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While certain old fashioned baby names have a sweet appeal, there are definitely some names that you just don’t associate with a newborn baby any more.
Bruce, Trev, Russell … they’re probably more likely to turn up to fix your plumbing than appear on a first birthday invitation and the reason could be as simple as evolution.
New research, led by Dr Mitchell Newberry, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Michigan, says baby names go through “boom and bust” periods, with those that become popular perceived as too common by many new parents.
“Boom-bust cycles by themselves can disfavour common types and promote diversity,” said Dr Newberry.
“If people are always thirsting after the newest thing, then it’s going to create a lot of new things.
“Every time a new thing is created, it’s promoted, and so more rare things rise to higher frequency and you have more diversity in the population.”
And while this theory applies to many choices that humans make over their lifetime, the fact that such meticulous records are kept for baby names makes it a perfect trend to observe and study.
There are certain names that have gone out of style and evolution might be to blame.
Frequency-dependent selection was studied in the research. In layman’s terms that’s a kind of natural selection in which the tendency to copy a certain variant depends on its popularity.
“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,” Dr Newberry explained.
“For words, there’s pressure to conform, but my work shows that the diversity of names results from pressures against conformity.”
In terms of baby names, that can be explained by the data observed when the researchers looked at the Social Security Administration baby name database, which includes data on all the baby names registered in the US since 1935.
By applying frequency-dependent selection to the baby name records, researchers found:
Rare names grow in popularity Dr Newberry’s team proved that when a name is most rare – one in 10,000 births – it tended to grow in popularity at an average rate of 1.4 per cent per year.
Popular names decline in popularity The research also found that common names – more than one in 100 births – saw their popularity declining at an average rate of 1.6 per cent per year.
Ever notice some dog breeds go out of pup-ularity?
Ever think there were loads more Dalmations around when you were a kid? It’s the same evolutionary patterns that baby name cycles see, according to Dr Newberry.
His team analysed dog registrations from the American Kennel Club and identified certain dog breed booms in certain decades. For example, there was a Greyhound boom in the 1940s, and a Rottweiler boom in the 1990s.
“Biologists basically think these frequency-dependent pressures are fundamental in determining so many things,” Dr Newberry explained.
“The long list includes genetic diversity, immune escape, host-pathogen dynamics, the fact that there’s basically a one-to-one ratio of males and females—and even what different populations think is sexy.
“Natural selection is incredibly hard to measure. You’re asking, for an entire population, who lived, who died and why. And that’s just a crazy thing to try to ask.
“By contrast, in names, we literally know every single name for the entire country for a hundred years!”