Tinbergen’s Four Questions

In biology, the division in ultimate and proximate explanations has been extended to what is usually termed “Tinbergen’s four questions” (Tinbergen, 1963); the four potential explanations of any behavior: (1) survival value or adaptive function, (2) phylogenetic history, (3) individual development, and (4) causal mechanisms such as hormonal mediation of behavior. The first two of Tinbergen’s questions are ultimate whereas the latter two are proximate. To fully shed light on a biological phenomenon all four types of questions are needed and the answers complement each other.


Tinbergen, N. (1963). On aims and methods in ethology. Z. Tierpsychol. 20, 410–433.

-- Patrik Lindenfors , Birgitta S. Tullberg

from "Evolutionary Aspects of Aggression: The Importance of Sexual Selection"

Quoted on Wed Dec 21st, 2011