Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 26, Issue 5, pp 677–696 | Cite as

Modelling and the fall and rise of the handicap principle

  • Jonathan GroseEmail author


The story of the fall and rise of Zahavi’s handicap principle is one of a battle between models. Early attempts at formal modeling produced negative results and, unsurprisingly, scepticism about the principle. A major change came in 1990 with Grafen’s production of coherent models of a handicap mechanism of honest signalling. This paper’s first claim is that acceptance of the principle, and its dissemination into other disciplines, has been driven principally by that, and subsequent modeling, rather than by empirical results. Secondly, there is a vast literature on biological signalling but few studies that make all of the observations necessary to diagnose the handicap mechanism. My final claim is that many of the applications of “costly signalling theory” in other disciplines are conceptually confused. Misinterpretations of what is meant by “costly signalling” are common. Demonstrating that a signal is costly is insufficient and is not always necessary in order to prove that, and explain why, a signal is honest. In addition to the biological modelling of signals, there is an economic literature on the same subject. The two run in parallel in the sense that they have had little mutual interaction. Additionally, it is the biological modelling that has been picked up, and often misapplied, by other disciplines.


Handicap principle Costly signaling Honest signaling Deception Amotz Zahavi Alan Grafen 



Thanks to audiences at The British Society for the Philosophy of Science conference, Dublin 2010 and at the University of Bristol for helpful discussions and to two anonymous referees for very useful comments. Research funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council project “Evolution, Cooperation and Rationality”. Grant AH/F017502/1.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of BristolBristolUK

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