The Social Animal

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Kevin Hartnett is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.

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