Niko Tinbergen: Biologist of the 20th Century

Niko Tinbergen was a Nobel Prize winner in physiology and medicine (1973), a zoologist who published what is considered the first handbook on ethology, a prisoner of the Nazi army in The Netherlands and later a lecturer of ethology at the Oxford University. Dr. Nikolass Tinbergen passed away on the 21st of December 1988 in Oxford, England.

Nikolass or ‘Niko’, as he was popularly known, was born in The Hague in The Netherlands in 1907 as the third of the five children to his parents. After managing to barely get through high school and university education as an ill effect of his lack of interest in his then current learning, young Niko was inspired to learn Biology at the age of eighteen by Professor J. Thienemann, who was an expert in bird studies. Niko had always been informally interested in the rich shores of Holland and the beauty of nature, as in the migration of birds in autumn and wild moose. He was lucky to befriend the gifted naturalist Dr. Jan Verwey which later led him to take professional interest in animal behavior.

He was engaged to Elisabeth Rutten, whose family he had known for a long time and was close friends with. This made him realize the necessity of earning a living and resulted in him taking his interests more seriously. He had then recently discovered a colony of Beewolves (a digger wasp) and decided to take his hobby to the next level. In this he was influenced by the work of Karl von Frisch and J.H Fabre. He studied the wasp’s extraordinary homing abilities and wrote a small yet interesting thesis – thirty-two pages in print, for the faculty at Leiden, who accepted it reluctantly. But the best results of his newfound passion for education were yet to come.

In 1932-33, Niko and his wife were offered the chance to live two summers and a winter in Angmagssalik – the home for a tiny and isolated Eskimo tribe. For the couple, this first-hand experience of primitive hunter-gatherer lifestyle was fascinating to say the least. Unfortunately, the Eskimos did become more westernized with time, but the glimpse of life of a community of people so untouched by the western world left indelible memory on Niko and Elizabeth’s minds. Especially for Niko, this knowledge was to become extremely precious when forty years later he was to reconstruct the life of ancestral humans in an attempt to gain pathways into human behavior.

In 1935, he was appointed to teach comparative anatomy and organize a course in animal behavior for undergraduates in Leiden. He was also encouraged to have his own graduate research team and go on research excursions for official field work. Niko used this opportunity to advance his work on Beewolves’ homing and other fascinating findings about insect and animal behavior.

A major turning point in his career came in 1936, when Konrad Lorenz was invited for a symposium on ‘Instinct’ in Leiden. Tinbergen and Lorenz first met at this symposium and immediately ‘connected’, possibly due to strikingly similar interests in the natural world and their matching philosophical outlooks. Little did they know that this association was to become an integral part of both their careers as scientists. Their personal qualities provided a perfect balance. Lorenz possessed ebullience and vision for understanding biological interactions, and Tinbergen’s had a talent for critical enquiry of ideas and the capacity to observe them via scientific experimentation. Their collaborated and independent work laid the foundation for ethology in the 1930s.

The academically flourishing Nikolass was a popular figure for his contribution to ethology in the early 1930s. In 1938 he was given a free passage to and from New York by The Netherlands-America Foundation. In the next four months, in America, Niko met various fellow researchers and science personalities along with his true experience of living in America on a daily expenditure of a dollar a day. Overall, in his own experience he was “bewildered” by what he saw of American Psychology. He made many friends on his trip and inculcated various new interdisciplinary interests that shaped his future research. However, this wave of enlightenment was not to last any longer. The Munich crisis forced him to come back and served as a warning to the dreadful future to come.

The long distance association with Lorenz and the great amount of work before him lasted a while longer before the forces of war indirectly terminated their communication channels, forcing them to retract. Tinbergen was detained as a hostage in a Nazi camp for two years, leaving his wife to care for their family. Gradually the war receded and in 1947 he was appointed a professor of zoology at Leiden University while Lorenz served as an army doctor. Their careers were at a standstill until the war subsided.

The year 1949 saw the reunion of two friends and former associates, imaginably a touching occasion for both. As their normal lives were being restored Tinbergen got invitations to The US and Britain to deliver lectures on the fast moving field of animal behavior. His old friendships in America were revived and at the same time led him to show more interest in evolution and ecology. The review of research for his lectures in 1951 finally resulted into the publication of ‘The Study of Instinct’ and was followed by visits to Oxford. Meanwhile is 1949 Tinbergen was persuaded by Sir Alister Hardy to accept a position at the Oxford University as a lecturer of ethology. It was here that his career was to take yet another turn.

At Oxford, Tinbergen was to embark on a rather prolific journey. Along with reviving his long standing love for animal behavior, for which he was encouraged to start a research facility as well as engage in teaching, he also devoted much of his time in running the recently started journal Behavior. His old friends in America also helped him establish an interdependent relationship with American Psychology. By taking to the stage on interdisciplinary research, he laid the groundwork for application of ethology to human behavior. Among his many meritorious students at Oxford are Richard Dawkins, Desmond Morris, Aubrey Manning, Marian Dawkins and Iain Douglas Hamilton.

Of his principle contributions to science and human behavior in specific, most notable are the four questions he proposed to be asked of any animal behavior. These led to four separate fields of biology. The four questions are as follows, Causation (Mechanism), Development (Ontogeny), Evolution (Phylogeny), Adaptation (Function). Other recognizable discoveries include those of Supernormal Stimuli – an artificial stimulus evoking a stronger response from the organism than the natural stimulus.

In 1973 Tinbergen won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine along with his friend Konrad Lorenz and idol Karl von Frisch, for their discoveries concerning organization and elicitation of individual and social behavior patterns in animal. Their research was seen to be most influential in the fields of social medicine, psychiatry and psychosomatic medicine. This was the first time that the Nobel committee acknowledged the discoveries in the field of sociobiology for the Nobel Prize. It was the sheer ingenuity of the experiments used by Niko Tinbergen that was impressed upon the Nobel committee.

Richard Dawkins the famous scientist who introduced us to the gene-eye view of the biological world, credits much of his accomplishments to the interdisciplinary approach to understanding evolution that he learnt from his mentor and advisor Dr. Tinbergen while at Oxford.

Tinbergen’s innovative experimentation techniques have since then become a widely used and standard procedure in biological research, yielding several major discoveries. His 1973 Nobel Prize remains the first and only prize in the Physiology and Medicine to be awarded for research in behavioral studies.

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