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Fooled by Science

The Social Animal also features much talk of the molecules that course through various characters. A sample:

As Julia and Rob semi-embraced, they silently took in each other’s pheromones. Their cortisol levels dropped.
Later in their relationship, Rob and Julia would taste each other’s saliva and then collect genetic information.
When parents do achieve this attunement with their kids, then a rush of oxytocin floods through their brains.
But the caudate nucleus and the VTA [ventral tegmental area] are also parts of something else, the reward system of the mind. They produce powerful chemicals like dopamine, which can lead to focused attention, exploratory longings, and strong, frantic desire. Norepinephrine, a chemical derived from dopamine, can stimulate feelings of exhilaration, energy, sleeplessness, and loss of appetite. Phenylethylamine is a natural amphetamine that produces feelings of sexual excitement and emotional uplift.

All this molecule talk presents some problems (besides cringe-inducing prose). First it grows tiresome. Reading The Social Animal is too often like reading a story in English and then in translation. Something happens in Brooks’s narrative and then it happens again, at the level of molecules. By the end, it’s easy to hate all those molecules, most of which seem intent on slowing Brooks’s story (and it’s slow enough already).

Second, most of these biological facts don’t matter, at least for Brooks’s purposes. What of our view of humanity changes if, when parents achieve an “attunement with their kids,” the molecule that “floods through their brains” is schmoxytocin, not oxytocin? The salient fact is that some molecule or some part of the brain underlies various aspects of consciousness or unconsciousness. But this is hardly news. As the philosopher Jerry Fodor once quipped, it’s been clear for a while now that mental processes occur north of the neck. The rest is a sort of biological bookkeeping that, while significant to the specialist, seems to provide the popular writer only with a long list of factoids. It’s not that these facts are wrong or unconnected to the higher-level phenomena—lust, emotional uplift, or insight—that Brooks discusses. They’re just superfluous.

In any case, surely what matters most to us about human nature typically takes place at a more macro level. In the language of biology, human nature is a phenotype—a trait or set of traits that is observable—and the underlying mechanics are a different matter altogether. (By analogy, imagine that an accountant opens a spreadsheet on his computer and unexpectedly announces that you have ten million dollars in your account. It’s true that, when the file was opened, this and that line of code in the computer program was executed. But it would be odd to conclude that this is the level at which something interesting just happened.) This kind of argument can be taken too far but Brooks at least owes us an explanation of why all these biological details are supposed to matter to his project.4

But perhaps the biggest problem with much of the science in The Social Animal is that it doesn’t tell us anything that Brooks’s narrative hasn’t already said. Most of us learn about human nature from experiences in real life or from the lives of those portrayed in fiction. And that’s probably as good a way to learn as any. When we begin to see, in Brooks’s story, that the adolescent Erica will never get far if she doesn’t master her anger, it doesn’t help to be told that, during times of stress, epinephrine surges or that self-control in children is a good statistical predictor of success later in life. As many have noted, our folk psychology differs from our folk physics in that, while the latter is notoriously poor, the former often seems remarkably good. Indeed, as Noam Chomsky famously suggested, when it comes to revealing what makes people tick, a scientific psychology might never outperform the novel. I have no idea whether this is true, but The Social Animal certainly makes one take the possibility seriously.


The Social Animal also suffers from some larger problems. Brooks’s goal is to better understand human nature so as to better understand what leads to contentment and personal fulfillment. Unfortunately, his idea of the path to contentment is narrow and a bit bland: go to college, get a good white-collar job, and devote one’s retirement to doing (presumably atrocious) art. This is, remember, the stuff of the “happiest story you’ve ever read.”

Brooks is obviously right that education and money provide more options in life than do a lack of education and poverty. But one sometimes wonders if, in Brooks’s world, contentment is permanently closed to carpenters, musicians, and waitresses. Is the ultimate goal of education specifically and of public policy generally to direct such people into allegedly more meaningful occupations, ones that take place inside office cubicles? It sometimes seems that Brooks’s vision of the good life stretches all the way from Westchester to the Hamptons. In any case, it’s hard to imagine a world more tedious than one wholly populated by Harolds and Ericas. Indeed, Brooks’s characters are so dull that he may have unwittingly written a book that turns readers off to the very American dream he hopes to celebrate.5

More important, is it really clear, as Brooks claims, that public policy in the United States has often failed because of “reliance on an overly simplistic view of human nature”? And is it really obvious that our policies “will continue to fail unless the new knowledge about our true makeup is integrated more fully into the world of public policy….”? This seems an odd diagnosis of our problems and a commensurately odd prescription for a cure.

There can, of course, be no doubt that a decent grasp of human nature is a prerequisite for decent public policy. (A policy that assumes, for example, that people mostly want to give away their possessions would not be the most promising.) And there can also be no doubt that a decent grasp of science can help us figure out a thing or two about human nature. (So that’s how people trade goods in a behavioral economic experiment.) But there’s a serious question of whether a scientific understanding of human nature is the main thing that matters. It seems peculiar to believe that a more sophisticated understanding of, say, the genetics or biochemistry or evolutionary basis of human nature will provide special insight into the human condition and thereby allow us to—finally—shape successful public policy. Why, to put it differently, is it so easy to imagine a society that knows very little if anything of the new sciences of humanity but that is exceedingly happy and another that knows all about these sciences but that is thoroughly miserable?

Brooks’s first love, history, also provides grounds for wondering whether a science of human nature is a reliable guide to the good life. You’ll hear next to nothing in The Social Animal about eugenics and forced sterilization in the United States or social Darwinism and “race science” in pre-war Germany. Yet these abominations sprang from alleged new scientific understandings of humanity. This is not to absurdly suggest that the use of science to shape policy is bound to be pernicious. But it is to suggest that the difference between sound versus unsound policy is not a simple matter of more versus less science. Brooks surely appreciates this point but the reader of The Social Animal could be forgiven for missing it.

In the end, The Social Animal presents a lot of science and it presents a laudable goal of increasing human happiness and improving public policy. But it spends next to no time plausibly explaining how the former is supposed to lead to the latter.

  1. 4

    An important exception involves pathologies in which brain chemistry is seriously disturbed. Here the underlying biochemistry obviously matters. But such pathologies are not the focus of The Social Animal

  2. 5

    For a very different view of the relation between occupation and contentment—and from another conservative—see Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (Penguin, 2009). Crawford argues that some blue-collar jobs, e.g., figuring out what’s wrong with a motorcycle, require more brains, and provide more satisfaction, than, say, pushing paper at a financial firm. By contrast, Brooks’s vision of the business life is so romantic that, in places, it’s unintentionally comical: “Erica believed in her product. She believed there were hidden currents of knowledge and, if she could only get her clients to see them, she would change the world. She would give people deeper ways to perceive reality….” Erica’s business was marketing to various ethnic groups. 

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