The Social Animal by David Brooks – review

The Social Animal by David Brooks – review

Ben Rogers, The Observer


The New York Times columnist adds some intellectual heft to the life manual genre


David Brooks describes himself in this book as someone who writes about politics and policy. That is as true as far as it goes. An op-ed columnist for the New York Times, and a regular on PBS NewsHour, he can hold forth with the best of them on the weaknesses of the latest policy announcement, the character flaws of presidential wannabes, and the merits of this or that electoral strategy.


A few things, however, mark Brooks out as a bit special – things which ensure that his book will be widely read in Washington, Whitehall and Westminster. First there is his eye for developments in the sciences and their relevance to politics and policy. So far so wonkish. Then there’s his still rarer ability to see American – and to some degree western – culture from a distance and in doing so cast new light on social trends and political issues.


This latter ability was put to good use in Brooks’s decade-old bestseller, Bobos in Paradise, a finely observed, witty look at the values and aspirations of the "bourgeois bohemian" cultural, political and business elite that came of age in the 1990s – the generation of Madonna, Steve Jobs and Obama. Brooks, who is a member of that much depleted species the Moderate Republican, had some fun at the expense of the conceits of the US’s costal elites – their obsession with working out, their love of extravagantly utilitarian kitchens, their horror of formality. But it was not an unkind portrait: Brooks understood the "bourgeois bohemians" as giving expression to contradictory but quintessentially American yearnings for freedom and community, wordly success and spiritual transcendence, sensual pleasure and self-denial.


If Bobos in Paradise had "state of the nation" ambitions, The Social Animal attempts something even grander. The idea is to draw on new scientific thinking to describe what makes for success and happiness in life. And taking its inspiration from Rousseau’s novel of ideas, Emile, the book adopts a narrative form, following the life-course of a successful and ultimately "enchanted" middle-class American couple, Erica – a Chinese-Latino who rises from poverty to become a business leader and Washington bigwig – and her husband, Harold, an altogether more cerebral historian. "I use them," Brooks writes, "to describe how genes shape individual lives, how brain chemistry works in particular cases, how family structure and cultural patterns influence development."


There are already plenty of guides to success and happiness out there, but this book is defined against them in a couple of ways. First, Brooks claims that most life manuals greatly exaggerate the power of reason and will to determine our fate. In truth, our views and decisions are largely shaped through unconscious or barely conscious forces – deep impulses, emotions, and character traits. It’s not, says Brooks, that we are mere victims of our unconscious selves. If we are shaped by the interplay of our genes, culture, upbringing and education, and the institutions and networks in which we live and work, we can in turn shape at least some of these. What we can’t do is master them. The art of living well is to know how to steer our natures, and slowly remodel our characters.


Second, most manuals present success as a matter of material wealth and status. But in this, Brooks believes, they underestimate the vital role of family, friends and larger communities. All the evidence is that trust and reciprocity are as important as wealth and prestige to our wellbeing.


The Social Animal is an odd beast of a book with a slightly arbitrary quality. It is never quite clear on what grounds Brooks has decided to explore the implications of some new ideas and not others, other than that they confirm his own views and can be worked into his narrative. Indeed, his rather casual use of academic research sits strangely with his avowed respect for science. There are other tensions. Brooks is impressed by the evidence marshalled in Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level, and elsewhere, that "the mere fact of being low on the status totem pole brings its own deep stress and imposes its own psychic costs". Yet he remains an almost unqualified meritocrat, arguing that the great challenge for government is not to promote greater equality but to make it easier for people to rise from one class to another.


Despite such flaws, though, this is a spirited and engaging book, true in its ambition and liveliness to the spirit of Rousseau. Brooks has no delusions about his skills as a novelist and his two protagonists are deliberately thinly drawn. Yet the partly fictionalised narrative, allowing for drama and satire, does help the journey along. And there are real insights on offer. Brooks writes excellently, for instance, on the failure of a lot of traditional policy-making to work with the contours of human nature (much 20th-century urban and suburban planning being a good example) and the need for a focus on policies that strengthen "character" and life skills – especially for poorer families left behind by deindustrialisation and rising inequality.


At its best The Social Animal offers a sense of the very real limits of the assumptions that we westerners bring to life, and the possibility, generally so hard to see, of radically better, more "realistic" ways of living.