The Social Animal

By Hartnett, Kevin | The Christian Science Monitor, March 8, 2011 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

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?

CSMonitor picks: the best nonfiction books of 2010

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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Social Animal
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.