Toward a Definition of Communication

Communication is surprisingly hard to define. Part of the difficulty stems from the wide variety of contexts in which animals communicate and to some extent from the diversity of signals employed. Such diversity means that there can be important exceptions to each of the many definitions of communication. For example, one common definition is mutually beneficial information transfer; however, there are several instances where information transfer is not mutually beneficial (e.g., mimicry by edible species of inedible species, which is a deception to the receiver's detriment). Another aspect of the difficulty of definition is that communication is only a subset of information transfer; a mouse moving through fallen leaves and a tree bending in the breeze both transmit information (on location and wind direction, respectively) but would not be thought of as communication.

One approach is to focus on the role of signals in communication, that is, communication can be defined as behavior involving signals, where signals are defined as adaptations to transmit information. Therefore the call of a frog is an adaptation, for example, to attract females for mating, and likely contains information on species identity in order to function effectively. The rustling mouse generates information on location as an incidental by-product of movement; the rustling sound is probably maladaptive because it is likely to attract a predator.

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