For the sake of honour

Last month my Alma Mater, the University of Salzburg in Austria did something remarkable: They revoked the Honorary Doctorate they had awarded to Konrad Lorenz in 1983.

For those who don’t  know, Konrad Lorenz was a scientist who studied animal behaviour, especially in greylag geese. He is particularly famous for studying how their young form attachments to the first moving thing they encounter in their lives. This is why you will find a lot  of pictures of Lorenz followed around by a gaggle of adorable goslings.

Lorenz was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973. Later in life, he was an active campaigner for environmental protection and against nuclear energy, and served as honorary president for the Austrian League for Nature Protection. In 1983, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Salzburg.

It is important to understand this, the popular image of Lorenz as a friend of nature, as a kindly, grandfatherly figure followed around by the animals he had devoted his scientific career to. It will help you understand what happened next.

But first, we need to talk about what happened before. Before he became a Nobel laureate and environmental campaigner, Lorenz was also another thing: a member of the Nazi party. And not just a member. In a publication from 1940, Lorenz suggested that human entities should “assume the role” of evolution and weed out the weak, unheroic elements of humankind. If you read German, you can read the full quotes here. Did he later regret this? According to this autobiographical piece from 1973, he regrets expressing his thoughts “in the worst of nazi-terminology”. Yet, he also says that he is still worried about the genetic deterioration of the human race brought about by civilisation. In other words, he regretted the words used, not the underlying sentiment.

To me, there is no question that the University of Salzburg has done the right thing. An honorary doctorate is – as the name suggests – an honor, and if, in the eyes of the awarding institution, the awardee proves himself unworthy of that honor, the institution is right to revoke it. Yet, there has been heavy criticism. A lot of it was along the lines of it being too little, too late. Maybe that is true. But it’s not a reason not to do it.

Another line of criticism (for instance, in this piece) highlights Lorenz’ achievements, both in his scientific domain, and as an activist and environmentalist. Surely, those are still achievements, no matter what his stance on national socialism might have been? We seem to find it difficult to accept that there might be more than one side to a person, that someone could have done great things in one area, and despicable things in another. In this particular case, of course, the popular image of the grandfatherly man followed around by his goslings is not helping.

But I wonder whether this is a more general thing: that when we know a person has done good things, it is hard for us to imagine that they could also have done bad things. Especially if the person is in some way famous or iconic, they become so one-dimensionalised that only the good gets remembered, while the bad and the ugly are not only forgotten, but treated as if they had never existed. And those who bring it up are given a hard time, because it makes everything so much more complicated.

There is a parallel to recent events around the Rhodes Must Fall movement at Oxford. Student activists were campaigning to have a statue of Cecil Rhodes removed from the grounds of an Oxford college, because of his racist and imperialist views. The university is strongly opposed to this, because Rhodes endowed a ton of money to fund scholarships. Again, the problem is the same: Can we remember someone for both the bad they did, as well as the good?

Oxford’s official line seems to be “no”. In a radio interview, Oxford’s chancellor Lord Patton told the protesting students they should show more “generosity of spirit”, or else “should think about being educated elsewhere”.

Well, I was educated elsewhere, at a small, little known university, that even by Austrian standards is often called “provincial”. But it is a university that does not shy back from critically reviewing its history, from embracing complexity and from re-assessing its icons. A university, in short, that I can be proud of.

3 thoughts on “For the sake of honour

  1. If I read the linked autobiographic piece by KL and compare with your blog entry, I can’t help the feeling that you are not being completely rational on the subject, and the shadow of the past weights heavily on the decision of your Alma Mater. I mean, an overzealous attempt to sanitize the past. Saying that “he regretted the words used, but not the underlying sentiment” is at least partially a distortion of the original text… The genetic deterioration brought by civilization (and healthcare) crossed my mind as well, and I have no sympathy for Nazi ideology. But from a physical standpoint, the fact is that athletes of African descent dominate international athletic competitions (before someone calls me a racist, this topic was raised by Michael Johnson, not by me). That is to say, if there is a (physically) superior race, it is definitely not the white one, mainly because it has been sheltered from natural selection for a longer time. I know this is a slippery slope, and my own country has the questionable honour of having invented fascism, so no one is claiming a moral high ground here… but it is an unfair exercise to judge those who lived those (turbulent) times, based on our contemporary sensitivity and with the benefit of hindsight. I suspect many of us would have been fooled, by their love of social order, into supporting political movements that later proved despicable.

    • Massimo, I see where you are coming from regarding hindsight and moral judgement. But Lorenz was writing about “eradicating” the elements of the gene pool he thought were unfit (drawing an analogy to removing a cancer to save a person’s life). There is no way he did not know what that meant, or how it would be interpreted. He was not fucking stupid. But OK, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he got carried away by the prevalent ideology at the time, which of course did look different to the people who lived through it than it does to us, who have hindsight. Well, Konrad Lorenz himself lived until the 1980. He could have had plenty of hindsight. Yet, his distancing himself from Nazi ideology and Nazi crime has, until the end of his life, always been lukewarm at best. And that’s just not good enough. (At least not good enough to retain this particular honorary title.)

      As for your thoughts about genetics and evolution – I think they are evidence of a few fundamental misconceptions about evolution that are very prevalent even among scientists. This has puzzled me for a while. I’ll probably write a blog about it one day.

  2. I admit that the picture of him swimming with ducklings was a big part of my childhood, so I may be biased. I can only judge his story based on his lovely books and his self-penned biography, so you are probably better positioned to make a comprehensive assessment… If there are widespread fundamental misconceptions about evolutions, you should most definitely write a blog about it, and I would like to read it.

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