Classic behavioural studies flawed
Nobel prizewinner took short cuts to show that the way gulls feed is instinctive.
One of the most famous experiments in biology isn’t the solid piece of work it’s usually portrayed as, say Dutch researchers who have replicated the study. Instead, it’s more like an anecdote that became slightly more legendary each time its author retold the story.
The work in question was done in 1947 by the Dutch researcher Niko Tinbergen on the begging behaviour of herring-gull chicks. At the time, the dominant idea in animal behaviour was that learning was all-important. Tinbergen argued that animals come into the world with instincts already adapted to their environments.
Adult gulls have a red spot on their lower bill. Tinbergen, who shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1973, presented wild chicks with model birds bearing spots and measured how much they pecked at the model.
The story that made it into the textbooks is that chicks have a powerful innate tendency to peck at red dots, which has evolved as a way of getting their parents to feed them. The original paper, however, shows that Tinbergen found that chicks actually pecked more at a black dot than a red one.
In a follow-up paper written in 1949, Tinbergen concluded that this strange finding resulted from a mistake in his methods. He had tested red, black, blue, white and yellow spots, but he presented the ‘natural’ red spot much more often than any other. The chicks, he decided, became habituated to the red spot and stopped pecking at it.
Of course, Tinbergen has his defenders:
“Tinbergen shouldn’t be castigated for this,” agrees Rebecca Kilner, who studies bird behaviour at the University of Cambridge in the UK and was not involved in the new study.
“Tinbergen is an iconic character in the history of animal behaviour research,” she adds. “He pioneered the use of simple but ingenious field experiments, and these experiments are a classic example of that approach.”
Other researchers think that ten Cate’s study risks sullying Tinbergen’s legacy. “It’s not fair to Tinbergen — any paper from 50 years ago wouldn’t pass modern standards,” says Johan Bolhuis, a researcher in animal behaviour at the University of Utrecht and editor of a book on Tinbergen. “If we applied the same standards to Darwin’s work, we’d say what a terrible experimenter he was.”
“It’d be easy to be nasty — if you wanted to be negative and critical, you could do a fair amount of damage to Tinbergen’s reputation,” agrees ecologist Hans Kruuk, Tinbergen’s biographer and former student. “He’d often simplify and gloss over complications: if these publications appeared now, they’d get hammered, but the ideas are lovely.”
Yeah, like Darwinism. Lovely for certain people …
If the day ever comes that I get to the bottom of all the stuff we know that ain’t so, I could start learning some real science at last. But, from what I can tell at present, that’ll be the day …
For one thing, you end up wondering how much real science there actually is …
That’s where high science feels different from engineering. Engineering, nada problem. The Last Spike. The CN Tower. Functional magnetic resonance imaging. Stuff either works or it doesn’t. But with high science, we can be arguing about the big bazooms theory of evolution – until the cows find their own way back to the barn – and have no sense that anything could possibly be amiss.