Psych Today

Elizabeth Hall’s 1974 Interview with Niko Tinbergen

This is an excellent interview. In a relatively short space, Elizabeth Hall succeeded in capturing much of Niko Tinbergen’s oeuvre and personality. It is notable that the interview occurred at a propitious time — shortly after the announcement of Tinbergen’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. More than 35 years have passed since the interview, and I would like to highlight a few aspects of the discussion and provide a modern perspective on Tinbergen.

Perhaps the key to understanding Tinbergen’s approach is the “four-questions formulation” (Tinbergen, 1963) that underlies the interview. To understand an animal’s behavior Tinbergen stated that we must ask questions about its immediate causation (environmental stimuli, physiology, etc.), development (changes in the individual as nature and nurture interact), evolutionary history (across species and time), and adaptive significance (role of the behavior in facilitating the individual’s reproductive success). Tinbergen developed this four-question system, based in part on work by others, and provided structure to much of what has been done in animal behavior studies ever since.

The interview also highlighted differences between Tinbergen’s approach and that of his collaborator, Konrad Lorenz. Although ethology is often considered to be the joint product of Tinbergen and Lorenz, Tinbergen was a field researcher with a gift for simple, yet important, experiments, whereas Lorenz preferred to study captive animals under semi-natural conditions. Tinbergen was a quiet, cautious, and modest man, whereas Lorenz favored broad generalizations. Lorenz had been a member of the National Socialist Party in Germany, and Tinbergen was imprisoned by the Nazis. Yet, the two still managed to establish a relationship after the war. When the rapprochement between psychology and ethology occurred, it was Tinbergen who modified his views, whereas Lorenz changed his early views much less. In the interview, Tinbergen even goes so far as to accept some responsibility for their disagreements.

It is in their generalizations about humans that we again see some differences between the two key ethologists. Lorenz tended to make bold generalizations about the results from studies of nonhuman animals and applied those generalizations to humans. Tinbergen made generalizations about the results used in nonhuman studies as well, but he tested those generalizations by applying the methods from nonhuman studies to the study of human behavior. His notion that humans may outpace their genetic evolution anticipated more recent evolutionary psychological ideas, such as those of Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, regarding present human behaviors which were adapted to life in the Pleistocene era rather than today.

Tinbergen’s views of human aggression were different from those of Lorenz. He noted that Lorenz links the concepts of urges and innateness together. In contrast, Tinbergen accepts that internal influences are important for certain types of aggression, yet various environmental factors are also pivotal; thus, he suggests there is great plasticity. Further, as he makes clear in the interview, he recognizes that there are different types of behavior that are labeled “aggression” and these may have very different eliciting stimuli, control, and consequences. Burkhardt (2005) further develops the contrasts between Lorenz and Tinbergen and the situational determinants of their differing approaches.

Hall brought out Tinbergen’s views on the controversies of the time as well. One conflict was between European ethologists (generally zoologists interested in the study of behavior related to natural conditions) and American comparative psychologists (often laboratory-based scientists interested in behavior under more controlled conditions). The two fields developed with minimal contact until after World War II. At that time, ethologists were perceived as advocating that instinctive behaviors are determined by genetics, whereas the psychologists were more interested in plasticity of behaviors. In part, this approach can be understood with the four questions: Ethologists were somewhat more interested in evolution and adaptive significance, whereas psychologists were more interested in mechanisms and development. Eventually, the two fields were brought together by men like Tinbergen, along with psychological scientists such as Frank Beach and Daniel Lehrman.

Hall raised the question of why differences arose between American and European scientists. Although multiple factors were important, Tinbergen highlights the American propensity to manipulate and control versus the less intrusive observation employed by Europeans. In the spirit of Jacques Loeb and B. F. Skinner, the American focus was based on mastering nature rather than understanding it.

As revealed in the interview, Tinbergen’s views on the nature- nurture problem in 1974 are close to the consensus of today’s psychological scientists: There is an interaction between nature and nurture with some behavioral patterns that are more resistant to environmental influence than others. Tinbergen also accepted the more psychological view that what Lorenz had treated as “critical periods” in an individual’s life might better be regarded as “sensitive periods,” as they appear to be less rigid than initially thought.

Personally, Tinbergen was a very modest man, but one who knew his place and could evaluate it without false modesty. He notes, accurately, that he had the ability to communicate in print and to make people want to read his writing. His ability to communicate was legendary. His way of writing and conveying his reverence for nature, as he called it, appealed to many young scientists in a very direct way (Dewsbury, 1997). I find it interesting that while he was imprisoned by the Nazis he not only did some scientific writing but authored two children’s books as well.

Tinbergen expressed some guilt about spending so much time doing what he loved, studying animals, and not working toward the good of humanity. This guilt may be why the Tinbergens were engrossed in the study of autism at the time of the interview. Yet, their autism research appears to have had relatively little impact on today’s psychologists. Thus, it occupies a larger part of the interview than would seem justified from today’s perspective.

Niko Tinbergen is one of my personal scientific heroes. But contemporary perspectives help us to overcome hagiography. Hans Kruuk (2003), a former Tinbergen student, wrote a remarkable biography of his mentor. Although clearly an admirer of Tinbergen, Kruuk was critical as well. Tinbergen’s experiments had few subjects and minimal quantification. Some of his experiments have not held up well when newer methods were applied. Tinbergen also failed to link behavior and ecology effectively. Whereas most, but not all, contemporary behavioral ecologists eschew “good of the species” arguments, favoring the view that selection works on individuals or genes, Tinbergen accepted the former approach. This approach comes through in Hall’s interview. He opines that although Tinbergen appeared modest and unassuming, he could be demanding and was subject to bouts of depression. One can only guess at the kind of interactions that led Kruuk to these perspectives.

Although I had some correspondence with him, particularly when I edited a book with his autobiographical chapter (Tinbergen, 1985), I was only able to meet Tinbergen once. In August, 1988, 14 years after the Hall interview and just three months before his death, I was able to spend an afternoon with Niko and wife Lise at their home in Oxford. By this time, he had suffered, and partially recovered, from a stroke and was less vigorous than in early years. Yet, many of the same characteristics he had in the Hall interview shone through. There was still a sparkle in his eye, he still possessed the same realistic modesty, and he had not changed his views on American psychology or on Konrad Lorenz. Niko Tinbergen was a remarkable pioneer in the study of animal behavior and a worthy recipient of the Nobel Prize.

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