Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 25, Issue 5, pp 755–780

Redefining animal signaling: influence versus information in communication

  • Michael J. Owren
  • Drew Rendall
  • Michael J. Ryan

DOI: 10.1007/s10539-010-9224-4

Cite this article as:
Owren, M.J., Rendall, D. & Ryan, M.J. Biol Philos (2010) 25: 755. doi:10.1007/s10539-010-9224-4


Researchers typically define animal signaling as morphology or behavior specialized for transmitting encoded information from a signaler to a perceiver. Although intuitively appealing, this conception is inherently metaphorical and leaves concepts of both information and encoding undefined. To justify relying on the information construct, theorists often appeal to Shannon and Weaver’s quantitative definition. The two approaches are, however, fundamentally at odds. The predominant definition of animal signaling is thus untenable, which has a number of undesirable consequences for both theory and practice in the field. Theoretical problems include conceptual circularity and running afoul of fundamental evolutionary principles. Problems in empirical work include that research is often grounded in abstractions such as signal honesty and semanticity, and thereby distracted from more basic and concrete factors shaping communication. A revised definition is therefore proposed, making influence rather than transmission of encoded information the central function of animal signaling. This definition is conceptually sound, empirically testable, and inclusive, yet bounded. Implications are considered in both theoretical and empirical domains.


Animal communication Animal signaling Encoding Evolution Functional reference Influence Information Motivation Manipulation Sexual selection Shannon and Weaver 

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michael J. Owren
    • 1
  • Drew Rendall
    • 2
  • Michael J. Ryan
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyGeorgia State UniversityAtlantaUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyUniversity of LethbridgeLethbridgeCanada
  3. 3.Section of Integrative BiologyUniversity of TexasAustinUSA

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