Putting information back into biological communication


  • [Correction added on 16 February 2010, after first online publication: the word ‘manipulation’ has been inserted as a keyword and removed from the second sentence of the abstract.]

P. Carazo, Instituto Cavanilles de Biodiversidad y Biología Evolutiva, Universidad de Valencia, Apdo. 22085, 46071 Valencia, Spain.
Tel.: +34 96 354 36 59; fax: +34 96 354 36 70; e-mail: pau.carazo@uv.es


At the heart of many debates on communication is the concept of information. There is an intuitive sense in which communication implies the transfer of some kind of information, probably the reason why information is an essential ingredient in most definitions of communication. However, information has also been an endless source of misunderstandings, and recent accounts have proposed that information should be dropped from a formal definition of communication. In this article, we re-evaluate the merits and the internal logic of information-based vs. information-free approaches and conclude that information-free approaches are conceptually incomplete and operationally hindered. Instead, we propose a functional notion of information that follows logically from previous adaptationist accounts. The ensuing definition of communication provides a wider, more inclusive theoretical scope that reflects more accurately the evolutionary scenario shaping animal signals. Additionally, it is a definition better equipped to deal with the extraordinary diversity of animal signals, facilitates the distinction of honest and deceptive signals at a proximate level and accommodates a number of conceptual and practical issues (e.g. redundancy, alerting components) that are lost when we fail to acknowledge the informative content of animal signals.