Do animals use names?


Carrie Figdor

Professor, State University of Iowa

April 24, 2023, 10:18 p.m.


Proper names play powerful social roles in human societies, such as promoting social cohesiveness, enhancing individual flourishing, and serving as a tool for social exclusion. Could other animals who live in complex social groups and have sophisticated communication systems also use these kinds of labels? Establishing such proper naming would be a major step in understanding the transition to metacognitive functions, such as theory of mind and perspective taking, necessary for certain forms of intelligence.

While there is ample evidence that non-human animals use labels and can learn the names of things (dogs with toys, dolphins with buttons on touch screens), it remains unclear to what extent they use proper names to refer to themselves and others. A new project for $234,000 from a team led by Carrie Figdor at the State University of Iowa seeks to establish until 2025 that durable naming exists for animal individuals and persists over change of location, appearance, and role, and also hopes to find out if such names can be used in third-person or referential contexts.

The team will draw upon the research of four investigators with multidisciplinary areas of expertise. A philosopher with extensive background in philosophy of language and theoretical comparative psychology will be brought together with leading comparative psychologists and animal behaviourists experienced in ground-breaking research on dolphin and bonobo cognition and communication.

The philosopher will provide the theoretical framework that guides experimental design, interpretation of results, and their impact on debates in psychology, philosophy, linguistics and other fields. The cetacean investigators will leverage their experience with dolphins to seek similarities in the social uses between contact calls and proper names. The primatologist will probe the bonobos’ abilities to identify specific individuals in photographs, and will also conduct an innovative experiment probing referential responses to the morphing of face features in photographs.

Link to project: