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Tuesday
Nov022004

Niko's Nature by Hans Kruuk

This is an academic biography of Niko Tinbergen, the pioneeer of ethology, the study of animal behaviour.

Tinbergen made his name by devising and carrying out some beautifully simple experiments on nest-finding in wasps and birds, on pecking behaviour in gull chicks, and on aggression between male sticklebacks.  He also seemed to have a real knack for attracting first class students and inspiring them to do first class work.  The names of just a few of his students will show what I mean: Desmond Morris, Richard Dawkins, Aubrey Manning, John Krebs, Marian Stamp Dawkins.  Tinbergen also wrote many popular books and articles on animal behaviour, and even made a few films.

However, Tinbergen was somewhat flawed both a scientist and as a person.  He didn't back up his work with the quantitative and statistical arguments that are now thought to be necessary, and he suffered increasingly from clinical depression in the latter half of his career, to the extent that some of his later students hardly ever saw him.  In spite of these flaws, his research group still managed to flourish, apparently largely thanks to his assistant Mike Cullen who looked after his students for him and provided the quantitative expertise that he lacked.  Tinbergen also showed good sense in his reaction to the potentially devastating criticisms of his experiments by the American Danny Lehrman: he invited Lehrman across to Oxford to help sort out what could be salvaged.

In 1973, the value of Tinbergen's work was recognized when he was awarded the Nobel prize for medicine, jointly with his old friend Konrad Lorenz, and Karl von Frisch.  Ten years later, Tinbergen suffered a couple of strokes but these had the fortunate side-effect of curing his depression and so he was able to enjoy himself during his last few years.  He died in 1988.

The relationship between Tinbergen and Lorenz was an interesting one, particularly in how it was affected by their experiences during the war.  In that respect it bears comparison with that between the physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg.

A good read if you are interested in biology.  It should inspire you to search out copies of Tinbergen's papers and books.

Reader Comments (1)

hi-im in college and doing a research paper on niko tinbergen. i need to find information and dates on things that happened in his life that are along the lines of children's births and weddings and things of that nature. i am having a really hard time with this. if anyone can help me that would be greatly appreciated. thank you.
April 20 | Unregistered Commenternyki

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