Individuals without names

The neurodiversity thread in the General category helped me to notice something I had not before. I commented on my college experience, where I could be on a field trip with classmates I had known all semester, and felt comfortable and friendly with, but still didn’t know their names. I just went by the familiar faces.

That reminded me of an experiment I read about, in which a ewe was shown photographs of various individual rams. If she had an emotional attachment to one ram in particular, then her hormonal reaction was triggered by the picture of that particular ram. Now, I do not think that a sheep’s vocal apparatus has a sufficient range of nuance for sheep to have what we think of as names – I do not think that a ewe can call her ram by name, or give names to her lambs. But the experiment showed that they can recognize each other by face. This is important in a social species.

So far, personal names have been recorded among dolphins, crows, primates, and parrots – all animals with a wide enough vocal range to allow for this. But my experience with having familiar people around me and feeling part of a group, yet not knowing their names, may be similar to what most social animals experience. It suggests individual names are not needed for a complex and nuanced social life.

If a person is especially important to me for a period of time, then I do come to put a name to the face, so the analogy is not perfect. But still, referring back to neurodiversity: suppose there was someone who completely lacked the ability to associate people with their names. It need not necessarily prevent that person from knowing love and friendship.


I did not know that animals referred to individuals by specific distinct vocalizations. That is quite interesting.

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Chickens also give names to the members of their flock - as well as the people who care for the flock.


back to the sheep. Many years ago I read a New Scientist article about sheep.
First they can recognise individual human faces.
Second they can recognise what mood that person is in. Fascinates me that a sheep can evaluate human facial expression.


No kidding! I know people who have trouble with that! :wink:


Don’t forget the bugs! They may not have vocalized “names”, but some insects can even recognize other individuals by their faces and tailor their responses to the unique relationship they have with that individual. Elizabeth Tibbetts’ research on paper wasps is quite interesting. Here’s a popular article summarizing some of it:


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