Nikolaas Tinbergen Biography (1907-1988)

zoologist, ethologist

Nikolaas Tinbergen was born April 15, 1907, in The Hague, Netherlands. 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 ableto experimentally demonstrate that the wasps use landmarks to orientate themselves. Tinbergen first established the traditional routes of the wasps neartheir burrows, then altered the landscape to see how the wasps' behavior would be affected. Tinbergen was awarded his Ph.D. in 1932.

Shortly after his 1932 wedding to Elisabeth Rutten, 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 Konrad Lorenz--the acknowledged father of ethology--that his workbegan 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. Althoughthey published only one paper together, their collaboration lasted a numberof years.

During 1936, Tinbergen and Lorenz began constructing a theoretical frameworkfor 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 patternis 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. Tinbergen and Lorenz also demonstratedthat animal behavior can be the result of contradictory impulses and that aconflict between drives may produce a reaction that is strangely unsuited tothe stimuli. Unfortunately, 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 experimentalbiology 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 bringingthe 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 hewas appointed a professor and fellow of Oxford's Wolfson College. When the work of Tinbergen, Lorenz, and von Frisch, who had demonstrated that honeybeescommunicate by dancing, received the Nobel Prize in 1973, it was the first time the Nobel Committee recognized work in sociobiology or ethology.

The ability of an organism to adapt to its environment is another element ofTinbergen'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 humanbehavior it presented. Tinbergen died December 21, 1988, after suffering a stroke at his home in Oxford, England.

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