Nikolaas Tinbergen

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Nikolaas Tinbergen, 1978
Nikolaas Tinbergen (right) and Konrad Lorenz , 1978

Nikolaas Tinbergen (born April 15, 1907 in The Hague , †  December 21, 1988 in Oxford ) was a Dutch zoologist and eminent ethologist . Between 1940 and 1949 he was a professor at the University of Leiden , from 1949 to 1974 at the University of Oxford . In 1955 he became a British citizen.

Together with Patrick Bateson , Robert Hinde and William Thorpe , Nikolaas Tinbergen made a significant contribution to establishing the biological field of behavioral research in Great Britain after the Second World War . Together with Karl von Frisch and Konrad Lorenz , Tinbergen was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1973 .


Nikolaas Tinbergen was always called Niko by everyone who dealt with him personally. His parents were Dirk Cornelis Tinbergen (* 1874) and Jeanette van Eek (* 1877), they had married in 1902. The lineage of the Tinbergen family goes back to the 15th century and is derived from an estate called Engbergen near Doetinchem in the eastern part of the Netherlands. Nikolaas Tinbergen's parents fathered six children, one of whom died shortly after birth: Jan (1903–1994); Jacomiena (called Mien, * 1905); the boy who died prematurely; Niko (* 1907); Dik (* 1909) and Luuk (1915–1955).

Father Dirk was a Dutch teacher at a grammar school in The Hague and a recognized expert in medieval Dutch. He was the author of several books, including a widely used grammar of the Dutch language and an annotated edition of the Dutch version of the 13th century epic about Reineke Fuchs , Van den vos Reynaerde .

Nikolaas Tinbergen's mother came from a family of teachers and was also a trained teacher. After their wedding, she gave up her job, but at times still taught a few private students. She spoke fluent German, French and English.

Whenever possible, both his father and mother sought relaxation by taking long walks outside The Hague in the undisturbed nature and therefore had regularly rented a holiday home at Hulshorst from 1923 onwards . They often visited museums with their children and in this way aroused both Niko and his youngest brother Luuk's interest in natural history. Tinbergen's biographer Hans Kruuk describes the family as unusually liberal for the time before the First World War : the children were allowed to address their parents with “you”, although at that time the formal “you” was still common to their parents in the Netherlands. In his autobiography, Nikolaas Tinbergen described his youth as follows: "We were a really happy family."

His older brother Jan studied mathematics and became a pioneer in mathematical modeling and econometrics ; In 1969 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics . His sister Mien studied German in Amsterdam , became a teacher and later headed the language department of a large school. His brother Dik studied engineering in Delft and ended his career as director of the public utilities in The Hague. The youngest brother Luuk Tinbergen became professor of ecology at the University of Groningen in 1949 .


At the age of five or six, Nikolaas had set up several aquariums in his parents' garden at 146 Haager Bentinck Straat and stocked them with sticklebacks , newts and insects . School bored him, he looked - in modern terms - hyperactive and, apart from his aquariums, preferred to be active in sports: He was considered an excellent ice skater well into old age. He played hockey so successfully from school that he was later part of the Dutch national hockey team. In the pole vault , he exceeded the Dutch national record in a training jump. He also worked as an animal photographer in his spare time .

From 1920 Nikolaas Tinbergen attended high school and passed the Abitur in 1925 with moderate performance (except in sports). During this school time, he joined the Nederlandse Jeugdbond voor Natuurstudie (NJN), a kind of scouting movement for young people between the ages of 12 and 25 who are interested in natural history: on weekends and during holidays, people drove across the country and watched birds and other wild animals and caught butterflies and beetles or practiced identifying plants . Nikolaas Tinbergen wrote his first article for the club magazine Amoeba (about the clam Venus gallina ) at the age of 16 , later gave lectures at club meetings and as a student became head of the NJN area for The Hague, Rotterdam and Delft .

After finishing school, his parents advised him to start studying biology because of the interests he had shown. Nikolaas Tinbergen refused, however, because he knew that a degree in biology at that time mainly consisted of courses in comparative morphology , the names of species had to be learned by heart (both of which had bored him in school), but studies in the field were completely unusual were. Instead, he considered becoming a farmer in Canada , or pursuing a career as an athlete or photographer. His former biology teacher struck the insecure parents before therefore, her son unique in the world for some time to time ornithological field research station, the Rossitten Bird Observatory on the Curonian Spit to send.

From August 1925 Nikolaas Tinbergen was actually in Rossitten (today: Rybatschi ) for two months as a guest of Johannes Thienemann , the initiator of the bird ringing . He was impressed by the large shifting dunes , mainly occupied himself with photographing wild birds and was particularly proud of some successful pictures of bull elk , but had hardly any contact with Thienemann and parted from him in strife, as he gave the professor some of his best photographs had to. Nonetheless, his stay in what was then East Prussia shaped him for the rest of his life: back in the Netherlands, he began studying biology in Leiden in November 1925 .


As a biology student at the University of Leiden in the 1920s, one had to deal primarily with comparative anatomy and comparative morphology, i.e. with the analysis of relationships between living beings. On the one hand, this happened against the background of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution , the consequences of which had gained a foothold in universities since the turn of the century. On the other hand, both subjects were also taught to medical students at the Leiden Zoological Institute, and in 1925 there were only nine first-year biology students with 100 first-year medical students. The subject of animal physiology did not yet exist, it was not included in the curriculum of the Leiden biologists until 1926, and a professorship for ecology did not exist anywhere in the Netherlands at that time. The first precise study of the behavior of birds was published in the Netherlands in 1930 by Jan Verwey about herons .

Nikolaas Tinbergen later described his undergraduate studies as follows: “I began my studies in Leiden in the late period of the narrow-minded phase of comparative anatomy, which was merely 'hunting for homologies ', which was taught by old professors.” In addition to the compulsory university program, he therefore worked in the Leisure time with private animal observations, now also in a small group called Club von Haagse Trekwaarnemers (“Club of the Hague Bird Watchers ”). Her special focus was on a small colony of herring gulls that was emerging in the dunes near The Hague in the 1920s - his later academic studies on gull behavior began here, and Tinbergen was still documenting the bird world in old age British dune landscapes photographically.

In 1930 Nikolaas Tinbergen finished his biology studies and became an assistant at the Zoological Institute at the University of Leiden. Since ornithological field studies were still primarily regarded as amateur fun at universities, he wrote a 29 (!) Page doctoral thesis on the behavior and learning abilities of the beewolf near its nest. He had already dealt with these animals in an earlier student project, as he knew them from his various holiday stays at Hulshorst; His doctoral thesis was also written near his parents' holiday home in the inland dunes of Hulshorst. Field studies on insects met with goodwill from the head of the Zoological Institute because Karl von Frisch had published the first results on the bee dance in the 1920s .

On 12 April 1932 Nikolaas Tinbergen became a doctor of philosophy doctorate . Two days later, in the city hall of Utrecht , he married the chemistry student Elisabeth Amélie Rutten (known as Lies), whom he met in 1929 at the Nederlandse Jeugdbond voor Natuurstudie and with whom he stayed until his death. In the last years of his life he even published joint studies with her on early childhood autism . Her “honeymoon” took her to Greenland . It lasted from July 1932 to September 1933 - it was not a private trip, but a six-person scientific expedition as part of the International Polar Year 1932–33 , in which four Dutch meteorologists took part in addition to Nikolaas and Lies Tinbergen. A colleague from the Hague Bird Watchers Club had arranged for the young couple to participate.

A year in Greenland

In the early 1930s, Greenland was largely free of the cultural and technical influences of the industrialized countries. In the southeast, near Angmassalik (today: Tassiusaq ), where the Tinbergen couple spent most of their time, Inuit lived in small settlements and in traditional subsistence farming . As hunters, they hunted seals , polar bears , whales and fish, and their means of transport were dog sleds and kayaks . During the winter months, the couple lived with a descendant of a shaman dynasty, who taught them to hunt and introduced them to the culture and language of the Inuit. Nikolaas Tinbergen documented this way of life in writing and photographically, and he published it in 1934 in the Netherlands in his first book Eskimoland . He also acquired an extensive collection of Inuit household items, including clothing and tools, but also carvings and drawings. Later, this ethnographic part of the expedition proved to be particularly valuable because the traditional culture of the Inuit was "westernized" just a few years later.

The biological yield of the expedition, however, was relatively modest. Nikolaas Tinbergen spent the winter months observing social behavior and the ranking of sled dogs ; however, his notes were never published. On the other hand, his detailed observations on the reproductive and territorial behavior of the snow bunting in the spring after their return from the wintering areas as well as a study on the Odin's chicken were published .

Tinbergen's biographer Hans Kruuk does not, however, highlight the publications as the main benefit of the Greenland trip. Rather, he sees the long-term benefit in the fact that from then on Nikolaas Tinbergen perceived the animal world differently than before. With the Inuit he got to know a completely different way of dealing with animals than was otherwise practiced in Europe: The Inuit saw no greater peculiarities in an animal than in a stone or a plant. Animals were treated with respect, but were not ascribed feelings like humans; rather, they were treated as objects - as highly complex objects, but as objects that plants were classified elsewhere. “It is very likely that his entire scientific approach to animal behavior would have been less mechanistic and more subjective and sentimental,” writes Kruuk, if Tinbergen had not experienced the Inuit's handling of animals in the sense of “behavior machines”.

Ethologist in Leiden

The return of the Tinbergen couple in September 1933 received some public attention in the Netherlands, as there had been reports of the expedition to Greenland in the media. Nikolaas Tinbergen also wrote, as in all previous years, various articles about his experiences in popular science magazines such as De Levende Natuur and Amoeba . He resumed his work as an assistant in the Institute of Zoology and taught comparative anatomy. He was also commissioned to design a new type of internship for experiments with the behavior of selected animals and to hold the accompanying lecture. During this time he made contact with Johan Bierens de Haan and came across the first publications by a young Austrian private scholar named Konrad Lorenz on jackdaws . At the same time, he continued his behavioral observations in the herring gull colony near The Hague, in which Gerard Baerends also took part from 1934 . Research into beewolf behavior in the Hulshorst area was also resumed, also as part of the six-week block internship he designed in behavioral biology. The third model animal in the training plan of the Leiden biology students were the three-spined sticklebacks , which he had known since early childhood : the results of these behavioral observations on sticklebacks were later used for decades as teaching material in the secondary levels of secondary schools.

When Tinbergen learned in 1936, thanks to a now regular correspondence with Konrad Lorenz, that he was planning a private trip to Belgium, Tinbergen persuaded his institute director to invite Lorenz to a symposium on the subject of " instincts " in Leiden. This workshop took place on November 28, 1936 and dealt in particular with the study on the companion in the bird's environment , written by Lorenz the previous year , which immediately after its publication had also become the basis for the interpretation of observable behavior in Leiden. This meeting marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship between the two researchers and led to several joint research projects in the following year. Tinbergen was Lorenz's guest in Altenberg near Vienna from spring to autumn 1937 . Together they analyzed the phenomenon of imprinting in goslings and wrote a decade later date and as a material serving for classroom study to Eirollbewegung of Gray Goose . Konrad Lorenz later described the collaboration as follows: "This summer with Niko Tinbergen was the most beautiful of my life."

On the way back from Austria to Leiden, Tinbergen visited Karl von Frisch in Munich , resumed his work shortly afterwards and received again the following year from his institute director permission for a longer stay abroad. From July to October 1938 he gave lectures in the USA . a. at Cornell University , visited Robert Yerkes in Florida and lived for some time in New York with Ernst Mayr , who, as Tinbergen mentioned in a letter, had a decisive influence on his interest in evolution and ecology . Under the impression of the American researchers, who always argued with statistically verified findings, Tinbergen created the basis of the emerging ethology with the work An objectivistic study of the innate behavior of animals published in 1942 .

The growing popularity of his lectures and internships, the influx of students for his field research projects and the many international contacts finally led Nikolaas Tinbergen to the position of professor of experimental studies on January 24, 1940, at the age of 32, after a public lecture Zoology from Leiden University was introduced.

As a hostage behind barbed wire

A few weeks after Tinbergen's introduction to the post of professor, the Netherlands was occupied by German troops on May 10, 1940 . A government collaborating with the occupation forces was set up. The persecution of the Dutch Jews meant that they were also removed from their offices at universities. At the same time, resistance against the German occupiers grew in the Netherlands : underground fighters shot German soldiers, military trains were blown up, and civil status registers were burned. From the beginning of May 1942, the occupiers therefore set up prison camps in which hundreds of Dutch intellectuals were held hostage, with the threat of being executed in the event of further anti-German attacks.

Nikolaas Tinbergen later described the political atmosphere in 1942 in a letter:

“Our university happened to be the first that the Germans as a whole wanted to deal with, and it was the first to refuse to surrender. The Germans wanted to 'cleanse' our teaching body of Jews and Nazi opponents and threw out first one professor, then another, step by step, for completely irrelevant reasons. Soon we saw no other way out than to resist by refusing to remain in the service of the German-controlled government, and shortly after the university was closed by the Germans for anti-German 'irregularities', sixty of our professors, including me, resigned their offices. This was at the same time our protest and our possibility to prevent the Germans from nazifying the university. "

This courageous step had immediate consequences for Nikolaas Tinbergen and many of his colleagues, because he was arrested on September 9, 1942 in Hulshorst and imprisoned in the hostage camp Beekvliet ( Sint-Michielsgestel ). Only on September 11, 1944, after the German occupation forces had fled under the pressure of the advancing Allied liberators, was he released again; Most recently, the German guards and other hostages took him to Vught in the Herzogenbusch concentration camp .

The prisoners in the hostage camp Beekvliet were largely left to their own devices and lived under acceptable hygienic conditions; The food supply was also acceptable. The internees - including many professors, prominent politicians and artists - organized series of lectures, music events and intensively discussed the future of their country after the hoped-for liberation from the German occupiers. Nikolaas Tinbergen also gave behavioral lectures and used the time to write an introduction to animal sociology , which was published in Dutch in 1946. For his children he drew a picture book, which appeared in English translation in 1952 (The tale of John Stickle) , a story about a boy and his sticklebacks.

After his liberation from the hostage camp, Tinbergen lived with his family in Hulshorst, as the food supply in Leiden was too poor. Risking his life, he used his typewriter to duplicate messages to Dutch underground groups that were distributed in coded form via the BBC; Hulshorst was only liberated by Canadian troops in April 1945.

The first post-war years

Immediately after the end of the war, the University of Zurich sponsored the reconstruction of the partially destroyed and looted University of Leiden, so that teaching there gradually started up again. As a result of the several years of closure of the University of Leiden, around 700 medical students were waiting for a place in the courses in comparative morphology in early 1946 - all of the surviving university professors therefore had a huge amount of work to do. It was also important to get back into conversation with foreign colleagues after the long internship. The contacts with the German colleagues, which had been maintained until the first years of the war, were broken off and Nikolaas Tinbergen did not initially resume them. Instead, he tried to intensify his pre-war ties with British and US colleagues.

In February 1946, at the invitation of the ecologist David Lack , he visited Oxford for the first time, where he also met the founder of modern animal ecology, Charles Elton . He made the acquaintance of William Thorpe in Cambridge , and in the late autumn of 1946 a three-month lecture tour through the USA and Canada, organized by Ernst Mayr, followed. The trip to England and the preparation for his stay in the US made Tinbergen realize that his subject, ethology, had little opportunity for publication due to the events of the war. The previously internationally leading ethological journal, the Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie , edited by Otto Köhler and Konrad Lorenz , had ceased its publication, which prompted Tinbergen to initiate a new medium. Brill-Verlag , based in Leiden, took over the production and, as early as 1946, advertised the international journal for behavioral research called Behavior , which was offered for the first time in 1948 and which is still in existence , which later quickly developed into one of the three major ethological journals. As co-editor, Tinbergen u. a. Heini Hediger (Basel), William Thorpe (Cambridge) and Otto Koehler (Baden); from 1949 Gerard Baerends took over the role of managing editor.

In 1946, Tinbergen, who was a professor but not a professor and was therefore subject to the instructions of the chair holder, received an offer for a chair in zoology at the University of Groningen . He refused and instead made sure that his former doctoral student, Gerard Baerends, was appointed to Groningen ; After Tinbergen, Baerends was only the second researcher in the Netherlands to obtain his doctorate through field studies in behavioral biology. However, the temptation to poach him and an offer for a professorship received shortly afterwards from Cairo prompted the University of Leiden to appoint him to a professorship in experimental zoology from January 1947: Nikolaas Tinbergen had reached the top of the academic ladder.

As early as the summer of 1946, Tinbergen and 16 students at Hulshorst had started new field studies on the gyro wasp , and the observation of the herring gulls was resumed, partly in the vicinity of Leiden, but also for the first time on Terschelling . During this time, two more studies were carried out and found their way into the school books: One showed in the oystercatcher and the black-headed gull that both eggs that are larger than normal roll into the nest when they are presented with their own normal-sized eggs in an experiment. The other interpreted the red spot on the herring gull's beak as a key stimulus for triggering the nestlings' begging .

Tinbergen's visits to England, Canada and the USA meant that he was now publishing more in English instead of, as before, mainly in German. His ethological textbook, which he wrote in 1947/48, should therefore also appear in an English publisher; it was named The Study of Instinct. His wealth of scientific ideas and his gripping lectures during his stays abroad also prompted his colleagues in Oxford in 1948 to seek a job for him at their university. In the end, the offer was not particularly generous: he was offered the position of demonstrator , a position at the bottom of the academic ladder, combined with the promise to give him the next highest position of lecturer as soon as possible .

Compared to his position in Leiden, this was a considerable financial and social decline, which Nikolaas Tinbergen accepted: it was now more important to him to establish his subject in the Anglo-American language area than to expand his “ethological school” in Leiden. Gerard Baerends soon took on this task, and the Tinbergen family moved to Oxford in March 1949 - forever. In 1985 Tinbergen described his motives for this change of location as follows: “For my future role as a co-founder of the emerging science of ethology, it was, I felt, indispensable that I should consider myself as a potential exporter of Lorenz's - essentially Austrian, Dutch and Swiss - ideas in the English-speaking world. "

Researcher at Oxford

After just under a year, Nikolaas Tinbergen had set up a working group of committed doctoral students in Oxford. As before in the Netherlands, the behavior of sticklebacks and gulls was researched, also that of bumblebees and clawed frogs , and the later Konstanz university professor Juan Delius investigated the behavior of the skylark in the dune area of Ravenglass ( Cumberland ) . In 1952 his working group organized the 1st International Ethological Conference in Oxford. In addition to his routine work as a university lecturer, Tinbergen began to document the behavior of many animal species in films, he continued to write articles for popular science magazines, published several books and stayed in contact with his colleagues in the USA. However, he no longer began his own research projects; this was now the responsibility of his doctoral students and postdocs . In 1955, he turned down an offer from the Max Planck Society to succeed the late ornithologist Gustav Kramer at the Max Planck Institute for Behavioral Physiology out of consideration for his family, who he wanted to save from having to move again.

One consequence of the cooperation with his Anglo-American colleagues was that Tinbergen's work group gradually broke away from the search for triggers for the internal drives of the animals and turned more towards ecological and evolutionary questions. This is how he formulated his concept of the four basic questions of biological research in 1963 - in a paper in honor of the 60th birthday of Konrad Lorenz . In behavioral research one always has to ask four questions:

  • the question of the immediate causes of behavior
  • the question of the direct benefit of the behavior for the individual
  • the question of the origin of behavior in the course of tribal history
  • the question of the origin of behavior in the course of individual development .

The newly emerging research area of behavioral ecology was later rooted in these considerations . His commitment to ethology was finally recognized by the university management: if he had previously made it to senior lecturer on the hierarchical ladder , he was appointed full professor of animal behavior at the Zoological Institute at Oxford University in 1966, which he did until his retirement in 1966 1974 stayed.

Between 1964 and 1969 Nikolaas Tinbergen supported the Serengeti Research Institute initiated by Bernhard Grzimek , which made a decisive contribution to the establishment of a large nature reserve in the vicinity of the Ngorongoro . He did not conduct his own field research there either, instead he concentrated on the hobby that he had cultivated since his youth, animal photography. In the mid-1960s he worked on a documentary on the behavior of birds for the BBC over two breeding seasons, Signals for survival , which was broadcast in 1968 and awarded the Prix ​​Italia in 1969 ; A photo book was also published under the same title.

At the end of the 1960s, Nikolaas Tinbergen turned increasingly to human biological issues. In 1966, he had already dedicated his inaugural lecture as a professor to the subject of war and peace in animals and humans ; This parallel setting of animals and humans, however, met with strong criticism, especially in the USA. In 1970 he and his wife Lies began a year-long study on autism in early childhood , during which they compared the behavior of autistic and non-autistic children. They tied in with earlier publications by Martha Welch , who attributed autism to a disturbed bond between mother and child. The Tinbergens now argued in a very similar way: By analogy with a failed imprinting of young birds , they believed that in all of the cases they analyzed they could prove that the parents had failed to initiate contact with their children. As a panacea, they recommended restoring the missing bond between mother and child. However, their case reports have been rejected by many psychologists as merely anecdotal and therefore scientifically worthless.

The coronation and at the same time almost the end of Nikolaas Tinbergen's career was the award of the Nobel Prize in Stockholm on December 12, 1973. He retired on September 30, 1974 .

Nikolaas Tinbergen's celebratory lecture on the occasion of the Nobel Prize ceremony led to the only scandal of his career: Instead of picking up a topic from his scientific career, he surprised the festival community with an enthusiastic description of the Alexander Technique , which many listeners did not understand. In the first half of his speech, Tinbergen gave a lecture on his late work, on the studies on early childhood autism that he had published together with his wife - a clinical picture that he had tried to analyze using ethological methods and the cause of which he had identified primarily as a disordered behavior of the mothers . These statements also met with severe criticism from experts.

Nikolaas Tinbergen private

Nikolaas Tinbergen had met his future wife Lies in early 1929 while skating. Shortly after their wedding in the spring of 1932, Lies finished her chemistry studies, but then gave up any job outside of the family. After their stay in Greenland together, they rented a house in the Leidener Meloenstraat 5 in November 1933. A year later, in December 1934, their first son was born. Four more children followed: a daughter in August 1937, the second son in November 1939, the second daughter in October 1945 and finally the third son in the spring of 1950.

The eldest son later studied physics at Cambridge, spent two years in Antarctica, earned a doctorate in astronomy in Leiden and finally worked at ASTRON, the Netherlands Foundation for Research in Astronomy (NFRA) as an expert on the MID-Infrared instrument for ESO's Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) of the Paranal Observatory . The eldest daughter emigrated to Canada in 1960, where she first taught French and eventually became a potter . The second son studied initially music and then biology at Cambridge and became a teacher at an English school. The two youngest children studied music in Glasgow .

The Tinbergen biographer Hans Kruuk describes the years between 1945 and 1955 as by far the most productive in Tinbergen's life. After that he had increasing health problems. He suffered from insomnia and gastric ulcer so badly that in 1958 large parts of his stomach and duodenum were removed. In addition, from 1960 onwards there were increasingly longer phases of depressive disorders that had plagued him in a milder form since the end of the war, since his release from hostage custody; In 1955, his brother Luuk Tinbergen had committed suicide as a result of depression . The depressive phases sometimes lasted for weeks and then made him completely unable to work; At times he had to put himself under medical supervision because of the acute risk of suicide. After his retirement the situation worsened again, but after 1983 the depression disappeared completely: This was the positive consequence of several strokes that hit him within a short time, from which he largely recovered.

Tinbergen has never felt at home in England. In 1985 he wrote: "How many emigrants have we sat between two stools", since he could no longer see the Netherlands as his home.

After Tinbergen's death in December 1988, his body was made available as a body donation for medical studies at his express request . He had also decided that there should be no funeral service. Instead, a major Tinbergen Legacy conference with 120 former students and colleagues was held in Oxford in the spring of 1990 in his honor in the presence of his family members . His wife Lies did not live to see this honor, she died in March 1990 in a hospital in Leicester ; she too gave her body to science.

Scientific importance

Lifetime achievement

Together with Konrad Lorenz, Nikolaas Tinbergen is considered to be one of the two founders of classical comparative behavioral research , which both of them - based on Ernst Haeckel - have been calling ethology for international use since 1937 . Until the end of the 1940s, however, it was still called animal psychology in German-speaking countries . Tinbergen felt that a particular success of his work was that he had succeeded in "spreading the ethological principles in the English-speaking world". These differ significantly from the methodology of the behaviorists who previously set the tone : In their field studies , the ethologists primarily examine the behavior of as many animal species as possible in an undisturbed, natural environment, while the behaviorists laboratory studies on a few, selected animal species (mostly rats and pigeons) under strictly standardized conditions Make conditions and still derive general theories about behavior from them.

Tinbergen's student and later biographer, Hans Kruuk, summarized Tinbergen's life's work in 2003 as follows:

“Today it is difficult to understand how far our journey has gone since we began researching animal behavior . Before Niko appeared on the scene, behavioral research focused largely on white rats and pigeons behind bars. What happened outside in nature was seldom considered a serious topic for scientific investigation. Today, however, we perceive the fantastic variety of expressive movements , movement sequences , fights and courtship rituals in all living beings that are around us, and we can no longer imagine that there was a time when none of this was questioned. We owe this change largely to ethology , the specialist area of ​​Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen. "

The four why questions

Tinbergen's 1951 book The Study of Instinct had the greatest influence on the evolving biological field of ethology . Today he is considered to be the first behavioral scientist to expressly describe the present and the past as an inseparable unit in behavioral biology. Tinbergen later wrote that the exact delimitation of the four why questions "has promoted the clarity of our scientific thinking about behavior - and certainly also about life processes in general". In 1963 the concept was deepened in a journal article. In fact, the four basic questions formulated by Tinbergen have not only been shown to be trend-setting for behavioral research, but also for biology as a whole - on all reference levels (e.g. cell , organ , individual). They are now also part of the “basic theory of human sciences”.

Tinbergen insisted that the four basic questions of biological research should be asked for every phenomenon in life . They were developed by Tinbergen The Four Whys called and relate to the proximate and ultimate causes of behavior ( proximate causes and ultimate causes ).

Proximate causes - the immediate connections:

  • causation (causations). This is about short-term cause-effect relationships within the individual. For example: How do experience and behavior “work” on the physiological , psychological and social level?
  • ontogenetic development ( ontogenesis ). This is about the development of a phenomenon in the course of an individual's life. For example: what happened in preschool or puberty ? What do which inner program steps (e.g. puberty) do and when? When did which environmental influences have an effect, what did they cause?

Ultimate causes - the basic connections:

  • adaptation ( adaptation value ). This is about the “purpose” of a phenomenon both in relation to the environment (see behavioral ecology ) and in the case of intra-species adaptation (see sociobiology ). For example: What are the individual services of perception , subjective experience , learning and behavior for?
  • evolutionary development ( phylogenesis ). This is about the development of a phenomenon in the course of evolution . For example: When and under what conditions did the phylogenetic phenomenon develop? Why did it turn out like this and not different?

In his concept of the four basic questions in biological research, Nikolaas Tinbergen took up ideas from Julian Huxley , which he had formulated in 1915. In connection with considerations on sexual selection , Huxley had raised the question of the immediate causes, the question of the adaptive value and the question of the origin in the course of evolution; Tinbergen added the fourth question in The study of instinct about ontogeny (see also Proximate and ultimate causes of behavior ).

Field studies of animal behavior

Nikolaas Tinbergen and members of his research group described the one with the help of Ethogrammen the totality of all behaviors of selected species, on the other hand, they investigated the trigger (the key stimuli ) for behaviors and the ritualization of behaviors. Tinbergen's behavioral observations on sticklebacks , herring gulls and butterflies have become particularly well known, but their interpretations are now partly controversial. The interpretation of his behavioral observations in the context of instinct theory was critically analyzed in the 1980s, especially by Hanna-Maria Zippelius at the University of Bonn , and partially refuted experimentally.

Human behavior studies

From the mid-1960s onwards, Tinbergen's interest also focused on human behavior, especially the roots of human aggression . He described humans as being with reduced instincts and was convinced that a better understanding of aggressive behavior in animals could provide important conclusions about human behavior.

In his late work he investigated questions about the causes of early childhood autism . He was of the opinion that the refusal to make contact with the environment is not due to brain damage, but to traumatic events in early childhood, which was controversial even then and has now been refuted.

Well-known Tinbergen students


The Swiss Ethological Society awards a sponsorship award named after Tinbergen.

Publications by Nikolaas Tinbergen

Hans Kruuk has included a complete list of Nikolaas Tinbergen's publications in his biography Niko's Nature .

  • Observations on the tree falcon (Falco s. Subbuteo L.). In: Journal of Ornithology. Volume 80, 1932, pp. 40-50
  • About the orientation of the beewolf (Philanthus triangulum Fabr.). In: Journal of Comparative Physiology . Volume 16, 1932, pp. 305-334
  • Eskimoland. Rotterdam, Verlag D. van Sijn & Zonen, 1934, 185 pp.
  • About the orientation of the beewolf (Philanthus triangulum Fabr.). II. The bee hunt. In: Journal of Comparative Physiology. Volume 21, 1935, pp. 699-716
  • On the sociology of the herring gull, Larus a. argentatus Pont. Contributions to the reproductive biology of birds, Volume 12, 1936, pp. 89-96
  • The function of sexual fighting in birds, and the problem of the origin of 'territory'. In: Bird Banding. Volume 7, 1936, pp. 1-8
  • Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen: Taxis and instinctive action in the egg rolling movement of the greylag goose. In: Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie. Volume 2, 1938, pp. 1-29
  • The skipping movement. In: Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie. Volume 4, 1940, pp. 1-40
  • An objectivistic study of the innate behavior of animals. In: Bibliotheca Biotheoretica D. Volume 1, 1942, pp. 39-98
  • Nikolaas Tinbergen and Jan von Iersel: 'Displacement reactions' in the three-spined stickleback. In: Behavior. Volume 1, 1947, pp. 56-63
  • Physiological instinct research. In: Experientia. Volume 4, 1948, pp. 121-133
  • The hierarchial organization of nervous mechanisms underlaying instinctive behavior. In: Symposium of the Society of Experimental Biology. Volume 4, 1950, pp. 305-312
  • Nikolaas Tinbergen and Ab Perdeck: On the stimulus situation releasing the begging response in the newly hatched herring gull chick (Larus argentatus argentatus). In: Behavior. Volume 3, 1950, pp. 1-39
  • The Study of Instinct. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1951
    • Instinct theory. 6th edition, Berlin 1979.
  • The curious behavior of the stickleback. In: Scientific American. December 1952, pp. 22-26
  • The Herring Gull's World. Collins, London 1953
  • Social behavior in animals. Methuen, London 1953
  • Bird life. Oxford University Press, London 1954
  • Curious Naturalists. Country Life, London 1958
  • Comparative studies of the behavior of gulls (Laridae): a progress report. In: Behavior. Volume 15, 1959, pp. 1-70
  • Nikolaas Tinbergen, Hans Kruuk a. a .: Egg-shell removal by the black-headed gull Larus ridibundus L .: a behavior component of camouflage. In: Behavior. Volume 19, 1962, pp. 74-117
  • On aims and methods of ethology. In: Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie. Volume 20, 1963, pp. 410-433
  • Animal behavior. Time Inc., Life Nature Library, New York 1965
  • On war and peace in animals and man. In: Science . Volume 160, 1967, pp. 1411-1418
  • The Animal in its World: explorations of an ethologist 1932-1972. Volume 1: Field studies. Volume 2: Laboratory experiments and general papers. Allen & Unwin, London 1972
  • Nikolaas Tinbergen and Elisabeth Amélie Tinbergen: Early childhood autism - an ethological approach. In: Ethology. Suppl. 10, 1972, pp. 1-53
  • Nikolaas Tinbergen and Elisabeth Amélie Tinbergen: 'Autistic' children: new hope for a cure. Georg Allen & Unwin, London 1983
  • Watching and wondering. In: Donald A. Dewsbury: Studying animal behavior. Autobiographies of the Founders. Chicago University Press, Chicago and London 1985, pp. 430-463, ISBN 978-0-226-14410-8
  • The study of instinct. (Preface to the unchanged new edition). Oxford University Press, 1989

Literature on Nikolaas Tinbergen

  • Richard W. Burkhardt: Patterns of Behavior: Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and the Foundation of Ethology. University of Chicago Press, 2005, ISBN 0-226-08090-0 (paperback version).
  • Hans Kruuk: Niko's Nature. The Life of Niko Tinbergen and his Science of Animal Behavior. Oxford University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-19-851558-8 .
  • Uwe Böhm: Tinberger, Nikolaas. In: Werner E. Gerabek , Bernhard D. Haage, Gundolf Keil , Wolfgang Wegner (eds.): Enzyklopädie Medizingeschichte. De Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2005, ISBN 3-11-015714-4 , p. 1399.

Web links

Commons : Nikolaas Tinbergen  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Kruuk, Niko's Nature , p. 17; Kruuk, who himself comes from the Netherlands, adds: “This was quite unusual, and showed a deep friendship ...”
  2. Nikolaas Tinbergen: Watching and wondering. In: DA Dewsbury: Studying animal behavior. Autobiographies of the Founders. Chicago University Press, 1985, p. 435
  3. Tinbergen himself wrote: “When I look back over […] my live, I remember having shown unmistakable signs of an interest in the outdoors and in living things from when I was five or six years old.” N. Tinbergen, Watching and wondering , p. 431
  4. ^ E. Hall: A conversation with Nobel Prize winner Nico Tinbergen. In: Psychology today , March 1974. The interviewer writes verbatim: "As a child today, he might be diagnosed as hyperactive and doped with Ritalin ."
  5. Kruuk, Niko's Nature , p. 24 f.
  6. "My school career Remained unglorious through secondary school; my interests centered on drawing, sports, and natural history. " N. Tinbergen, Watching and wondering , p. 437
  7. Amoeba , Volume 3, 1923
  8. Kruuk, Niko's Nature , p. 38
  9. Jan Verwey: The mating biology of the heron. Negotiations of the 6th International Ornithological Congress, Copenhagen, 1929, pp. 390–413 (= Zoological Yearbooks 1930)
  10. "I started my studies in Leiden at the tail end of the most narrow-minded, purely 'homology-hunting' phase of comparative anatomy, taught by old professors, just before they were succeded by the younger generation." N. Tinbergen: Watching and wondering , p. 438
  11. ↑ But he himself described this in his 1985 autobiography as a substitute: “It is the sandy shores of Holland that are my real home range, where I feel at home in all seasons and all wheathers, at all times of day and night. ” N. Tinbergen, Watching and wondering , p. 433
  12. N. Tinbergen: About the orientation of the beewolf (Philanthropus triangulum Fabr.). Journal of Comparative Physiology , Volume 16, 1932, pp. 305-334
  13. Kruuk, Niko's Nature , p. 59
  14. ↑ In 1999 the Tinbergen collection presented more than half of all the exhibits in a large special exhibition at the Hague Anthropological Museum (today: Museon) Eskimoland: de kunst van het overleven , who owns the exhibits.
  15. ^ Transactions of the Linnean Society of New York, Volume 5, 1939, pp. 1-94
  16. Ardea, Volume 24, 1935, pp. 1-42
  17. "Quite possibly his overall scientific approach to animal behavior would have been less mechanistic, and more subjective and sentimental." Kruuk, Niko's Nature , p. 69
  18. The magazine still exists today:
  19. The magazine of the nl: Nederlandse Jeugdbond voor Natuurstudie still exists today.
  20. Konrad Lorenz: The friend in the environment of the bird. Journal for Ornithology, Volume 83, 1935, pp. 137-215 and 289-413. In this study, Lorenz drafts his drive theory and develops the concept of the innate trigger mechanism (AAM)
  21. Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen: Taxis and instinctive action in the egg rolling movement of the gray goose. In: Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie . Volume 2, 1938, pp. 1-29. Since Lorenz was named before Tinbergen due to the alphabetical order of both authors, Lorenz is usually considered to be the author of the study. In fact, however, it was based on Tinbergen's preliminary work: in Greenland, he had already carried out some experiments with arctic terns and their ability to differentiate between their own and other eggs.
  22. ^ Konrad Lorenz: My family and other animals. In: DA Dewsbury: Studying animal behavior. Autobiographies of the Founders. Chicago University Press, 1985, p. 269
  23. Kruuk, Niko's Nature , p. 101
  24. Bibliotheca Biotheoretica D, Volume 1, 1942, pp. 39-98
  25. Quoted from Kruuk, Niko's Nature , p. 115: “Our university was, by accident, the first group of Dutchmen to be tackled by the Germans as a group, and the first to refuse to surrender. The Germans wanted to 'cleanse' our corps of Jews and anti-Nazis and proceeded to fire one professor, then another, step by step, on wholly irrelevant grounds. Soon we saw no other way than to resist by refusing to stay in the service of the German-controlled governement, and soon after the University was closed by the Germans because of anti-German 'irregularities' sixty of our professors including myself laid down theirs functions. This was at the same time our protest and our means to prevent the Germans to nazificate the University. "
  26. Some time later the magazine for animal psychology revived.
  27. These are: Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie (today: Ethology ), Animal behavior and Behavior .
  28. Nikolaas Tinbergen and Ab Perdeck: On the stimulus situation releasing the begging response in the newly hatched herring gull chick (Larus argentatus argentatus). Behavior, Volume 3, 1950, pp. 1-39
  29. Kruuk, Niko's Nature , p. 155
  30. “For my future role as a cofounder of the emerging science of modern ethology it was, I felt, essential that I began to think of myself as a potential exporter of 'Lorenzian' - in essence Austrian, Dutch, and Swiss - ideas to the English-speaking world. " N. Tinbergen, Watching and wondering, p. 449
  31. “There were no more field trips to study some bird or a problem himself; he became a supervisor ... ”Kruuk, Niko's Nature , p. 189
  32. ^ A b Nikolaas Tinbergen: On aims and methods of Ethology. In: Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie. Volume 20, 1963, pp. 410-433
  33. On war and peace in animals an man later appeared in German: Nikolaas Tinbergen: Von Krieg und Frieden bei Tier und Mensch. In: Günter Altner: Creature Human. Munich, Heinz Moos Verlag, 1969, pp. 163–178
  34. When a member of the Swedish embassy told him by telephone that he had just been awarded the Nobel Prize, he was so surprised that he couldn't think of anything else to ask the man: "Are you sure?" N. Tinbergen, Watching and wondering , p. 455
  35. Tinbergen wrote in his autobiography: "My most 'creative' work was done before I was fourty." N. Tinbergen, Watching and wondering , p. 459
  36. “However happy I have been in Oxford and as a naturalized Briton, I still do not feel quite at home there even now, but then neither am I at home any more in my native Holland - like many emigrants we have seated ourselves between two stools. " N. Tinbergen, Watching and wondering , p. 450
  37. ^ N. Tinbergen, Watching and wondering , p. 450
  38. Literally: "to spead the ethological gospel in the English-speaking world." N. Tinbergen, Watching and wondering , p. 453
  39. Hans Kruuk: Niko's Nature. The Life of Niko Tinbergen and his Science of Animal Behavior. Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 3: “It is difficult to realize how far we have traveled from the early days of studying animal behavior. Before Niko arrived on the scene, behavior science was focussed largely on white rats and pigeons behind bars. Things that happend out in the wild were rarely respectable subjects for scientific inquiry. Now we see this fabulous richness of displays, gestures, attacks, and courtship in all creatures around us, and we simply cannot imagine not asking questions about that. Much of this change is due to 'ethology', the discipline of Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen. "
  40. "I still think that [...] my distinction of 'the four why's' [...] has helped in the clarification of our scientific thinking about behavior (and indeed about life processes in general)." N. Tinbergen, Watching and wondering , p. 452
  41. For the reference levels, see the table in the article on anthropology .
  42. Julian Huxley: The courtship habits of the Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus); with an addition to the theory of sexual selection. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, 1914, pp. 491-562
  43. Ethological Society e. V .: Niko Tinbergen Award, Articles of Association
  44. Kruuk, Niko's Nature , pp. 373-383