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Niko Tinbergen
Nikolass Tinbergen
Nikolaas "Niko" Tinbergen (1907-1988)
April 15, 1907
The Hague, Netherlands
December 21, 1988

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.


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 was manifest at a young age. He studied biology at Leiden University and was a prisoner of war during World War II. Tinbergen's experience as a prisoner of the Germans led to some friction with longtime intellectual colloborator Konrad Lorenz, and it was several years before the two reconciled. After the war, Tinbergen moved to England and taught at the University of Oxford.


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

  1. Function (Adaptation, Ultimate mechanisms): how does the behaviour impact on the animal's chances of survival and reproduction?
  1. Causation (Proximate mechanisms): 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")
  1. 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)
  1. Evolution: 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?

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;


  • 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
  • Tinbergen, N. (1951) The Study of Instinct, Oxford: Oxford University Press

External links[]

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