Wiley, R. H. 2013. Specificity and multiplicity in the recognition of individuals: implications for the evolution of social behaviour. Biological Reviews 88: 179-195.


Recognition of conspecifics occurs when individuals classify sets of conspecifics based on sensory input from them and associate these sets of input with different responses. Classification of conspecifics can vary in specificity (the number of individuals included in a set) and multiplicity (the number of sets differentiated). In other words, the information transmitted varies in complexity. Although recognition of conspecifics has been reported in a wide variety of organisms, few of these reports have addressed the specificity or multiplicity of this capability.

This review provides discusses examples of these patterns, the mechanisms that can produce them, and the evolution of of these mechanisms. Individual recognition is one end of a spectrum of specificity, and binary classification of conspecifics is one end of a spectrum of multiplicity. In some cases, recognition requires no more than simple forms of learning, such as habituation, yet results in individually specific recognition. In other cases, recognition of

individuals involves complex associations of multiple cues with multiple previous experiences in particular contexts.

Complex mechanisms for recognition are expected to evolve only when simpler mechanisms do not provide sufficient specificity and multiplicity to obtain the available advantages.

In particular, the evolution of cooperation and deception is always promoted by specificity and multiplicity in recognition. Nevertheless, there is only one demonstration that recognition of specific individuals contributes to cooperation in animals other than primates.

Human capacities for individual recognition probably have a central role in the evolution of complex forms of human cooperation and deception. Although relatively little studied, this capability probably rivals cognitive abilities for language.