Tinbergen’s Four Questions

Amidst the controversy that arose over the work of ethology’s founders, including Niko Tinbergen, his “Four Questions” have stood the test of time relatively well. A particular difficulty with early theories was that “the behavior of domesticated forms often differs considerably from that of the wild ancestral forms.” Consequently, the idea that animal behavior could meaningfully be extrapolated to human behavior was seen as even less likely.

Some, like bird expert Dr. Yoram Gutfreund, claimed that only humans possess “phenomenal consciousness, conscious awareness, or sentiency” — so how much useful knowledge could be gained from trying to connect ideas about human versus animal behavior?

Richard W. Burkhardt, on the other hand, urged doubters to concentrate on the big picture: the facts about other species were less important than “ethology’s whole approach of looking carefully […] and considering the causation, development, evolution, and survival value of the species’ behavior.” He wrote,

As Tinbergen put it “Whatever the shortcomings of ‘theological’ studies may be, one thing they have demonstrated convincingly: the fact that different species usually behave differently in the same situation.” The obvious implications of this were that “Facts found in one species, or hypotheses formed about one species, simply cannot be disproved by testing another species, under however well ‘controlled laboratory conditions.’”

To those in the know, Tinbergen’s most important and still valid contribution was his formulation of the Four Questions, concerning causation, ontogeny, adaptive function and phyletic evolution. The Four Questions are described by Daniel Tumminelli O’Brien and Andrew C. Gallup as “an elegantly comprehensive guide to behavioral research” which are still perfectly useful “to facilitate evolution education in the human-oriented disciplines.”

The first question has to do with how a trait works, and the second with why and how it evolved. Together, those two were expected to explain why the way the trait works is adaptive. Of what use is it to the overall improvement of the species as a whole? O’Brien and Gallup went on to say,

The third question regards ontogeny, or what is the process and timing by which it develops? This question is instrumental in understanding the complexity of traits.

The fourth issue is that of phylogeny, or, what is the trait’s deep evolutionary history? This question can occur at a number of different scales, and the appropriate one is determined by the aspect of the trait one is studying. For example, if one wants to understand the human eye, looking at this lens-like structure would require a study of vertebrate evolution. On the other hand, looking at the biochemical basis of its photosensitivity may involve analysis of ocular crystals throughout the animal kingdom.

The two authors took the liberty of adding a fifth crucial question to Tinbergen’s model. Humans are the only species in which “culture is a pervading aspect of its environment.” So, if these other factors that pertain to any creatures are to be considered, how can all of this theory make sense in terms of the animals known as humans?

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Mind-Evolution Problem: The Difficulty of Fitting Consciousness in an Evolutionary Framework,” FrontiersIn.org 08/24/18
Source: “Dilemmas in the Constitution of and Exportation of Ethological Facts,” lse.ac.uk, August 2008
Source: “Using Tinbergen’s Four Questions (Plus One) to Facilitate Evolution Education for Human-Oriented Disciplines,” BiomedCentral.com, 01/25/11
Image by Gary Bembridge/CC BY 2.0

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

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.
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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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