Founded in 1990, the KLI originated from an interdisciplinary seminar series organized by Rupert Riedl, Erhard Oeser, and Konrad Lorenz in the mid 1970s. The seminars were originally held at the University of Vienna, and later, as Lorenz became less mobile, the venue moved to his family home in Altenberg. The seminars included lectures and discussions on a wide diversity of topics in the epistemology of science and on major questions in behavioral, cognitive, and evolutionary biology. The seminars soon came to be known as the meetings of the Altenberg Circle. After Konrad Lorenz's death in 1989, Peter and Traudl Engelhorn, who had occasionally joined the group, set up a foundation to finance not only the continuation of the seminars but also an institute for the fostering of scientific research in the interdisciplinary spirit of the meetings.
For many years the institute was located in the Lorenz family residence in Altenberg. Rupert Riedl acted as the first president of the KLI until 1997 and remained its honorary president until his passing in 2005. Gerd Müller has been heading the KLI since 1997. Under his presidency the KLI developed a suite of core activities focused on the theory, philosophy, and history of science, such as a workshop series (Altenberg Workshops in Theoretical Biology), a book series (Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology), and a scientific journal (Biological Theory). At the structural level the positions of Executive Manager (currently held by Isabella Sarto-Jackson) and of Scientific Director (currently held by Guido Caniglia) were introduced and several categories of fellowships awarded by the KLI were established. In 2012, the historical landmark building "Kremsmünsterhof" in Klosterneuburg was acquired by the KLI Foundation. Following a renovation and architectural expansion of the building, specifically designed to accommodate the needs of an institute hosting fellows and visitors as well as different kinds of academic activities, the KLI moved to its new location in 2014.
The name of Konrad Lorenz was chosen by the founders of the institute in honor of his groundbreaking scientific work in the behavioral and cognitive sciences and his fundamental contributions to evolutionary theory and the philosophy of science. Lorenz was one of the most influential biologists of the 20th century and received the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology together with his close collaborator Nikolas Tinbergen and with Karl von Frisch. He is known as a principal founder of the field of ethology and a forerunner of evolutionary psychology and evolutionary epistemology. His work concentrated on innate behaviors, aggression, and behavioral evolution preferentially using graylag geese, ducks, jackdaws, and fish, but also included many other organisms.
Lorenz revealed, inter alia, the behavioral principles of imprinting, the internal propensities towards the release of fixed behavioral patterns, and the importance of feedback mechanism in their regulation. His work was fundamentally based on the comparative method, and he called his discovery of the applicability of the concepts of analogy and homology to behaviors his most important contribution to science. Based on these insights, he established one of the first naturalized approaches to the evolution of cognition and epistemology with his book Behind the Mirror: A Search for a Natural History of Human Knowledge. Lorenz published widely on all these subjects, including popular writings such as King Solomon's Ring and Civilized Man's Eight Deadly Sins. A full list of his publications, including many pdfs, can be found here.
The KLI acknowledges Konrad Lorenz's political leanings during the period of national socialism and shares the concerns of the critical voices that remind us of them. Lorenz joined the Nazi Party after the annexation of Austria into the German Reich, and his writings on what he conceived to be the genetic degeneration associated with domestication, particularly as extrapolated to humans, have been rightly seen as supportive of that movement’s ideology (see Kalikow 2020 for an in-depth evaluation). Lorenz held such eugenic beliefs before, during, and after the Nazi era, as did many biologists of the period. Though he played no official role in the regime, his academic status and ability to acquire funding for his empirical research were clearly facilitated by the perceived compatibility of his speculative views with those of the national socialist government.
We take the position that the multifaceted biographies of scientists in political contexts should be part of a program of active research and reflection on the interconnections between science and ideology, with Lorenz's case being no exception. Indeed, many of the scientific issues around nature and nurture which led Lorenz and others down unfortunate intellectual paths are still unresolved. The KLI undertook to explore Lorenz's political dimension long before it was demanded, and then became expected, to scrutinize the negative side of important figures of the past. We have supported research into this aspect of Lorenz's life (e.g., Föger and Taschwer 2001, Burkhardt 2005) and will continue to pursue these matters rigorously in scholarly programs and the institute’s journal Biological Theory. In this spirit, the KLI has established an archive of Lorenz's remaining correspondence, manuscripts, photographs, and films. Historical scientific projects are also supported by the institute. Since the KLI's move to a new building in 2014, the archive has been with the Lorenz family at Konrad Lorenz House. We can establish contact for anyone interested and the archive can be visited upon arrangement.
Kalikow, Theodora J. 2020. "Konrad Lorenz on human degeneration and social decline: a
chronic preoccupation." Animal Behaviour 164:267-272.