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Nikolaas Tinbergen

Niko Tinbergen

Nikolaas "Niko" Tinbergen (1907-1988)
BornApril 15 1907(1907-04-15)
The Hague, Netherlands
DiedDecember 21 1988 (aged 81)
FieldZoologist, ethologist
InstitutionsOxford University
Alma materLeiden University
Notable students  Richard Dawkins
Known forHawk/goose effect
Notable prizes Nobel Prize (1973)

Nikolaas "Niko" Tinbergen (April 15, 1907 – December 21, 1988) was a Dutch ethologist and ornithologist who 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 behaviour patterns in animals.

In the 1960s he collaborated with filmaker 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.



Born in The Hague, Netherlands, he 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. He had a third eminent brother, Luuk Tinbergen.

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. After the war, Tinbergen moved to England, where he taught at the University of Oxford. Richard Dawkins was one of his students.

He married Elisabeth Rutten and they had five children. Tinbergen died December 21, 1988, after suffering a stroke at his home in Oxford, England.


Main article: Tinbergen's four questions

He is well known for originating the four questions he believed should be asked of any animal behaviour, which were:

Proximate mechanisms:

  • 1. Causation: 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)

Ultimate mechanisms:

  • 3. 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?*
  • 4. Function (Adaptation): how does the behaviour impact on the animal's chances of survival and reproduction?

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.

References concerning the four questions:

Lorenz, Konrad 1937: Biologische Fragestellungen in der Tierpsychologie (in English: Biological Questions in Animal Psychology). Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie, 1: 24-32

Tinbergen, Niko 1963: On Aims and Methods in Ethology. Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie, 20: 410-433;


Tinbergen applied his observational methods to the problems of children with autism. 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.[1] Unfortunately, his interpretations of autistic behavior, and the holding therapy that he recommended, lacked scientific support.[2]


  • Hans Kruuk (2003) Niko's Nature: The Life of Niko Tinbergen and His Science of Animal Behaviour ISBN 0-19-851558-8
  • Marian Stamp Dawkins (1991) The Tinbergen Legacy ISBN 0-412-39120-1
  • Richard W. Burkhardt Jr. (2005) Patterns of Behavior : Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and the Founding of Ethology ISBN 0-226-08090-0
  1. ^ Tinbergen N, Tinbergen EA (1986). Autistic Children: New Hope for a Cure, new edition, Routledge. ISBN 0041570111. 
  2. ^ Bishop DVM (2008). "Forty years on: Uta Frith's contribution to research on autism and dyslexia, 1966–2006". Q J Exp Psychol 61 (1): 16–26. doi:10.1080/17470210701508665. PMID 18038335.
NAME Tinbergen, Niko
SHORT DESCRIPTION Zoologist, ethologist
DATE OF BIRTH April 15, 1907
PLACE OF BIRTH The Hague, Netherlands
DATE OF DEATH December 21, 1988
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Nikolaas_Tinbergen". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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