Sunday, July 03, 2011

The Social Animal

David Brook's bestselling book The Social Animal is about the hidden sources of human happiness and motivation that define who we are as people. These sources of happiness are rooted in the social relationships we encounter from the moment we are born and operate beneath the surface of our conscious minds.
Brooks uses the fictional characters of Harold and Erica to tell the story of the human person from infancy to old age, ransacking all the latest discoveries in neuroscience, genetics and behavioural psychology to give credence to his thesis. That thesis is simply this: the unconscious mind both shapes and is shaped by society, influencing everything from the small choices that individuals make to the larger direction of society.
The book resonates with other material I’ve recently been reading. Charles Taylors’ discussion of ‘social imaginaries’ in A Secular Age, and James K.A. Smith discussion of the affective unconscious in Desiring the Kingdom, have both recently alerted me to the role that the unconscious plays in defining who we are, what we think and how we measure the good life. (Actually, it was the pop-psychologist Malcomb Gladwell and his fascinating bestseller Blink who first helped me to understand the crucial role of the unconscious.)

But even though The Social Animal resonated with all I have recently been learning about the human person, I did find the book rather depressing. This was odd because the book is about happiness. Maybe it was because I was tired when I read it (I read it on the plane travelling to London last week), but I came away with the impression that everything about us as people - from the way we eat, vacation and relate to other people – is unconsciously determined by our social and genetic make-up. Even the one activity which makes us so much higher than the animals, namely love, is explained in terms of evolution, genetics and neurochemistry. After reading The Social Animal I felt like an animal.

Perhaps this is ungenerous of me, because unlike other recent books that have tried to root human well-being in the latest discoveries of neuroscience (for example, Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape which I just recently finished), David Brooks does allow for human free will. Yet I couldn’t help thinking that something was missing from his emphasis. I couldn't put my finger on what it was, but then as I was walking through London it suddenly hit me. The Social Animal is lacking in any discussion of the role of neuroplacidity. I’ve recently become aware of this new field of neuroscience through reading Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself and Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows. The understanding of the way we can change our brains over time is certainly implicit in The Social Animal, and many of Brook's political views for improving the human species assume it. Yet because it is not an emphasis, one comes away feeling rather determined, that everything about us is the result of a swirl of forces over which we have no control.

Still a great book. I wouldn't recommend it to politicians (his political theories are a completely different matter, which I hope to address when I do a longer review of the book for Alfred the Great Society) but I would recommend it to Christians, since the book can help us better understand how we have been fearfully and wonderfully made. To buy a copy of the book, click here.

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