three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
52-May-June-2011
By: 
David Brooks
user_rating: 
0

The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement

A-The Social AnimalA conservative New York Times columnist who has also written for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times, David Brooks is the author of two works of cultural commentary, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (2000) and On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense (HH Sept/Oct 2004).

The Topic: Inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau's approach in his influential treatise Émile, Brooks uses fictional characters to demonstrate the latest findings in neuroscience and psychology. Harold and his wife Erica grow up, meet, marry, and grow old against a carefully configured backdrop of social influences in a perpetual, modern-day America. Meanwhile, Brooks, in frequent asides, highlights recent research and scientists' growing understanding of human nature to illuminate their thoughts, motives, and actions. For too long, he asserts, society has given precedence to the conscious mind and cognitive intelligence over the unconscious mind and emotional intelligence when it is really the "thinking that happens below the level of awareness," shaped by familial and cultural forces, that determines who we are and how we behave.
Random House. 424 pages. $27. ISBN: 9781400067602

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The Social Animal has its flaws. ... But none of that should matter much to readers. Brooks's layman's tour through the science-sparked revolution in consciousness is, on balance, an enjoyably thought-provoking adventure." Bill Buettler

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Even if I'm not ready to credit science with having discovered the one best way to live, I enjoyed reading The Social Animal as a self-help book. ... His reliance on brain science suggests a wide-eyed acceptance about its potential to help us live better lives and build a better society. It remains to be seen whether the cognitive revolution will live up to its billing." Kevin Hartnett

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It's a fascinating and provocative thesis, deployed in an amalgam of storytelling and citations from psychologists, neuroscientists, sociologists, educators and poets. The result is a kind of weirdly compelling X-ray novel, with the characters' lives incessantly backlit by research studies, pithily charged insights and the occasional flabby generalization. Indeed, the citations and interpretations often crowd out the couple's story altogether." Steven Winn

Wall Street Journal 3 of 5 Stars
"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." Christopher F. Chabris

NY Times Book Review 2 of 5 Stars
"Brooks is right to insist that emotional ties, social interaction and the communal transmission of norms are essential in forming individuals for a decent life, and that habit, perception and instinct form a large part of the individual character. But there is moral and intellectual laziness in his sentimental devaluation of conscious reasoning, which is what we have to rely on when our emotions or our inherited norms give unclear or poorly grounded instructions." Thomas Nagel

Critical Summary

With the exception of the New York Times Book Review, which panned the story of Harold and Erica as well as Brooks's conclusions, most critics deemed Brooks a capable storyteller but otherwise spent little time appraising his literary skills. Science forms the crux of The Social Animal, and the reviewers' agreement with or refutation of Brooks's claims constituted the greater part of their reviews. A gifted social observer, Brooks makes some valid points regarding the duality of the human mind, but he too often bases his conclusions on questionable data and unduplicated experiments, "commit[ing] a variety of statistical errors and tiptoe[ing] through a minefield of contradictory evidence" (Wall Street Journal). The Social Animal may not be the last word in neuroscience, but it nonetheless provides an engaging and thought-provoking tour of the human mind.