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The Social Animal

New York Times columnist David Brooks uses brain science theory to argue that culture – and not reason – shapes our decisions.

By Kevin Hartnett / March 8, 2011

The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement By David Brooks Random House 448 pp.

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Along with Justin Bieber and caffeinated alcohol, add brain studies to the list of current hot cultural trends. Not a day passes, it seems, without some new account of the importance of fMRIs or neuroplasticity or the biological basis of happiness.

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In his new book The Social Animal, New York Times columnist David Brooks declares that neuroscience “helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy” and that by telling us more about how we think and what we crave, it stands to revolutionize the way we live our lives. For a man who believes in good conservative fashion that “Wisdom begins with an awareness of our own ignorance,” this is a heady claim. There is nothing intellectually modest, however, about "The Social Animal."

To make his argument, Brooks tells the story of two characters, Harold and Erica. We follow them through the stages of their lives: infancy, high school, marriage (to each other), career building, infidelity, retirement, old age. Along the way, the author breaks his narrative to highlight research that helps explain why Harold and Erica act the way they do. Brooks has borrowed this approach from "Emile," Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s great study on education. When I mentioned this to a learned friend, he remarked, “It’s the type of thing you’d try only if you felt pretty confident your audience hadn’t read the original.” One wonders if the creator of Harold and Erica appreciates the tyrannical nature of Rousseau’s tutor. Does neuroscience take the place of Emile’s tutor, dictating every outward deed and inward motion of the soul?

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In the Harold and Erica sections Brooks proves himself an able storyteller. The vignettes alternate with summaries of behavioral research on everything from attachment parenting to how customers decide which bottle of wine to purchase. One can imagine cocktail parties around the country bubbling with social science factoids from his book: that a healthy marriage is worth a “happiness bump” equivalent to an extra $100,000 in income; or that commuting is the daily activity most antithetical to contentment. Brooks ties it all together with an ambitious argument about the overweening influence of rationalism and the pitfalls of individualism.

According to Brooks, cognitive science’s main contribution is the notion that humans do not have an “essential self;” that the “I” in Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” is a fallacy. Instead, Brooks says, the more we learn about the way human beings operate, the more we realize that major aspects of personhood are culturally contingent. “When asked to describe their day, American six-year-olds make three times more references to themselves than Chinese six-year-olds,” Brooks writes. On a bedrock level, he argues, our experiences determine the way we see the world.

However the author is not a relativist; he doesn’t think that all experiences or all cultures are created equal. Cognitive science informs us “that your unconscious wants to entangle you in the thick web of relations that are the essence of human flourishing. It longs and pushes for love,” he writes. The most meaningful and productive experiences involve relationships with other people, and the most vibrant cultures are the ones that facilitate the formation of those relationships. Some readers will find that Brooks takes this argument to extreme lengths. “[W]hen you look deeper into the unconscious, the separations between individuals begin to get a little fuzzy,” he writes, leaving one to wonder whether the author believes that there is such a thing as a human essence, a soul.

Even if I’m not ready to credit science with having discovered the one best way to live, I enjoyed reading "The Social Animal" as a self-help book. But Brooks intends more than that: His book is meant as a serious political argument about the limits of individual agency and the duty of the state to help those who cannot help themselves.

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