Whats in a name? Glimmers of evolution in naming babies, choosing a dog

Maverick was first used as a baby name after a television show called “Maverick” aired in the 1950s, but its popularity rose meteorically in 1986 with the release of the movie “Top Gun.” Today, it is even used for baby girls.

The name Emma peaked in popularity in the late 1800s, declined precipitously through the first half of the 1900s, then shot back up to be one of the most popular names of the early 2000s. Linda peaked somewhere in the late 1940s and Daniel in the mid-1980s. But each rise in popularity was followed by an equally steep decline.

So, what’s in a name — or, at least, what’s in a baby name trend? University of Michigan evolutionary biologist Mitchell Newberry has found that the more popular a name becomes, the less likely future parents are to follow suit. Same goes for popular dog breeds: Dalmatians today are a tenth as popular as they were in the 1990s.

Newberry, an assistant professor of complex systems, says examining trends in the popularity of baby names and dog breeds can be a proxy for understanding ecological and evolutionary change. The names and dog breed preferences themselves are like genes or organisms competing for scarce resources. In this case, the scarce resources are the minds of parents and dog owners. His results are published in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

Newberry looks at frequency-dependent selection, a kind of natural selection in which the tendency to copy a certain variant depends on that variant’s current frequency or popularity, regardless of its content. If people tend to copy the most common variant, then everyone ends up doing roughly the same thing. But if people become less willing to copy a variant the more popular it becomes, it leads to a greater diversity of variants.

“Think of how we use millions of different names to refer to people but we almost always use the same word to refer to baseball,” Newberry said. “For words, there’s pressure to conform, but my work shows that the diversity of names results from pressures against conformity.”

These trends are common in biology, but difficult to quantify. What researchers do have is a complete database of the names of babies over the last 87 years.

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