Tinbergen's Four Questions

Tinbergenís view of the study of behavioral development consists of both proximate and ultimate approaches. A proximate approach of animalís behavior focuses on how an animalís internal or external environment shape its observed behavioral patterns. An ultimate approach asks how a particular behavior can affect animalís fitness (survival value) through understanding the ecology of the animal and its evolution (Vessey and Drickamer, 2010). The objective of ethology is to explain the current form of a behavior in terms of its present-day phenotype or as a sequence throughout evolutionary history.

On Aims and Methods of Ethology

In his article ďOn Aims and Methods of Ethology,Ē Niko Tinbergen proposes an integrative approach to animal behavior, which allows a complete view of an animalís behavior through previously separate fields in biology. Dispelling false dichotomies such as innate and learned behaviors, Tinbergen provides more effective categories for analyzing an animalís behavior. These categories are causation, survival value, ontogeny and evolution.Tinbergen acknowledges that the divisions between the categories of causation, survival value, ontogeny, and evolution are not absolute and may often overlap, but they provide guidelines as to which questions we can ask when observing animal behavior in a way that is objective, quantifiable, and focuses the subject of research ( Tinbergen 1963).

Four Questions

Causation (mechanism): Tinbergen defines causation as the mechanism that results in a behavior. Causation may describe behaviors through molecular mechanisms as well as in terms of macrobiological factors.

Ontogeny (development): Ontogeny refers to the development of certain behaviors through learning. The analysis of learning processes often involves the interaction between genotype and phenotype.

Survival value (adaptive value): Questions regarding survival value essentially ask ďhow does this behavior increase the animalís lifetime reproductive fitness.Ē We will often refer to survival value as adaptive value because it refers more directly to questions about an animalís reproductive success and animals often behave in ways that maximise their lifetime reproductive fitness.

Evolution ( phylogeny): Phylogeny refers to the evolutionary history of a behavior across species. Evolutionary history may involve predators as well as environmental pressures, which selected for certain behaviors.One may whether certain behaviors which evolved independently across different species were a result of similar environmental pressures.


Figure 2. Table of Tinbergenís four questions