The Social Animal
New York Times columnist David Brooks uses brain science theory to argue that culture – and not reason – shapes our decisions.
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If individuals are a product of their experiences and experiences are limited in large part by culture, as Brooks’ reading of cognitive science would have it, then the culture you’re born into goes a long way to determining your prospects in life. This is the essential rationale of liberal politics: Society is not a level playing field, so there is a collective responsibility to expand opportunity for the disadvantaged. The view opposes the up-by-your-bootstraps ethos of individualism and the American dream.Skip to next paragraph
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In "The Social Animal" Brooks approvingly cites the words of the late Democratic senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” The creator of Harold and Erica aligns himself with the Federalism of Alexander Hamilton and the progressivism of Teddy Roosevelt, when he argues for “limited but energetic government to enhance social mobility,” and he supports policy initiatives like early childhood education and charter schools that paternalistically “reshape the internal models” and install “achievement values” in the minds of the poor.
Perhaps because Brooks wants "The Social Animal" to be a popular book as well as a serious one, when he gets down to making political arguments, he doesn’t do so in a particularly rigorous way. Once you decide that poverty is not the exclusive fault of the impoverished, as Brooks does, it’s hard not to find a concurrent obligation to make sure that no one goes hungry. But Brooks says he opposes social welfare programs that work only on the “material conditions” of poverty and not on its underlying causes.
He also takes a surprisingly nearsighted view of how value is distributed along the socioeconomic ladder. The 2002 General Social Survey found, for example, that as people internalize “achievement values” and move into the middle class their relationships with extended family attenuate. This is partly because people in the middle class are more mobile and tend to live farther from their kin. But it also happens for more fundamental reasons: University of Pennsylvania and Brooks-approved sociologist Annette Lareau has shown that the individualism of middle class life tends to devalue ties with extended family. These are the relationships that Brooks says are so essential for happiness, but "The Social Animal" is too assured of itself to linger on such contradictions.
Brooks tells his readers that an awareness of “how much our own desire for power and to do good blinds us to our limitations” has tempered his impulse toward social engineering. Reading "The Social Animal," however, I took this as a caveat more of the mind than of the heart. His reliance on brain science suggests a wide-eyed acceptance about its potential to help us live better lives and build a better society. It remains to be seen whether the cognitive revolution will live up to its billing. My rational mind – the very part of me that Brooks says I should be wary of – is enthralled with the possibility. My heart tells me we’ve been here before.