Tinbergen’s 4 questions: levels of biological explanation

Human beings have always questioned the origin and the causes of things that happen to them. The application of this curiosity for knowledge in the field of biology gave way to ethology, among other branches of science.

One of the fathers of this science is Nikolaas Tinbergen, a zoologist who has made several contributions to the study of living things. Among them, we find what is called Tinbergen’s 4 questions, An effort to order strangers to answer about the biology and behavior of any animal (including humans).

What is the function of a behavior? How does it develop, does it evolve and what are the causes? If you want to know these answers, keep reading.

    Context: the beginnings of biology

    Aristotle has already declared that “to know something scientifically is to know its causes”. He also established 4 types of causes: material, formal, effective and final. This can be seen as a precedent in Tinbergen’s questions, as it was intended to be the starting point for any researcher wishing to study nature.

    Before Tinbergen, around 1930, Julian Huxley spoke of three major problems in biology: cause, survival value, and evolution. It was Niko Tinbergen who added the fourth: ontogeny, that is to say the development of each individual from birth to death. On the other hand, Ernst Mayr in 1961 spoke of immediate cause and ultimate cause.

    What are Tinbergen’s 4 questions?

    Niko Tinbergen, considered one of the fathers of ethology, was a Dutch zoologist born in 1907. In 1973 he received the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, alongside Konrad Lorenz and Kar von Frisch, for their discoveries in relation to individual and social behavior.

    Tinbergen, in his 1963 article on AIMS and ethological methods, mentions the existence of 4 major biology problems, or Tinbergen’s 4 questions, Which are levels of biological explanation of certain phenomena of nature.

    Tinbergen asks these questions in order to understand behavior, and they are as follows.

    Cause or mechanism: what is the cause of the behavior?

    Represents the immediate or structural cause. they are internal and external stimuli that trigger the behavior.

    Here, sensory receptors play a key role in enabling the perception of information provided by these stimuli.

    Survival Value: How does this behavior contribute to the animal’s survival and reproductive success?

    It represents the ultimate cause. In other words, that is to say adaptive function, adaptation or advantage Driving.

    Ontogeny: how does such behavior develop over the life of the animal?

    These are the possible changes and evolution of a behavior pattern throughout the life of individuals.

    Evolution: how has behavior evolved?

    Also called phylogeny. He studies the phylogenetic history of this behavior, that is to say of the precursors. Thanks to this, one can understand that the behavior is currently of one such form, and not another.

    Levels of biological explanation

    By relating Tinbergen to Mayr, we see that proximal causes (immediate in time) would encompass mechanism and ontogeny, and evolutionary causes (more distant or distal) would include survival value and phylogeny.

    Thus, the first would explain the structure and mechanisms of behavior, and the second, why organisms are as they are.

    practical example

    To illustrate Tinbergen’s questions, let’s see an example. It’s a guiding thing to get an idea, but the answers will always vary from case to case.

    We think of a child who beats up others when he gets angry. We analyze the components of this behavior according to Tinbergen’s 4 questions.


    This can be due to irritability, low tolerance for frustration, lack of other emotional restraint skills, etc.


    Attract attention, vent anger, show their irritability for them.


    It grows and repeats itself because it has shown similar behaviors before and these have been reinforced at some point.


    The boy saw how his brothers were strengthened by such behavior and reproduced it.

    Implications for science

    As we have seen, we can dissect and analyze the components of each animal behavior that we consider, Although all behaviors obviously do not have the same function, much less the same adaptive value.

    There will be more adaptive behaviors than others, and these will likely repeat themselves in the evolutionary chain and those that will be consolidated more stably in a sort.

    Today, 50 years after the publication of this article, Tinbergen’s 4 Questions are still considered one of the author’s most important and valuable legacies, due to the importance he attaches to its global and multifaceted view of behavior.

    Vision and conclusion of the author

    Tinbergen has given his theory a pragmatic, but also logical character, which makes his work a useful and comprehensive tool for understanding behavior. He was one of the first to study the adaptive meaning of behaviors which may seem unnecessary in the first place; for example, he studied the behavior of common seagulls by removing the eggshell from the nest after their chicks were born.

    The author considered that clustering issues will make it easier to understand behavior, And considered it a fundamental part of ethology. However, he has always chosen not only to integrate the behaviors, but also to study them individually, thus gaining an analytical and holistic view of the behavior or problem at the same time.

    Tinbergen’s 4 questions are apparently simple, but at the same time synthetic, because they lead us to a complete understanding of a biological or behavioral phenomenon.

    Bibliographical references:

    • Donal, A. (1999). The closest and the last: past, present and future. Behavioral processes, 189-199.
    • Bateson, P. and Laland, K. (2013). Tinbergen’s Four Questions: An Assessment and an Update. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 28 (12), 712-718.

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