Fooled by Science August 18,
2011<> H.
Allen Orr <>

* The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and
by David Brooks
Random House, 424 pp., $27.00


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


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

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

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.

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Michael Balter
Contributing Correspondent, Science
Adjunct Professor of Journalism,
New York University

Email:  [log in to unmask]

“Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is
no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof."
                                                  --John Kenneth Galbraith