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"The Social Animal"


By Maurice Chammah


The Montréal Review, April 2011


The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, by David Brooks

(Random House of Canada, 2011, 224 pages) 




Towards the end of the introduction to his new book The Social Animal, author and New York Times columnist David Brooks mentions, with just the right touch of modesty, that he is borrowing a writing method he credits to none other than Rousseau. In the latter's Emile, the reader encounters a fictional character and his tutor, who together serve to embody abstract theories of human nature, development, and education and put them in concrete, narrative, easily digestible terms.

Instead of just one character, however, Brooks has created something closer to a world, involving a romantic couple named Harold and Erica, along with their parents, friends, and acquaintances. A narrative description of their lives from birth to old age is stirred with recent findings from neuroscience and psychology, peppered with quotes from philosophers spanning from Plato to Charles Taylor, all of which is meant to illustrate what Brooks deems a recent "revolution" in the cognitive sciences.

Using a word like "revolution," Brooks is clearly excited, and sometimes that excitement leads him to rely a little too strongly on findings that seem at times superficial, and at others merely to be proof of what a lot of people feel about the what comes out of psychology laboratories; they confirm what we already basically know. Brooks' core argument is articulated in the chapter titled, helpfully, The Grand Narrative, and in it Brooks shotguns through the history of philosophy, explaining how the Greeks saw life as a struggle of reason over the passions, how this has influenced contemporary social scientists, and how rationalism is ill equipped to describe and aid human development. He intervenes to support a growing trend of social science which is finally starting to acknowledge the unconscious, the "cloudlike, nonlinear, hard to see" world of sentiments, feelings, and gut reactions. Later in the book, he explains a way of living that balances these two spheres, which he would argue is the ideal as we move into the future.

And of course it's the ideal. Few would disagree that a mature balance of passion and rationalism makes for a model way of living, and Brooks is at his strongest when he's defending educational models that focus more on social, emotional relationships than cold, hard data memorization (indeed, his best op-ed on the subject was a critique of the "tiger mother" model espoused by Amy Chua). The problem is that Brooks speaks of balance while failing to really practice it in his methodology and style. Even the novelistic, creative side of the work, the story of Harold and Erica, always seems transparently designed to illustrate a point about human nature rather than elicit the emotions and empathy of the reader, even when it is, on the surface, trying to do both.

Brooks wants to dapple in romanticism, in the messy, feeling-based side of thinking that produces poets and musicians, but he just can't quite get past a love of the hard sciences and a comfortable rationalism he seems to think is too pervasive in our culture. The romanticist would look at other cultures for inspiration. Brooks puts other cultures in boxes, and even gives Erica an interest in anthropology as a college student that she dutifully applies to creating cultural archetypes useful to her yuppie consulting job. The romanticist would explore ways of living that didn't focus on making and spending money, but Brooks is happy to make Erica's passion one for behavioral economics, which acknowledges irrationalism while still trying to squeeze into a rationalized model.

And so many of the moments where the life course of Harold or Erica seems destined for statistical overdetermination, Brooks throws the romantic a bone, as when Erica is being barraged by her Chinese relatives, who predictably value keeping family close to home, over her decision to move far away for college. As they fulfill their Chinese-ness a little too well by bearing down on her independent spirit, her mother quietly order "Leave her alone," standing up for Erica and providing the jolt to get her to transcend her culture and assimilate into American individualist social mobility.  It is a moment of romanticism, of creative narrative that Brooks needs to move otherwise predestined story along, but other than these few moments, he rarely ventures into the real, messy contingency of life stories, and whenever his characters (voicing the desires of Brooks himself) have a choice, they always go for predictable, and painfully boring, upper middle class norms.

In addition to his predisposition to value boring lifestyles, Brooks' problem is that although he admirably seeks to achieve balance, he only really trusts neuroscience and psychology, systematizing and celebrating their findings as a "revolution," while leaving the philosophy, literature, and poetry for a little added rhetorical strength. At the same time, it is the moments where he is quoting these cultural forms that he is his most persuasive.The neuroscience doesn't articulate a model for balancing the passions and reason nearly as well as political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, and yet, none of the philosophers, poets, and novelists get to be a part of a revolution.

That's because in the world of philosophers and poets, there hasn't been a revolution. There's been a constant valuing of the passions that has waxed and waned through centuries. Brooks, for his part, admits this, writing in a compelling, accessible fashion about the British Enlightenment, which unlike the French Enlightenment's focus on reason, sought instead to establish a place for the sentiments. Fragments of Hume and Adam Smith's lesser-known Theory of Moral Sentiments make for helpful guideposts in Brooks' account, but he can't use them too much, lest he undermine his claim of a "revolution."

When I read the New Yorker article Brooks published as a prelude to the book, I found myself extremely angry. In such a truncated version of his argument, he skirted all the nuance, investing a model of deterministic, neuron-dictacted life trajectories with a romantic, feel-good vibe that felt like it was poking fun at the reader for wanting to believe in individuality.

With 376 pages to stretch his legs in, Brooks still has a few moments of slightly snarky jabs at personality types other than the heralded main characters. There's the hippie English teacher described as "saccharine," the politician with "historically important hair," and others whose wanting two dimensional caricatures make Harold and Erica seem a lot more human. Though Erica and Harold didn't elicit the emotional attachment or intellectual complexity of a Gatsby or Raskolnikov, I did genuinely come to like them, identify with their struggles, and even identify with them (though, like Harold, I am also an upper-middle class white man). Contrary to many other reviewers of The Social Animal, I think Brooks has  genuine, clever knack for capturing contemporary social dynamics in a believable, readable way. 

The heart of my problem is that Brooks is trying to use individual life narratives to make grand points about human nature, and no balance of generality and specificity will ever achieve such an epic task. There is no one right way to achieve human flourishing, and though Brooks admits this in theory, his snarky attitude to other less-heroic characters, his cultural stereotypes of Chinese and Mexicans (who could guess that Erica's Mexican father would abandon her?), and his wholesale endorsement of the Western tradition in philosophy seem to undermine an obligatory nod to diversity.

Such a failing is most apparent in Brooks' moral theory. Within that middle space between neurological determinism and individual freedom is where Brooks can articulate a version of morality that is strongly tied to what he calls "character." It is through certain environments that we live within through our development that we develop character, but Brooks doesn't endorse a broad range. Erica is destined for a generally less fulfilling life until she forces her way into a rigorous, high-stress school that enforces discipline. Harold's intellectual awakening predictably comes from the Ancient Greeks, echoing Brooks' own Straussean leanings. 

Because Brooks, like Rousseau, attempts to get the big picture from the small picture, he necessarily collapses the important diversity of the world into contemporary upper-class American life in a portrait that is believable, lovable, and even at moments inspiring, but in the end deeply conservative. Harold and Erica's life story will strike a reader predisposed to value comfort, predictability, and a life not overly exposed to to the messy novelistic sense of adventure, as a celebration of a kind of revolution that reinforces what they already wanted; life-long companionship, social mobility,and  upper middle class American values. For the rest of us, it leaves something to be desired.


Maurice Chammah graduated from Cornell University in Near Eastern Studies and the College Scholar Program. He has studied and done research in Cairo, Egypt and volunteer work with Rabbis for Human Rights in Jerusalem and the West Bank. He also plays with a handful of bands in Austin, including Oikos and Mother Falcon.


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