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

Clichéd though it may be for me, a liberal, to adore David Brooks, one of the last vestiges of moderate conservatism, I do. Wholeheartedly. In fact, I may have recently said I’d like to marry him if he were, say, 30. He’s insanely smart, he’s bookish, he’s geuine, and actually seems to possess, along with his wordly success, a perspective that keeps him grounded and allows him to effectively riff on all the power-tripping assholes he encounters in Washington. And he’s also an absorbing, laugh-out-loud funny writer, and I can quote more passges of his first book, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, than I’m comfortable admitting. His latest effort is The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement, and it’s a much vaster undertaking than either Bobos or his 2005 follow-up, On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense. It’s not neuroscience nor is it pop sociology, but Brooks attempts to blend the two into a basic overview of what governs human behavior, told through the lives of two fictional characters named Harold and Erica. Harold is the typical middle-class suburban white kid (who actually turns into a man scarily reminiscent of my own father, despite very obvious differences in their upbringings), while Erica is half-Chinese half-Mexican and grew up *insert politically-correct euphemism for “poor” here*. Harold is complacent in a non-asshole-y way, which is to say not overly ambitious, while Erica is fiercely determined to overcome the societal disadvantages she was born with.  

The book makes the case that Harold and Erica’s mutual successes—affluence; thriving, intellectually-stimulating careers; a lasting and generally loving marriage; intimate and meaningful friendships—are not due to exceptionally high IQs or unfettered access to the best, most prestigious institutions. They grew up without the privileges one might assume are prerequisites to success, but both possessed a startlingly honed sense of social intelligence, EQ, whatever you want to call it, that ultimately meant more than by-the-books intelligence/education. Essentially, Brooks limns the terminal battle between the ideas of the three major intellectual Renaissances: the French Enlightenment (with its emphasis on logic, reason and knowledge), Marxism (with it’s contention that humans are defined by their material circumstances) and the British Enlightenment, which, underscores the ultimate deference of reason and logic to emotions. As Brooks puts it, “People are born with natural desires to be admired and to be worthy of admiration. They are born with moral emotions, a sense of fair play and benevolence. They are also born with darker passions, like self-love and tribalism, which mar rationalist enterprises. We are emotional creatures first and foremost, and politics should not forget that.” In a battle of wits between the Intellectual, Material and Social Animals, in other words, the latter will triumph.

I don’t exactly buy his theory. I’ve always been far more drawn to the thinkers of the French Englightenment (that is, classic liberal philosophers like Rousseau) and their political descendants, like Woodrow Wilson than to Brooks’s heroes Edmund Burke and Adam Smith. (Slight aside: I read a fantastic book last year by Peter Beinart called The Icarus Syndrome:A History of American Hubris, which analyzed twentieth-century American foreign policy through the prism of three essential fallacies: the hubris of reason, of toughness and of dominance. With all due respect to E.H. Carr and other far more prominent scholars, this book made the best case I’ve read for the limits of Wilsonian faith in reason, at least as applied to international-relations theory.) Brooks is a little too Malcolm Gladwell-y in this book for my taste, plus I think the reviews charging that Brooks, with Harold and Erica, has created superficial characters, specifically designed to corroborate his social science theories, are generally correct. All that said, while Brooks’ tome is undoubtedly ambitious, he neither claims to be engaging in a rich character study nor revealing cutting-edge research into the human psyche. He makes no neuroscientific (if you will) pretensions. This book is an exploration of theories that have fascinated Brooks his entire life, of which he claims no expertise. And while he’s certainly pushing an agenda throughout the book, what really shines through is the author’s unabiding curiosity about humanity and an intellect that makes his opinions worth considering.

Plus, his descriptions of the Composure Class—the people who “make Barack Obama look like Lenny Bruce” and “spend much of their adult lives going into rooms and making everyone else feel inferior”—are, as always, priceless.

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