What’s in a name?: Animal Identity and Identification

We have long assumed that the only names animals possess are the one we have given them, however recent scientific research is offering a different narrative. Increasingly, animal behaviour studies are suggesting that perhaps nonhuman animals have names for each other, thereby destabilising our anthropocentric way of thinking.

Bottlenose dolphins, sperm whales and orca are among the cetaceans though to have names for each other is the form of signature calls. Studies have also shown that parent green-rumped parrots in Venezuela give names to their babies. It makes seems logical that animals who socialise have evolved with the ability to name each other. It is a necessity to keep track of who is who in the social grouping, whether you are a dolphin, a parrot or a human being. As a species, we assume that we are exceptional – both in the sense of being an atypical species and a superior one. This anthropocentric is not inherent but a narrative of our own creation.

Although we believe that we alone reserve the right and capability of naming ourselves, this has not stopped us from bestowing names on nonhuman animals’ behalf. In our science, we classify and divide nonhuman animals’ using taxonomical names. The Linnaean system of classification was developed during the eighteenth-century. This rank-based method values humans above other species as they are uniquely identified within the animal kingdom by the name Homo sapiens. Organisms considered closer to us on the family tree (the spectral influence of the “The Great Chain of Being“) are generally given higher ranking.


Jorge Luis Borges’ Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge proposes an alternative taxonomy, a fictitious classification system from ‘a certain Chinese Encyclopedia’. This list divides all animals into fourteen categories:

  1. Those that belong to the emperor
  2. Embalmed ones
  3. Those that are trained
  4. Suckling pigs
  5. Mermaids (or Sirens)
  6. Fabulous ones
  7. Stray dogs
  8. Those that are included in this classification
  9. Those that tremble as if they were mad
  10. Innumerable ones
  11. Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
  12. Et cetera
  13. Those that have just broken the flower vase
  14. Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

This method of taxonomy is both baffling and humorous on first glance. It does, however, succeed in its aims to expose the arbitrariness of classification and leads the reader to question the apparent ‘natural order’ of beings.

“If you name me, you negate me. By giving me a name, a label, you negate all of the other things I could possibly be.”
– Søren Kierkegaard

Naming animals is not just a scientific endeavour. The power of naming is written into religious thought. In the Bible, it is written that God sought a helper for Adam:

“And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.”
(Genesis 2.19)

In this case, denomination becomes domination. Medieval historian Lynn White Jr. argues that “[Christianity] not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends”.

Beyond institutionalised classification of species, we grant names to individual animals – albeit only under certain circumstances. In the West, at least, humans invite certain types of animal into their homes and give them names as pets. Naming these animals determines their access to a specific kind of relationship with us, arguably one of privilege compared to farm or laboratory animals. In this way, naming encourages attachment and a personal bond. A pet can be considered a member of the family, can be mourned. In comparison, farm animals and laboratory animals are given numbers and viewed only as functional.

There has, however, been a shift within some scientific circles towards giving animal subjects individual names; Jane Goodall is the well-known primatologist most attributed with this shift. In choosing to describe the chimpanzees of Gombe as individuals (Mike, Flo etc.) rather than type (‘alpha male’, ‘lactating female’ etc.) challenged the scientific norm. Resisting the impulse to regard all chimpanzees as essentially the same, and indeed all animals as the same, forces us to recognise individuals instead. Goodall faced resistance to this method as ‘unscientific’. Nevertheless, her work revealed “the importance of individual (chimpanzee) agency and historical specificity in the creation of chimp social structure” (DeMello, 2012).

22-two-chimps-714Photograph by Michael Nichols

The revelation that at least some animals are capable of naming each other necessarily changes the way we think about the act of naming. We can no longer consider names as a determining factor of humanity. This research raises as many questions as it may answer (as good research often does). How sophisticated is nonhuman communication and will we ever be able to truly understand it? To what extent is inter-species communication possible? Do animals have names for other members of other species (human and nonhuman alike)? Do they name us by some measure as we name them?

There are difficult obstacles to tackle if we are ever to find these answers. Indeed, it may not be possible to ever be able to confidently interpret the communication and experience of nonhuman animals. Nevertheless, I believe there is already enough evidence to challenge the way we consider nonhuman animals, breaking down the power dynamics built into our linguistic descriptions of them.

Shakespeare famously posed the question “What’s in a name?” – I would argue that when it comes to our relationship with the animal kingdom, quite a lot.




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