stories

Konrad Lorenz and analogy as a scientific method. An excerpt from Bird Lovers, Backyard.

Here Am I—Where Are You?

Young students hear the word imprinting and imagine the way motherless ducks in a moment of infancy are said to form an irreversible bond to whatever stands in the place of a parent.

Konrad Lorenz receives a Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine in 1973; a white-bearded man in work pants and waders, a row of ducklings strolling behind him.

Lorenz: “Without supernatural assistance, our fellow creatures can tell us the most beautiful stories, and that means true stories, because the truth about nature is always far more beautiful even than what our great poets sing of it, and they are the only real magicians that exist.” (King Solomon’s Ring)

Picture: Konrad Lorenz on his steps, feeding a baby bird from a dropper; Martina the goose waiting to go up to sleep in ‘her bedroom’ at the top of his house; a family portrait in progress.

Omissions and slips, folds and puns—people struggle to reconcile how from the smallest tropes evolution can be described.

For example, one summer morning in Vienna, a fly either was or was not on the kitchen ceiling when a hand-reared starling made a grab for it. A long winter of waiting had built up in the starling and it couldn’t help itself. Fly or no fly, it was going to eat one.

For Konrad Lorenz, this starling’s vacuum activity happened in response to nothing, and in happening, told an instinctual story. Lorenz told stories about why people do many things, based on animal analogy.


  1. inference that if two or more things agree with one another in some respects they will probably agree in others
  2. resemblance in some particulars between things otherwise unlike; comparison based on such resemblance
  3. correspondence between the members of pairs or sets of linguistic forms that serves as a basis for the creation of another form

Related, of course, is metaphor: the truth in an erroneous naming.

Aristotle: “Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else.”

But where a metaphor at some level acknowledges an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars, an analogy presumes a more correct correspondence. For evolutionary biologists, analogy implies equality in function, proximal cause. Where metaphors overreach, analogy occurs frequently.

Disturbance of Characteristic Behaviors through Domestication

One morning at his father’s house on the warming side of winter, Konrad’s hand-raised starling flew suddenly to the ceiling near the window. Lorenz was sure the bird caught what wasn’t anything, flew back to its perch, decisively killed, ate, and swallowed the imaginary meal.

But what if there was in fact a fly?

No, Lorenz insisted there had been nothing at the ceiling near the window, and the bird had merely imagined something, acting out an unreleased instinct, in what Konrad forever swore was clear proof of action-specific potential.

There had been no fly, Konrad was sure. The bird simply needed there to be the fly, fantasized the fly, the imagined taste, the feeling of it in its beak and throat. In vacuo—auf Leerlauf—this starling and the fly-that-wasn’t-there made the perfect team.

Lorenz: “Although it had never trapped a fly in its whole life, [it] performed the entire fly-catching sequence without a fly.”

A skeptical colleague once asked Lorenz, “Is that something that actually happened or just something you saw?”

In other words, is storytelling your scientific method?

For his Nobel prize acceptance lecture, Lorenz presented the paper: Analogy as a Source of Knowledge. He showed military bombers next to birds, torpedoes next to sharks, to show how physical features are analogous.

And he spoke about Bernard Hellman, his “important childhood friend.” Lorenz and Hellman were born in Vienna on the very same day, in the same year. Their families had apartments in Vienna and neighboring homes in Altenberg. The boys attended the same Gymnasium, explored the same ponds and riverbanks. Bernhard was no mere Kumpan, but a friend close enough to type up Konrad’s diary about jackdaws and send it to an editor—for what became his first publication. Bernhard was known as the brighter student and biologist, and also as the constant third-wheel with young Konrad and his future wife, Gretl, taking hundreds of excursions around Europe on their 500cc overhead-valve Triumphs.

“Is storytelling your scientific method?”

The Rise and Fall of Man and Animals

It is well known that Konrad Lorenz considered himself the “father” of animal behavior studies (ethology). What can it mean to be the father of something, to lend part of yourself to a new being, to stand ready and responsible? The fathers of the country, the fathers of destiny?

Lorenz wanted to be father and mother, believed in having a father, following fathers, becoming what fathers want, which was to mother, in their fashion. The law of the father, the jungle, must be followed. But to take the place of the mother, to experiment on hatchlings, to make children your project, this was more than most fathers get to do.

What a Pity He Can’t Speak! He Understands Every Word!

Konrad Lorenz was reported to be charming enough that after ‘the terrible war’ his colleagues forgave him his collaboration with the Nazis.

Even Niko Tinbergen—the other ‘father’ of ethology, the ‘nice father’—the suffering, persecuted father—helped Konrad Lorenz regain his “scientific children” in the court of public opinion. But for all Tinbergen’s generosity toward him, Lorenz could never bring himself to apologize for, or recant, his Nazi-sympathetic writing. As Tinbergen later wrote to a mutual friend: “At least once say, ‘Sorry brother, we are very sorry about it all and we will never support such a gang again.’”

Analogy: a foreign name; the wrong word in place of the usual.

Why is analogy appealing? To decorate an idea. To impress or persuade. To generate a truth which lies beyond the familiar or bring into view something which never previously existed. Some say an analogy is structured like a joke, in which one recognizes it and then decides whether to go along.

Lorenz: “Why should not the comparative ethologist who makes it his business to know animals more thoroughly than anybody else, tell stories about their private lives?”

Konrad knew why jackdaws or greylag geese did things because he assiduously recorded the ritualized bowing, strutting, egg-rolling, courtship, neck-flexing. The Year of the Greylag Goose describes thousands of details about neck and wing position. And by analogy why some people are naturally superior to others.

Lorenz: “As Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli thought of himself as a wolf, so Tchock, had he been able to speak, would certainly have called himself a human being.”

Breakdowns in the Instinctive Behavior of Domestic Animals and their Social-Psychological Meanings

Turning his mansion into a home for birds, “Mother Konrad” slept under the eaves listening to the scratching geese and jackdaws making themselves at home on the rugs and rafters. More than anything, he wanted to catalogue “ethograms” of wild animals in “natural cage conditions,” even placing his own children in “reverse cages” to protect them. Simply to make his birds’ repertoires available for controlled observation was the purpose of hand-raising them. According to Lorenz, the laboratory is too small, the whole world too wide, and the zoo too open to the public. Marble halls painted with cherubs and adorned with Greek statues provided the perfect habitat for his geese.

Lorenz: “By keeping a living thing in the scientific sense we understand the attempt to let its whole life cycle be performed before our eyes within the narrower or wider confines of captivity.”

The Year of the Greylag Goose

When the Nazis came to power, Lorenz was given his first real job, a position in Konigsberg that most saw as political payback. In 1941, Lorenz was drafted to the army, and his official story was that he worked as an army doctor until being held as a POW by the Russians for four years.

How is a story not the story? What if there was a fly?

In the records, there is a missing period of six months in 1942, during which time Lorenz had no official duties in the German-occupied Polish town of Poznan. However, the published work of a man named Hippius refers to Lorenz participating as a psychological evaluator for a group of 877 children—mischlings—of mixed Polish/German heritage. His job required him (with his background in domestic and hybrid wild geese) to discern the psychological make-up of the children, a form of volkerpsychologishe—looking for traits of national character—assuming that hybrid people become detached from pure parental values. As the Germans believed in the importance of race separation for animals and people alike, sufficiently “German” mischlings could be resettled in the new Germanizing east, and those without patriotic profiles (“instinctual cripples” as Lorenz once called them) were sent to concentration camps.

Lorenz, 1940: “With phenotypic inferiority the refined modes of social behavior are disturbed far earlier and far more seriously than the outward appearance. One can predict with absolute certainty of a crooked-legged, pot-bellied, pale-beaked grey goose, such as is all too easily produced through careless breeding, that its social behavior will be other than normal. With the pure-blooded wild goose the view of the old Greeks that a handsome man can never be bad and an ugly man can never be good is fully valid.”

Is biology condemned, through its use of figuration, to be literary, and is the reverse somehow equally true? Does writing reveal biological truths of individuals, worlds, how ontology relates to stories, their biological basis, their evolution? Scientists engage with silent yet definitive symbols: fish who switch sexes when conditions call for it, super-organisms with a socialist agenda, or viruses on computers. Enhancing the world through analogies—or catachresis, or prosopopeia (it feels natural to include ghosts and monsters)—brings new things into being, whether or not they are real.

Reading science as biography or poetry feels both rich and problematic. Biologists mostly work and write quantitatively, to loosen language’s messy involvement. Also, writing from the perspective of species rather than individuals avoids psychoanalysis, or the overlapping of language and fantasy. But some biologists now consider living beings merely diverse processes of semiosis. To the mind, the inexhaustible displays of our earth will model anything. Plotting and counting ants as they make their way across a square-foot patch of sand, the students can’t remember what they are supposed to be seeing, or doing. Research frustrates language, and vice versa.

“Reading science as biography or poetry feels both rich and problematic.”

Behavioral Analogies to Morality

Lorenz: “Real friendship with wild animals is to me so much a matter of course that it takes special situations to make me realize its uniqueness.”

The Companion in the Bird’s World: Fellow Members of the Species as Releasers of Social Behavior

After the war, Lorenz published his most popular book, King Solomon’s Ring, a stark effort to rid his work of propaganda and return to himself the reputation of the animal-loving scientist. Stories from before and during the war, about the losses of jackdaws, dogs, and geese, fill the pages. About friendship with dogs, Lorenz ponders, “…we may well ask ourselves whether we do right to hang our hearts on a creature which will be overtaken by senility and death before a human being, born on exactly the same day, has even passed his childhood.”

Only one passage implies a wider context: “A past master of this art [aquarium planning] was my tragically deceased friend Bernhard Hellman who was able to copy, at will, any given type of pond or lake, brook, or river. One of his masterpieces was a large aquarium which was a perfect model of an Alpine lake.”

Konrad went to heroic efforts to protect and reclaim his animals after the war. To this day at Altenberg, at what is now the Lorenz Institute, you can meet his dog Stasi’s descendants. The same loyalty extends to members of the original jackdaw and goose flocks, particularly to the children of Tchock and Martina. Though most pre-war geese were lost and did not overlap with the post-war flocks, the commitment to recording their biographies remained intense.

Yet no evidence exists that Lorenz ever inquired about his friend Bernhard as he hid from the Nazis in Holland. One letter does reveal that his wife Gretl discouraged Konrad from interceding; she didn’t want to appear collaborationist. Another friend from Konigsberg (Dr. Baumgarten) tried to find help for Hellman, but to no avail. In the entirety of Lorenz’s writing, Bernhard’s life and fate warrant significantly less mention than a long scene of Stasi, faithfully lying at Konrad’s feet wondering, “Are you ever going to take me out?”

Lorenz: “When I look back now and remember how much we learned from our two ducks, they almost seem to be my most influential teachers. We took it for granted from the beginning that the ducklings would direct toward us the behavior patterns they normally displayed toward their natural mother. We were not in the least surprised to have them follow us everywhere.”

In The Jungle Book, for their crime of resisting assimilation, the boy Mowgli leads the dholes (endangered red dogs from South Asia) into a hole where he and his “law abiding” wolf friends slaughter every one of them.

Social Organization without Love

Lorenz: “In the case of wild geese, I have repeatedly noticed that a betrothal was pledged when two fairly close friends met again after a fairly long separation. Even I myself have been affected by this quite typical phenomenon—but that is another story.”

Recall that in Freud’s narrative theory, catharsis or abreaction in one’s storytelling purges, expresses, or discharges built-up emotional memory-content that was in tension or repressed. Readers seek pleasure in the release of psychic identification with fictional worlds experienced vicariously without shame or self-reproach. Even more, people see family dynamics as internalized representations of the political world. Conversely, what happens in politics stirs up fantasies of the family drama, which can provide impulse to action.

Lorenz: “I consider early childhood events as most essential to a man’s scientific and philosophical development.”

Do childhood stories train us?

Lorenz: “When in Kipling’s Mowgli love is awakened, this all-powerful urge forces him to leave his wolf brothers and to return to the human family. This poetical assumption is scientifically correct. We have good reason to believe that in human beings—as in most mammals—the potential object of sexual love makes itself evident by characters which speak to the depth of age-old inheritance, and not by signs recognizable by experience—as evidently is the case in many birds. Birds reared in isolation from their kind do not generally know which species they belong to. . . . This phenomenon can be observed regularly in hand-reared male house sparrows, who, for this reason, enjoyed great popularity among the loose-living ladies of Roman society, and whom Catullus has immortalized by his little poem, ‘Passer mortuus est meae puellae.’”

Fiction to biology to birds, back to people, back to poetry—authority lies in how you thread the sequence, solicit association. To drape one’s science in the authority of the poets seems as common as poets using science to dramatize daydreams.

Lorenz: “Although, in that summer of 1909, we felt that we had outgrown the game of pretending to be ducks, we accepted our roles as duck mothers with passion and devotion.”

On Aggression (the “So-Called Evil”)

The experimental work that young Bernhard Hellman did with cichlid fish (putting a mirror in their tanks to demonstrate that they would fight their own reflected image to exhaustion) prompted him to coin the term action-specific potentiality, and identify the effects of dammed instincts. Bernhard’s work on cichlids became a subject of Lorenz’s research after the war.

In 1940, Lorenz wrote: “Precisely in the large field of instinctive behavior, humans and animals can be directly compared…We confidently venture to predict that these studies will be fruitful for both theoretical as well as practical concerns of race policy.”

In On Aggression, Lorenz gives a rare anecdote directly about humans, to “prove” that violence, like the starling grabbing the invisible fly, expresses itself as a vacuum activity, an instinct with no relation to the world around it.

Lorenz: “So-called polar disease, also known as expedition choler (anger), attacks small groups of men who are completely dependent on one another and are thus prevented from quarreling with strangers or people outside their own circle of friends. From this it will be clear that the damming up of aggression will be all the more dangerous, the better the members of the group know, understand, and like each other.”

Observations, poetry; it’s a live, live world—crabs who cannibalize each other, seahorse fathers rearing the young—in the joy of recognizing sentience in other creatures, we feel the rush of kinship, and perhaps because we don’t know how to act around lost or abandoned or ultimate kinship, we try to own other creatures’ actions, translate them into our language, extend them our fantasies. We are industrious ants or hermaphrodite barnacles. We are fierce lions or clever foxes. We are monogamous penguins or self-sacrificing helpmates at the nest. We like these stories because it’s hard to get a grip on exactly where we stand. No matter how many airplanes we build or satellites guide us, we feel like we’re everywhere and nowhere, lost in our family without a map. We are all the animals and none of them. It is so often said that poetry and science both seek truth, but perhaps they both seek hedges against it.

In their famous pre-war collaboration, Lorenz and Tinbergen took the mother goose’s egg from her and watched her rescue it by rolling it gently back to the nest. They took the mother’s egg from her and watched her rescue it by gently rolling it back toward the nest and then they took it again. This time they never gave it back. They watched her try to continue the rescue by gently rolling the missing egg back to the nest.

These experiments are done on the whole animal in forced conditions. In these ways they mothered brood upon brood of mothers. What can friends and false mothers teach us?

from The Jungle Book:

I have taught thee all the Law of the Jungle for all the Peoples of the Jungle— except the Monkey Folk who live in the trees. They have no Law. They are outcasts…We do not drink where the monkeys drink; we do not go where the monkeys go; we do not hunt where they hunt; we do not die where they die. Hast thou ever heard me speak of the Bandar-log till today? . . . The Jungle People put them out of their mouths and out of their minds. They are a very many, evil, dirty, shameless, and they desire, if they have any fixed desire, to be noticed by the Jungle People. But we do NOT notice them even when they throw nuts and filth on our heads.

Lorenz: “In reading those books, one feels that if an experienced, old wild goose or a wise black panther could talk, they would say exactly the things which Selma Lagerlof’s Akka or Rudyard Kipling’s Bagheera say.”

Disturbance of Characteristic Behaviors through Domestication

Digging in various records confirms that when they were teenagers, before Lorenz received funding for his first experiments, he relied exclusively on Bernhard Hellman’s tanks of cladocera and cichlids. Bernhard, the better student, redacted books for Konrad, and introduced him to scientists he hadn’t heard of. Instead of continuing his experiments, however, Hellman spent the early years of the war forced to make jewelry.

Sitting on the shores of his pond, watching his birds, Lorenz made the ‘discovery’ that a non-hybridized person would have intact aesthetic instincts. He summarized these ‘findings’ in his paper, Breakdowns in the Instinctive Behavior of Domestic Animals and their Social-Psychological Meanings.

Lorenz: “I believe man has an inborn abhorrence for humans who have degenerate instincts. This abhorrence has also certainly a species-preserving value, since in humans degenerate mating drives and similar brood-care reactions go along with each other, as, e.g. with my greylag/domestic goose crosses.”

What does someone hearing analogies hear? One thing makes another thing appear true in a new way—or reinforces an unstated suspicion. Perhaps a little “Aha!” results—the satisfaction of concept-making. A complex dance is initiated and even if the hearer later thinks, ‘I shouldn’t have gone along with that dance,’ there was still an intimacy for a moment. Why are certain metaphors successful? Why is someone a star? A pig?

Lorenz: “When we speak of falling in love, of friendship, personal enmity or jealousy in these or other animals, we are not guilty of anthropomorphism. These terms refer to functionally-determined concepts, just as do the terms legs, wings, eyes and the names used for other bodily structures that have evolved independently in different phyla or animals. No one uses quotation marks when speaking or writing about the eyes or the legs of an insect or crab, nor do we when discussing analogous behavior patterns.” (Analogy as a Source of Knowledge)

Is textual action (what we’re willing to do with words) where behavioral theory might begin?

Lorenz: “Nothing is more important for the health of an entire people (volk) than the elimination of invirent types, which, with the most dangerous and extreme virulence, threaten to penetrate the body of a people like the cells of a malignant tumor.”

Civilized Man’s Eight Deadly Sins

Biology, beauty, and storytelling intimately align. “The true observer” is a rare and delicate man, says Konrad. Illustrating his own books, Lorenz sketched domestic animals and degenerate people. “Believe me, I am not mistakenly assigning human properties to animals: on the contrary, I am showing you what an enormous animal inheritance remains in man to this day.” In a letter written in 1939, Lorenz refers to the “ugly Jewish nose” of a shoveler duck.

How can something that can be true in one story be a lie in another?

Lorenz: “As long as a tribe or a volk possesses a very high degree of racial uniformity, assessing an individual by his external characteristics alone will be possible and drawing inferences about the full value of his inner behavioral norms will be justified.”

In King Solomon’s Ring, Lorenz mentions Bernhard Hellman in one sentence, while Gloria, Martina, Martin, Koka, Tschok, Stasi, and Tito get biographical chapters. To introduce the chapter titled “Martina,” Lorenz explains, “Although the events I am about to relate took place fifty years ago, my notes are so reliable and my memory so vivid that I believe I can draw an informative picture of the life of a greylag goose by telling this story of my first goose.”

“The wish [for an idealized past] makes use of an occasion in the present to construct, on the pattern of the past, a picture of the future.” (Freud, Creative Writers and Day-dreaming)

Can we imagine analogy, or even the feeling of sympathy between creatures, providing the source for knowledge—some uncontaminated epistemology—allowing people to share an animal’s world? Definitely. But, one by one, analogies also reveal the mirror’s opaque side, the confusion within this perceived agreement. In footnote and trunk song, stories give the illusion of completeness in hindsight. Lorenz knew that his support of race policy would have personal implications: “The fully superior person (Vollwertige) reacts against contemporaries manifesting inferior traits by keeping away from them.”

Still, it’s hard to see what analogy could be found for keeping away from your friends.

Analogy as a Source of Knowledge

Lorenz: “Believe me, one day everything I’ve said will seem very ordinary.”

What did all his stories about geese, jackdaws, dogs, and ducks tell about people?

Lorenz: “The inference was clear: I must quack like a mother mallard in order to make the little ducks run after me. No sooner said than done. When, one Whit-Saturday, a brood of purebred young mallards was due to hatch, I put the eggs in the incubator, took the babies, as soon as they were dry, under my personal care, and quacked for them the mother’s call-note in my best Mallardese…For hours on end I kept it up, for half the day…In the interests of science I submitted myself literally for hours on end to this ordeal…I was congratulating myself on the obedience and exactitude with which my ducklings came waddling after me…”

Perhaps there are no other creatures to turn to—ant, jellyfish, bird, or dog—to help explain us. Perhaps explanation isn’t the point? Freud said writers allow readers to experience their daydreams without shame or self-censorship. The scientist may be no different. Perhaps tropes are merely features of his individual art. There is evidence of his writer’s life but not so much his inner life. Is it good writing?

Our questions about Lorenz’s life might not feel so insistent if he hadn’t told so many animal stories. But maybe in all his writing about all his animals he was simply asking—to any friend he’d ever had—“Here am I—Where are you?”

*This excerpt from Bird Lovers, Backyard is reproduced with permission from the copyright holders, Thalia Field and New Directions Publishing.

Thalia Field has published three collections with New Directions (Point and Line; Incarnate: Story Material; Bird Lovers, Backyard), a collaborative essay, A Prank of Georges, and a performance novel, ULULU (Clown Shrapnel). Her forthcoming novel, Experimental Animals, explores the situation of the early laboratory in France and its aesthetic counterparts.