Tinbergen’s Later Phases

Concerning such ideas as displacement behavior, the work of many others preceded that of Dr. Pretlow. One of the founders of ethology, the science of animal behavior, was Nikolaas Tinbergen. In 1968, he delivered a lecture at Oxford, called “On War and Peace in Animals and Man” (published in the journal Science). It apparently led to considerable debate over the validity of comparing animal and human behavior at all.

Encyclopedist Hans Kruuk wrote that Tinbergen

[…] pointed out the malfunction of our “innate” appeasement gestures when long-range weapons were being used. He urged scientists not blithely to apply animal results to people (and he criticized Lorenz for this), but merely to use the methodology of ethology in the human context.

Later, with his wife, Tinbergen co-authored a book about autism that was described thusly:

Using an ethological analysis, studying approach of and avoidance by children, the researchers concluded that defective parental behavior is the main cause of autism.

Over the years, Tinbergen received numerous awards and honors, held many important and official posts, and supervised around 40 Ph.D. students, several of whom (e.g. Desmond Morris and Richard Dawkins) achieved worldwide renown. A major event occurred in 1973, when the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Tinbergen, Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch for their pioneering work in ethology.

And yet, their premises and conclusions were still questioned, which is, after all, the way in which science is supposed to proceed. In 2008, Richard W. Burkhardt, Jr. wrote,

Early ethologists such as Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz faced a problem: What constituted a fact about behaviour? How reliably must a behaviour be exhibited (and in how many specimens) before it could be said to be species-typical? And how similar do the behaviours of two species need to be before it is reasonable to say that the behaviour is true of both?

Pinning down facts that would hold up across multiple species was difficult. Even more controversially, many scientists were having trouble with the untrammeled practice of assuming parallels between animal behavior and human behavior. The “relatively esoteric discipline of ethology” and the field of comparative psychology were in disagreement. Once humans entered the picture, so did politics, and when a clash with science is involved, that rarely leads to a good place.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Tinbergen, Nikolaas (Niko),” Encyclopedia.com, 06/27/18
Source: “Dilemmas in the Constitution of and Exportation of Ethological Facts,” lse.ac.uk, August 2008
Image by Nils Rinaldi/CC BY 2.0

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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