Background Two competing theories have been advanced to explain the evolution of multiple cone classes in vertebrate eyes. These two theories have important, but different, implications for our understanding of the design and tuning of vertebrate visual systems. The ‘contrast theory’ proposes that multiple cone classes evolved in shallow-water fish to maximize the visual contrast of objects against diverse backgrounds. The competing ‘flicker theory’ states that multiple cone classes evolved to eliminate the light flicker inherent in shallow-water environments through antagonistic neural interactions, thereby enhancing object detection. However, the selective pressures that have driven the evolution of multiple cone classes remain largely obscure. Results We show that two critical assumptions of the flicker theory are violated. We found that the amplitude and temporal frequency of flicker vary over the visible spectrum, precluding its cancellation by simple antagonistic interactions between the output signals of cones. Moreover, we found that the temporal frequency of flicker matches the frequency where sensitivity is maximal in a wide range of fish taxa, suggesting that the flicker may actually enhance the detection of objects. Finally, using modeling of the chromatic contrast between fish pattern and background under flickering illumination, we found that the spectral sensitivity of cones in a cichlid focal species is optimally tuned to maximize the visual contrast between fish pattern and background, instead of to produce a flicker-free visual signal. Conclusions The violation of its two critical assumptions substantially undermines support for the flicker theory as originally formulated. While this alone does not support the contrast theory, comparison of the contrast and flicker theories revealed that the visual system of our focal species was tuned as predicted by the contrast theory rather than by the flicker theory (or by some combination of the two). Thus, these findings challenge key assumptions of the flicker theory, leaving the contrast theory as the most parsimonious and tenable account of the evolution of multiple cone classes.