The Social Animal

David Brooks
2011

I like David Brooks. He’s the rare conservative to whom you could lend your favourite Chomsky volume without any fear that it would be thrown on the bonfire before it could  be returned safely to you. He reflects on what he feels before he says what he thinks. As I say, a rare conservative.

Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times and is a regular participant with liberal Mark Shields on the PBS Newshour, where their Friday night political analysis is the gold standard of civil right-left media discussion. Brooks is also an author, and his latest, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement, has generated a lot of interest.

The central theme of the book is that while we usually give the rational thought processes of our minds most of the credit for creating — and being — “us,” it’s the unconscious, emotional side of us that really runs the things that matter most.

It’s not unusual for political and moral conservatives, and  Brooks is both, to embrace the nativism which dominates contemporary cognitive science. After all, if we have innate mental states, the left’s “blank slate” relativism can be blunted on empirical grounds. That this “threat” exists can be seen in first few sentences of the response to The Social Animal by the authors of a very negative review on the blogsite Neuroanthropology.net:

Brooks misses two crucial points in his op-ed [on the ideas in The Social Animal], as he does in most of his recent op-eds covering similar “human nature” issues. He does not get “culture” and he does not get “power and inequality.”

We are not just social animals, we are cultural animals! But the Republican party does not get this fundamental fact of human nature. For the Republicans, there is one set of values that matter, and we can impose those values on others. It’s not just an ideology of individualism, it’s an ideology of culture.

Typical postmodernist relativism, of course, and certain to be the dominant reaction of social science academicians of any stripe. Any hint that there might be something universal in human nature is an imposition. Talk about an “ideology of culture”! But how the cultural relativists who dominate the left misconstrue any search for objective fact or universal human nature as a power-grabbing exercise is not the subject of this article. Let’s just say that it’s frustrating when one’s frequent political allies are so often blinkered by their own canonical thinking, and leave it there for now.

Conservatives are more likely to be nativists than are leftists — with the notable exception of someone like Chomsky himself, who is as much a nativist and as far a leftist as you can find anywhere. But it seems counter-intuitive for a conservative to tout emotion and unconscious mental states as the potential saviour of personal happiness and social growth:

If the study of the conscious mind highlights the importance of reason and analysis, study of the unconscious mind highlights the importance of passions and perception. If the outer mind highlights the power of the individual, the inner mind highlights the power of relationships and the invisible bonds between people.

Brooks contends that the failure of many social and political policies — he cites education reform and efforts to export democracy, among others — is that we still operate according to an archaic dichotomy in which reason is good and emotions are bad. In the Introduction to The Social Animal, Brooks writes:

Unaware of what is going on deep down inside, the conscious mind assigns itself the starring role. It gives itself credit for performing all sorts of tasks it doesn’t  really control. It creates views of the world that highlight those elements it can understand and ignores the rest.

As a result, we have become accustomed to a certain constricted way of describing our lives. Plato believed that reason was the civilized part of the brain, and we would be happy so long as reason subdued the primitive passions. Rationalist thinkers believed that logic was the acme of intelligence, and mankind was liberated as reason conquered habit and superstition. In the nineteenth century, the conscious mind was represented by the scientific Dr. Jekyll while the unconscious was the barbaric Mr. Hyde.

The solution lies with the findings of cognitive science, Brooks claims. In a New York Times article, he writes:

Yet while we are trapped within this amputated view of human nature, a richer and deeper view is coming back into view. It is being brought to us by researchers across an array of diverse fields: neuroscience, psychology, sociology, behavioral economics and so on.

This growing, dispersed body of research reminds us of a few key insights. First, the unconscious parts of the mind are most of the mind, where many of the most impressive feats of thinking take place. Second, emotion is not opposed to reason; our emotions assign value to things and are the basis of reason. Finally, we are not individuals who form relationships. We are social animals, deeply interpenetrated with one another, who emerge out of relationships.

There’s a surprising romanticism to these claims. It’s too bad that the book itself, which has been described as a kind of “fiction/science novel,” is so often prosaic and superficial.

Brooks may have read a lot about the new cognitive research, but he’s not a gifted writer of narrative, nor does he seem able to create anything like representational characters. The “protagonists” of The Social Animal are a fictional mega-yuppie couple named Harold and Erica. Their world is a whirl of ski vacations, good schools, fine wine, and satisfying careers. This is a kind of utopia for the professional class, for the upwardly-mobile types who trade on good genes, good education, and good networking to create for themselves meaningful and fulfilling lives. It’s much more Wall Street than mean streets.

Biologist PZ Myers’s reaction (David Brooks’ dream world for the trust-fund set) on Salon.com is a good way to convey the class-dependent narrowness of Brooks’s central couple:

I learned to loathe Harold and Erica, the two upscale avatars of upper-middle-class values that Brooks marches through life in the story. And then I began to resent the omniscient narrator who narrates this exercise in unthinking consumption and privilege that is, supposedly, the ideal of happiness ….

Myers found that the only way he could finish the book was to recite, with appropriate feeling, as he reached the end of each page: “Die, yuppie scum, die!”

Myers has no greater respect for the science in the book, complaining that it is so superficial and non-contextual that it is both unenlightening and annoying:

The technicalities don’t illuminate the story in any way, and the story undercuts the science. Ultimately, the neuroscience in the book feels a micrometer deep and a boring lifetime long, with the fiction of Harold and Erica giving the impression that it’s built on a sample size of two, and both of them utterly imaginary.

But for Brooks there’s a larger reality behind the limited world of his imaginary yuppies. In an article in Newsweek, Brooks expresses his respect for the science behind his book:

The scientists I’ve spent the last three years talking to are truth seekers, unlike people [in Washington]. They’re not technical materialists. They love Henry and William James. They’ve helped me see how the power of deep ideas changes the way you think. It was part of my idea to go down, down, down, to look at moral and spiritual creativity, the deepest issues. You learn the importance of culture, of history—some of the deep knowledge that comes from Plato and Aristotle. Philosophy and theology are telling us less than they used to. Scientists and researchers are leaping in where these disciplines atrophy—they’re all drilling down into an explanation of what man is.

Perhaps Brooks isn’t that unusual a conservative after all, for in this last passage (and similar sections in the book itself) his respect for what he calls “deep knowledge” leaves plenty of room for non-rational cognitions like religious faith. To that extent, The Social Animal could be seen by the suspicious as a kind of stealth bomb, sneaking up on secular science through the clever ruse of admiring that science.

Nevertheless, Brooks appears to be moving ever more towards the political centre, as noted in a National Public Radio review of his book:

Brooks finds himself much more suspicious of the free market after his research into the social nature of relationships, and sees the financial system less as an Ayn Rand-type vision of rational individuals, but instead as several groups of people competing and collaborating with each other. The most successful groups, he says, are the ones who take turns having a conversation and are good at signaling each other.

“The free market produces a lot of wealth, but it’s embedded … in a series of understandings. And if you don’t have those relationships, then people can’t thrive in that free market,” he says.

Too bad that he’s not taking along some of his conservative friends (those he has left) on his journey of political rediscovery.

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