In my last post before my most recent hiatus from blogging, I wrote about HAIs, or Hospital-Acquired Infections. There were many interesting things that I discovered while researching it, but there was one site I found myself going back to repeatedly, and not just for research purposes. That site, Project 2996, is a WordPress blog dedicated to listing the names of each and every victim of the hijacked-plane attacks on September 11, 2001. But it’s not just a list—there are active members of the site’s community; contributors who research the lives of these individuals, write tributes to them, and post these on the site. As of today, 1722 people have tributes—significantly more than the 1274 who have not been memorialized there.
It got me thinking about the importance of names, about their value and their power. Names individuate people. A name forces us to engage with the simple fact that there is someone “in there,” behind the face of the person; there is something it is like to be so-and-so, because so-and-so is a living, experiencing being just like ourselves. Referring to someone by name can show respect or express intimacy; perhaps most importantly, memorializing someone by name preserves their dignity. This kind of symbolic gesture is crucial. Think of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, a monument literally constructed from the names of the dead. Instead of being reduced to a nameless statistic (“Approximately 58,000 American soldiers were killed in the Vietnam War…”), or an endless stream of identical coffins pouring out of an airplane on a military base, each and every soldier is named. This does so much more than just fill up space on the monument: it symbolically restores to the dead soldiers the dignity they were denied in life by the politicians and bureaucrats who sent them off to die in vain. Using the names of the too-often-nameless to restore their dignity transcends locality: think not just of the Vietnam Memorial, but of the Monumento a las Victimas de Terrorismo de Estado in Buenos Aires, which honors those killed by Argentina’s most recent brutally repressive military dictatorship. I had the privilege of visiting this wall during my trip to the Parque de la Memoria, and I will never forget the experience of seeing all those names, thinking of all those people who had died alone in government torture rooms (er, sorry, I meant “enhanced interrogation facilities“), some of them not even old enough to speak, let alone speak out against the government. It was a sobering experience.
Of course, it works the other way around, too. Think of the Holocaust, when the prisoners in Nazi concentration camps were denied the dignity of real names, and were instead referred to by number. When you take someone’s name away, they cease to be a person to you. They no longer “count” in the same way other people do. You don’t include them in your moral calculus; in the ledgers of your mind, they are written off as externalities. It is, to use my least favorite word, dehumanizing. This is why mouments incorporating the names of the victims of Argentina’s junta, or of the Vietnam War, are so important. Memorials like these set themselves in resolute opposition to the writing-off of those it would be more convenient to forget. Using someone’s name is an empowering, almost sacred act. We make these lists of names so that when we hear that approximately 99,000 people die every year in the United States from HAIs, we interpret it as “over ninety-nine thousand tragedies,” and not “almost one-tenth of a statistic.”
So what do we do with the information that dolphins call one another unique names? Yes, wild bottlenose dolphins in Sarasota Bay, off the coast of Florida, have been shown to recognize “signature whistles,” specific sequences of dolphin language, uniquely tied to a specific individual. If a particular dolphin hears his or her name (scare quotes intentionally omitted) called out, they respond with recognition. Furthermore, they will recognize their names even if the “voice” calling them is actually a digitally synthesized simulation, like a text-to-speech program on a computer. Finally, a dolphin will not only recognize his own name, but, for example, his mother’s, or his sister’s, and will specifically associate the name with the individual to whom it belongs.
Though scientific orthodoxy has long argued that signature whistles do not and cannot exist, it turns out looking closely for things that aren’t supposed to be there is an endlessly fruitful enterprise in a deluded culture. These dolphins have been under intense study for more than thirty years: the researchers who proved the whistles’ existence were nothing if not thorough. Some folks are arguing that lack of visibility underwater is the reason dolphins use names, but especially given that bottlenose dolphins form some of the most complex social structures in the world, their group dynamics seem like a more likely reason for the behavior. Turns out that when individuals live in groups, they know one another’s names! Who would have thought? But seriously, it’s important to recognize that the reason dolphins call each other by name is that their primary social unit is the group, as opposed to, for example, bears, who are pretty much exclusively loners, at least as much as is possible for a sexually reproducing species. In other words, names showed up in human languages for the same reason they showed up in dolphin languages: because the fundamental unit of human life (like dolphin life) is not the individual, but the group. If using names (or for that matter, language itself) is one of the things that supposedly makes humans special, or exceptional, it’s worth remembering that 1) it is the triumph of social cohesion and cooperation over individualism on an evolutionary timescale that gave it to us, and 2) oh, and by the way, we aren’t the only ones.
It makes it a lot harder to kill something—or rather, someone—when you know they have a name, doesn’t it? In our everyday lives, civilized humans tend to conflate the words “human” and “person,” as though only humans could qualify for personhood. But the more we learn about other species, the more wrong that notion seems, leaving us with the growing realization that our older cultures had it right all along: whatever it is that makes humans people, nonhumans have it too. Those who think and act otherwise would do well to remember that the word “animal” is derived from the Latin word “anima,” meaning “breath,” “life,” or “soul.” Time after time, when we actually scrutinize our pervasive cultural mythos, with its ubiquitous assertions of humans’ exceptional status, we find that the myth breaks down under the crushing weight of reality. I have the utmost respect for ethologists; they are to our culture what the Copernican astronomers were to theirs, what first geologists and evolutionary biologists were to theirs (and, in certain demographics, continue to be to ours). They force the culture at large to face the falsehood of its myths.
This kind of research is doing the most important work there is: showing human civilization that we are not alone on this planet. And that’s a good thing; it means we aren’t caught in some existential nightmare, but alive in a living world, a world inhabited not by mindless, mechanistic automatons, but by others like us. It always struck me as wrongheaded, pathological even, the way that science fiction stories tend to attach so much menace to the words “we are not alone.” Because we’re not. Forget extraterrestrial life—we humans are surrounded by innumerable billions of fellow Earthlings. And we need to act like it. The Earth is here to be shared, not just by all humans, but by all living beings.