Imprinting, Instinct and the Evolution of the Species : HERE AM I--WHERE ARE YOU? The Behavior of the Greylag Goose, <i> By Konrad Lorenz,</i> Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $26.95; 272 pages
On a summer morning in Vienna in 1909, 6-year-old Konrad Lorenz received Pipsa--a newly hatched mallard duckling--as a birthday present. The duckling bonded to the boy immediately, and in a learning process that the adult Lorenz would identify as “imprinting,” Pipsa accepted him as a step-parent.
At the same time, Lorenz suggests, “a 6-year-old boy became imprinted on birds of the family Anatidae .” His lifelong passion for mallards and geese, he adds, may indicate “that irreversible imprinting can also occur in human beings.”
Lorenz begins his last book, “Here Am I--Where Are You?” with recollections of that idyllic summer. The late Nobel laureate recounts a Dr. Doolittle-like childhood on the banks of the Danube, wading through “pools rich in insect life” with Pipsa, and with Pipsa climbing the stairs under the benevolent eyes of parents who apparently welcomed webbed feet in their living room.
“Here Am I” follows a single thread that ran through Lorenz’s rich and sometimes controversial career. That thread was his interest in anatids, especially wild geese, which Lorenz saw as the perfect organic system through which he could understand the evolution of a species.
In 1941, when he was already world famous for his contributions to the new discipline of ethology (the study of animal behavior in the wild), Lorenz accepted a post in Konigsberg, Germany.
He spent the next 32 years in German institutions, moving after the war to Buldern, where in 1949 he established the colony of graylag geese that are the subject of this study. In 1955 he moved with them to the Max Planck Institute at Seeweisen, and in 1973, when the colony numbered 150, he relocated to Grunau, Austria.
Lorenz’s charm as a raconteur and Robert Martin’s skillful translation make this slim volume deceptively simple. Anecdotes like the story of Martina, with whom he shared a room and whom he carried everywhere until the day she flew off, have a purpose.
“The remarkable thing about the performance was her oriented localization of a goal along a route that she had not previously followed in just this manner.” A gosling being carried along a village street, she had built up an aerial picture of the town.
Once the reader has become absorbed in the soap-opera lives and loves of the geese, Lorenz introduces the theoretical concept of the “ethogram"--sophisticated analyses of behavior patterns that, together, present a complete description of the species.
Anyone interested in Jane Goodall’s chimpanzees at Gombe will find Lorenz’s geese at Grunau equally engaging. Like chimps, geese are social creatures that remain in touch with their siblings, often mate for life and may experience catastrophe when a relationship is disrupted.
Even before it hatches, a gosling communicates vocally with its parents and its siblings in adjacent eggs.
Hatching is a three-day procedure, begun by the egg tooth, a real enamel-covered tooth that functions once, to break through the shell. The gosling, while still not entirely hatched and too weak to lift its head, tries to stretch its neck--the greeting gesture of a member of a social group.
Lorenz was especially interested in this kind of instinctual behavior. He analyzed the stages of instinctive motor patterns, observing that while geese learned to distinguish the physical aspects of hundreds of other individual geese, they never learned new motor skills.
In contrast to the general acceptance today of his theory of development, Lorenz’s theory that aggression, along with the territoriality it engenders, dominates culture (the theme of his 1966 bestseller, “On Aggression”) has come increasingly under attack.
Likewise, his interpretation of sexual roles, including the assertion that even when there are pairs of the same sex (this happens frequently in geese) the dominant individual always adopts the male role, is clearly inconsistent with current ideas about gender.
Using words like love , hate and grief to describe the emotional lives of geese, Lorenz is not afraid of being deemed “anthropomorphic.”
Any thinker who accepts the theory of evolution, he points out, must accept a certain degree of subjectivity, must assume that similar processes take place in humans and animals because we share analogous structures.
At the same time he warns, “What we should not forget is that we cannot know, and probably will never know, what the goose itself feels.”
What we do know from “Here Am I” is that Konrad Lorenz fully enjoyed the 82 years he lived among, and studied the behavior of, the graylag geese.
Next: Jonathan Kirsch reviews “The Civil War in the American West” by Alvin M. Josephy Jr. (Knopf).