Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 25, Issue 5, pp 755–780 | Cite as

Redefining animal signaling: influence versus information in communication

  • Michael J. OwrenEmail author
  • Drew Rendall
  • Michael J. Ryan


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 



This article is based in part on the workshop “Information and Representation in Signaling using Sound” on November 8, 2008 at Georgia State University, organized by Michael J. Owren and Walt Wilczynski, and sponsored by the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience under the STC Program of the National Science Foundation, Agreement No. IBN-9876754. Preparation of the article was partially supported by a CBN Venture Grant to Michael J. Owren, as well as a GSU RCALL Seed Grant. We thank the NIH and the NSF of the United States and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada for generous grant support over the years. Thanks to Andrea Scarantino for many helpful discussions and comments on this work, as well as to Kim Sterelny, an anonymous reviewer, and Anais Stenson.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michael J. Owren
    • 1
    Email author
  • 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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