, Volume 19, Issue 4, pp 609-631

Instinct in the '50s: the British reception of Konrad Lorenz's theory of instinctive behavior*

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Abstract

At the beginning of the 1950s most students of animal behavior in Britain saw the instinct concept developed by Konrad Lorenz in the 1930s as the central theoretical construct of the new ethology. In the mid 1950s J.B.S. Haldane made substantial efforts to undermine Lorenz's status as the founder of the new discipline, challenging his priority on key ethological concepts. Haldane was also critical of Lorenz's sharp distinction between instinctive and learnt behavior. This was inconsistent with Haldane's account of the evolution of language, and, according to Haldane, inconsistent with elementary genetics. British attitudes to the instinct concept changed dramatically in the wake of Daniel S. Lehraman's 1953 critique of Lorenz, and by the 1960s Lorenz drew a clear distinction between his own views and those of the ‘English-speaking ethologists’. The inconsistencies between Lorenz's ideas and the trends in contemporary evolutionary genetics that are reflected in Haldane's critiques may help to explain why the Lorenzian instinct concept was unable to maintain itself in Britian.