Grant McIntyre on Niko Tinbergen, Slightly Foxed Issue 19

The Eyesight of Wasps

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I discovered Niko Tinbergen’s Curious Naturalists as a student. I was reading psychology and the course had just begun with a look at animal behaviour, which involved a grasp of scientific method and thus a lot of headache-inducing maths. In a bookshop, glumly casting round for some background reading with a lighter touch than the papers I’d been given, I happened on this remarkable book, published surprisingly by Country Life. It was about seagulls, savage wasps, camouflage and other matters now suddenly on my agenda but, because it was for ordinary readers rather than specialists, the ordeals of theory, statistical bafflement and so forth were wonderfully absent. There were plenty of intriguing illustrations too, many of them really quite odd. In one, a man in a floppy hat was presenting a real butterfly with a paper butterfly on the end of a thread. In another, a stuffed fox was being towed by a jeep towards a colony of gulls. Over time I came to relish the contrast between Heath Robinson arrangements like these and the strange truths they could uncover. Even right there in the shop I got a glimpse of the fun there could be in ingenious detective work. That and a sense of how fascinatingly unlike us other creatures are, how remote their realities are from our understanding.

It was Tinbergen’s name that had first drawn me to the book: he was one of my lecturers and it was already clear that this engaging Dutchman would be one of the good things about the course. In those days the department was in a battered Victorian house which might have made a set for Hammer Films, but when he spoke the scene shifted to the breezy sand dunes of the Zuider Zee. His fieldwork there, together with that of a few like-minded others scattered elsewhere in Europe, had effectively created a new science. It was called ethology (from ηθος, meaning custom or character) and it dealt with animals in relation to the disparate worlds they live in, worlds often

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About the contributor

Grant McIntyre was never a very brilliant psychology student but still finds the subject fascinating.

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