COMPANION

Nikolaas Tinbergen

Nikolaas ‘Niko’ Tinbergen (1907–1988) was a Dutch biologist, ornithologist, Nobel Prize winner, and pupil of the Alexander Technique.

Life

Tinbergen studied biology at Leiden University and received a Ph.D. degree in 1932. During World War II he was a prisoner of war. After the war he moved to England, where he taught at the University of Oxford (1949–74). Here he helped to organise its research department of animal behaviour.

With Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch, Tinbergen is credited with being one of the founders of modern ethology. Their emphasis was on field observations of animals in their natural habitat. Tinbergen is especially well known for his long-term observations of sea gulls, and used these to make important general observations on courtship and mating behaviour. His The Study of Instinct (1951) became an influential book on animal behaviour. Other books were The Herring Gull’s World (1953), Social Behaviour in Animals (1953), and Animal Behaviour (1965).[1] [2]

Tinbergen shared the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Karl von Frisch and Konrad Lorenz ‘for their discoveries concerning organization and elicitation of individual and social behaviour patterns’ in animals.[3]

He married Elisabeth ‘Lies’ Rutten (1912–1990).

Connection with Alexander Technique

Around 1972–73 one of Tinbergen’s daughters, Janet, suggested he and Lies should have lessons and they had lessons with Elisabeth and Dick Walker in Oxford. They became friends and the Walkers visited the Tinbergens in their cottage in Westmoreland.[4] Tinbergen continued having lessons for another nine years, and his daughter Janet continued having lessons with Elisabeth Walker for many years.

Nobel Prize Lecture 1973

In his Nobel Lecture, Tinbergen stated that the revival of the ‘watching and wondering’ approach to studying behaviour could indeed contribute to the relief of human suffering, and discusses two examples of this: 1. early childhood autism, and 2. the Alexander Technique. Discussing the Alexander Technique he relates his experiences, following the reading of Dr Wilfred Barlow’s The Alexander Principle (1973):[5]

I must admit that his physiological explanations of how the treatment [sic] could be supposed to work (and also a touch of hero worship in his [Dr Barlow’s] book) made me initially a little doubtful, and even sceptical. But the claims made, first by Alexander, and reiterated and extended by Barlow sounded so extraordinary that I felt I ought to give the method at least the benefit of the doubt. And so, arguing that medical practice often goes by the sound empirical principle of ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’, my wife, one of our daughters and I decided to undergo treatment ourselves, and also to use the opportunity for observing its effects as critically as we could. For obvious reasons, each of us went to a different Alexander teacher. We discovered that the therapy [sic] is based on exceptionally sophisticated observation, not only by means of vision but also to a surprising extent by using the sense of touch. It consists in essence of no more than a very gentle, first exploratory, and then corrective manipulation of the entire muscular system. This starts with the head and neck, then very soon the shoulders and chest are involved, and finally the pelvis, legs and feet, until the whole body is under scrutiny and treatment. As in our own observations of children, the therapist [sic] is continuously monitoring the body, and adjusting his procedure all the time. What is actually done varies from one patient to another, depending on what kind of mis-use the diagnostic exploration reveals. And naturally, it affects different people in different ways. But between the three of us, we already notice, with growing amazement, very striking improvements in such diverse things as high blood pressure, breathing, depth of sleep, overall cheerfulness and mental alertness, resilience against outside pressures, and also in such a refined skill as playing a stringed instrument. So from personal experience we can already confirm some of the seemingly fantastic claims made by Alexander and his followers, namely that many types of under-performance and even ailments, both mental and physical, can be alleviated, sometimes to a surprising extent, by teaching the body musculature to function differently.[6]

He also described Alexander’s discovery of his technique as related in ‘Evolution of a technique’ in UoS in this way:

This story, of perceptiveness, of intelligence, and of persistence, shown by a man without medical training, is one of the true epics of medical research and practice.[7]

This has sometimes been quoted since in the Alexander Technique literature.

The Nobel Prize lecture caused disputes. Tinbergen’s suggestion for treating autism is now not supported by evidence. The endorsement of the Alexander Technique was the cause of an article and a correspondence in New Scientist and Science, mainly with letters by Edward Maisel, Dr Wilfred Barlow and Tinbergen. In response to an article in New Scientist, ‘Did Nobelist go too far in advocating Alexander Technique’ by Roger Lewin, Tinbergen defended his view on the Technique.[8] Following a separate attack by Edward Maisel in Science, Tinbergen again wrote to defend himself and his views on the Alexander Technique.[9]

See also The Nobel Prize Episode.

Hans Kruuk’s 2003 biography of Tinbergen contains a hostile and anti-Alexander Technique version of the role the Technique played in Tinbergen’s life. The Alexander Technique is described as a hero-worshipping cult full of fuzzy writings. Kruuk is implying that the Technique only temporarily ‘smoothed’ life’s difficulties for Tinbergen, and that Tinbergen swallowed claims made for the Technique ‘hook, line and sinker.’ Kruuk also states that very soon after the speech Tinbergen’s ‘brush with it [the Technique] was past’; that the Technique did not do a great deal for Tinbergen, and suggests that the Nobel lecture is ‘best forgotten’.[10]

In an interview in 2007 Elisabeth Walker firmly disagreed with Kruuk. She was at the time still giving lessons to Janet Tinbergen. Elisabeth reported that Tinbergen kept on having lessons for years and seemed to benefit from it and that he did not regret his Nobel oration. She said though that he did regret that his terminology was inaccurate, because he referred to the Technique as ‘therapy’ which consists of ‘corrective manipulation’.[11]

The F. M. Alexander Memorial Lecture 1976

Tinbergen gave the F. M. Alexander Memorial Lecture, ‘Use and misuse in evolutionary perspective’, in 1976.[12] He draws parallels between the concepts of use and misuse in the Technique and the concepts of fitness and adaptedness in biology. He considers two notions of the origin of misuse mentioned in the Alexander Technique literature: 1. that humans are still evolving toward a more upright posture (but concludes that there is no evidence for evolution working towards an ‘ideal’) and 2. that the ‘modern, man-made environment is exerting new pressures which overstretch our adjustability’.[13] He in particular emphasises the problems of sitting too much, eating too much (‘people in affluent societies simply eat too much’[14]), and claims that much misuse is the result of our response to psychological pressures.[15] The solution, he proposes, lies in making our environment less damaging and in the Alexander Technique. He is convinced of the ‘great potential of the Alexander Technique’ and of ‘its biological soundness and plausibility.’[16]

Writings on the Alexander Technique

  • ‘Ethology and stress diseases’ Nobel Lecture, 1973.[17]
  • ‘Tinbergen on Alexander’, letter in New Scientist, 1974.[18]
  • ‘The Alexander Technique’, letter in Science, 1975.[19]
  • ‘Use and misuse in evolutionary perspective’, 1976.[20]

Nikolaas ‘Niko’ Tinbergen *15 April 1907 – †21 December 1988.

See also The Nobel Prize Episode, Elisabeth Walker.

References

[4] Forward and Away by Elisabeth Walker (Mouritz, 2014), pp. 132–34.
[5] The Alexander Principle by Wilfred Barlow (Gollancz, 1973).
[6] ‘Ethology and Stress Diseases’ Nobel Lecture, 12 December 1973 by Nikolaas Tinbergen in Nobel Lectures, Physiology or Medicine 1971–1980, edited by Jan Lindsten (World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1992) pp. 122–23. Retrieved from https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1973/tinbergen/lecture/ 1 June 2020.
[7] ‘Ethology and Stress Diseases’ Nobel Lecture, December 12, 1973 by Nikolaas Tinbergen in Nobel Lectures, Physiology or Medicine 1971–1980, edited by Jan Lindsten (World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1992) p. 122. Retrieved from
https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1973/tinbergen/lecture/ 1 June 2020.
[8] ‘Tinbergen on Alexander’ by N. Tinbergen. Letter in New Scientist vol. 64, no. 923, 14 November 1974, p. 524, quoted in Nobel Episode Revisited by Dr. G. S. Hehr (Nyoom-Annesh Publications, 1998), p. 30.
[9] ‘The Alexander Technique’ by Nikolaas Tinbergen. Letter in Science vol. 188, no. 4187, 2 May 1975, pp. 405-06, quoted in Nobel Episode Revisited by Dr. G. S. Hehr (Nyoom-Annesh Publications, 1998), pp. 62–63.
[10] Niko’s Nature: The Life of Niko Tinbergen and His Science of Animal Behaviour by Hans Kruuk (Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 280–83.
[11] ‘Elisabeth Walker – A portrait of a life with the Alexander Technique’ by Jean M. O. Fischer in Conscious Control vol. 2 no. 2, edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2008), pp. 62–63.
[12] ‘Use and misuse in evolutionary perspective’ by N. Tinbergen in More Talk of Alexander edited by Dr Wilfred Barlow (Mouritz, 2005), pp. 234–55.
[13] ‘Use and misuse in evolutionary perspective’ by N. Tinbergen in More Talk of Alexander edited by Dr Wilfred Barlow (Mouritz, 2005), p. 252.
[14] ‘Use and misuse in evolutionary perspective’ by N. Tinbergen in More Talk of Alexander edited by Dr Wilfred Barlow (Mouritz, 2005), p. 252.
[15] ‘Use and misuse in evolutionary perspective’ by N. Tinbergen in More Talk of Alexander edited by Dr Wilfred Barlow (Mouritz, 2005), pp. 252–53.
[16] ‘Use and misuse in evolutionary perspective’ by N. Tinbergen in More Talk of Alexander edited by Dr Wilfred Barlow (Mouritz, 2005), pp. 254-55.
[17] Ethology and Stress Diseases’ Nobel Lecture, 12 December 1973 by Nikolaas Tinbergen in Nobel Lectures, Physiology or Medicine 1971–1980, edited by Jan Lindsten (World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1992) pp. 122–23. Retrieved from https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1973/tinbergen/lecture/ 1 June 2020.
[18] ‘Tinbergen on Alexander’ by N. Tinbergen. Letter in New Scientist vol. 64, no. 923, 14 November 1974, p. 524, quoted in Nobel Episode Revisited by Dr. G. S. Hehr (Nyoom-Annesh Publications, 1998), p. 30.
[19] ‘The Alexander Technique’ by Nikolaas Tinbergen. Letter in Science vol. 188, no. 4187, 2 May 1975, pp. 405-06, quoted in Nobel Episode Revisited by Dr. G. S. Hehr (Nyoom-Annesh Publications, 1998), pp. 62–63.
[20] ‘Use and misuse in evolutionary perspective’ by N. Tinbergen in More Talk of Alexander edited by Dr Wilfred Barlow (Mouritz, 2005), pp. 234–55.