As they grow up, approximately 25% of children in the United States become myopic (nearsighted). A much smaller fraction become significantly hyperopic (farsighted), while the majority develop little or no refractive error and are emmetropic. The causes of refractive error, especially myopia, have been the subject of debate for more than a century. Some have held that myopia is primarily an inherited disorder, and others, that myopia is caused by protracted near work and, especially, by accommodation during protracted near work. It has not been possible, based solely on clinical observations, to resolve the relative roles of heredity versus environment in the development of refractive error. In the mid-1970s, several animal models were developed to study the mechanisms underlying refractive error. Using animal models, it was found that the visual environment exerts a powerful influence on refractive state by controlling the axial length of the eye during the postnatal developmental period. Although several species have been examined, three have emerged as primary models and have played complementary roles: tree shrews (mammals closely related to primates), chicks, and monkeys. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Collectively, research on animal models has provided evidence on three issues, namely that (1) the visual environment can produce refractive error; (2) an emmetropization mechanism normally guides eyes to low refractive error; and (3) under-accommodation, rather than excessive accommodation, may cause myopia. Two decades of research on animal models have provided criteria that may be used to evaluate the usefulness of additional species as models of emmetropization.