Fooled by Science

Brooks_david-081811_jpg_230x825_q85 H. Allen Orr on David Brooks' The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement in the NY Review of Books:

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.