Nikolaas Tinbergen

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Niko Tinbergen
Nikolaas Tinbergen 1978.jpg
Tinbergen in 1978
Nikolaas Tinbergen

(1907-04-15)15 April 1907
The Hague, Netherlands
Died21 December 1988(1988-12-21) (aged 81)
Oxford, England
ResidenceUnited Kingdom
Alma mater Leiden University
Known for
Spouse(s)Elisabeth Rutten (1912–1990)
Scientific career
Institutions University of Oxford
Doctoral advisor Hilbrand Boschma [2]
Doctoral students

Nikolaas "Niko" Tinbergen FRS [1] ( /ˈtɪnbɜːrɡən/ ; Dutch:  [ˈnikoːlaːs ˈnikoː ˈtɪnbɛrɣən] ; 15 April 1907 – 21 December 1988) was a Dutch biologist and ornithologist who shared the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Karl von Frisch and Konrad Lorenz [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] for their discoveries concerning organization and elicitation of individual and social behavior patterns in animals. He is regarded as one of the founders of modern ethology, the study of animal behavior.

Fellow of the Royal Society Elected Fellow of the Royal Society, including Honorary, Foreign and Royal Fellows

Fellowship of the Royal Society is an award granted to individuals that the Royal Society of London judges to have made a 'substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge, including mathematics, engineering science and medical science'.

Biology is the natural science that studies life and living organisms, including their physical structure, chemical processes, molecular interactions, physiological mechanisms, development and evolution. Despite the complexity of the science, there are certain unifying concepts that consolidate it into a single, coherent field. Biology recognizes the cell as the basic unit of life, genes as the basic unit of heredity, and evolution as the engine that propels the creation and extinction of species. Living organisms are open systems that survive by transforming energy and decreasing their local entropy to maintain a stable and vital condition defined as homeostasis.

Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine One of five Nobel Prizes established in 1895 by Alfred Nobel

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, administered by the Nobel Foundation, is awarded yearly for outstanding discoveries in the fields of life sciences and medicine. It is one of five Nobel Prizes established in his will in 1895 by Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite. Nobel was interested in experimental physiology and wanted to establish a prize for scientific progress through laboratory discoveries. The Nobel Prize is presented at an annual ceremony on 10 December, the anniversary of Nobel's death, along with a diploma and a certificate for the monetary award. The front side of the medal displays the same profile of Alfred Nobel depicted on the medals for Physics, Chemistry, and Literature. The reverse side is unique to this medal. The most recent Nobel prize was announced by Karolinska Institute on 1 October 2018, and has been awarded to American James P. Allison and Japanese Tasuku Honjo – for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation.


In 1951, he published The Study of Instinct, an influential book on animal behaviour. In the 1960s, he collaborated with filmmaker Hugh Falkus on a series of wildlife films, including The Riddle of the Rook (1972) and Signals for Survival (1969), which won the Italia prize in that year and the American blue ribbon in 1971.

Hugh Falkus British writer and filmmaker

Hugh Falkus was a British writer, filmmaker and presenter, World War II pilot and angler. In an extremely varied career, he is perhaps best known for his seminal books on angling, particularly salmon and sea trout fishing; however, he was also a noted filmmaker and broadcaster for the BBC.

Rook (bird) species of bird

The rook is a member of the family Corvidae in the passerine order of birds. It is found in Eurasia. It was given its binomial name by Carl Linnaeus in 1758, The binomial is from Latin; Corvus is for "raven", and frugilegus is Latin for "fruit-gathering", from frux, frugis, "fruit", and legere, "to pick". The English name is ultimately derived from the bird's harsh call.

Education and early life

Born in The Hague, Netherlands, he was one of five children of Dirk Cornelis Tinbergen and his wife Jeannette van Eek. His brother, Jan Tinbergen, won the first Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel in 1969. [12] They are the only siblings to each win a Nobel Prize. [13] Another brother, Luuk Tinbergen was also a noted biologist.

The Hague City and municipality in South Holland, Netherlands

The Hague is a city on the western coast of the Netherlands and the capital of the province of South Holland. It is also the seat of government of the Netherlands.

Jan Tinbergen Dutch economist

Jan Tinbergen was an important Dutch economist. He was awarded the first Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1969, which he shared with Ragnar Frisch for having developed and applied dynamic models for the analysis of economic processes. He is widely considered to be one of the most influential economists of the 20th century and one of the founding fathers of econometrics. It has been argued that the development of the first macroeconometric models, the solution of the identification problem, and the understanding of dynamic models are his three most important legacies to econometrics. Tinbergen was a founding trustee of Economists for Peace and Security. In 1945, he founded the Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (CPB) and was the agency's first director.

Luuk Tinbergen was a Dutch ornithologist and ecologist.

Tinbergen's interest in nature manifested itself when he was young. He studied biology at Leiden University and was a prisoner of war during World War II. Tinbergen's experience as a prisoner of the Nazis led to some friction with longtime intellectual collaborator Konrad Lorenz, and it was several years before the two reconciled. [14]

Leiden University university in the Netherlands

Leiden University, founded in the city of Leiden, is the oldest university in the Netherlands. The university was founded in 1575 by William, Prince of Orange, leader of the Dutch Revolt in the Eighty Years' War. The Dutch Royal Family and Leiden University have a close association: Queen Juliana, Queen Beatrix and King Willem-Alexander are former students. The university came into particular prominence during the Dutch Golden Age, when scholars from around Europe were attracted to the Dutch Republic due to its climate of intellectual tolerance and Leiden's international reputation. During this time Leiden was home to such figures as René Descartes, Rembrandt, Christiaan Huygens, Hugo Grotius, Baruch Spinoza and Baron d'Holbach.

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 50 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.

Konrad Lorenz Austrian zoologist, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973

Konrad Zacharias Lorenz was an Austrian zoologist, ethologist, and ornithologist. He shared the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Nikolaas Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch. He is often regarded as one of the founders of modern ethology, the study of animal behaviour. He developed an approach that began with an earlier generation, including his teacher Oskar Heinroth.

After the war, Tinbergen moved to England, where he taught at the University of Oxford and was a fellow first at Merton College, Oxford and later at Wolfson College, Oxford. [14] Several of his graduate students went on to become prominent biologists including Richard Dawkins, [4] Marian Dawkins, [3] Desmond Morris, [6] Iain Douglas-Hamilton, [15] and Tony Sinclair. [16]

University of Oxford Collegiate research university in Oxford, England

The University of Oxford is a collegiate research university in Oxford, England. There is evidence of teaching as far back as 1096, making it the oldest university in the English-speaking world and the world's second-oldest university in continuous operation. It grew rapidly from 1167 when Henry II banned English students from attending the University of Paris. After disputes between students and Oxford townsfolk in 1209, some academics fled north-east to Cambridge where they established what became the University of Cambridge. The two 'ancient universities' are frequently jointly referred to as 'Oxbridge'. The history and influence of the University of Oxford has made it one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

Merton College, Oxford college of the University of Oxford

Merton College is one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford in England. Its foundation can be traced back to the 1260s when Walter de Merton, chancellor to Henry III and later to Edward I, first drew up statutes for an independent academic community and established endowments to support it. An important feature of Walter's foundation was that this "college" was to be self-governing and the endowments were directly vested in the Warden and Fellows.

Wolfson College, Oxford college of the University of Oxford

Wolfson College is a constituent college of the University of Oxford in England. Located in north Oxford along the River Cherwell, Wolfson is an all-graduate college with over sixty governing body fellows, in addition to both research and junior research fellows. It caters to a wide range of subjects, from the humanities to the social and natural sciences. Like the majority of Oxford's newer colleges, it has been coeducational since its foundation in 1965.

Research and career

The Study of Instinct

Figure 1. Tinbergen's hierarchical model. Modified from The Study of Instinct (1951). Tinbergen good figure wiki2.jpg
Figure 1. Tinbergen's hierarchical model. Modified from The Study of Instinct (1951).

In 1951 Tinbergen's The Study of Instinct was published. Behavioural ecologists and evolutionary biologists still recognise the contribution this book offered the field of behavioural science studies. The Study of Instinct summarises Tinbergen's ideas on innate behavioural reactions in animals and the adaptiveness and evolutionary aspects of these behaviours. By behaviour, he means the total movements made by the intact animal; innate behaviour is that which is not changed by the learning process. The major question of the book is the role of internal and external stimuli in controlling the expression of behaviour. [17]

In particular, he was interested in explaining 'spontaneous' behaviours: those that occurred in their complete form the first time they were performed and that seemed resistant to the effects of learning. He explains how behaviour can be considered a combination of these spontaneous behaviour patterns and as set series of reactions to particular stimuli. Behaviour is a reaction in that to a certain extent it is reliant on external stimuli, however it is also spontaneous since it is also dependent upon internal causal factors. [17]

His model for how certain behavioural reactions are provoked was based on work by Konrad Lorenz. Lorenz postulated that for each instinctive act there is a specific energy which builds up in a reservoir in the brain. In this model, Lorenz envisioned a reservoir with a spring valve at its base that an appropriate stimulus could act on, much like a weight on a scale pan pulling against a spring and releasing the reservoir of energy, an action which would lead an animal to express the desired behaviour. [17]

Tinbergen added complexity to this model, a model now known as Tinbergen's hierarchical model. He suggested that motivational impulses build up in nervous centres in the brain which are held in check by blocks. The blocks are removed by an innate releasing mechanism that allows the energy to flow to the next centre (each centre containing a block that needs to be removed) in a cascade until the behaviour is expressed. Tinbergen's model shows multiple levels of complexity and that related behaviours are grouped. [18]

An example is in his experiments with foraging honey bees. He showed that honey bees show curiosity for yellow and blue paper models of flowers, and suggested that these were visual stimuli causing the buildup of energy in one specific centre. However, the bees rarely landed on the model flowers unless the proper odour was also applied. In this case, the chemical stimuli of the odour allowed the next link in the chain to be released, encouraging the bee to land. The final step was for the bee to insert its mouthparts into the flower and initiate suckling. Tinbergen envisioned this as concluding the reaction set for honey bee feeding behaviour. [19]

Nobel Prize

In 1973 Tinbergen, along with Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for their discoveries concerning organization and elicitation of individual and social behaviour patterns". [20] The award recognised their studies on genetically programmed behaviour patterns, their origins, maturation and their elicitation by key stimuli. In his Nobel Lecture, Tinbergen addressed the somewhat unconventional decision of the Nobel Foundation to award the prize for Physiology or Medicine to three men who had until recently been regarded as "mere animal watchers". Tinbergen stated that their revival of the "watching and wondering" approach to studying behaviour could indeed contribute to the relief of human suffering. [21]

The studies performed by the trio on fish, insects and birds laid the foundation for further studies on the importance of specific experiences during critical periods of normal development, as well as the effects of abnormal psychosocial situations in mammals. At the time, these discoveries were stated to have caused "a breakthrough in the understanding of the mechanisms behind various symptoms of psychiatric disease, such as anguish, compulsive obsession, stereotypic behaviour and catatonic posture". [22] Tinbergen’s contribution to these studies included the testing of the hypotheses of Lorenz/von Frisch by means of "comprehensive, careful, and ingenious experiments" [23] as well as his work on supernormal stimuli. The work of Tinbergen during this time was also regarded as having possible implications for further research in child development and behaviour. [24]

He also caused some intrigue by dedicating a large part of his acceptance speech to FM Alexander, originator of the Alexander technique, a method which investigates postural reflexes and responses in human beings. [25]

Other awards and honours

In 1950 Tinbergen became member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. [26] He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1962. [1] He was also awarded the Godman-Salvin Medal in 1969 by the British Ornithologists' Union, [27] and in 1973 received the Swammerdam Medal [28] and Wilhelm Bölsche Medal [29] (from the Genootschap ter bervordering van Natuur-, Genees- en Heelkunde of the University of Amsterdam and the Kosmos-Gesellschaft der Naturfreunde respectively).

Approach to animal behaviour

Tinbergen described four questions he believed should be asked of any animal behaviour, [30] [31] [32] [33] which were:

  1. Causation (mechanism): what are the stimuli that elicit the response, and how has it been modified by recent learning? How do behaviour and psyche "function" on the molecular, physiological, neuro-ethological, cognitive and social level, and what do the relations between the levels look like? (compare: Nicolai Hartmann: "The laws about the levels of complexity")
  2. Development (ontogeny): how does the behaviour change with age, and what early experiences are necessary for the behaviour to be shown? Which developmental steps (the ontogenesis follows an "inner plan") and which environmental factors play when / which role? (compare: Recapitulation theory)
  3. Function (adaptation): how does the behaviour impact on the animal's chances of survival and reproduction?
  4. Evolution (phylogeny): how does the behaviour compare with similar behaviour in related species, and how might it have arisen through the process of phylogeny? Why did structural associations (behaviour can be seen as a "time space structure") evolve in this manner and not otherwise?*

In ethology and sociobiology, causation and ontogeny are summarised as the "proximate mechanisms", while adaptation and phylogeny are the "ultimate mechanisms". They are still considered as the cornerstone of modern ethology, sociobiology and transdisciplinarity in Human Sciences.

Supernormal stimulus

A major body of Tinbergen's research focused on what he termed the supernormal stimulus. This was the concept that one could build an artificial object which was a stronger stimulus or releaser for an instinct than the object for which the instinct originally evolved. He constructed plaster eggs to see which a bird preferred to sit on, finding that they would select those that were larger, had more defined markings, or more saturated colour—and a dayglo-bright one with black polka dots would be selected over the bird's own pale, dappled eggs.

Tinbergen found that territorial male three-spined stickleback (a small freshwater fish) would attack a wooden fish model more vigorously than a real male if its underside was redder. He constructed cardboard dummy butterflies with more defined markings that male butterflies would try to mate with in preference to real females. The superstimulus, by its exaggerations, clearly delineated what characteristics were eliciting the instinctual response.

Among the modern works calling attention to Tinbergen's classic work is Deirdre Barrett's 2010 book, Supernormal Stimuli .


Tinbergen applied his observational methods to the problems of autistic children. He recommended a "holding therapy" in which parents hold their autistic children for long periods of time while attempting to establish eye contact, even when a child resists the embrace. [34] However, his interpretations of autistic behaviour, and the holding therapy that he recommended, lacked scientific support [35] and the therapy is described as controversial and potentially abusive. [36]


Some of the publications of Tinbergen are:

Publications about Tinbergen and his work:

Personal life

Tinbergen was a member of the advisory committee to the Anti-Concorde Project [ citation needed ] and was also an atheist. [37]

Tinbergen married Elisabeth Rutten and they had five children. Later in life he suffered depression and feared he might, like his brother Luuk, commit suicide. He was treated by his friend, whose ideas he had greatly influenced, John Bowlby. [38] Tinbergen died on 21 December 1988, after suffering a stroke at his home in Oxford, England. [1]

Related Research Articles

Ethology Scientific study of animal behaviour

Ethology is the scientific and objective study of animal behaviour, usually with a focus on behaviour under natural conditions, and viewing behaviour as an evolutionarily adaptive trait. Behaviourism is a term that also describes the scientific and objective study of animal behaviour, usually referring to measured responses to stimuli or trained behavioural responses in a laboratory context, without a particular emphasis on evolutionary adaptivity. Many naturalists have studied aspects of animal behaviour throughout history. Ethology has its scientific roots in the work of Charles Darwin and of American and German ornithologists of the late 19th and early 20th century, including Charles O. Whitman, Oskar Heinroth, and Wallace Craig. The modern discipline of ethology is generally considered to have begun during the 1930s with the work of Dutch biologist Nikolaas Tinbergen and by Austrian biologists Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch, joint awardees of the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Ethology is a combination of laboratory and field science, with a strong relation to some other disciplines such as neuroanatomy, ecology, and evolutionary biology. Ethologists are typically interested in a behavioural process rather than in a particular animal group, and often study one type of behaviour, such as aggression, in a number of unrelated animals.

Karl von Frisch Austrian biologist

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Instinct inherent inclination of a living organism

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Supernormal stimulus

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<i>On Aggression</i> book

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Neuroethology study of animal behavior and its underlying mechanistic control by the nervous system

Neuroethology is the evolutionary and comparative approach to the study of animal behavior and its underlying mechanistic control by the nervous system. This interdisciplinary branch of behavioral neuroscience endeavors to understand how the central nervous system translates biologically relevant stimuli into natural behavior. For example, many bats are capable of echolocation which is used for prey capture and navigation. The auditory system of bats is often cited as an example for how acoustic properties of sounds can be converted into a sensory map of behaviorally relevant features of sounds. Neuroethologists hope to uncover general principles of the nervous system from the study of animals with exaggerated or specialized behaviors.

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Hawk/goose effect

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