David Hume on signaling

by on June 26, 2010 at 5:26 am in Philosophy, Science | Permalink

Longterm Guy, a long-standing MR reader, sends me this:

A Treatise Of Human Nature, by David Hume, Volume Two

It is plain, that almost in every species of creatures, but especially of the nobler kind, there are many evident marks of pride and humility. The very port and gait of a swan, or turkey, or peacock show the high idea he has entertained of himself, and his contempt of all others. This is the more remarkable, that in the two last species of animals, the pride always attends the beauty, and is discovered in the male only. The vanity and emulation of nightingales in singing have been commonly remarked; as likewise that of horses in swiftness, of hounds in sagacity and smell, of the bull and cock in strength, and of every other animal in his particular excellency. Add to this, that every species of creatures, which approach so often to man, as to familiarize themselves with him, show an evident pride in his approbation, and are pleased with his praises and caresses, independent of every other consideration. Nor are they the caresses of every one without distinction, which give them this vanity, but those principally of the persons they know and love; in the same manner as that passion is excited in mankind. All these are evident proofs, that pride and humility are not merely human passions, but extend themselves over the whole animal creation.

1 TomG June 26, 2010 at 6:15 am

It’s of great import not to anthropomorphize nonhuman traits with the qualities of pride, humility and even capacity to love/hate. On some base human levels (innate and quite mechanized), such as sexual appeal and mating rituals, one can see definite similarity with the animal planet – as in male otters competing for the prize of a female mate by gathering the most colorful stones and impressing her with each of their choices; or narwhales vying for the same goal of being selected, by showing her the length of their respective front horns and the power they have to force it up into the air above the others. But the pride and humility of Judeo-Christian tradition is quite another thing altogether than the same terms attributed to animal behavior. Reinterating a comment from a few days back, we are given rational faculties that set us apart infinitely from the rest of instinctually-based creatures … and have the free will to examine our natural inclinations and more base-level impulses, in choosing outcomes that are not predictable by the blueprint of natural selection and survival of the fittest (or better yet, in defining what ‘fittest’ means even). This makes Man (aka humans) the only creature known yet as capable of true culpability as a moral agent of choice – with the knowledge of good vs. wrong. And the choices made by human pride vs. humility are above the realm of animal instincts – and are held so my our own legal court systems, versus those of pets for example. Cheers.

2 Dan Klein June 26, 2010 at 6:20 am

“the caresses … principally of the persons they know and love …”

In Smith TMS, this is developed considerably: the sympathetic gradient, or social distance. Search on “those we live with” — the expression appears ten times in TMS.

The one we live with most continuously and most intimately is the man in the breast …

3 Michael G Heller June 26, 2010 at 8:10 am

There are serious problems in that passage of Hume’s. I know nothing of the science but suspect that TomG is probably right and the great David Hume, so wise in many matters, is wrong.

Physiognomy is about as risky as Phenomenology. And so not dissimilarly the gay gait of the goose or the genteel gerontocracy of the gaggle of geese is more likely a reflection of its Anatomy, its bone structure, plus the psychology of survival that humans, dogs, and cats can afford to let lapse for much of the day.

Which points to a broader problem. Those men of the Enlightenment spread themselves a little thin at times, no surprise when you consider how much they tried to encompass.

But when you see the factual mistakes they made, which they should have had the sense to anticipate they would make, then their stature can diminish in our eyes.

You can interpret this two ways at the extreme:
1) because they made some very stupid-looking factual mistake all their ideas are discredited.
2) facts are not the sole basis of science and logic, the little mistakes do not detract from their overall good judgement.

But really it’s a disgrace that so early on in the Wealth of Nations Adam Smith made the following absurd statement about the comparative nutritional quality of potatoes, oats, and wheat. For which he has no evidence beyond his own limited visual observation (typical of a man who occasionally ventures forth from the library and seminar room).

“The common people in Scotland, who are fed with oatmeal, are in general neither so strong nor so handsome as the same rank of people in England, who are fed with wheaten bread. They neither work so well, nor look so well; and as there is not the same difference between the people of fashion in the two countries, experience would seem to show, that the food of the common people in Scotland is not so suitable to the human constitution as that of their neighbours of the same rank in England. But it seems to be otherwise with potatoes. The chairmen, porters, and coalheavers in London, and those unfortunate women who live by prostitution, the strongest men and the most beautiful women perhaps in the British dominions, are said to be, the greater part of them, from the lowest rank of people in Ireland, who are generally fed with this root. No food can afford a more decisive proof of its nourishing quality, or of its being peculiarly suitable to the health of the human constitution.†
Wealth of Nations Chapter XI Part 1

It’s on the same level as Hume’s gaffe. If he was right it was an accident.

4 Edward Burke June 26, 2010 at 10:04 am

Some other of those 18th century wits writ: “. . . I have got Materials Towards a Treatis proving the falsity of that Definition ‘animal rationale’; and to show it should be only ‘rationis capax’ . . . And I never will have peace of mind till all honest men are of my Opinion”. (Swift to Pope, 29 Sep 1725)

Id est: Even honest men dabble in rationality from time to time, some with great frequency (some daily, some hourly); but rationality is no permanent feature of any mind, whether it eludes our grasp temporarily or whether we pause in our pursuit of it in order to chase other ephemera. Surely cats and peacocks know as much, although (granted) we do not commonly find cats or peacocks reading Gulliver’s Travels, an Essay on Man, a New Science, an account of the Wealth of Nations, or a Treatise of Human Nature.

5 TomG June 26, 2010 at 10:25 am

Of “Surely cats and peacocks know a much …” know? As in simple apprehension and (instinctual) judgement, at best? Why not go down to the tick and amoeba level even? The only being I can say is aware of its finitude and inevitable demise, is a human being. Oh wait – when an elephant feels his end coming, he heads for a cave to rest his bones for the eventual end … but does he ever sit and ponder the allegory of the cave? There’s a hint in there somewhere 😉 Rationalism and search for purpose – we’re the single creature that philosophizes (same propensity as not only 50 years ago, but even 2,500 years back – and we understand so much more about the uniqueness of Man than the 200+ years since Hume) and categorizes/counts in creating science. Cheers.

6 Baphomet June 26, 2010 at 1:43 pm

David Hume, the inventor of repeated game theory, understood everything! He also played a mean badminton.

7 merecel June 26, 2010 at 2:41 pm

Also chickens can distinguish between more and less attractive humans.

8 TomG June 26, 2010 at 3:07 pm

that makes sense – the more bug-eyed the person, the more attractive to the chicken (plus doing the Macarena helps, no doubt). Cliff, check your chicken and egg logic – could be that the language and opposable thumbs are proof that we are ‘favored’ (as in Genesis) and meant to prosper and grow into the more knowledgeable creature we are (have yet to become?). Cheers.

9 Michael G Heller June 26, 2010 at 7:48 pm


The gaffe — What I mean is I think (not know) it’s probably a mistake to conclude that *because* the turkey *walks* in a particular way it is therefore experiencing the sensation of pride or humility. I think its gait is a physical muscular-skeletal trait. But as I breakfast this Sunday morning and watch the family of magpies learning, instructing, fighting, and playing, and talking, and posturing on my lawn I really do believe (but do not prove) that they experience pride and humility. Kid’s stuff, right?

Apologize for inexcusable length of my earlier comment

10 TomG June 27, 2010 at 9:31 am

May I then ask a simple question that touches the crux of Hume’s observations: if indeed we are to discover that non-human creatures have similar qualities of pride, envy, etc – and that these be deemed volitional characteristics (based on each one’s willful choices of how to act/respond in any instance), does it mean that societies should prepare for a reevaluation of their statutes – given that even our pets may need to be reconsidered closer to humans in their willful acts, therefore to be treated in similar fashion as we are in court rulings/sentences? Thanks so much.

11 TomG June 27, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Thanks for your quite cogent arguments Balaji. Cheers.

12 Michael G. Heller June 29, 2010 at 11:18 pm

Ha TGGP! I was waiting for a hunter-gatherer to say that. I myself eat large quantities of spuds, though no milk at all except in aged-Parmesan. Notice however the likely importance of oatmeal in the article you link to. And note that Adam Smith was drawing on the flimsiest of evidence — his subjective view of desirable body beauty & strength, plus a racial & class stereotyping.

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