David Brooks: In Search of Social Animals

David Brooks is a Social Animal.  The subtitle of his new book with that title is more revealing, but still a teaser: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement.   That’s not a Danielle Steele bodice ripper or the Eighth Secret of Success.  It is Bobo’s survey of recent work on cognitive and neuroscience about how humans think and behave.

Bobo contends that our social connections to each other are what matter, not rationality, wealth or toys.  That might seem commonplace to people hanging onto their communities, jobs and families in the face of a Republican disaster capitalist tsunami.  It is a novelty to Brooks.  He has devoted columns and a new New York Times blog to it.

In hopes of enlivening what might seem a dry subject, Bobo wraps it in a novel about two energetic, successful, Upper East Side dinks (double income, no kids), named Harold and Maude Erica.  Their fictional journey through life – Harold’s from birth to death, Erica’s via her relationship with Harold (formed from a rib, as it were) – is the gift wrap that Bobo hopes will make his science interesting.  Stephen J. Gould attacked the problem by writing better.

Social Animal is likely to be all the rage and become a New York Times best seller.  You’ll hear and see much about it, some of it true. Here is a sample of the reviews.  They may help evaluate whether the book’s popularity is a function of genes, intelligence, writing ability or social standing among the haves.  (You can read an excerpt of Social Animal for free at the New Yorker website here.)

Publishers and publisher friendly media have given it hyperbolic praise.  Kirkus Reviews gave it a star, calling it,

An uncommonly brilliant blend of sociology, intellect and allegory.

Typical understatement of the genre.  The Christian Science Monitor was more measured:

In his new book… 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.”


[Brooks writes] “[W]hen you look deeper into the unconscious, the separations between individuals begin to get a little fuzzy,” … leaving one to wonder whether the author believes that there is such a thing as a human essence, a soul.

The more fawning reviews marvel at how Brooks uses a literary technique made famous by one of Bobo’s heroes, French philosopher, political theorist and essayist Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  It’ s called the 18th-century didactic narrative.  The Rousseau connection seems self-conscious, as if it were Bobo’s bid to be regarded as a great thinker, or at least as someone capable of Deep Thought.  His answer isn’t “42”, but at least he didn’t take 7 1/2 million years to calculate it.

PZ Myers, a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota and author of the science blog Pharyngula, excoriates Brooks for getting his science wrong. He calls his novelized excursion into cognitive and neuroscience “didactic”, an “arid wasteland”, a “bizarre chimera”,

an unholy grafting together of a novel, the story of Harold’s and Erica’s lives, and an ideological, psychological, neurological and pseudo-scientific collection of materialist explanations for their happy situation.

Bobo’s Harold and Erica live from birth to marriage, through success and death, to infinity and beyond, all in the present day.  That device is less Ground Hog Day – his characters don’t to learn to love, only to be companionable – than a sop to the wish for immortality that sells high-priced surgeries, nutritional supplements, exercise routines and amorous dalliances.  For Myers, Erica and Harold are “a complementary pair of androgynous droids”.

What does it mean that their lives are lived outside of time?  Are we unbound by history?  Genetics is biological history.  Is it that we live, grow old and die, and life goes on without us unchanged?  Brooks says it is that all that matters is the connections we make today.  But he doesn’t make connections among his litany of facts, nor in the lives of Harold and Erica.  Without history, they have no growth, learning, joy.  They are unable to ponder Robert Frost’s, The Road Not Taken, because their regrets are too few to mention:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.


I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Life passing but always in the present is a metaphor: the present is the only time we have to live it.  In Bobo’s hands, it leaves his characters without friends won, lost, regained or lost forever.  It’s an odd framing for a work that hopes to teach us that our social connections are what count, not our “hyper” rationality, our technical prowess, or our wealth.

PZ Myers reserves his harshest words for Brooks’ science, the other half of his book:

The special quality of “The Social Animal” is billed as being its melding of information from neuroscience into the story, to help us better understand how the unconscious mind forms our characters and helps us achieve success.

The book fails neuroscience, too.

His “science” is a discussion of “ideological, psychological, neurological and pseudo-scientific collection of materialist explanations for their happy situation.”  It is composed of “factlets” dropped into the narrative as if they were raisins in a vanilla pudding.  They are “polysyllabic magical incantations that allow shallow people to pretend to have knowledge.”

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.

Social Animal receives similar treatment in a review by Will Wilkinson, in Forbes.  Perhaps it’s the Welsh strain in him: Wilkinson seems willing to tell us, wanting to tell us, waiting to tell us how good a book this is.  He can’t seem to find the evidence for it.

“This is the happiest story you’ve ever read,” Brooks begins. It isn’t. It is depressing. “It is about two people who lead wonderfully fulfilling lives.” Actually, it is about two boring people who lead muted, more or less satisfactory lives in the successful pursuit of achievement as it is narrowly defined by their culture…. More baffling still is that Brooks’ intends this chilling portrait to offer consolation, to persuade us there is much to gain, and little to fear, in losing our unscientific illusions about human nature. Something in The Social Animal is badly awry.

Wilkinson knows the material Brooks uses.  He makes arguments Brooks could have made but didn’t.  He cites sources, possible origins for some of Brooks’ ideas, and makes connections between observed behavior and research that escape Brooks or which don’t fit inside the proscenium arch of his narrative.  Ultimately, though,

Brooks’ characters are constantly saying and thinking the sort of thing Brooks says and thinks in his opinion columns. They’re constantly made to express… the author’s conception of human nature, sociality, and political life. But this stuff often has little or nothing to do with the “revolutionary” [scientific] discoveries Brooks says he’s attempting to pull together into a coherent conception of human nature, sociality, and political life.

As the Christian Science Monitor observed, it’s not clear whether Brooks believes in the “human essence, a soul”, that he seems to want to sell us.  Alternatively, like Ross Douthat lost in a sorority house at midnight, he is afraid to explore or reveal what he finds.  Wilkinson:

Brooks wants to show us the real unconscious, but then he draws a veil over the undercurrents of ambition, sex, and violence that make our breed of social animal so dangerous and so interesting.

The final comments come from Brooks’ old haunt, The Wall Street JournalChristopher F. Chabris’, a professor of psychology at Union College, writes a masterly review.  His initial praise is frothy:

Mr. Brooks is among the most elite of public intellectuals, and one of the few who even attempts fair-minded, evidence-based argument in day-to-day political discourse.

He puts Social Animal in context: the literature of popular books on science.  He mentions Stephen Hawking, for example, but not Stephen J. Gould or Richard Dawkins.  He then ventures into territory many reviewers fear to tread: Bobo’s references to the scientific literature.  He fact checks him, which is where things come a cropper.

Curiously or with malice aforethought, Chabris praises Brooks’ powers as a social observer, citing his popular earlier work, Bobo’s in Paradise.  He calls it “a modern classic that deconstructed every signifier of millennial upper-class life, from Restoration Hardware catalogs to New York Times wedding announcements.”  He doesn’t mention Sasha Issenberg’s, Boo-Boo’s in Paradise: “David Brooks is the public intellectual of the moment. But… he doesn’t check his facts.”

Chabris then makes the observation about the Social Animal similar to those Issenberg made about Bobo’s in Paradise.   First, he finds it witty, full of “vintage comic sociology”.  He admires Brooks’ ability to sketch “archetypes” and coin phrases: the composure class, sanctimommies, and extracurricular sluts (referring unconvincingly to kids who do too much, not to their sanctimommies).  Brooks’ aim is,

to explain what makes the “composure class” tick. His premise is that the secrets of high achievement—in work and in life—are being revealed through a “revolution in consciousness.”…a revolution in the scientific study of consciousness, …[of] all aspects of our brains, minds and actions.

Brooks’ theme is that we, “overvalue cognition, analytical reasoning and autonomous will as the motors of success and undervalue emotion, intuition and social influence.”  That fits with Brooks’ general disdain, much discussed in his columns, for Democratic, but not Republican, technocrats and their technocratic presidents.  The kind of people who believe government is part of the solution, not the problem.  Like a don at Cambridge University in the 1920’s, dismissing a world beater athlete for being coached en route to an Olympic gold medal, he prefers the cult of the amateur to that of the professional.

There may be some truth to this claim, but while building his case, Mr. Brooks too often misreads or distorts the science, and sometimes he just gets it wrong.

Chabris finds that some of Brooks’ assertions are untestable, and that he fails to relate his “factoids” to one another or to the narrative in his novel.

Repeating such factoids—as Mr. Brooks does throughout the book—is tantamount to spreading urban legends. Mr. Brooks also exaggerates already-startling findings in a direction that favors his theme.

According to Chabris, Brooks panders to social stereotypes.  He repeats outdated, superseded claims.  He fails to correct for his confirmation bias – an elemental error in scientific research – and selectively promotes research that others have been unable to duplicate – another elemental error.

In some cases, as in his discussion on the social utility of intelligence, he misstates the science. In others, the studies he cites for his conclusions do not support them or support opposite conclusions.  That reads like a John Yoo legal opinion. Tenure has been denied for less.

After describing what would amount to academic misconduct, Chabris executes a stunning intellectual contortion of his own:

In “The Social Animal” Mr. Brooks surveys a stunning amount of research and cleverly connects it to everyday experience. The lessons he draws are often insightful, but they are not reliably correct. Perhaps experiencing his own surges of dopamine and overconfidence, he too often abandons his stance of “epistemological modesty” and instead peddles frothy notions that probably won’t last long.

Then, as if he were Alan Greenspan describing a portfolio of junk credit default swaps as a great buy, Chabris recommends the book:

[I]n observing the broader trends of social science—and of contemporary life—he gets a lot right. His own achievement here signals a plateau in the market for social science, not a peak.

Perhaps that’s Chabris’ tongue-in-cheek way of damning Brooks with faint praise – the sort of cool swipe common to faculty lounges and cautious recommendations – while remaining in the good graces of Rupert Murdoch’s WSJ.

Exit mobile version