Richard G. Petty, MD

The Development of Color Vision

Last year we looked at the research suggesting that the reason why primates developed color visions was so that they could pick up color changes on the faces and posteriors of other apes.

Now researchers at Ohio University have found that after primates evolved the ability to see red, they began to develop red and orange skin and hair.

As we discussed last year, humans, apes and Old World monkeys, such as macaques and leaf monkeys, all have trichromatic vision, allowing them to distinguish between blue, green and red colors. Primatologists have disagreed about whether this type of color vision initially evolved to help early primates forage for ripe fruit and young, to be able to red leaves among green foliage, or to tell the state of anger or arousal in other apes or to help them select mates.

Now a new study published online this week in American Naturalist by Ohio University researchers Andre´Fernandez and Molly Morris suggests that red-color vision evolved for non-social purposes, possibly foraging. But once developed, trichromaticism – i.e. three color vision – drove the evolution of red skin and hair through sexual selection.

Andre´Fernandez first began to question the strict correlation of food choice and color vision while studying howler monkeys in Costa Rica. He recently compiled data on the color vision, social and sexual habits and red skin and pelage (hair, fur and wool) of 203 different primate species.

The researchers then used a phylogenetic tree representing the evolutionary relationships among all the primate species under study to test hypotheses about the order in which the traits of red color vision, gregariousness (highly social behavior) and red coloring evolved. By comparing the traits of individual species in this evolutionary context, Fernandez and Morris could use statistical methods to deduce the probability of their ancestors having the same traits. They could also see if any of the traits were correlated with one another.

They found that the species that could discern red and orange hues were more likely to develop red and orange skin and hair, as well as highly social habits that make it easier to visually compare mates. In fact, the more social the three-color vision apes are, the more red coloring they show.

Fernandez said,

“Neuroscience research has found some evidence of a perceptual bias for more brilliant colors, so it is reasonable for primates with trichromatic color vision to respond more when they see bright colors.”

Molly Morris, the co-author on the paper is a fish biologist who studies how physical traits such as coloring evolve through sexual selection.

She said,

“It looks like red skin and hair became a sexual preference, so while the benefits in terms of eating may not apply anymore, the (red-color) vision in some groups is now relevant in social terms.”

So while foraging may have initially sparked red color vision, the new ability was likely “recruited” for social purposes.

This is not just an interesting little evolutionary tidbit. There are plenty of systems in the human brain that evolved to do one thing, and are now used for something quite different. And sometimes these new uses conflict with some of the other programs running in the brain. This is likely to be one of the causes for some types of psychological problems. when the brain is trying to do too many things at once, and there is an imbalance between the older limbic regions of the brain and the cerebral cortex.

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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