EDITORIAL, 12 Jun 2023

#800 | John Scales Avery, Ph.D. – TRANSCEND Media Service

Ethology: The Study of Inherited Behavior Patterns 

Charles Darwin’s observations convinced him that in humans, just as in other mammals, the emotions and their expression are to a very large extent inherited universal characteristics of the species.

The study of inherited behavior patterns in animals (and humans) was continued in the 20th century by such researchers as Karl von Frisch (1886-1982), Nikolaas Tinbergen (1907-1988), and Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989), three scientists who shared a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973.

Konrad Lorenz Discovers Imprinting in Birds

The third of the 1973 prizewinners, Konrad Lorenz, is the most controversial, but at the same time very interesting in the context of studies of the causes of war and discussions of how war may be avoided. As a young boy, he was very fond of animals, and his tolerant parents allowed him to build up a large menagerie in their house in Altenberg, Austria. Even as a child, he became an expert on waterfowl behavior, and he discovered the phenomenon of imprinting. He was given a one day old duckling, and found, to his intense joy, that it transferred its following response to his person. As Lorenz discovered, young waterfowl have a short period immediately after being hatched, when they identify as their “mother” whomever they see first. In later life, Lorenz continued his studies of imprinting, and there exists a touching photograph of him, with his white beard, standing waist-deep in a pond, surrounded by an adoring group of goslings who believe him to be their mother. Lorenz also studied bonding behavior in waterfowl.

 “On Aggression” 

It is, however, for his controversial book, On Aggression, that Konrad Lorenz is best known. In this book, Lorenz makes a distinction between intergroup aggression and intragroup aggression. Among animals, he points out, rank-determining fights are seldom fatal. Thus, for example, the fights that determine leadership within a wolf pack end when the loser makes a gesture of submission. By contrast, fights between groups of animals are often fights to the death, examples being wars between ant colonies, or of bees against intruders, or the defense of a rat pack against strange rats.

Many animals, humans included, seem willing to kill or be killed in defense of the communities to which they belong. Lorenz calls this behavioral tendency a “communal defense response”. He points out that the “holy shiver” – the tingling of the spine that humans experience when performing a heroic act in defense of their communities – is related to the prehuman reflex for raising the hair on the back of an animal as it confronts an enemy – a reflex that makes the animal seem larger than it really is.

Arthur Koestler’s Essay, “The Urge to Self-Destruction” 

In this essay published in 1970, Arthur Koestler says:

Even a cursory glance at history should convince one that in-dividual crimes, committed for selfish motives, play a quite in-significant role in the human tragedy compared with the numbers massacred in unselfish love of one’s tribe, nation, dynasty, church or ideology… Wars are not fought for personal gain, but out of loyalty and devotion to king, country or cause…”

“We have seen on the screen the radiant love of the F ̈ hrer on “the faces of the Hitler Youth… They are transfixed with love, like “We have seen on the screen the radiant love of the F ̈ hrer,

“We have seen on the screen the radiant love of the F ̈ hrer o We have seen on the screen the faces of the Hitler Youth… They are transfixed with love,

“We have seen on the screen the radiant love of the F ̈ hrthe faces of the Hitler Youth… They are transfixed with love, like monks in ecstasy on religious paintings. The sound of the nation’s anthem, the sight of its proud flag, makes you feel part of a wonderfully loving community. The fanatic is prepared to lay down

“We have seen on the screen the radiant love of the Fuhrer on the faces of the Hitler Youth… They are transfixed with love, like monks in ecstasy on religious paintings. The sound of the nation’s anthem, the sight of its proud flag, makes you feel part of a wonderfully loving community. The fanatic is prepared to lay down his life for the object of his worship, as the lover is prepared to die for his idol. He is, alas, also prepared to kill anybody who represents a supposed threat to the idol.”

The emotion described here by Koestler is the same as the communal defense mechanism (militant enthusiasm) described in biological terms by Lorenz.

Population Genetics 

Human emotions evolved during the long period when our ancestors lived in small, genetically homogeneous tribes, competing for territory on the grasslands of Africa.

To explain from an evolutionary point of view the communal defense mechanism discussed by Lorenz – the willingness of humans to kill and be killed in defense of their communities – we have only to imagine that our ancestors lived in small tribes and that marriage was likely to take place within a tribe rather than across tribal boundaries. Under these circumstances, each tribe would tend to consist of genetically similar individuals. The tribe itself, rather than the individual, would be the unit on which the evolutionary forces of natural selection would act. The idea of group selection in evolution was first proposed in the 1930’s by J.B.S. Haldane and R.A. Fischer, and more recently it has been discussed by W.D. Hamilton and E.O. Wilson.

The Need for a More Universal System of Ethics

Early religions tended to be centered on particular tribes, and the ethics associated with them were usually tribal in nature. However, the more cosmopolitan societies that began to form after the Neolithic agricultural revolution required a more universal code of ethics. It is interesting to notice that many of the great ethical teachers of human history, for example Moses, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Lao-Tzu, Confucius, Buddha, and Jesus, lived at the time when the change to larger social units was taking place. Tribalism was no longer appropriate. A wider ethic was needed.

Today the size of the social unit is again being enlarged, this time enlarged to include the entire world. Narrow loyalties have become inappropriate and there is an urgent need for a new ethic – a global ethic. Loyalty to one’s nation needs to be supplemented by a higher loyalty to humanity as a whole.

Two Sides of Human Nature 

Looking at human nature, both from the standpoint of evolution and from that of everyday experience, we see the two faces of Janus; one face shines radiantly; the other is dark and menacing. Two souls occupy the human breast, one warm and friendly, the other murderous. Humans have developed a genius for cooperation, the basis for culture and civilization; but they are also capable of genocide; they were capable of massacres during the Crusades, capable of genocidal wars against the Amerinds, capable of the Holocaust, of Hiroshima, of the killing-fields of Cambodia, of Rwanda, and of Darfur.

As an example of the two sides of human nature, we can think of Scandinavia. The Vikings were once feared throughout Europe. The Book of Common Prayer in England contains the phrase “Protect us from the fury of the Northmen!”. Today the same people are so peaceful and law-abiding that they can be taken as an example for how we would like a future world to look. Human nature has the possibility for both kinds of behavior depending on the circumstances. This being so, there are strong reasons to enlist the help of education and religion to make the bright side of human nature win over the dark side. Today, the mass media are an important component of education, and thus the mass media have a great responsibility for encouraging the cooperative and constructive side of human nature rather than the dark and destructive side. Our almost-miraculous modern means of communication, if properly used, offer us the possibility of welding humanity into a single cooperative family.

Against Nationalism

The tragedy of our present situation is that the same forces that made the nation-state replace the tribe as the fundamental political and social unit has continued to operate with constantly-increasing intensity. For this reason, the totally sovereign nation-state has become a dangerous anachronism. Although the world now functions as a single unit because of modern technology, its political structure is based on fragments, on absolutely- sovereign nation states – large compared to tribes, but too small for present-day technology, since they do not include all of mankind. Gross injustices mar today’s global economic interdependence, and because of the development of thermonuclear weapons, the continued existence of civilization is threatened by the anarchy that exists today at the international level.

On our small but beautiful planet, made small by technology, made beautiful by nature, there is room for one group only: the family of humankind.

Many of my freely downloadable books and articles can be found at the following web addresses:


John Scales Avery, Ph.D., who was part of a group that shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in organizing the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy and received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent books are Information Theory and Evolution and Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century (pdf). Website:

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 12 Jun 2023.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: Tribalism, is included. Thank you.

If you enjoyed this article, please donate to TMS to join the growing list of TMS Supporters.

Share this article:

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

Comments are closed.