Monday, December 5, 2011

Of Apes and Men

“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Yes, but if the name were “red stinkweed,” I doubt the flower would be a common gift on Valentine’s Day.

In politics, partisans attempt to influence opinions with names all the time. Was the 1980s weapons program the Strategic Defense Initiative or Star Wars? Is it the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare? Are we discussing cutting the Payroll Tax or cutting Social Security funding? It depends on what you’re trying to promote.

In the case of newborns, parents always wonder whether to name a child a common name or an unusual one. When growing up, is it better to fit in or to stand out? Few parents are as fearless as Bill Lear who named his daughter Shanda, but then he left her Lear Jet Corporation (among other things), so I suppose that made up for it. There is some evidence that unusual names cut both ways: bearers of them are likely to benefit and suffer in equal measure.

We do know that first names affect career choices, living locations, and even spouses in peculiar ways. There are more geologists named George and dentists named Denise than you would expect by the odds. Women named Georgia are more likely to move to the state. We slightly more often date someone with a similar name (e.g. Raymond/Ramona) than chance would dictate.

Ironically suitable names are called aptronyms, and they are quite common, e.g.
Richard Smalley—nanotechnologist
Lake Speed—NASCAR driver
Jules Angst—psychiatrist, writer of books about anxiety
Novella Carpenter—author
Bob Rock—rock music producer
Ekaterina Gamova—volleyball player, often called Game-Over
and so on.

One influence with which I’m personally familiar is the Junior effect. It gives added emphasis to certain identity and parental issues which are present anyway, with a result similar to the effect of unusual names. Juniors are over-represented in prison and in high office – sometimes both, as in the case of E. Howard Hunt, Jr. and James McCloud, Jr., who led the Watergate break-ins, a crime investigated by Senators Sam Ervin, Jr. (D) and Howard Baker, Jr.(R). That, of course, led to the resignation of Nixon, who was succeeded by Gerald Ford, Jr. and then by Jimmy Carter, Jr. Technically, George W. Bush is not a Junior (his dad is George H.W.) but his family called him Junior, as do many folks in the media. Four of the first seven astronauts were Juniors (Shepherd, Glenn, Cooper, and Shirra). However, let’s not forget John Gacy, Jr., his fellow serial murderer Elmer Henley, Jr., or Jim Jones, Jr. (the Jonesville massacre guy). Some Juniors choose not to mention it, such as Gore Vidal, whose birth certificate says Eugene Vidal, Jr., and Tom Wolfe. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., however, stuck doggedly with it. How much were George S. Patton, Jr. or Martin Luther King, Jr. affected by the nominal appendage? It’s hard to say. Shakespeare probably was onto something, though, when he gave Hamlet (son of Hamlet and therefore a Junior) a conflicted identity crisis.

Now the entire human race is facing a struggle over nomenclature, as readers of anthropology news articles likely have noticed. Once upon a time, among the anthropoids there were hominids (humans and their ancestors) and simians (apes). No more. Now humans are listed among the Great Apes while chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans have joined the family as hominids. What formerly were hominids are now hominins, considered a subset of the hominids. Some classifiers are not satisfied even with that, and have included chimps as hominins along with humans while using the word hominan for humans and their ancestors as a subset of hominins. One can’t help but see something here that goes beyond a strictly disinterested taxonomic discussion. The dispute over names appears to be a proxy for a broader (ultimately more philosophical) argument over the place of humans in nature and among the animals. The question is just how special we should consider ourselves.

I don’t really have an opinion about this classification dust-up, beyond a minor annoyance at having to learn new terminology all the time. It’s OK by me if the new terms stick though. I’m not averse to going a little ape.


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