The Social Animal, by David Brooks–Book Review

This book has strengthen a perception of mine that even great journalists have a problem when they try to write non-fiction books. The Social Animal has a noble goal but the delivery is painfully dragging its ideas through a long winding story of two people who live an unhappy life. This is already a contentious point. For reasons that are not clear to me, the book is meant to describe the life of two people “who lead wonderfully fulfilling lives”. How can this be, when these two people live their lives absorbed in demanding jobs, with different ideals and that consider divorce at the age of fifty amidst desperation, bouts of alcoholism, a case of adultery, loneliness and realisation that they don’t fit each other? It is only because of a moral inner struggle that they decide to stay together, giving a strong impression that this is because there is no other practical option.

The main idea of The Social Animal is to follow two threads that are intertwined throughout the book: a story of two people that met, fell in love and decided to live together and a scientific exploration of the current status of research in human development, society, social behaviour, psychology, mind, genetics, biology and professional development that explain the way we make decisions and behave.  It is a great idea, but difficult to implement.

The fundamental concept is that we make decisions at two levels: conscious awareness and subconscious. The first is the rational aspect of our behaviour, the logical thinking, the dry calculation, the methodical process by which we arrive at conclusions. David Brooks refers to this as the French Enlightenment thinking framework, “le rationalisme” personified by Voltaire and Descartes. The second level is the realm of deep unconscious, the unknown laboratory of human emotions, where feelings are born and fight against the rational thoughts from level 1 to ultimately determine how we make our decisions. This way of thinking is favoured by the British Enlightenment which affirms that in the end this is how we really decide. David Brooks has a plethora of examples of research studies that support this claim.

It may be that this is how we make decisions, with “epistemological modesty”, but it is rather hard to make sense of this book, other than just to say “hey, did you know that researchers discovered that… so and so?”. This is simply because I could not find “the hidden sources of love, character and achievement” as stated in the subtitle. I could see that hard work is necessary ingredient of success, that genetic inheritance is another asset that is good to have on your side and that being born in the richer part of society opens the door to more opportunities; but this is something that is hardly new.

There are a few interesting ideas here but they are lost in a long series of scientific explanations and popular statistics, but they lose traction because they are so disjointed, diluting any message that the book might have. 

Here is one intriguing observation: we live today in a world where the cognitive load is so large it makes it more and more difficult for people from poorer parts of the society to traverse through education system to the richer side. The knowledge required is too high. David Brooks is not talking about the logical knowledge, but the emotional one which is the cultural fabric of society. This cannot be taught in a logical fashion in schools and in time it causes an increasing inequity that will lead to social tensions difficult to resolve.

The ramifications stemming from the idea that the subconscious in fact is quite rational are vast. You can choose your patch and rest assured you have in there plenty of interesting work for many many years. You could look at this from a computing perspective and think of the human brain as a sophisticated system with massive parallel processes that makes decisions in the background. Or look at this from a cognitive science perspective and try to understand the working model of the mind based on these “underground” processes.  Then if you are an educator ask yourself how much of of our children formation is influenced by the education system and which parts are mostly influenced by other sources. I thought the subconscious intelligence is an important attribute defines us as a “social animal” in ways much more significant than the standard IQ. Unfortunately David Brooks did not insist on this topic. The brush he used was too broad in his attempt to cover all aspects of our lives.

Overall, I found that reading was an uneven experience as if I was traveling across the country often by a boring bus and occasionally by an exciting Ferrari. I must say, that despite this review, I love David Brooks posts in The New York Times and I look forward to read his writing.

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