Book Review: ‘The Social Animal’ – By David Brooks: His Theory of Human Nature

“The word of wisdom is the lost property of a Muslim, so that wherever he finds it, he should take it, as he is the most entitled to it!” The Holy Prophet Muhammad

Source / Courtesy NY Times

By THOMAS NAGEL
Published: March 11, 2011

Readers of his Op-Ed column in The New York Times know that David Brooks is an aficionado of research in the social sciences, especially psychology, and that he believes it has great practical importance. Now he has written a book, “The Social Animal,” in order to assemble the evidence for a certain conception of the human mind, the wellsprings of action and the causes of success and failure in life, and to draw implications for social policy. The book is really a moral and social tract, but Brooks has hung it on the life stories of two imaginary people, Harold and Erica, who are used to illustrate his theory in detail and to provide the occasion for countless references to the psychological literature and frequent disquisitions on human nature and society.

David BrooksThis device is supposed to relieve the tedium of what would otherwise be like skimming through 10 years’ worth of the Tuesday Science Times.But fiction is not Brooks’s métier, and he lacks the ability to create characters that compel belief. The story of Harold and Erica, their formative years, eventual meeting, marriage and separate careers, is without interest: one doesn’t care what happens to them because in spite of Brooks’s earnest attempt to describe their psychological depths, they do not come to life; they and their supporting cast are mannequins for the display of psychological and social generalizations.

Harold is the imaginative and socially attuned child of middle-class parents, not terribly ambitious, but eventually successful as a writer and social commentator. (He notices that there is a New York Times columnist whose views are “remarkably similar to his own.”) Erica is the tough and competitive daughter of socially marginal, unmarried parents, mother Chinese, father Mexican, who propels herself upward, and after a stellar business career becomes a high official in a Democratic presidential administration and eventually a regular at Davos. An original touch is that every stage of their long lives, from birth to death, is set “in the current moment, the early 21st century, because I want to describe different features of the way we live now.”

Erica commits adultery once, and is overcome by shame, which provides a handle for theories of moral psychology. Harold’s infant relations with his mother are used to illustrate theories of innateness and mental development; and so on. But the meat of the book is in its general claims about human nature and society.

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I, Zia Shah, will rate this book as 8 on a scale of one to ten.  It is an excellent composite of fiction and non-fiction.  The Muslim Times will use the book review category to share with the readers those books that any of the Editors have thoroughly enjoyed and are possibly epic making books.  The readers can, of course, add their choices in books or other ideas in the comment section.

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