David Brooks`s Social Animal—For A Pundit, He`s Good Novelist—When He Lets Himself Think


The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement is a new “didactic novel” (i.e. popular science nonfiction book illustrated by a fictional story) by New York Times token conservative (but prophylactically ex-socialist) columnist David Brooks. This bestseller attempts to retail the recent findings of the human sciences through a made-up account of the lives of a putatively successful married couple, combined with numerous digressions into state-of-the-art conventional wisdom about the meaning of the latest neuroscience research.

The Social Animal is intended to compete in the airport bookshop self-improvement category with Malcolm Gladwell`s various works. UnlikeGladwell, who prefers to blunder on his own, Brooks employs—and fully acknowledges—a first-rate research assistant in Cheryl Miller of the American Enterprise Institute. Her skills combine with Brooks`s reasonableness to help The Social Animal be far more trustworthy than Gladwell`s Blink or Outliers … except, of course, when, times being what they are, Brooks needs to be disingenuous for marketing, political, or career-preservative reasons. Still, I`m pleased that Brooks keeps the level of outright dissimulation low.

Not surprisingly, despite the felicities of Brooks`s prose style and all his dismissals of the importance of IQ,The Social Animal is simply too difficult a read to please many readers with an IQ below, say, 120. (In contrast, Gladwell`s less-closely argued books might go another standard deviation of IQ down market.)

And, while it is certainly prudent of Brooks to try to avoid drawing attention to the less popular findings of the human sciences, his determination to avoid controversy makes The Social Animal a little, well, bland.

The Social Animal is most interesting for its unusual structure. It features the skeletal outline of a novel that follows a couple, Harold and Erica, from before conception to death.

There has been a modest trend in recent years for intellectuals on the right to try to mash together fiction and science journalism. Probably the most successful: enfant terrible Michel Houellebecq`s frequently repulsive but still amusing 1998 novel The Elementary Particles, which features long disquisitions about the sexes cribbed from evolutionary psychology.

Last year, the Grand Old Man of American biologists, Edward O. Wilson, published his first novel, Anthill, about the life of an Eagle Scout and of the anthill he studies for a merit badge. I have a hunch that Wilson, the personification of All-American health and sanity, figured that if a sicko French litterateur like Houellebecq could pretend to grasp the latest science, then Wilson, who actually does understand it, could write a novel.

Brooks` Social Animal is the most stylistically extreme manifestation of this trend toward Tell, Don`t Shownovels.

Its possible predecessor: the strange p. 508 of Tom Wolfe`s 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. For the only time in that book, Wolfe suddenly interrupts his narration of Sherman McCoy`s misadventures for a digression that anticipates The Social Animal in style, content, and philosophy:

“The Bororo Indians … regard the mind as an open cavity … in which the entire village dwells and the jungle grows. In 1969 Jose M.R. Delgado, the eminent Spanish brain physiologist, pronounced the Bororos correct. For nearly three millennia, Western philosophers had viewed the self as something unique, something encased inside each person`s skull, so to speak. … Not so, said Delgado. `Each person is a transitory composite of materials borrowed from the environment.`”

Brooks has always been a sort of Tom Wolfe Lite—a comic sociologist too shy, too mild, too nice to be as great a reporter and satirist. But, hey, being a pale imitation of Tom Wolfe is hardly a bad thing to be. 

The Social Animal is like Bonfire of the Vanities turned inside out—rather like like what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is toHamlet. Instead of Bonfire`s 600 pages of page-turning plot and 1 page of brain science journalism, The Social Animal has 100 pages of limp plot and 300 pages of brain science journalism.

Most innovatively, Brooks explains:

“The story takes place perpetually in the current moment, the early twenty-first century, because I want to describe different features of the way we live now …”

For example, considering that Harold dies in Aspen of old age at the end of The Social Animal, his parents` first date would have taken place before WWII. But instead, pursuant to Brooks` method, that lunch appears to be taking place in the 21st Century world of Roissy, the ferocious dating advice satirist…if Roissy were tamer and nicer.

Brooks can get away with a few dubious assertions by always making it 2011. For example, he claims that the reason middle class children like Harold turn out so much more successful on average than underclass children is not genes, but because the middle class kids are raised by their parents in an atmosphere of”concerted cultivation”.

Yet few Baby Boomers were chauffeured to nonstop lessons like 21st Century kids. Baby Boomers mostly grew up in big families and our parents told us to go out and play because they had important martini-drinking to do. Still, Boomers turned out, on the whole, quite successful, albeit possibly because there wasn`t much competition from the Birth Dearth generation of the Depression and the War.

Many of Brooks` supporting characters are acutely and vividly drawn. The margins of my copy of The Social Animal are filled with notes like: “That`s my cousin Bob!” His didactic novel, modeled in part on Rousseau`sEmile, comes to life in his portrait of a superb didact, Harold`s high school English teacher, Mrs. Taylor, presumably modeled on one of the Straussian philosophers, perhaps Allan Bloom or Harvey Mansfield.

Unfortunately, however, the two central characters, Harold and Erica, are no fun. Harold—clearly Brooks` alter ego—is a dweeby intellectual; a noticer, not a doer. The last lines of Brooks`s Acknowledgments read:

“And it is a pleasure to thank my wife, Sarah. As she can attest, I may write about emotion and feelings, but that`s not because I`m naturally good at expressing them. It`s because I`m naturally bad at it.”

(By the way, Sarah Brooks used to be Jane Hughes. She not only took his last name, became a more devout Jew than Brooks himself, and bore him three children, but changed her first name from the Anglo Jane to the more Old Testamenty Sarah. In other words, there`s a lot more human interest wrapped up in real Jane/Sarah than in fictitious Erica.)

Brooks makes Erica a hard-charging tennis player turned CEO who becomes Commerce Secretary to an Obama-like President and then a fixture at Davos Conferences. Erica is the daughter of a Chinese single mother on welfare (how many are there?) and a Mexican dad, who is saved from a slum life by a KIPP-style charter school.

Erica`s triumph over the culture of the `hood might be inspiring … if she were a credible person. But Brooks just made her up to vindicate his political belief in bootcamp schools.

In terms of message, The Social Animal resembles a more intelligent version of Gladwell`s Blink, which endorsed “thinking without thinking”—making up your mind in a blink of an eye. As I said in my 2005 VDARE review of Blink, Gladwell`s message was: Always trust your gut instincts … except when they turn out to be either factually or politically incorrect. Then, don`t trust them.

Got that?

In contrast, Brooks` central theme is that conscious thinking is relatively less important in human affairs than unconscious thought. Unlike Gladwell, he offers subtle stipulations on when unconscious hunches tend to work and when they don`t.

To take a personal example: I periodically sit down with a Consumer Reports on cars and try to decide which car to buy—through conscious, logical thought. I`m good at organizing information and thinking logically, so I do it a lot. But all this ratiocination is largely a waste of my time because I always end up concluding: “As a middle-aged married man, I should get a Camry or an Accord … which I already knew”. And then I putter around for a month trying to come up with an algorithm for deciding between two virtually identical brands—after which, I decide I can squeeze another year out of the old `98.

In contrast, buying a car based on only semi-conscious assumptions—such as “Man, chicks`ll dig me in a Vette!”—doesn`t necessarily produce better decisions, but it definitely saves time.

What exactly does the unconscious do? Among other things, according to Brooks:

“Implicit beliefs and stereotypes organize your world, and are absolutely essential to performing the normal activities of life. They tell you what sort of behavior you are likely to find when you attend a party, what sorts of people you are likely to see if you go to a Star Trek convention or a Bible study group or a rock concert. The unconscious understands the world by building generalizations.”

In other words, the unconscious is free to engage in the crimethink of “stereotypes”. Without the unconscious warning us, we`d be more likely to (say) get mugged or to buy a house in a bad school district.

Yet, but how does one consciously understand the world except by “building generalizations”? Wouldn`t this mean the reigning aversion to “stereotypes” makes our conscious thought dumber?

For example, last week I noted that Brooks` fellow New York Timespundit Paul Krugman claimed that Texas has a bad high school dropout rate because of its low taxes. In reality, of course, the main cause isTexas`s huge Hispanic population.

Now, Krugman, a Nobel Laureate, is a lot smarter than I am. But he says stupid things like that all the time.

How come? Perhaps he`s just dissembling. (But then why don`t enough of his readers notice to wound hisamour propre?)

Because you can`t rely on your unconscious to think abstractly for you. Somewhere in his unconscious, Krugman (like most of his readers, apparently) has buried two facts: that Texas has many Hispanics; and that Hispanics have a high dropout rate.

But how often in modern America is Paul Krugman consciously reminded of the far-reaching implications of those two facts` interaction? Not often enough for him to worry about it. It`s considered gauche to consciously notice things like that.

And when it comes to higher-order abstractions, like grasping the impact of immigration policy on the demographic makeup and thus on the dropout rate—well, the free unconscious mind just isn`t smart enough to make up for the shackled conscious mind.

How important is the unconscious? It`s hard to say because Brooks never quite explains where on the continuum from conscious to unconscious we are supposed to draw the dividing line.

And how fixed is this line, anyway? It would seem to differ from person to person. For example, the realm of conscious awareness displayed in the novels of Vladimir Nabokov is vastly larger than that displayed in the tweets of Lindsay Lohan. Similarly, David Brooks`s conscious understanding of how the world works is bigger and better than Malcolm Gladwell`s.

I don`t believe there is actually a distinct line between conscious and unconscious thought.

For instance, consider my reaction to Brooks` female lead character. Erica, my unconscious intuition tells me, is a fake. But I can quickly supply conscious reasons for what my unconscious is telling me. Her Chinese-Mexican ancestry is particularly implausible. How many people have you even heard of who are half-Chinese and half-Mexican? The scene where Erica`s Chinese relatives try to dissuade her from attending an exclusive college seems particularly ludicrous in the wake of Amy Chua`s bestseller Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

My (unconscious) guess: Brooks started Erica out black (or, perhaps, half black-half Puerto Rican), but then he chickened out. White people who buy hardcover books are much more fascinated by—and worried about—blacks than they are by Chinese, or Mexicans. But they are also a lot more antsy about blacks, too. Similarly, Brooks prudently turns his Barack Obama character into a generic white Presidential candidate of the John Edwards ilk.

B-o-r-i-n-g!

But safe. Maybe Brooks got worried about the part in Erica`s story where he reveals that the purpose of KIPPish charter schools is to “blot out the culture the poor kids` parents were unconsciously handing down”. Cultural Genocide!

Brooks draws mildly conservative lessons, about the need for Burkean prudence in contrast to Jacobin rationalist hubris, from his insight about the importance of unconscious thinking.

But his political message seems a little hubristic: The overemphasis in our discourse on rationality and IQ, according to Brooks, leads to policy failures such as the war in Iraq and the rise of oligarchs under Yeltsin.

My reaction: a resounding hmmmm. I distinctly remember when Brooks and others were beating the war drums in 2002-03 about Saddam Hussein`s WMD threat. An excess of conscious rationality is not the first thing that springs to my mind when recalling those days. Yet that disaster didn`t seem to hurt Brooks` career at all. A half year into the Iraq War, he got rewarded with his sinecure on the NYT op-ed page.

In fact, there`s a fundamental paradox involved in The Social Animal. Despite its critique of rational conscious thought, the book itself is an elaborate celebration of the attempts by scientists to understand the workings of the unconscious and make more people conscious of the unconscious.

The irony, of course, is that the unconscious mind can`t understand Brooks`s theory of the importance of the unconscious mind. It has to be consciously articulated in print.

Similarly, Brooks likes to assert that everybody constantly thinks rationally about IQ, so he`s not going to. He`s a rebel!

Of course, that`s nonsense. Almost nobody understands the implications of IQ research. I write about it all the time, but I have to rehearse it constantly to keep the implications straight it my own head. No, Brooks wants to change the subject away from IQ because if he talked about it rationallyhe`d get the same treatment as James Watson.

And that would be unthinkable!

The next time Brooks writes a novel (and he has the talent to become a fine novelist), he shouldn`t make his main characters puppets of his own theories. He should make up interesting characters, put them in conflict with each other, and then see what they do.

And probably he should leave the New York Times. He could be the next Anna Quindlen!

[Steve Sailer (email him) is movie critic for The American Conservative. His websitewww.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog. His new book, AMERICA`S HALF-BLOOD PRINCE: BARACK OBAMA`S “STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE”, is available here.]