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.
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…
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