The Social Animal

Article excerpt

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

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. …