The Social Animal
Hartnett, Kevin, The Christian Science Monitor
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. …