From the “More stuff we know that ain’t so” files: Nobelist Tinbergen

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From Nature:

Classic behavioural studies flawed

Nobel prizewinner took short cuts to show that the way gulls feed is instinctive.

John Whitfield

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 β€” 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 β€” 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.

16 Replies to “From the “More stuff we know that ain’t so” files: Nobelist Tinbergen

  1. 1
    B L Harville says:

    Speaking of problems with evolution, did you notice this article.

  2. 2
    David Kellogg says:

    So: Tinbergen did an article in 1947 that was in error. He corrected that error in 1949, though apparently downplayed that correction in subsequent work. But was his original idea wrong? From the article:

    Ten Cate and his colleagues redid Tinbergen’s original experiment and got the same result β€” black was more attractive than red. They also did the experiment he never did, presenting each colour equally often, and found that Tinbergen’s intuition had been correct after all β€” the birds tended to peck more often at red spots. The work is published in Animal Behaviour.

    From the post, one would think his conclusions were wrong, but they seem to have been right all along.

  3. 3

    B L Harville asked:

    “Speaking of problems with evolution, did you notice this article.”

    Yes, I did. Here’s a direct quote from the article:

    “In the paper, Rillful says “Darwin’s theory of evolution as a purposive process, in which chance is balanced by the pseudodesign of natural selection, is no longer a necessary hypothesis to explain all of life. And the intelligent design argument is entirely shown to be false. Darwin was wrong, and so was Paley. The consensus is moving even further away from the Design hypothesis than even the modern Darwinians expected. Adaptation is an accident.”“[Emphasis added]

    Exactly. As J.B.S. Haldane (one of the founders of the “neo-darwinian modern evolutionary synthesis”) wrote,

    “…the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose. [Possible Worlds and Other Papers (1927) pg. 286]”

  4. 4
    anonym says:


    Maybe UD will jump on this!

    Posted by: TE | April 1, 2009 3:29 AM

  5. 5
    DATCG says:

    More flawed studies…

    Hundreds of Natural-Selection Studies Could be Wrong, Study Demonstrates

    Nei said that for many years he has suspected that the statistical methods were faulty. “The methods assume that when natural selection occurs the number of nucleotide substitutions that lead to changes in amino acids is significantly higher than the number of nucleotide substitutions that do not result in amino acid changes,” he said. “But this assumption may be wrong. Actually, the majority of amino acid substitutions do not lead to functional changes, and the adaptive change of a protein often occurs by a rare amino acid substitution. For this reason, statistical methods may give erroneous conclusions.” Nei also believes that the methods are inaccurate when the number of nucleotide substitutions observed is small.

    Darwinian April fools indeed.

  6. 6
    DATCG says:

    Harville, anonym…

    shhhhhh…. don’t tell anyone about your little green men theory…

    Dawkinsian Little Green Men of Creation Theory

  7. 7
    uoflcard says:

    Funny April Fools joke lol

  8. 8
    DATCG says:


    you’ll love this one… if moderators let my comments through.


  9. 9
    Domoman says:

    Uh-oh. Today is April Fool’s Day. Can’t… trust… ANYTHING!!!! O_O

  10. 10
    anonym says:


    You seem to have missed the


    around my earlier post.

  11. 11
    DATCG says:


    No, didn’t miss a thing… may have misread your humor though.

    Like those self-replicating jeeps? πŸ™‚

  12. 12
    Latemarch says:

    Here in the Ozarks I’ve seen the Jeep (and other models) up on blocks, though usually without the wheels. There is often a working version of the same model nearby…..Hmmm…..maybe there’s something to this self-replication of jeeps.

  13. 13

    Unsolved mystery: Why do posts and reader contributions disappear?

  14. 14

    Please disregard the previous comment, with my apologies.

  15. 15
    uoflcard says:

    Another odd thing…earlier my post was #3, now it’s #7.

  16. 16
    Clive Hayden says:


    J. B. S. Haldane also said in ‘Possible Worlds and Other Papers’ that evolution was the exception and that degeneration was the norm.

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