The Evolution of Animal Communication: Reliability and Deception in Signaling Systems

The Evolution of Animal Communication: Reliability and Deception in Signaling Systems

The Evolution of Animal Communication: Reliability and Deception in Signaling Systems

The Evolution of Animal Communication: Reliability and Deception in Signaling Systems

Synopsis

Gull chicks beg for food from their parents. Peacocks spread their tails to attract potential mates. Meerkats alert family members of the approach of predators. But are these--and other animals--sometimes dishonest? That's what William Searcy and Stephen Nowicki ask inThe Evolution of Animal Communication. They take on the fascinating yet perplexing question of the dependability of animal signaling systems. The book probes such phenomena as the begging of nesting birds, alarm calls in squirrels and primates, carotenoid coloration in fish and birds, the calls of frogs and toads, and weapon displays in crustaceans. Do these signals convey accurate information about the signaler, its future behavior, or its environment? Or do they mislead receivers in a way that benefits the signaler? For example, is the begging chick really hungry as its cries indicate or is it lobbying to get more food than its brothers and sisters? Searcy and Nowicki take on these and other questions by developing clear definitions of key issues, by reviewing the most relevant empirical data and game theory models available, and by asking how well theory matches data. They find that animal communication is largely reliable--but that this basic reliability also allows the clever deceiver to flourish. Well researched and clearly written, their book provides new insight into animal communication, behavior, and evolution.

Excerpt

Whether signals are reliable or deceptive has been a central question in the study of animal communication in recent years. the crux of the issue is whether animal signals are honest, in the sense of conveying reliable information from signaler to receiver, or deceitful, in the sense of conveying unreliable information, the falsity of which somehow benefits the signaler. This issue arises in a variety of contexts. When a male courts a female, do his signals honestly convey his quality relative to other males? Or does he exaggerate his quality in order to win over females that would otherwise choose some other male? When one animal signals aggressively in a contest over a resource, does the signaler honestly convey its likelihood of attack? Or does the signaler exaggerate that likelihood in order to intimidate competitors that would otherwise defeat him? the question of reliability versus deceit arises even in interactions that, on the face of things, seem to be predominantly cooperative. When an offspring begs for food from its parents, does it honestly convey its level of need? Or does the offspring exaggerate its need in order to get more food than the parents would otherwise provide?

The issue of reliability and deceit in animal communication resonates with human observers for a variety of reasons. One is that the occurrence of deceit is fraught with moral implications. in the view of many, human communication is permeated with deceit. Do humans stand apart in this regard, or are other animals as bad or worse? the answer might have considerable effect on how we view ourselves, as well as on how we view other animals. a second reason for interest in this issue is that the occurrence of deceit, if deceit is defined appropriately, can have considerable implications for our understanding of animal cognition. Some definitions of deceit are framed so as to require cognitive processes of considerable sophistication, such as the ability to form intentions and beliefs and to attribute beliefs to other individuals. If we employ such a definition, and if we can then determine that nonhuman animals deceive each other according to this definition (a big “if”), then we have provided support for a greater level of cognitive capacity than many earlier views of animal behavior have allowed.

Our own interest in reliability and deceit revolves around neither morality nor cognition, but instead derives from the evolutionary implications of the issue. the way one expects animal communication systems to function in terms of reliability and deceit depends on how one views the operation of natural selection. Early students of animal behavior often assumed implicitly that selection operates at the level of groups, so that behavior evolves toward . . .

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