The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement
By David Brooks
Random House, 448 pages

Once philosophers, theologians, and poets asked the question: What is man? These days, cognitive scientists have taken over the job. Want to know what makes humans unique—why we create music, worship God, fall in love, provide for our children, feel despair? Ask the brain scientist. Earlier modern revolutions in human understanding made their leaders and explicators world famous, even to those who had no idea what those leaders and explicators were talking about—think of Freud or Einstein. That kind of fame has not yet come to the captains of the cognitive revolution, as cognoscenti sometimes refer to the transformation in scientific thinking about the human mind. The wider public, the same sort of people who once tossed about the terms “Oedipus complex” and “theory of relativity” after reading about them in Time, is largely unaware of the cognitive revolution.

The field is often said to have originated in the 1950s, when the linguist Noam Chomsky proposed that the brain came equipped with universal rules giving us the ability to generate infinite numbers of phrases and sentences. But it took decades of methodological and technological advances—the MRI machine, which gives scientists the power to watch the brain in action, came into wide use only in the 1990s—for the field to gain a real cultural presence. Public ignorance of the brain theorists in their midst can also be chalked up to the fact that cognitive science is not a single, unified discipline. It encompasses ethology, evolutionary psychology, computer science, neuroscience, behavioral economics, anthropology, and even chemistry.

And finally, not many people who understand the amygdala and hypothalamus also write about them in ways the public can understand, much less enjoy. Most of what we hear on the subject veers between impenetrable academic papers and gee-whiz, brains-can-do-the-darndest-things enthusiasm. (As I write, the American Museum of Natural History in New York is advertising an exhibit called “Brain: The Inside Story.” “Play Computer Brain Games! . . . Walk Through a Giant Neural Network!”) There are a few popularizers—Oliver Sacks, Malcolm Gladwell, and Jonah Lehrer (the author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist)—who have written gracefully and knowledgeably about cognitive science. But their work hardly adds up to a cohesive picture of the field.

David Brooks’s new book, The Social Animal, tries to fill that gap and offer a thoroughgoing portrait of what brain science can tell us about contemporary American culture and politics. Brooks, the New York Times columnist and author of two previous books of “comic sociology,” is not entirely successful at the hugely ambitious task he has set for himself; it’s hard to imagine anyone who could be. Nevertheless, he has written a fascinating interpretation of a discipline with immense power over our current way of thinking.

Brooks is especially interested in what cognitive science can tell us about success and happiness in our own society. To explore that question—and to keep us scientifically challenged readers happy—he attempts his own experiment, a literary one. Rather than offering a straightforward exposition of cog-sci research, he provides us with a test case in the upbringing, education, and development of a fictional couple named Harold and Erica, blessedly successful members of America’s educated class.

Harold grows up in a stable, loving home, gets a degree in global economics and foreign relations, runs a historical society, writes commercially successful biographies and histories, and works for a D.C. think tank. Despite a mentally unstable single mother, Erica will start her own consultancy business, become the CEO of a media company, and take a high-level staff position for a successful presidential candidate. Brooks may take things too far when he has her become secretary of commerce, but you get the idea: these are meritocratic stars.

What can the cognitive revolution tell us about people like this? Brooks begins by reviewing infant brain development. Adapted by millions of years of evolution, the infant brain intuits patterns and creates models out of the galaxies of sensory data exploding around him. This learning is an actual physical process. The baby’s brain cells (or neurons) fire electrochemical impulses through connections called synapses. Humans develop hundreds of trillions of those synapses; one scientist imagines them as “a football stadium filled with spaghetti.” The neurons store information. This means that experience is actually written into the baby’s—in this case, Harold’s—brain.

Yet for all his innate cleverness, child Harold is a bit of a wild man. He is easily distracted and bounces from one thought to another like one of his rubber balls. This is where nurture makes the difference. The bedtimes, the daily routines, and the nightly homework insisted upon by a determined mother teach Harold the orderliness and self-control that will bring him success in school and in life. His parents are well-off, but they don’t just provide him with computers and private schools; as Brooks demonstrates in detail, “they pass down habits, knowledge, and cognitive traits.”

Indeed, like all humans, Harold and Erica are “social animals.” By this, Brooks means something much more profound than that people like to hang out together. The brain is actually molded by interactions with other people. Human infants are born with “mirror neurons”; that’s why babies imitate the faces and sounds of those around them. Infants also internalize the attentiveness of their mothers. In the 1950s, the British psychologist John Bowlby theorized that children of mothers attuned to their own moods are more resilient and develop greater capacity for emotional bonds, and there is now abundant research suggesting they are more likely to thrive as students, spouses, and parents. Parents themselves unconsciously imitate the patterns of their own childhood, patterns that have been handed down over generations. Erica’s mother’s family is Chinese, for instance, while her father’s is Mexican. They do not explicitly teach the girl their values and different habits of sociability; but unconsciously, Erica so successfully assimilates these attitudes that they come to feel as natural as breathing.

In Brooks’s telling, then, cognitive science yields a brain nothing like the mechanical and autonomous information processor stripped of history and culture one might have expected from a discipline influenced by artificial intelligence. Humans are inevitably and beneficially guided by emotions and unconscious associations. Most of us already suspect that subterranean life drives our sexual and romantic desires. Experts fill in the details. When encountering the opposite sex, hormones like testosterone and oxytocin bathe our brains; when we fall in love, we get high on dopamine, much the way addicts do on cocaine. Cognitive scientists believe because we are driven by a brain adapted to the early human environment, men equate female beauty and “fertility cues”—symmetrical features, full lips, and a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7, the approximate dimensions of both Playboy bunnies and prehistoric fertility goddesses. Since men can tend towards violence and promiscuity, women are less visual and more guarded when choosing a mate. Both women and men prefer kindness in a spouse, but women are aroused by male status—though Brooks does not apply this rule to Erica, whose ambition and achievements far exceed her husband’s.

Unconscious feelings are not limited to the personal sphere. As he describes Erica’s climb through the world of business and politics, Brooks is sharply critical of technocrats, planners, management experts, IQ hawks, and even writers of the French Enlightenment for their excessive faith in human rationality and calculation. Reason is not like a “captain sitting in the cockpit making decisions,” he writes. Moral emotions and intuitions, some of them innate, some of them a product of individual experience, some primitive, some culturally adaptive, saturate the most methodical decisions. Policymakers generally fail to factor in subjective life. Experts have assumed we could educate kids about the risks of drugs and unprotected sex, for instance, so they could make “good decisions.” But the good decider “has rigged the game”; her judgment is already infused with moral leanings that reduce temptation.

Brooks wields his trademark comic sociology to mock modern society for overvaluing professional achievement and academic prestige. In one hilarious riff, he describes “the Immortals,” older plutocrats who ride mountain bikes on roads near their mansions in Aspen and Bridgehampton and marry a series of beautiful younger women. The result is a “weird genetic phenomenon in which their grandmothers looked like Gertrude Stein but their granddaughters looked like Uma Thurman.” Our heroes, Harold and Erica, are better than this. The aging Erica realizes that her ambition has made her neglect the “deeper” sides of herself, and so she sets out to educate her emotions, traveling, listening to music, reading novels, and (in another stretch) taking up woodworking. Pondering his life, the elderly Harold is humbled to recognize that he, that is, “the voice in his head,” the knowing, conscious self, is as much servant as master of his being and that the individual is part of a “never-ending interpenetration of souls.”

In other words, Brooks sees cognitive science as a source of wisdom about who we are and how to live. What is man? He is genes and hormones and ever-firing synapses, to be sure. But he is also evolved emotion, primitive instinct, and ancestral habit. Philosophers and theologians view man as locked in a battle between reason and emotion, civilization and instinct, society and the individual, or as Freud might have put it, the conscious and the unconscious, the ego and the id. The Social Animal concludes that these conflicts are illusory. Instead, reason is informed by moral emotions, civilization channels instinct, culture sculpts the individual, and the unconscious educates the conscious. Human flourishing is not found by the triumph of one side over the other; happiness is holistic. Likewise, Brooks sees no necessary divide between science and religion. “The brain was physical meat,” Harold, his mouthpiece, realizes in his last days, “but out of the billions of energy pulses emerged spirit and soul. . . . The hand of God must be there.”

This final observation will doubtless make some scientists’ brains explode, to choose a relevant metaphor. The scientific community has not always greeted Brooks’s columns on the kinder, gentler, and more spiritual brain with great enthusiasm. Whether this is due to turf-guarding, political animus, or genuine misinterpretation on the layman’s part is hard to determine. Suffice it to say that his approach to the field is unusual. Cognitive scientists are almost by definition materialists; many of them believe that the brain’s evolved physical activity puts an end to the idea of a soul. It’s no accident that a number of today’s most vociferous atheists are comrades in the cognitive revolution. Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, Richard Dawkins an evolutionary biologist, and Daniel Dennett a philosopher much influenced by cognitive studies.

Some criticism of The Social Animal will be deserved, regardless of the book’s scientific accuracy. Brooks’s novelistic format tries to marry humanities and science, but the experiment has mixed results. At its less satisfying moments, The Social Animal reads like the 4 a.m. mind-racing of an idiosyncratic honors grad student; using insight from cognitive science, he expounds on love, politics, Plato, charter schools, Coleridge, Alexander Hamilton, the intensity of life in the Middle Ages, even the war in Afghanistan.

And the narrative method Brooks has chosen leads him to gloss over uncertainty. Cognitive science is a young, changing discipline subject to human error and ambition; only recently, a Harvard evolutionary biologist has been accused of fabricating data about animal cognition. More generally, some research cited in the book might follow thousands of subjects over a period of years, while others ask a series of questions of a couple of dozen college students on a single afternoon. Brooks doesn’t warn us about the latter.

Perhaps the field’s greatest uncertainty is the question of how brain activity relates to consciousness, or the mind/body problem. Scientists can explain how different parts of the brain operate when we perceive, think, remember, or desire. They can watch those parts of the brain in action. What they can’t do is tell us how all that activity adds up to an “I,” a unified, aware self. Through Harold and Erica, Brooks avoids confronting this failure. Creative license gives him the power to simply assert conscious identity, and so he does.

Cognitive science is radically reshaping the way we think about ourselves, and The Social Animal offers unique insight—and comfort—about the conclusions it draws.

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