Sensory Bias

The engineering details of sensory systems can influence the direction of sexual selection. Investigating these sensory details became a hot topic in the 1980s, but the research area has as many names as there are biologists. John Endler called it "sensory drive"; William Eberhard and Michael Ryan called it "sensory exploitation"; Amotz Zahavi called it "signal selection"; Tim Guilford and Marian Stamp Dawkins called it "the influence of receiver psychology on the evolution of animal signals." The most common term for the design of sensory systems driving the direction of sexual selection is "sensory bias," so I'll use that.

Sensory bias theory is a rapidly developing set of ideas that deserves much more research. It tries to ground the evolutionary study of animal signaling in the design of animal senses. It recognizes that there are always design compromises in animal sensory systems, and that these compromises sometimes make it possible to predict the direction in which sexual selection will go. It also suggests that there are many possible ways for a perceptual system to evolve a sensitivity to particular patterns of stimulation. The selection pressures on senses do not determine every detail of sensory system design: there are always contingent details about the responsiveness of senses that could not be predicted from their adaptive functions. These contingencies may influence the direction of sexual selection, by leading senses to respond more strongly to some stimuli than to others. Finally, sensory bias theory recognizes that senses evolve interactively with the signals they favor.

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