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.