Who was Nikolaas Tinbergen?
Nikolaas Tinbergen was a Dutch biologist and ornithologist who was one of the joint winners of the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He made significant discoveries concerning the individual and social behavior patterns in animals and published ‘The Study of Instinct’, an influential book on animal behavior. Born in The Hague, Netherlands, he had a happy childhood living in close proximity to nature and animals. Though bright and intelligent, he was not much interested in formal education and by his own accounts, just managed to scrap through high school. He loved observing the behaviors of animals and birds and proceeded to study biology at Leiden University. He met the gifted naturalist, Dr. Jan Verwey, at the university who instilled in the young Tinbergen a professional interest in studying the behavior of animals. After completing his doctorate, he embarked on an academic career that was interrupted by the World War II during which he was taken as a prisoner of war. Following his release, he resumed his research. In collaboration with Konrad Lorenz, he constructed a theoretical framework for the study of ethology, an emerging field in the 1930s and the two men performed many important investigations together, which revolutionized the science of ethology.
Childhood & Early Life
Nikolaas Tinbergen was born on 15 April 1907, in The Hague, Netherlands, to Dirk Cornelius Tinbergen and Jeanette van Eek as the third of their five children. His father, a teacher of Dutch language and history, was a hardworking man completely devoted to his family while his mother was a caring person. Tinbergen had a happy childhood, growing up in an intellectually stimulating environment.
He developed an interest in animals and nature at an early age. As a young boy, he used to observe the behavior of birds and fishes, which kindled his interest in biological sciences.
He did not like formal education and did not plan to pursue higher studies following his schooling. After high school, he worked at the Vogelwarte Rossitten bird observatory and was highly inspired by its founder, Professor J. Thienemann. Eventually Tinbergen decided to study biology at the Leiden University.
He completed his Ph.D. in 1932. His dissertation was on the behavior of bee-killer wasps, and he demonstrated that the wasps use landmarks to orientate themselves.
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Nikolaas Tinbergen received the opportunity of joining the Netherlands' small contingent for the International Polar Year 1932-33. Married by now, he took along his wife on the expedition and spent several months living among the Eskimos. During this time he studied the role of evolution in the behavior of snow buntings, phalaropes, and Eskimo sled dogs.
On his return to the Netherlands he was offered a teaching position at Leiden University where he taught comparative anatomy and organized a teaching course in animal behavior for undergraduates. His research in the mid-1930s focused on the homing of beewolves and behavior studies of other insects and birds.
In 1936, Austrian ethologist, Konrad Lorenz, was invited to Leiden for a small symposium on 'Instinct.' Tinbergen and Lorenz connected immediately, and soon began constructing a theoretical framework for the study of ethology, which was then an emerging field.
The duo hypothesized that all animals have a fixed-action pattern, a repeated, distinct set of movements or behaviors as opposed to simply reacting on impulse in response to environmental factors. Tinbergen demonstrated that in some animals learned behavior is critical for survival.
Tinbergen and Lorenz's work was disrupted by World War II. Tinbergen was taken a prisoner of war and spent two years in a German hostage camp. After the war he was invited to the United States, and to England, to lecture on animal behavior. He settled in England and taught at the University of Oxford.
In 1951, his book ‘The Study of Instinct’ was published. The book detailed how signaling behavior develops in certain species over the course of evolution. The seminal work which offered several significant insights on behavioral science is credited with revitalizing the study of ethology.
In 1966, he was appointed a professor and fellow of Oxford's Wolfson College. He focused on studying autism in children during the later years of his career.
His significant publications include ‘The Herring Gull's World’ (1953), ‘Curious Naturalists’ (1958), ‘The Animal in its World Vol. 1.’ (1972), and ‘The Animal in its World Vol. 2.’ (1973).
He worked on a series of wildlife films in collaboration with filmmaker Hugh Falkus. These include ‘Signals for Survival’ (1969) which won the Italia prize in that year and the American blue ribbon in 1971. In addition to his scientific publications, he also authored several children's books, including ‘Kleew’ and ‘The Tale of John Stickle’.
Nikolaas Tinbergen gained international acclaim for his investigations and discoveries in animal behavior. The studies performed by him, in collaboration with Konrad Lorenz, revolutionized the field of ethology and laid the foundation for further research in animal behavior, especially in what he termed the supernormal stimulus. Many of his discoveries also have applications in human behavioral studies.
Awards & Achievements
He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1962.
Nikolaas Tinbergen, Karl von Frisch and Konrad Lorenz were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1973 "for their discoveries concerning organization and elicitation of individual and social behavior patterns."
Personal Life & Legacy
Tinbergen married Elisabeth Rutten in 1932 and they had five children.
He suffered from depression during his later years and died on 21 December 1988, after suffering a stroke. He was 81.