You can see why the goslings on the cover of the Observer Magazine of 1 May 1966 took Konrad Lorenz (‘the world authority on animal behaviour’) to be their parent – with his feathery white hair he could pass for a goose himself. In fact, the geese have a ‘fixed idea’ that his hair is grass, which is why they are trying to eat it.
By a lake at the Max Planck Institute near Munich, John Davy talked to Lorenz about what humans can learn from animals, particularly when it came to aggression. The piece began by saying that ‘It is man, not nature, who is red in tooth and claw,’ and that between 1820 and 1945 humans killed 59 million fellow humans in ‘wars, murderous attacks, and other deadly quarrels’. Goose on goose deaths weren’t cited, but you get the idea.
‘The elaborate concepts of graduated deterrence and controlled war now fashionable with Pentagon strategists,’ wrote Davy, ‘have been practised safely and efficiently for aeons on the coral reefs.’
Lorenz’s point was that these rituals were genetic in animals, but cultural in man. ‘Goose society and human societies are welded by common rituals and language. But goose “language” is genetically determined, rigidly bound to inherited instincts.
‘Like geese, deer and cichlids, man has contrived ways to minimise the damage of conflict with taboos and gestures of surrender, such as showing the white flag.’ The real need, said Lorenz, was ‘for ideals that can unite all men, without setting group against group’. Potentially, he argued, ‘the arts and the sciences could achieve this’.
Lorenz’s great hope for this role was humour: ‘Laughing has evolved from an aggressive threat gesture – a baring of the teeth. But it is now a ritual gesture of friendship and benevolent intention… We should begin to take humour more seriously.’ Wise words, or maybe just another wild goose chase.