King Solomon’s Ring by Konrad Z. Lorenz

King Solomon’s Ring by Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian ethologist, is not your typical science book in that it is written with a less-scientific audience in mind.  Complete with minimal illustrations from Lorenz, the book does not read like a scientific experiment that can be precisely duplicated, but more like a series of observations and anecdotes from a man who invited the wild into his home.  Unlike King Solomon, Lorenz claims not to need a magic ring to learn the language of animals and to communicate with them.  While there are discussions of domesticated and wild dogs, among other animals, Lorenz mainly focuses on the behaviors of the water shrew, his aquarium fish, and the Jackdaw.

While considered a premier examination of animal behavior and discussing in detail the phenomenon of imprinting, on some occasions he appears to anthropomorphize these animals, making them seem more human than they are, particularly when discussing their mating rituals.  Lorenz also is very descriptive of the animals and their interactions with one another and with the humans who lived in the home and surrounding neighborhood.  These descriptions, while interesting to a scientist, may border on tedium for others.

“The whole charm of childhood still lingers, for me, in such a fishing net.”  (page 12)

“I intend to develop further this mixed breed, now that it has happily survived the war, and to continue with my plan to evolve a dog of ideal character.”  (page 142)

He raises some interesting questions about the parallels between certain species and humans in that some species, like humans, share their experiential knowledge of dangers and enemies with their young, rather than their young having an instinctual knowledge of what animals are their natural enemies.  Lorenz also discuss language and how body language is a lost art among humans, but is alive and well among animals, like yawning and smiling in humans to signify an emotion.

His wife must have had enormous levels of patience, though the bit about leaving their own child in a cage while the animals roamed free in the house and outside was hopefully a joke.  King Solomon’s Ring by Konrad Lorenz is light on scientific method and heavy on observation, but at times the descriptions get bogged down with too much detail even for a general audience.  For those who have studied imprinting and other aspects of animal behavior before, the book could seem very repetitive and far from engaging.  Additionally, there are moments where he pats himself on the back or the backs of his friends who achieve some interesting feats with animals, which can seem a bit self-serving.

About the Author:

Konrad Z. Lorenz ForMemRS was an Austrian zoologist, ethologist, and ornithologist. He shared the 1973 Nobel Prize with Nikolaas Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch.


This is my 81st book for the New Authors Reading Challenge in 2012.


What Book Club Thought:

This book, which was our November pick, really wowed one member of the book club, who said he learned a great deal from Lorenz and his theories about animals in his care, while most of us seemed to think that we’d learned all of the things he talked about in the book already through other sources — most likely in school or the animal channel.  The rest of us either thought it was an OK book or didn’t like it very much at all.  Our youngest member said that there should have been more about Penguins, though Lorenz lived in a place where Jackdaws were the most prevalent bird it seemed.  Two members found the chapter about dog ancestry and behavior the most interesting, particularly about the relationship to masters and one another in a pack versus the dog that prefers to be alone.

One heated discussion was about whether animals are intelligent or not, with one member playing devil’s advocate and insisting that animals act on pure instinct and are not problem-solving beings with intelligence.  In one scenario, the member suggested the lion would simply die in the arctic and be unable to problem-solve their way out of the situation or find food, but it was argued that there are different levels of intelligence in the animal kingdom and that some things can be learned by animals and other things cannot.  Additionally, there was a discussion about adaptability versus intelligence as well as the teaching of danger to young animals by their parents, much like humans teach their own children about dangers.