Nikolaas Tinbergen (1907-1988) is known for his studies of stimulus-response processes in wasps, fishes, and gulls. He shared the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1973 for work on the organization and causes of social and individual patterns of behavior in animals.
Nikolaas Tinbergen, a zoologist, animal psychologist, and pioneer in the field of ethology (the study of the behavior of animals in relation to their habitat), is most well known for his studies of stimulus-response processes in wasps, fishes, and gulls. He shared the 1973 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with Austrian zoologists Karl von Frisch and Konrad Lorenz for his work on the organization and causes of social and individual patterns of behavior in animals.
The third of five children, Tinbergen was born April 15, 1907, in The Hague, Netherlands, to Dirk Cornelius Tinbergen, a school teacher, and Jeanette van Eek. His older brother Jan studied physics but later turned to economics, winning the first Nobel Prize awarded in that subject in 1969. The Tinbergens lived near the seashore, where Tinbergen often went to collect shells, camp, and watch animals, many of which he would later formally research.
After high school, Tinbergen worked at the Vogelwarte Rossitten bird observatory and later began studying biology at the State University of Leiden, Netherlands. For his dissertation, Tinbergen studied bee-killer wasps and was able to experimentally demonstrate that the wasps use landmarks to orientate themselves. Tinbergen first established the traditional routes of the wasps near their burrows, then altered the landscape to see how the wasps' behavior would be affected. Tinbergen was awarded his Ph.D. in 1932.
Tinbergen married Elisabeth Rutten in 1932 (they had five children together). Soon afterward, the Tinbergens embarked on an expedition to Greenland, where Tinbergen studied the role of evolution in the behavior of snow buntings, phalaropes, and Eskimo sled dogs. When he returned to the Netherlands in 1933, he became an instructor at the State University, where he organized an undergraduate course on animal behavior. Tinbergen's work had been recognized in the field of biology but it was not until after he met Lorenz—the acknowledged father of ethology—that his work began to form a directed body of research. Tinbergen took his family to Lorenz's home in Austria for a summer so the two men could work together. Although they published only one paper together, their collaboration lasted a number of years.
During 1936, Tinbergen and Lorenz began constructing a theoretical framework for the study of ethology, which was then a fledgling field. They hypothesized that instinct, as opposed to simply being a response to environmental factors, arises from an animal's impulses. This idea is expressed by the concept of a fixed-action pattern, a repeated, distinct set of movements or behaviors, which Tinbergen and Lorenz believed all animals have. A fixed-action pattern is triggered by something in the animal's environment. In some species of gull, for instance, hungry chicks will peck at a decoy with a red spot on its bill, a characteristic of the gull. Tinbergen showed that in some animals learned behavior is critical for survival. The oystercatcher, for instance, has to learn which objects to peck at for food by watching its mother. Tinbergen and Lorenz also demonstrated that animal behavior can be the result of contradictory impulses and that a conflict between drives may produce a reaction that is strangely unsuited to the stimuli. For example, an animal defending its territory against a formidable attacker, caught between the impulse to fight or flee, may begin grooming or eating.
Regarding his collaboration with Lorenz, Tinbergen is quoted in Nobel Prize Winners as saying: "We 'clicked' at once…. [Lorenz's] extraordinary vision and enthusiasm were supplemented and fertilized by my critical sense, my inclination to think his ideas through, and my irrepressible urge to check out 'hunches' by experimentation." Tinbergen and Lorenz's work was disrupted by World War II.
Tinbergen spent much of the war in a hostage camp because he had protested the State University of Leiden's decision to remove three Jewish faculty members from the staff. After the war ended, he became a professor of experimental biology at the University. In 1949, Tinbergen traveled to Oxford University in England to lecture. He stayed at Oxford, establishing the journal Behavior with W. H. Thorpe and working in the University's animal behavior division. His 1951 book The Study of Instinct is credited with bringing the study of ethology to many English readers. The book summarized some of the newest insights into the ways signaling behavior is created over the course of evolution. In 1955, Tinbergen became an English citizen, and in 1966 he was appointed a professor and fellow of Oxford's Wolfson College. When the work of Tinbergen, Lorenz, and von Frisch, who had demonstrated that honeybees communicate by dancing, received the Nobel Prize in 1973, it was the first time the Nobel Committee recognized work in sociobiology or ethology.
It was Tinbergen's own hope that the ethologists' body of work would help in understanding of human behavior. "With von Frisch and Lorenz, Tinbergen has expressed the view that ethological demonstrations of the extraordinarily intricate interdependence of the structure and behavior of organisms are relevant to understanding the psychology of our own species, " wrote P. Marler and D. R. Griffin in Science. "Indeed, [the Nobel Prize] might be taken … as an appreciation of the need to review the picture that we often seem to have of human behavior as something quite outside nature, hardly subject to the principles that mold the biology, adaptability, and survival of other organisms."
The ability of an organism to adapt to its environment is another element of Tinbergen's work. After he retired from Oxford in 1974, he and his wife attempted to explain autistic behavior in children to adaptability. The Tinbergens' assertion that autism may be caused by the behavior of a child's parents caused some consternation in the medical community. Tinbergen believed that much of the opposition to his work was caused by the unflattering view of human behavior it presented. "Our critics feel we degrade ourselves by the way we look at behavior, " he is quoted as saying in Contemporary Authors. "Because this is one of the implications of ethology, that our free will is not as free as we think. We are determinists, and this is what they hate…. They feel that our ideas gnaw at the dignity of man."
Tinbergen was wrote a number of books and made many nature films during his lifetime. Among his publications were several children's books, including Kleew and The Tale of John Stickle. Among the numerous awards he received are the 1969 Italia prize and the 1971 New York Film Festival's blue ribbon, both for writing, with Hugh Falkus, the documentary Signals for Survival, which was broadcast on English television. Tinbergen died December 21, 1988, after suffering a stroke at his home in Oxford, England.
Contemporary Authors, Volume 108, Gale, 1983, pp. 489-90.
Nobel Prize Winners, H. W. Wilson, 1987, pp. 1059-61.
"Learning from the Animals, " in Newsweek, October 22, 1973, p. 102.
Marler, P., and D. R. Griffin, "The 1973 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, " in Science, November 2, 1973, pp. 464-467. □