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Fooled by Science

1.

Science has a lot of uses. It can uncover laws of nature, cure disease, inspire awe, make bombs, and help bridges to stand up. Indeed science is so good at what it does that there’s a perpetual temptation to drag it into problems where it may add little or even distract from the real issues. David Brooks appears to be the latest in a long line of writers who, enamored of science, are bound and determined to import the stuff into their thinking.

David Brooks; drawing by Pancho

Brooks is, of course, familiar as a New York Times columnist and regular political commentator on the PBS NewsHour. His views are right of center but often moderate. He represents a gentle and somewhat eclectic brand of conservatism—he is, for example, pro-choice and fond of President Obama—and, not surprisingly, he is sometimes dismissed by mainstream Republicans. Though his newspaper and television duties have made him a household name, Brooks first gained fame as the author of Bobos in Paradise (2000), a best-selling and satirical look at “bourgeois bohemians,” those who grew up on rock and roll and liberalism but who subsequently made a killing as entrepreneurs or trend-spotting businessmen. Brooks followed this up with On Paradise Drive (2004), another sly look at the sociology of contemporary America, but one that didn’t fare as well as Bobos.1

In his latest book, Brooks shifts gears entirely. The Social Animal is more ambitious and, in some ways, more serious than his earlier books. Gone is the focus on what are likely passing fads in American culture and gone, at least largely, is the irreverent wit that characterized his previous efforts. Instead, The Social Animal is an attempt to write an accessible treatment of a set of weighty topics, many of which require Brooks to stretch in a distinctly scientific direction. The book, which was excerpted earlier this year in The New Yorker, focuses on big and somewhat diffuse questions: What has science revealed about human nature? What are the sources of character? And why are some people happy and successful while others aren’t?

To answer these questions, Brooks surveys a wide range of disciplines, including evolutionary psychology, neurobiology, cognitive science, behavioral economics, education theory, and even the findings of marriage experts.

Given all this, you might expect The Social Animal to be a dry recitation of facts. But Brooks has structured his book in an unorthodox, and perhaps unfortunate, way. Instead of a chapter on evolutionary psychology, followed by one on child development, and so on, he tells a story. Following Rousseau’s approach in Émile, Brooks makes his larger points within a fictional narrative. This literary conceit is presumably intended both to keep the reader’s attention and to provide a natural frame for all the research that Brooks reports. So as the characters in his narrative live through childhood, we hear about the science of child development, and as they begin to date we hear about the biochemistry of sexual attraction. Nothing if not thorough, Brooks carries this conceit through to the death of one of his characters.

Although Brooks’s scientific message is frustratingly unfocused, he emphasizes that the new sciences of human nature have revealed, among other things, the importance of the unconscious. Indeed “the central evolutionary truth is that the unconscious matters most.” Though we like to pretend that our decisions and fates are mostly determined by deliberate ratiocination, our unconscious minds are, he says, saturated with instincts, biases, habits, and emotional responses that silently shape our most important attitudes and decisions. Similarly, Brooks says, research into human nature “reminds us of the relative importance of emotion over pure reason, social connections over individual choice, and character over IQ….” In a phrase, “The French Enlightenment, which emphasized reason, loses; the British Enlightenment, which emphasized sentiments, wins.”

The Social Animal might seem an odd project for Brooks. He is neither a biologist nor a psychologist and his book takes him into some fairly technical literature. So why should he bother? One reason, he tells us near the start, is that he believes the problem of human nature is, in fact, connected to his day job as a political commentator. Public policy in the United States over the last century has, he says, often failed. Moreover, he insists that these failures have been characterized “by a single feature: Reliance on an overly simplistic view of human nature.” Furthermore, Brooks is convinced that our public policies “will continue to fail unless the new knowledge about our true makeup is integrated more fully into the world of public policy….” Though Brooks offers few explicit policy recommendations in The Social Animal, some are implicit in his story.

2.

The central characters in The Social Animal are Harold and Erica, a married couple whose lives make for the “happiest story you’ve ever read.” Brooks’s narrative actually begins with the courtship of Harold’s parents, Rob and Julia (which leads him to survey the biology of human sexual attraction). We then follow Harold and Erica from infancy on.

Harold is a child of privilege. His parents vacation at fashionable resorts and move in a world of Fulbright scholars. They ensure, of course, that Harold receives a fine education, providing Brooks with the opportunity to talk about the science of learning. Harold, blessed with good looks and athletic prowess, is a popular kid with strong social skills. In adolescence, he discovers the life of the mind and develops into a more serious adult than one might have expected. He meets Erica, falls deeply in love, largely devotes himself to her, and takes up the quasi-professional study of history (he writes a few books and works at a think tank for a while).

Erica comes from a different world. She’s Chinese-Mexican and grows up poor. Her father is largely absent from her life and her mother is largely overwhelmed. Erica’s world is transformed by her admission to a charter school that immerses disadvantaged youths in a demanding culture that replaces expectations of failure with ones of elite colleges and financial success. (In case you missed it, Brooks’s implied view is that poor kids need more than education; they need a whole new culture.) Erica, a talented teenager but one with anger management issues, is wowed by a businesswoman who visits her school and she sets her sights on a career in business. Over the years, Erica becomes a leader in the business community and rises to national prominence, eventually becoming secretary of commerce.

Harold and Erica’s adult lives are characterized by professional satisfaction and considerable wealth. Their marriage, though sometimes strained, is mostly rewarding and rarely gets in the way of their professional ambitions. (Harold and Erica are also childless.) As they age, we watch them mellow and, ultimately, come to terms with their mortality.

Brooks’s narrative is not without bumps. In places, Harold is an absurdly awkward mouthpiece for Brooks’s ideas. (Brooks admits to the ventriloquism, noting that “there was a New York Times columnist whose views were remarkably similar to [Harold’s] own….”) In one passage, for example, Harold, like Brooks, becomes fascinated by the British Enlightenment. When Erica experiences problems at work, Harold earnestly explains how the ideas of Hume and Burke might help her at the office. (One wonders what those marriage experts would have to say.) And when Harold joins the think tank, The Social Animal devolves into a series of synopses of the papers he writes there—wonky nonfiction packaged halfheartedly as narrative.

On the whole, Brooks’s story is serviceable if uninspired. As one would expect, his writing is mostly clear and, in fairness, some chapters stand out above the rest. I enjoyed, for instance, the chapter in which Harold discovers, under the tutelage of a talented young high school teacher, how to think on his own. And those tempted to dismiss Brooks as predictably conservative might be surprised by his sympathetic rendering of Erica’s difficult childhood. While Harold and Erica are certainly not strong or memorable characters, the more serious problems with The Social Animal lie elsewhere. In part, these problems involve Brooks’s attempt to translate his tale into science.

3.

One certainly can’t fault Brooks’s attempt to master the science that he reports. The Social Animal canvases an enormous technical literature—indeed several literatures—and Brooks has plowed through a good amount of it.

Despite this, Brooks never seems fully comfortable with all this science. He often appears ill at ease in a world of technical journals, disagreements among experts, and statistical measures of uncertainty. A working scientist knows, for example, that some findings are more secure than others, often because the former derive from studies that involved many subjects and the latter from studies that involved few.

Brooks doesn’t seem to grasp this difference. To Brooks, science is science. It’s all equally sound and can be taken at face value. His lack of expertise also presumably accounts for his occasional reliance on popular scientific journalism. Thus we’re treated to conclusions from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist, among others. Since these writers are also nonscientists, Brooks’s analysis sometimes leaves us two steps removed from the actual scientist and his facts, facts that are often accompanied in the scientific literature by caveats or exceptions.

While Brooks concedes his lack of scientific savvy, it nonetheless leads him into several difficulties. For one thing, his arguments sometimes simply don’t make sense. Brooks claims repeatedly, for instance, that the unconscious—that most important part of the mind—corresponds to a murky domain of the unpredictable, the irregular, and the nonlinear. Indeed rationality, he announces, can’t acknowledge the importance of the unconscious because “once it dips its foot in that dark and bottomless current, all hope of regularity and predictability is gone.” But none of this follows. A process can be both perfectly unconscious and perfectly predictable. You are not conscious, for example, of how you use visual information from one eye to fill in for the blind spot from the other eye but I can confidently predict that you are doing so now.2

Similarly, Brooks’s talk of nonlinearity is a red flag warning of scientific naiveté. “Nonlinear” has a precise mathematical meaning: the relation between two variables when plotted on a graph doesn’t look like a straight line. However, in Brooks’s hands, it means something that’s fuzzy or “cloudlike.” But there’s nothing fuzzy or cloudlike about, say, the change in the frequency of a gene under the action of natural selection; yet the relevant dynamics are nonlinear.3

Brooks also sometimes champions both of two opposing scientific views, apparently without appreciating the resulting absurdities. On several occasions, for example, he praises emergentism, the view that a whole (say, an organism) is greater than the sum of its parts. Emergentism is often taken as opposed to reductionism, the view that we can understand a whole by understanding its parts. (“Divide and conquer; the devil is in the details. Therefore, for decades we have been forced to see the world through its constituents.”) But The Social Animal veers erratically between Brooks’s endorsement of emergentism and his recitation of major accomplishments of reductionist science. Indeed the science that Brooks reports is mostly reductionist. There may not be a flat contradiction here but there is at least a serious tension and it’s one to which Brooks seems oblivious.

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.

4.

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. 1

    This October Simon and Schuster will publish these two books together in one volume, The Paradise Suite, with a new introduction by Brooks. 

  2. 2

    Some of Brooks’s scientific findings are also crushingly banal. On their first date, Rob checks out Julia’s curves and Brooks dutifully reports that studies show that men’s eyes are drawn to the curve of women’s breasts. Anyone who needs science to tell them that men like women’s breasts may need to get out more often. 

  3. 3

    While Brooks’s difficulties are mostly scientific, others reflect sheer carelessness. Thus he tells us that “the brain is not separate from the body—that was Descartes’ error,” a claim that would require Descartes to be desperately confused about anatomy. Ironically, Brooks warns a few pages later that “it is important not to confuse brains with minds.” 

  4. 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

  5. 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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