Learning humility from a Nobel prizewinner


The Dutch biologist Niko Tinbergen — whose biography, Niko's Nature by Hans Kruuk, is reviewed by John Krebs (Nature 427, 293–294; 2004) — may help us to understand one of the problems with German science outlined in the Editorial in the same issue (Nature 427, 271; 200410.1038/427271a).

Tinbergen had an extraordinary characteristic that accounts, I believe, for his ability to develop intellectually throughout his life, and stimulate his students and colleagues to do so too. It was his humility. At the weekly seminars that he held in his home for his fellow ethologists and others, I observed that he never hesitated to display his initial incomprehension of a new idea; he was determined to understand. It was an object lesson to his group.

This characteristic was unfortunately not shared by many of his peers. At the European conferences that he organized with his fellow Nobel prizewinners, it was striking how many German professors used their authority to determine what their juniors contributed. This must have been stultifying for both.

Although scientific hierarchies have become less rigid in Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder would do well to encourage more egalitarian intellectual innovation as he develops his plans for several new ‘élite’ German universities.

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Godfrey, J. Learning humility from a Nobel prizewinner. Nature 427, 677 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/427677c

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