The validity of the Rovamo-Barten modulation transfer function model for describing spatial contrast sensitivity in vertebrates was examined using published data for the human, macaque, cat, goldfish, pigeon and rat. Under photopic conditions, the model adequately described overall contrast sensitivity for changes in both stimulus luminance and stimulus size for each member of this diverse range of species. From this examination, optical, retinal and post-retinal neural processes subserving contrast sensitivity were quantified. An important retinal process is lateral inhibition and values of its associated point spread function (PSF) were obtained for each species. Some auxiliary contrast sensitivity data obtained from the owl monkey were included for these calculations. Modeled values of the lateral inhibition PSF were found to correlate well with ganglion cell receptive field surround size measurements obtained directly from electrophysiology. The range of vertebrates studied was then further extended to include the squirrel monkey, tree shrew, rabbit, chicken and eagle. To a first approximation, modeled estimates of lateral inhibition PSF width were found to be inversely proportional to the square root of ganglion cell density. This finding is consistent with a receptive field surround diameter that changes in direct proportion to the distance between ganglion cells for central vision. For the main species examined, contrast sensitivity is considerably less than that for the human. Although this is due in part to a reduction in the performance of both optical and retinal mechanisms, the model indicates that poor cortical detection efficiency plays a significant role.