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Research Associate & Lecturer, Harvard; Adjunct Associate Professor, Brandeis; Author, Alex & Me

Keys to Behavior: Tinbergen's Four Questions

Why do we—and all other creatures—behave as we do? No answers really exist. I chose the ethologist and ornithologist NikolaasTinbergen's questions for exactly that reason, because sometimes there is no one deep, elegant, and beautiful explanation. Much like a teacher of fishing rather than a giver of fish, Tinbergen did not try to provide any one global explanation, but instead gave us a scaffolding upon which to build our own answers to each individual behavioral pattern we observe, a scaffolding that can be used not only for the ethological paradigms for which he was famous, but all forms of behavior in any domain. Succinctly, Tinbergen asked:

• What is the mechanism?  How does it seem to work?
• What is the ontogeny? How do we observe it develop over time?
• What is its function? What are all the possible reasons it is done?
• What is its origin? What are the many ways in which it could it have arisen?

In attempting to answer each of these questions, one is forced to think at the very least about the interplay of genes and environment, of underlying processes (neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, hormones, etc.), of triggers and timing, what advantages and disadvantages are balanced and how these may have changed over time.

Furthermore, unlike most 'favorite' explanations, Tinbergen's questions are enduring. Answers to his questions often reflect a current zeitgeist in the scientific community, but those answers mutate as additional knowledge becomes available. His questions challenge us to rethink our basic presumptions each and every time another chunk of data lands in our laps, whatever our field of study. Our fascination with simple elegant answers strikes me as a Doug Adams (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) pursuit: We may find "42", but unless we know how to formulate the appropriate questions, the answer isn't always very meaningful.