Most accounts of the digital revolution make it sound like we are being turned (or should turn) into robots. But in his new book, The Great Acceleration: How the World is Getting Faster, Faster, Robert Colvile casts things in an interestingly bestial light. He wonders whether our response to smartphones and other digital instruments of distraction have ushered in an era of “hummingbird” humanity: We flit and flutter from site to site, text message to text message, task to task, in the same way those diminutive nectar-sippers dart to and fro. They never seem to stop moving. Perpetually overstimulated and distracted, neither do we.
Colvile returns to a metaphorics of animality several times. Giant online retailers like Amazon are “lions” that devour competition like prey, for example, whereas boutique startups are mere “flies.” It is as if the only way to make sense of what’s happening to human civilization in the digital age is to compare humanity to non-humanity, the premise being that lower animals are more familiar to us than we can be to ourselves.
Yet another recent title calls into question this penchant for comparing humans to animals. In Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal contends that we cannot assess animal intelligence on anthropocentric [read: prejudiced] terms. “It seems highly unfair to ask if a squirrel can count to ten,” for instance, “if counting is not really what a squirrel’s life is about.” It is that squirrel’s capacity to remember where its stash of nuts is buried that matters. De Waal shows that a certain anthropocentric bias has directed—or rather, misdirected—decades of modern scientific research, impeding our understanding of other species. When other species are studied on their own terms, he claims, the results indicate that the difference between human and animal cognition is only one of degree, not kind.
At this point we have the terms for an existential crisis-inducing syllogism: We appeal to other animals to help us arrive at self-understanding in these perplexing times. But we struggle to understand non-humans in a productive way. Therefore we cannot ultimately understand ourselves.
This reasoning can be refuted, however, by examining the reductivist teleology at work here. We can identify a fallacy common to de Waal and Colevile—and to many moderns who take a crack at teleology. That error involves assuming that there is no teleology unless a being is able to know, or self-reflect, in a properly teleological way.
De Waal recognizes that living things act for the sake of a purpose, a goal. Following Aristotle, it seems he would agree that a thing’s end is determined by its nature, or essence. De Waal’s squirrels have a distinctly squirrel nature (their squirrelitude, shall we say), and they act in such ways as to fulfill that nature. So too do humans, though it is a different nature, proper to humans. To evaluate squirrelitude based on something characteristic of human teleology is indeed misguided—de Waal is correct on this point. But this does not mean that all essences are relative. De Waal dismisses the Aristotelian Great Chain of Being, appealing to evolution as the great teleological equalizer. The essences of animals are products of evolution, rather than an intrinsic principle; squirrelitude is acquired, not innate. It’s a position that fails to consider the order and fittingness of evolutionary creation, as well as the argument that evolution itself serves a higher teleological end for humans.
Colevile also understands that there is something essential to humans, but he misidentifies in what that essence consists: He reduces human nature to mere biological functions. Colevile claims that the ever-accelerating pace of the digital revolution corresponds with an ever-greater craving our brains have for stimulation from novelty, speed, and information. In Colevile’s philosophical anthropology, we’re little more than digital pleasure junkies being conditioned, in true Pavlovian fashion, by the small doses of dopamine released when we hear the ping alerting us to a new text message or email. This is just what we do; it’s who we’re meant to be.
The error of de Waal and Colevile in these matters is to equate the reality of teleology with man’s formal knowledge, or awareness, of teleology. All being is teleological (that is, reality is necessarily teleological). Only rational beings, however, can grasp the teleological orientation or inclination of being; only humans, angels, and God can know something formally as teleological. Nevertheless, objective teleology is not dependent upon our subjective awareness of it. Our ability to ultimately fulfill our nature may be enhanced—but is not explicitly dependent upon—our subjective awareness of teleology.
Colevile and de Waal also exhibit a diminished sense of the perfection that accompanies the fulfillment of one’s nature. A thing can be called good unqualifiedly, Aristotle explains, when it has achieved its ultimate perfection. A giraffe can be called perfect when it has grown as tall as it should—the height properly proportioned to giraffe nature. Saint Thomas Aquinas elevates this Aristotelian axiom according to his recognition of man’s ultimate, supernatural end: beatitude. The great acceleration may not be such a bad thing then, if it helps us realize that our restlessness here—a quintessential human restlessness, distinct from hummingbirds and all the rest—will remain until we rest in God.
Jordan Zajac, O.P., is a Dominican brother of the Province of St. Joseph and a summer intern at First Things.