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Courtship behaviour in Drosophila


The ethologists: Tinbergen and Lorenz
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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Immediately after the war, well a few years after the war, the work of Tinbergen and Lorenz were very exciting among animal behaviourists. In the main courses I was taught as an undergraduate, I did not hear their names. Animal behaviour was treated... the classic textbook was a book by Fraenkel and Gunn which was all about really very mechanistic analyses of how animals behaved, how they went towards lights and away from heat and so on. But it was all very, very much robotic sort of behavioural stuff. And we never heard of Lorenz and Tinbergen from our main teachers, for example, GP Wells, HG's [Wells] son, never mentioned them. I learned them first not from Helen Spurway but from two of my fellow undergraduates who'd just come up from school, one of whom was Aubrey Manning and the other whom was David Blest. And they had both been introduced to the writings of the ethologists by bright school masters, I think, and they were busy talking about them. And at first, I was rather unsympathetic, because I was an engineer and I really rather liked these very mechanistic accounts that I found in Fraenkel and Gunn, but they gradually converted me. But Helen did...  Helen Spurway did talk about the ethologists in her lectures. She wasn't meant to be talking about behaviour, she was meant to be talking about genetics, but she did talk about the ethologists. And I read both Tinbergen and Lorenz when I was an undergraduate, but really not because it was part of the course, it was outside

[Q] Tinbergen was not unmechanist, he was nothing like Fraenkel and Gunn, but he did have a sort of mechanistic view as well.

Oh yeah, but he did hold that there was something inside an animal's head. And for Fraenkel and Gunn, there really wasn't, except a few simple relays. Made a big difference. I did wonder for a time, I have to admit, whether I wanted, after graduating, to go to Oxford and work with Tinbergen, or Lack... perhaps Lack, as a man I had great affection for, he was very kind to me. But I decided not to on what turned out to be, I think, very sensible grounds that I didn't think I'd be good at fieldwork. It's not that I wouldn't have enjoyed doing fieldwork, but I had very poor eyesight, and I do think fieldwork, at least on birds, requires you to be able to see, which I can't. On the other hand, I am quite good at mathematics and I thought, you know, doing something genetical, experimental, will be more what I'm good at. So I was quite right. I stayed and did what I'm good at rather than went and did something I'm not good at. But I had close contacts, not with much with Tinbergen at first, of course, but with his students. Both Aubrey Manning and David Blest went to Oxford and worked with Tinbergen, and I got to know some of the other students there as well, so that I was quite close to the people in Oxford in the years immediately after I graduated.

The late British biologist John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) is famous for applying game theory to the study of natural selection. At Eton College, inspired by the work of old Etonian JBS Haldane, Maynard Smith developed an interest in Darwinian evolutionary theory and mathematics. Then he entered University College London (UCL) to study fruit fly genetics under Haldane. In 1973 Maynard Smith formalised a central concept in game theory called the evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS). His ideas, presented in books such as 'Evolution and the Theory of Games', were enormously influential and led to a more rigorous scientific analysis and understanding of interactions between living things.

Listeners: Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins was educated at Oxford University and has taught zoology at the universities of California and Oxford. He is a fellow of New College, Oxford and the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Dawkins is one of the leading thinkers in modern evolutionary biology. He is also one of the best read and most popular writers on the subject: his books about evolution and science include "The Selfish Gene", "The Extended Phenotype", "The Blind Watchmaker", "River Out of Eden", "Climbing Mount Improbable", and most recently, "Unweaving the Rainbow".

Tags: Orientation of Animals, Oxford University, Nikolaas Tinbergen, Konrad Lorenz, Gottfried Fraenkel, GP Wells, Aubrey Manning, David Blest, Helen Spurway, David Lack

Duration: 3 minutes, 2 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008