Nikolaas Tinbergen

Niko Tinbergen

Nikolass Tinbergen.gif
Nikolaas "Niko" Tinbergen (1907–1988)

April 15, 1907
The Hague, Netherlands

Died December 21, 1988

Oxford, England

Residence Flag of the United Kingdom.svg UK
Nationality Flag of the Netherlands.svg Dutch
Field Zoologist, ethologist
Institutions Oxford University
Alma mater Leiden University
Notable students  Richard Dawkins
Known for Hawk/goose effect
Notable prizes Nobel.svg Nobel Prize (1973)

Nikolaas "Niko" Tinbergen (April 15, 1907 – December 21, 1988) was a Dutch ethologist, zoologist, and ornithologist. He shared the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Karl von Frisch and Konrad Lorenz for their discoveries concerning organization and elicitation of individual and social behavior patterns in animals. Together with Lorenz, Tinbergen established European ethology as the study of the behavioral patterns of animals in the context of their natural environments.

Tinbergen believed that the study of ethology should be applied to human behavior as well as animals. This did not mean that animal behavior should be extrapolated to humans but that the same methodology could be applied. As much as he enjoyed his work with animals, Tinbergen was deeply concerned with the state of the world around him and struggled with his career as a researcher, wanting to do more to help humanity and the surrounding environment. His later research focused on issues of autism in early childhood.


The partnership between Lorenz and Tinbergen proved fruitful and memorable, leading to great advances in our understanding of the behavior of both animals and humans. The difference in their abilities was complementary, and with a common goal and respect for each other they worked together toward it. For both men, however, the goal of understanding human nature sufficiently in order to help humankind and achieve an ideal society was not reached. Thus, Tinbergen, like Lorenz, ended his career with concern for the future of humanity.


Nikolaas Tinbergen was born on April 15, 1907 in The Hague, Netherlands, the third of five children in a happy family. Nikolaas—"Niko"—Tinbergen is also noted as the brother of Jan Tinbergen, who won the first Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (also known as the Nobel Prize in Economics) in 1969, four years before Niko won his Nobel Prize. Jan and Niko had a third eminent brother, Luuk Tinbergen, who was a famous ornithologist.

Though Niko Tinbergen's interest in nature manifested itself when he was young, camping, bird watching, and playing hockey kept him from being a serious student. He found the lure of the beautiful Dutch coast irresistible and was aided in its appreciation by some of the leading Dutch naturalists.

Tinbergen studied biology at Leiden University and received his Ph.D. degree in 1932 with a 32-page dissertation, the shortest on record there.

He married Elisabeth Rutten, and the couple spent a 14-month interval in Greenland studying a variety of organisms including phalaropes, dogs, and Eskimo hunter-gatherers. He then taught at the University of Leiden and began some of his classic research on gulls and stickleback fish. The Tinbergens spent the spring of 1937 with Konrad Lorenz in Austria, and their names have been linked ever since.

In 1938, Tinbergen was given a grant to travel to the United States, where he spent several months giving lectures and traveling. He met many American psychologists, including Robert Yerkes, Ernst Mayr, and David Lack, whose friendships influenced his later interest in evolution and ecology. He returned to the Netherlands, somewhat "bewildered" by American psychology, and worried about the forces of Nazism that were gathering in Europe.

During World War II Tinbergen spent two years imprisoned in a Nazi camp because he supported Jewish faculty colleagues. His experience as a prisoner of the Nazis led to some friction with longtime intellectual collaborator Konrad Lorenz, who had joined the Nazi party in 1938; it took several years before the two reconciled. Finally, however, the warmth of their friendship and collaboration was rekindled when they were reunited in England in 1949.

Tinbergen returned to Leiden after the war, becoming a full professor in 1947. Wanting to bring his ethological perspective to English-speaking audiences, Tinbergen resigned his position and moved to England, to the University of Oxford, in 1949, and stayed there for the rest of his life. He died there on December 21, 1988.


Niko Tinbergen was a dedicated naturalist, skilled scientist, and concerned envoronmentalist. His work had profound impact both theoretically and practically on the development of ethology.


As a curious naturalist he was always seeking to understand the world around him. He systematized his understanding in four sets of questions, based on Aristotle's types of causation. These provide the framework that has guided research in the field of ethology: Immediate causation, development, adaptive function, and evolution. Tinbergen expressed the four questions he believed should be asked of any animal behavior as follows:

Proximate mechanisms:

  • 1. Causation: What are the stimuli that elicit the response, and how has it been modified by recent learning? How do behavior and psyche "function" on the molecular, physiological, neuro-ethological, cognitive, and social level, and what do the relations between the levels look like?
  • 2. Development (Ontogeny): How does the behavior change with age, and what early experiences are necessary for the behavior to be shown? Which developmental steps (the ontogenesis follows an "inner plan") and which environmental factors play when and which role?

Ultimate mechanisms:

  • 3. Function (Adaptation): How does the behavior impact on the animal's chances of survival and reproduction?
  • 4. Evolution (Phylogeny): How does the behavior compare with similar behavior in related species, and how might it have arisen through the process of phylogeny? Why did structural associations (behavior can be seen as a "time-space structure") evolve in this manner and not otherwise?

In ethology and sociobiology causation and ontogeny are summarized as the "proximate mechanisms" and adaptation and phylogeny as the "ultimate mechanisms." They are still considered as the cornerstone of modern ethology, sociobiology, and transdisciplinarity in human sciences.

This schema, adopted by animal behaviorists around the world, serves to help keep different questions about nature separate and ensure that the information provided in answers is indeed appropriate to the question under consideration.


The egg-rolling behavior of the greylag goose is a widely cited example of a fixed-action pattern, one of the key concepts used by ethologists to explain animal behavior.

Nikolaas Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz together studied the behavior of birds. Their only joint published work was on the rolling behavior of greylag geese. For example, at the sight of a displaced egg near the nest, the greylag goose will roll the egg back to the others with its beak. If the egg is removed, the animal continues to engage in egg-rolling behavior, pulling its head back as if an imaginary egg is still being maneuvered by the underside of its beak. It will also attempt to move other egg-shaped objects, such as a golf ball, doorknob, or even an egg too large to have been laid by the goose itself (Tinbergen 1991). Thus began the emergence of a new branch of biology and psychology: Animal ethology.

Gull chicks peck at a red spot on their mother's beak to stimulate the regurgitating reflex, another example of a fixed-action pattern.

Where Lorenz was a bold theorist, Tinbergen was a careful observer and experimenter with a genius for devising simple, yet insightful, experiments in the natural habitat. Typically, he would construct a blind and make observations of the animals under study. These observations would lead to experiments that could clarify what he had observed.

Tinbergen's research on the behavior of gulls is classic, especially the role of various stimuli acting at key points. For example, he observed that shortly after their young hatch, the parents remove the eggshells from the vicinity of the nest. He then conducted a series of experiments demonstrating that the function of this seemingly trivial behavior lay in keeping the young hidden from predators. He also studied the tendency of young gulls to peck at the red spot on the parent gull's beak, which induces the parents to regurgitate food for them. He offered naive young chicks a range of cardboard dummy gull heads varying in bill and spot color, and shape. For each color and shape combination Tinbergen measured the preferences of the baby chicks by counting their pecks in a standard time. Through this he discovered that naive gull chicks are born with a built-in preference for long, yellow things with red spots, in other words, genes equip the young birds with detailed prior knowledge of the world in which they are about to hatch—a world in which food comes out of adult herring gull beaks. His work with orientation in insects and numerous other species in nature was in the same spirit.

Beyond this, Tinbergen conducted important laboratory research on the courtship and mating of stickleback fish. He observed that the male turns a bright red color during the breeding season. This color change is the fixed-action pattern in response to an increasing day length. During this time they are also naturally aggressive towards other red-bellied sticklebacks, causing them to separate into distinct territories for breeding. From his studies, Tinbergen found that anything that is red will bring about this instinctive response.

Tinbergen (1951) described "instinctive" or "genetically preprogrammed" behavior patterns as a sequence of events: Sign stimulus (releaser)—innate releasing mechanism (IRM)—fixed-action pattern (FAP). The IRM, a neural process, is triggered by the sign stimulus and mediates the FAP—innate stereotyped responses. For example, the red belly of a male stickleback fish (sign stimulus) activates the neural circuitry (IRM) which releases a stereotyped aggressive threat display (FAP) in all male sticklebacks. To Tinbergen, instincts are not disembodied responses that occur in a vacuum. They are tied to stimuli. Only very rarely are internal stimuli powerful enough to evoke an instinct without external stimulus support. In fact, instinctive behavior can be the raw material for learning, namely the innate behavior which can be modified whenever the learning process occurs. Today, most psychologists agree with the ethological definition that "instinct" is a complex pattern of behavior elicited by a specific pattern of internal or external stimuli.

Despite his distrust of behaviorism, Tinbergen was a pivotal player in helping to bring European ethologists and comparative psychologists together. Tinbergen and his students developed a variety of ethology sensitive to the concerns of North American workers regarding such issues as the complexity inherent in the development of behavior. Among his major accomplishments was the establishment of the study of adaptive significance. Tinbergen showed that the function could be studied quantitatively under field conditions. In general, Tinbergen believed that the study of ethology should be applied to human behavior as well as animals. This did not mean that animal behavior should be extrapolated to humans but that the same methodology could be applied.

Among his last research projects was a study of early childhood autism in humans. His major study on early infantile autism was conducted in collaboration with his wife.


Many of Tinbergen's works have become classics in both psychology and biology, including his work on courting behavior of sticklebacks, orienting behavior in wasps, and the behavior of grayling butterflies.

The peak of his recognition was reached when he received the Nobel Prize for Medicine, sharing it with Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch. He used the prize money to help younger students study infantile autism. In his research, he always emphasized careful observation and clear formation of questions.

As befits a Nobel Prize winner, Tinbergen received many other honors. These include the Swammerdam medal and honorary degrees from the Universities of Edinburgh and Leicester. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society in England, a foreign member of the US National Academy of Sciences, and the recipient of a Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award and a Distinguished Service Award from the American Psychological Association.

As much as he enjoyed his zoological work, Tinbergen was deeply concerned with the state of the world around him and struggled with his career as a researcher, wanting to do more to help humanity and the surrounding environment. His modesty was linked, in part, to his feelings that he had not done enough in this sphere.

Works by Nikolaas Tinbergen

  • Tinbergen, N. 1951. The Study of Instinct. Oxford: Clarendon.
  • Tinbergen, N. 1953. The Herring Gull's World. London: Collins.
  • Tinbergen, N. 1953. Social Behavior of Animals. London: Methuen.
  • Tinbergen, N. 1958. Curious Naturalists. London: Country Life.
  • Tinbergen, N. 1963. "On Aims and Methods of Ethology." Zeitschrift fur Tierpsychologie 20:410–433.
  • Tinbergen N. and Tinbergen, E. A. 1972. Early Childhood Autism – An Ethological Approach. Berlin: Parey.
  • Tinbergen, N. 1972. The Animal in Its World (vol.1). London: Allen and Unwin.
  • Tinbergen, N. 1973. The Animal in Its World (vol.2). London: Allen and Unwin.
  • Tinbergen, N. 1985. "Watching and Wondering." In Donald A. Dewsbury (editor), Leaders in the Study of Animal Behavior: Autobiographical Perspectives. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, pp. 430–463. ISBN 0838750524


  • Barnett, S. A. 1998. "Instinct." In Greenberg, G. and Haraway, M. M., eds. Comparative Psychology: A Handbook. New York: Garland, pp. 138–149.
  • Birney, R. C. and Teevan, R. C., eds. 1961. Instinct. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand.
  • Boring, E. G. 1950. A History of Experimental Psychology, 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. ISBN 0133900398
  • Brennan, J. F. 1986. History and Systems of Psychology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. ISBN 0133922189
  • Dewsbury, D. A. 1990. "Nikolaas Tinbergen (1907–1988)." In American Psychologist 45:67–68.
  • Galton, F. 1889. Natural inheritance. London: Macmillan.
  • Hinde, R. A. 1990. "Nikolass Tinbergen, 15 April 1907 – 21 December 1988." In Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society (Vol. 36). London: Royal Society, pp. 549–565.
  • Leahey, Th. H. [1991] 2000. A History of Modern Psychology, 3rd edition. Englewood Cliff, NJ: Prentice Hall. ISBN 0130175730
  • Lorenz, K. 1937. "Biologische Fragestellungen in der Tierpsychologie" (Biological Questions in Animal Psychology). In Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie 1:24–32.
  • Pruette, L. 1926. G. Stanley Hall: Biography of a Mind. Ayer Co. Pub. ISBN 0836954742
  • Kruuk, Hans. 2003. Niko's Nature: The Life of Niko Tinbergen and His Science of Animal Behaviour. ISBN 0-19-851558-8
  • Dawkins, Marian Stamp. 1991. The Tinbergen Legacy. London: Chapman and Hall. ISBN 0-412-39120-1
  • Burkhardt Jr., Richard W. 2005. Patterns of Behavior: Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and the Founding of Ethology. ISBN 0-226-08090-0

External links

All links retrieved December 3, 2018.


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