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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Nobel Laureates: Karl von Frisch, Konrad Lorenz, Nikolaas Tinbergen


The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1973.
"for their discoveries concerning organization and elicitation of individual and social behaviour patterns"

Karl von Frisch (1886 - 1982), Konrad Lorenz (1903 - 1989), and Nikolaas Tinbergen (1907 - 1988) received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work on animal behavior. This is the most biological of all Nobel Prizes that have been awarded and, at the time, it suggested that the Nobel Committee was prepared to consider a wider view of "physiology." That turned out to be optimistic. Subsequent prizes have failed to recognize advancements in evolution and ecology, to name just two disciplines that have been ignored.

The presentation speech was delivered in Swedish by Professor Börje Cronholm of the Karolinska Medico-Chirurgical Institute.

Nobel Laureates
Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Animal behavior has fascinated man since time immemorial as can be witnessed by the important role of animals in myths, fairy-tales and fables. However, for too long man has tried to understand it from his own experiences, from his own way of thinking, feeling and acting. Descriptions along these lines may be quite poetic, but they do not lead to any increase in knowledge. Various pre-scientific ideas have been especially tenacious in this field. Thus, it is not long ago that the vitalists maintained that the instincts bore witness of a wisdom that was inherent in the organism and could not be further analyzed. It was not until behavior problems were studied by means of scientific methods, by systematic observation and by experimentation, that real progress was made. Within that research field this year's Nobel prize laureates have been pioneers. They have collected numerous data about animal behavior both in natural settings and in experimental situations. Being biological scholars they leave also studied the functions of behavior patterns, their role in the individual struggle for life and for the continuation of the species. Thus, behavior patterns have stood out as results of natural selection just as morphological characteristics and physiological functions.

It is of fundamental importance that some behavior patterns evidently are genetically programmed. The so-called fixed action patterns do not request any previous experience and they will be automatically elicited by definite key stimuli. They proceed in a mechanical, robot-like way, and when they have started they are no more influenced by external circumstances. In insects, fishes and birds, such important procedures as courtship, nesting and taking care of the brood, to a large extent consist in fixed action patterns. With development of the brain hemispheres, behavior has become increasingly modifiable and dependent on learning in mammals and especially in man, but fixed action patterns still play an important role.

For more than sixty years: Karl von Frisch has devoted himself to studies of the very complicated behavior of honeybees. Above all, he has elucidated what has rightly been called 'the language of bees'. When a bee has found flowers containing nectar, it performs a special dance when returning to the hive. The dance informs the bees in the hive of the existence of food, often also about the direction where the flowers will be found and about the distance to them. The foraging bee is able to indicate the direction of the food source in relation to the sun by means of analyzing polarized, ultraviolet light from the sky, light that is invisible to us. The honeybees do not learn, either to dance or to understand the message of the dance. Both the dancing and the appropriate reactions to it are genetically programmed behavior patterns.

Konrad Lorenz has studied among many other things the fixed action patterns of various birds. His experiments with inexperienced animals, e.g. young birds from an incubator, are of great importance in this context. In these young birds he observed behavior patterns that could not reasonably have been learnt but were to be interpreted as being genetically programmed. He also found that experiences of young animals during a critical period could be decisive for their future development. Newborn ducks and geese follow the first moving object that they catch sight of, and later on they will follow those particular objects only. Normally, they will follow their mother, but they may be seduced to follow almost any moving object or creature. This phenomenon has been called 'imprinting'.

While Konrad Lorenz has above all been a systematic observer of animal behavior, Nikolaas Tinbergen has to a large extent tested various hypotheses by means of comprehensive, careful, and quite often ingenious experiments. Among other things, he has used dummies to measure the strength of different key stimuli as regards their ability to elicit corresponding fixed action patterns. He made the important observation that 'supranormal' stimuli eliciting more intense behavior than those of natural conditions, may be produced by exaggerating certain characteristics.

The discoveries made by this year's Nobel prize laureates were based on studies of insects, fishes and birds and might thus seem to be of only minor importance for human physiology or medicine. However, their discoveries have been a prerequisite for the comprehensive research that is now pursued also on mammals. Studies are devoted to the existence of genetically programmed behavior patterns, their organization, maturation and their elicitation by key stimuli. There are also studies concerning the importance of specific experiences during critical periods for the normal development of the individual. Research into the behavior of monkeys have demonstrated that serious and to a large extent lasting behavior disturbances may be the result when a baby grows up in isolation without contact with its mother and siblings or with adequate substitutes. Another important research field concerns the effects of abnormal psychosocial situations on the individual. They may lead not only to abnormal behavior but also to serious somatic illness such as arterial hypertension and myocardial infarction. One important conclusion is that the psychosocial situation of an individual cannot be too adverse to its biological equipment without serious consequences. This holds true for all species, also for that which in shameless vanity has baptized itself 'Homo sapiens'.

Karl von Frisch, Konrad Lorenz, Nikolaas Tinbergen,

According to an old fable, cited by one of you, king Solomon is said to have been the owner of a ring that had the mystical power to give him the gift of understanding the language of animals. You have been the successors of king Solomon in the respect that you have been able to decode the information that animals pass to each other, and also to elucidate the meaning of their behavior to us. Your ability to find general rules underlying the confusing manifold of animal behavior makes us sometimes believe that king Solomon's ring has in fact been available also to you. But we know that you have been working in an empirical way, collecting data and interpreting it according to hard and fast scientific rules.

Aside from their value in themselves, your discoveries have had a farreaching influence on such medical disciplines as social medicine, psychiatry and psychosomatic medicine. For that reason it was very much in agreement with the spirit of Alfred Nobel's will when the medical faculty of the Karolinska Institute awarded you this year's Nobel Prize.

We are proud to have two of you, professor Konrad Lorenz and professor Nikolaas Tinbergen, with us today, and we are also grateful to professor Karl von Frisch that he has sent his son, professor Otto von Frisch, to represent him here.

On behalf of the Karolinska Institute I wish to convey to you the warmest congratulations and I now ask you to receive your prize from the hands of His Majesty the King.


  1. "Subsequent prizes have failed to recognize advancements in evolution and ecology, to name just two disciplines that have been ignored"

    Shameful, if you ask me...

    At least we have the Crafoord Prize.

  2. Lorenz deserves some sort of prize for hair styling.