January 07, 2015

Why Do We Have A Name?

Humans across religious, cultural and national differences all have names. At least all modern humans have this. I wonder if the lost tribes in the Amazon jungle or the tribes who live in the Nicobar Islands cut off from civilization since the last many thousands of years have a similar naming convention as the rest of us humans do.

And we humans often choose to have system of naming that consists of a first name and a last name. the last name often indicates a person’s or a family’s occupation and remains the same from generation to generation. All the offspring of one family get the same last name as the parents — usually the last name of the father.

In some cultures, the first names can be the same as that of the father too. In some cultures, the name of the village, and other names too get added to the child’s name and it grows rather long.

But consider for a moment how it all would have started and taken hold among humans in deep antiquity. Humans would have acquired language first and learned to name things and then would have learned to name one another and at some point would have settled on this schema of a name consisting of a first name and a last name.

The fact that this system is so common across cultures tends to point towards the fact that all humans share a single origin story — out of Africa. May be naming was already there when humans were hunter gatherers and wanderers and as early humans spread out of Africa, they took this naming convention with them and it spread all over the world in a uniform manner.

Whatever the origin of this naming convention of humans, what about the future? It is so deeply ingrained in us that even as smart humans learn to look beyond medieval myths such as religions and learn to discard the old shibboleths, the naming conventions remain the same.

It will be interesting to see what if any changes are brought to bear on this human convention as our species makes advances in science & technology and becomes a multi-planetary civilization. Clearly, there is no possible harm that can arise from our propensity to name ourselves. We not only name ourselves but also our pets and in future our smart domestic robots will also probably get names.

Our business of naming appears to be one of those very rare traditions bequeathed to us from antiquity that do not appear to have any negative repercussions. Even if we as a society learn to navigate the challenges of human cloning and proceed to make thousands (or millions) of copies of whichever humans we choose to clone — a million Clooneys, anyone? — even then naming won’t pose any problems. Couples can choose to give birth to a Clooney look-alike but call him anything they like.

Perhaps we could even think of taking genetics further and clone a female Clooney (or make a male version of our favorite female). See? Our ability to understand and make sense of who we are and our technological accomplishments bring myriad complex challenges and moral quagmires for us to navigate.

Luckily, naming isn’t one of them.

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