Researchers question the cooperative eye hypothesis

The sclera of the eye is devoid of pigment, which is why humans can easily follow where counterparts are looking. Researchers have long believed this facilitates glance-based communication. A team of zoologists based at the University of Duisburg-Essen (UDE) and the Anthropological Institute in Zurich is now challenging this traditional view in a new study. The researchers looked at communicative behavior and eye color in apes and question the proposed connection between the two phenomena. The results have just been published in Scientific Reports.


study leader Kai Caspar (UDE) said, part of this hypothesis is based on the idea that among primates, only humans have white sclerae. However, only a few comparative data have been available to back up this claim. Therefore, we assessed scleral pigmentation and measured eye contrast values in photos of more than 380 hominoids from 15 species. These included humans, great apes such as chimpanzees and orangutans, and gibbons, the small apes.


Although all hominoids are closely related, they communicate by different means. UDE zoologist Caspar said, different from us humans, glances play only a subordinate role in great ape communication, and for the gibbons, they seem to have no communicative significance at all. So if the traditional assumption were true, differences in pigmentation should comply with differences in communicative behavior: the lighter the sclera, the more are the eyes used to convey information.


But this is not the case, as the study was able to show. Neither is the white of the human eye unique nor can a connection be made between scleral color and communicative demands. The expression of contrast in our eyes is not significantly different from that in some great apes, such as the Sumatran orangutan. Interestingly, however, scleral pigmentation can sometimes be highly variable within the same ape species. In humans, there is only plain white. This uniformity is quite unusual extreme.


The zoologists around Kai Caspar fully reject the common assumption that the lightening of our sclera arose for the purpose of effective communication. Instead, they suspect other evolutionary mechanisms such as genetic drift or sexual selection to be at play: These may have altered the appearance of our eyes in comparison to that of our closest living relatives.

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