Adolf Portmann

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Adolf Portmann (born May 27, 1897 in Basel , † June 28, 1982 in Binningen ) was a Swiss biologist , zoologist , anthropologist and natural philosopher .


Adolf Portmann was born in 1897 as the son of Adolf and Elisabeth Portmann in the Matthäusquartier in Basel. He studied under Friedrich Zschokke zoology in Basel, where he received his doctorate in 1921 with the dissertation Die Odonaten der Umgebung von Basel. Contribution to the biological systematics of the Central European dragonflies received.

After stays in Geneva , Munich , Paris and Berlin and working in marine laboratories in Banyuls-sur-Mer , Roscoff , Villefranche-sur-Mer and Helgoland , where Portmann researched mainly on sea slugs, especially veal snails, he became professor for in 1931 Zoology at the University of Basel . There he headed the zoological institute. Pio Fioroni was his student and research assistant after 1961. He had a formative influence on many of his students, including Robert F. Schloeth , who later became the first full-time director of the Swiss National Park. Apart from his intensive occupation with the behavior of birds Portmann researched on the "comparative morphology of vertebrates", together with Fioroni on the development and reproduction of marine invertebrates ( mollusks ).

He often worked in an interdisciplinary manner and was in contact with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin , who in turn was also an anthropologist. Portmann also dealt with topics of sociology and philosophy . In 1941 he published for the first time an article on the special position of humans in nature from an ontogenetic and phylogenetic perspective. In the following years, Portmann continuously published further articles on the special position of humans in nature and increasingly treated the first years of human life from a developmental point of view. This special position of the “physiologically completely unspecialized”, in his development open human being, distinguishes him as “forever becoming” from all other physiologically highly specialized, “so-being” living beings. He coined the terms “physiological premature birth” and “ nestling ” or “ fleeing nest ”, which are still used today. According to a later work of his, humans are "secondary nestlings" with an open stamping and learning phase in the family's "social uterus".

These considerations of Portmann were taken up in the philosophical anthropology , especially with Arnold Gehlen , who coined the concept of the deficiency , which Portmann criticized in turn.

Scientific subjects

The concept of physiological premature birth says that humans are born much too early compared to animals. Although the open sense organs and the movement system in the womb mature, the person is nevertheless completely helpless at the time of birth and is dependent on total care. This fact is in contrast to the maturity of other higher mammals at birth (e.g. elephant, horse). According to Portmann, it is characteristic of humans as a result of this bringing forward the birth that many development processes do not take place in isolation, but rather embedded in a socio-cultural environment. Due to his dependency, people are open to social contacts and environmental influences. For Portmann, this openness is the prerequisite for cultural and intellectual learning.

Another theme that appears again and again in Portmann's research and publications is the outer shape of animals, especially in his works Die Tiergestalt , Camouflage in the Animal Kingdom and New Paths in Biology . Portmann puts forward the thesis, which was already heavily controversial during his lifetime, that the design of the surface cannot simply be explained by its adaptive value. His empirically and theoretically well-founded criticism of extremely adaptationist ideas has remained topical even for those who cannot get used to his concept of “representational value”.

Portmann's considerations in this area influenced, among others, Hannah Arendt . She felt Portmann's criticism of the idea that the surface of a living being does not necessarily have to be traced back to something else, deeper, but can assume a value of the surface to be extraordinarily fruitful. She was of the opinion that this criticism could also be applied to functionalism .

After all, Portmann was interested in the perception and behavior of animals (in contrast to the physical-molecular-biological principles) and published a work on behavioral biology as early as 1953 ( The animal as a social being ). In this context, his inclusion of the term “inner world” (coined by Jakob Johann von Uexküll ) of animals (with Portmann: “inwardness”) caused controversy. Of course, it does not designate something mystical, as many of its critics suspected, but the subject quality of animals: their ability to perceive, experience and act for themselves.

Together with Max Scheler , Helmuth Plessner and Arnold Gehlen , Portmann had a decisive influence on philosophical anthropology .

Public teaching and educational activities played a major role for Portmann. He attended the Eranos meetings and published in the Eranos yearbooks. Since the 1920s he has written hundreds of newspaper articles, given innumerable lectures and, above all (since 1928!) Spoken on radio programs. To an extent that has not been found in the German-speaking area since Wilhelm Bölsche , Portmann sought and achieved natural history education for lay people. At the same time, by founding Schweizer Jugend forscht, he promoted the promotion of young scientists. A sensual-aesthetic natural history education as opposed to a purely theoretical-intellectual education was a major concern for him, which he repeatedly represented in essays and radio addresses.

In 1966 Toni Rebholz (1914–2000) painted a portrait of Portmann.


  • 1954 Membre d'Honneur de la Société Royale Zoologique de Belgique. Membre d'Honneur de la Société Vaudoise des Sciences Naturelles.
  • 1955 Corresponding Member of the Zoological Society of London . Honorary member of the Lucerne Natural Research Society.
  • 1956 Membre de l'Académie Internationale de Philosophy des Sciences. Honorary Senator of the University of Freiburg im Breisgau. Honorary member of the Zoological-Botanical Society Vienna. Dr. es sciences hc de l'Université d'Aix ‑ Marseille.
  • 1957 Dr. phil. (I.) hc from the University of Freiburg im Breisgau. Member of the honorary committee of the Vienna working group for depth psychology. Honorary member of the Physico-Medical Society Erlangen. Chevalier des Ordre des Palmes Académiques , Paris.
  • 1959 Membre d'Honneur de la Société Luxembourgeoise de Pédiatrie.
  • 1963 Corresponding member of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts .
  • 1965 Hans Thoma Medal for Services to Art, Reutlingen. Sigmund Freud Prize for scientific prose from the German Academy for Language and Poetry, Darmstadt .
  • 1967 Dr. med. hc from Heidelberg University. Honorary member of the Natural Research Society Basel.
  • 1969 honorary member of the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences. Honorary citizen of Escholzmatt (Canton Lucerne).
  • 1970 Dr. es sciences hc from the University of Friborg. Honorary member of the Swiss Confederation for Nature Conservation.
  • 1972 Schiller Prize from the Swiss Schiller Foundation.
  • 1973 Beccaria gold medal of the German Criminological Society.
  • 1974 Membre correspondant pour la Section de Zoologie de l ' Académie des sciences de l'Institut de France.
  • 1975 Honorary President of the “Schweizer Jugend forscht” foundation.
  • 1976 Goethe Prize for Art and Science from the Goethe Foundation Zurich. Honorary member of the Swiss Zoological Society.
  • Gold medal from the Humboldt Society

Major works

  • Introduction to the Comparative Morphology of Vertebrates (1948)
  • The animal figure (1948)
  • The animal as a social being (1953)
  • Zoology and the new image of man (1956, 3rd edition 1969)
  • Biology and mind . Rhein-Verlag AG, Zurich 1956.
  • New Paths in Biology (1961)
  • Dawn of Life Research (1965)
  • We are on the way. Man in his environment (1971)
  • From the Living (1973)
  • At the Frontiers of Knowledge (1974, autobiography)


  • Stefan BüttnerPortmann, Adolf. In: New German Biography (NDB). Volume 20, Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 2001, ISBN 3-428-00201-6 , p. 644 f. ( Digitized version ).
  • Joachim Illies : Adolf Portmann. A biologist before the secret of life . Herder, Freiburg / Basel / Vienna 1976.
  • Rolf Kugler: Philosophical aspects of the biology of Adolf Portmann . EVZ-Verlag, Zurich 1967.
  • Matthias Riedl: Adolf Portmann - A skeptic on the lookout . In: Elisabetta Barone, Matthias Riedl, Alexandra Tischel (eds.): Pioneers, Poets, Professors. Eranos and Monte Verità in the history of civilization in the 20th century. In: Eranos - New episode. No. 11. Würzburg 2003, pp. 115-126.
  • Markus Ritter: The biology of Adolf Portmann in contemporary history , in: Basler Zeitschrift für Geschichte und Altertumskunde , Vol. 100 (2000), pp. 207-254 ( full text ).
  • Roger Alfred Stamm and Pio Fioroni: Adolf Portmann, a look back at his research. In: Negotiations of the Natural Research Society in Basel , Volume 94, 1984, pages 87-120.

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. The biological significance of the first year of life in humans . In: Switzerland. Medicine. Weekly , 71: 921-1001.
  2. Adolf Portmann (1939): Nesthocker and Nestflüchter as developmental states of different values ​​in birds and mammals. Revue Suisse Zoologie 46: 385-390
  3. Wolfhart Pannenberg: Anthropology: In theological perspective. 2nd edition, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011, ISBN 3-525-58023-1 , 38.
  4. Cf. Hannah Arendt: Vom Leben des Geistes . Volume 1: Thinking . Munich: Piper, 1979, pp. 37-40, 48, 50 f., 55, 61, 229.
  5. Joachim Fischer: Philosophical Anthropology. A 20th century mindset . Alber, Freiburg / Munich 2008, p. 197-205, 571-573 .
  6. ^ Art credit collection, Basel-Stadt: 1966, portrait. Retrieved September 28, 2019 .