John Maynard Smith’s notion of animal signals

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This paper explores John Maynard Smith’s conceptual work on animal signals. Maynard Smith defined animal signals as traits that (1) change another organism’s behaviour while benefiting the sender, that (2) are evolved for this function, and that (3) have their effects through the evolved response of the receiver. Like many ethologists, Maynard Smith assumed that animal signals convey semantic information. Yet his definition of animal signals remains silent on the nature of semantic information and on the conditions determining its content. I therefore compare three ways to specify the semantic content of animal signals. The first suggestion models semantic content on Maynard Smith’s theory of genetic information. On the second proposal, semantic content is equated with a condition identified by conventional content ascriptions. The third suggestion is to explain semantic content in terms of consumer-based teleosemantics. I show how these accounts equate semantic content with distinct kinds of conditions and how they differ with respect to the kinds of traits that qualify as carrying semantic information.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1011-1025
Number of pages15
JournalBiology and Philosophy
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 30 Nov 2005


  • animal signals
  • communication
  • content
  • genetic information
  • representation
  • semantic information
  • teleosemantics


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