Magazine | April 4, 2011, Issue

Hard Wiring

The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, by David Brooks (Random House, 448 pp., $27)

If the proper study of mankind is man, it has taken a remarkably long time to get that study on a truly scientific footing. From the founding of the Royal Society to the present has been more than 350 years, yet only in the last 50 of those years have quantified, replicable results about human nature begun to pull ahead of imaginative fads like phrenology, psychoanalysis, and Marxism. This tardiness is the more remarkable when one reflects that while other objects of scientific inquiry — galaxies, neutrons, tectonic plates, viruses — were utterly unknown to us until the 20th century, we have been observing one another with keen interest since our species arose ten thousand generations ago. Not only is it surprising that we don’t know more about human nature, it is surprising there is anything left to learn.

Learning is well under way, though, assisted by modern methods of data gathering and processing, and by new technologies for gene sequencing and brain imaging. Many of the results are debatable and provisional, but shapes are emerging from the fog. There is consequently a growing market for books presenting the state of understanding in the human sciences to a general readership. Given the subject matter, the supply side of that market inevitably includes a complement of ideologues and mountebanks; but serious researchers and expositors now outnumber them in person if not in sales volume: There’s at least one Steven Pinker (How the Mind Works) for every Malcolm Gladwell (Blink).

New York Times columnist David Brooks enters these lists with The Social Animal, a survey of current knowledge about human nature cast as a fictional narrative. The principals in the story are Harold and Erica, two intelligent and educable Americans of our own time. To best present the human science, and also (I surmise) to best display his own superb talents of social observation, Brooks has frozen the entire lives of these protagonists in the early 21st century. Their infancies, adolescences, adulthoods, and old age are all set in the present day.

This framing device works very well; at any rate, I soon stopped minding the implausibility of it. Brooks might, I suppose, have put Harold and Erica into a novel; but then the frozen-in-time device would have been too much of an imaginative stretch, the many expository digressions would have been too jarring, and every critic would have carped that Tom Wolfe does that kind of fiction so much better.

Is this a new literary form? Brooks, in his introduction, claims Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile as his model. Of the two books, though, The Social Animal is far more respectful of empirical inquiry — it could hardly be less so — and broader in scope, showing Harold and Erica involved in the worlds of business and politics. Of Harold’s mother we learn that “she, like 89 percent of all people, did not believe in love at first sight.” It is hard, from at least two points of view, to imagine Rousseau penning that sentence.

#page#Brooks’s main theme is the primacy of the unconscious mind. We have much less access than we imagine to the springs of our own thoughts and actions. That is not a new idea; Brooks puts it in the historical context of the two great 18th-century Enlightenments — Hume, Smith, and Burke versus Rousseau, Voltaire, and Condorcet:

The cognitive revolution of the past thirty years has provided a new burst of insight into these old questions. The new findings strongly indicate that the British Enlightenment view of human nature is more accurate than the French Enlightenment view. Thinkers from the French Enlightenment imagined we are Rational Animals, distinguished from other animals by our power of logic. . . . But the thinkers from the British Enlightenment were right to depict us as Social Animals.

The unresolved issue here, Brooks tells us, is the degree to which the folk-psychological view of the unconscious as a blind brute — a Mr. Hyde — is correct. For the most contrary view, he quotes the suggestion by psychologist Ulric Neisser that the true exceptionalism of Homo sapiens lies not in our possession of reason, but in the extraordinary sophistication of our lower mental faculties: “not in the existence of consciousness but in the capacity for complex processes outside of it.”

Issues of nature/nurture inevitably arise, especially in Brooks’s early chapters on the childhood and education of his protagonists. Here I think he can be fairly criticized as wobbly. Nature/nurture issues have now been pretty well resolved, the truth in most areas of the human sciences being “somewhat of both.” Genotype A may cause phenotype X; yet A may be present without X ever being expressed. The catch-phrase taught to students is: “Genes load the gun, environment pulls the trigger.” The fact of a condition’s being necessary-but-not-sufficient of course subtracts nothing from its necessity: In the absence of A there is no way X can appear. An unloaded gun cannot fire. (Some such general inhibitory principle may apply to all complex emergent systems. To the mind, for instance: Brooks quotes the excellent quip by cognitive scientist Vilayanur Ramachandran that what we have is “not free will but free won’t.”)

The education and socialization of our liberal-arts intelligentsia, however, make even a modest degree of naturism hard for them to face. Some of the time Brooks rises above his inclinations:

Kids are born with a certain temperament. That temperament is not a track that will guide them through life. It is, as E. O. Wilson has argued, a leash. Erica, like all kids, was born with a certain disposition . . . [that] would evolve over the course of her life, depending on how experience wired her brain, but the range of this evolution would have limits.

More often he does not, so that the reader of The Social Animal goes through the early chapters leaning into a gentle headwind of nurturist bias.

Brooks tells us, for example, that “in 2003 Eric Turkheimer of the University of Virginia published a study that showed that growing up in poverty can lead to a lower IQ.” No: Turkheimer claimed to have found a lower heritability of IQ, which is not the same thing. And Brooks omits to say that Turkheimer’s paper is an outlier.  Later research in Britain, Hawaii, and the Netherlands came up with results that either were null or found the opposite of what Turkheimer claimed to have found. Nor, after gushing over the 1939 Iowa study on mentally retarded orphans — one of the classic too-good-to-be-true results with which child-development and educational studies are addled — does Brooks mention the withering critique of that study by Herman Spitz.

#page#Similarly with Attachment Theory, to which Brooks devotes a whole chapter. This is a topic within child-development psychology, concerned with studying the social-bonding processes in infants. Parental style drives the whole business, says Brooks: “Most of the causal arrows flow from parent to child. . . . The key factor is parental sensitivity.” The properly conditioned child then goes on to form healthy bonds with peers. Other interpretations of the data are possible, though. As naturist author Judith Rich Harris observes pointedly: “The child lets go of Mommy’s hand in order to join his peers, but he takes his genome with him.”

So also with IQ, the most powerful single predictor we have of life outcomes among the normal, with a hundred years of refinement behind it and a database covering tens of millions of test subjects. Brooks’s three-page section “Beyond IQ” is heavily loaded towards skepticism, quoting for example Richard K. Wagner’s writings on “practical intelligence” with no mention of Linda Gottfredson’s authoritative debunking thereof. (“The evidence collapses, however, upon close examination . . .”)

Wherever there is academic controversy, Brooks presents the most nurturist claims uncritically, as if they were settled fact. A reader taking in Brooks’s view would be baffled by the fact that IQ testing, through its close proxies — including the SAT, the LSAT, the Armed Forces Qualification Test, and the carefully informal “aptitude” quizzes administered to job applicants by Microsoft and other high-tech firms — is our single biggest career filter.

Similar omissions and misreadings mar the sociology towards the end of the book. Pondering his experiences at a Washington policy think tank, Harold arrives at a sort of soft communitarianism: “Just as remote and centralized power creates a servile citizenry, decentralized power and community self-government creates an active and co-operative citizenry.” True enough: but what of the evidence — gathered by, among others, social scientist Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame (whom Brooks quotes with approval elsewhere) — that ethnic diversity is a major hindrance to communal bonding? And what then of David Brooks’s oft-expressed enthusiasm for increased diversity through more liberal immigration policies?

Setting aside these blemishes, and some Transcendentalist arm-flapping about those unconscious mental processes’ constituting the soul, Brooks has written an interesting book loaded with penetrating social observation. Stylistically The Social Animal is skillfully wrought, with deft transitions from recitative to aria. For example, the account of Erica’s encounters with fashionable biz-school gobbledygook — “Dynamic Systems Theory,” “Business Process Reengineering,” and the rest — segues cleverly into a commentary on scientism. A new literary genre? No; but certainly a neat way to present the human sciences to a general readership.

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