Genetics and Evolution of Color Vision in Primates
- Gerald H. JacobsGerald H. JacobsUniversity of California, Santa Barbara, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences
Color is a central feature of human perceptual experience where it functions as a critical component in the detection, identification, evaluation, placement, and appreciation of objects in the visual world. Its role is significantly enhanced by the fact that humans evolved a dimension of color vision beyond that available to most other mammals. Many fellow primates followed a similar path and in recent years the basic mechanisms that support color vision—the opsin genes, photopigments, cone signals, and central processing—have been the subjects of hundreds of investigations. Because of the tight linkage between opsin gene structure and the spectral sensitivity of cone photopigments, it is possible to trace pathways along which color vision may have evolved in primates. In turn, such information allows the development of hypotheses about the nature of color vision and its utility in nonhuman primates. These hypotheses are being critically evaluated in field studies where primates solve visual problems in the presence of the full panoply of photic cues. The intent of this research is to determine which aspects of these cues are critically linked to color vision and how their presence facilitates, impedes, or fails to influence the solutions. These investigations are challenging undertakings and the emerging literature is replete with contradictory conclusions. But steady progress is being made and it appears that (a) some of the original ideas about there being a restricted number of tasks for which color vision might be optimally utilized by nonhuman primates (e. g., fruit harvest) were too simplistic and (b) depending on circumstances that can include both features of proximate visual stimuli (spectral cues, luminance cues, size cues, motion cues, overall light levels) and situational variables (social cues, developmental status, species-specific traits) the utilization of color vision by nonhuman primates is apt to be complex and varied.