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The Social AnimalReview - The Social Animal
The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and AchievementThe Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement
by David Brooks
Random House, 2011
Review by Mark S. Roberts, Ph.D.
Aug 30th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 35)

David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times and one of the favorite conservative members of the Washington punditocracy, appearing mainly and often on PBS stations and NPR. He is the author of several books, including Bobos in Paradise, which chronicles the rise of the meritotocratic class in the technology boom of the late 80's and 90's.                                                                     

However, his most recent book, The Social Animal, exceeds in scope and intent any of his prior contributions, and sets out to reveal and to a certain extent attempts to resolve some of the most puzzling and difficult problems facing humankind. Just how difficult this undertaking is is underscored by the subtitle of the book: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement.

 Brooks, following Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile, weaves this enormously complicated exposition through a novelistic format. Two figures, Harold and Erica, are the fictional protagonists who journey together through life (Harold eventually dies)--through lives that are constantly interrupted by virtually endless references to cognitive science, modern pedagogy, the history of western thought from Plato to Burke, contemporary politics, social philosophy and several other key disciplines within western intellectual history. However, very little of this grand synthesis works, and the book fails, from my perspective, not so much as a result of its unrealistic goals, but, rather, due largely to three fundamental problems: 1) a blithe lack of critical concern with the validity and applicability within socio-economic realities--and, frankly, the absurdity-- of many of the clinical experiments Brooks refers to. In this regard he treats virtually every experiment positively as if they simply accomplished the goals they set. 2) an often incorrect and remarkably naive understanding of the specific facts of intellectual history in general and, in particular, of  reason and rationalism, which he views as markedly inferior to empirical and emotion based theories (in fact, this seems to be the overall theoretical conclusion of the book), and, most notably, 3) a veiled rehashing of some of the failed and thoroughly debunked right-wing arguments regarding race, ethnicity, sex and class

1)  Gary Goldberg concludes his review of The Social Animal  with a starkly negative account of scientific theories of human nature: "Scientific theories of human nature aren't worth the paper they're printed on. They can't help adopting as universal the passing fancies of a given age. . ." (Greenberg, 37) Although Greenberg's assessment of the shortcomings of scientific theories of human nature is probably in large part correct, there are far more problematic and specific questions concerning these types of experiments, particularly experiments in the fields of clinical psychology and neuroscience. A question that comes to mind immediately is: How does one translate the responses to a highly controlled experiment into real life actions and behaviors? This question is further complicated by the fact that the experimental subject is quite different from the real-world subject. Experimental subjects are in most cases assigned a set of tasks that are meticulously pre-planned, and ones that fit the general hypothesis guiding the experiment. Subsequently, the experimental subject (s) is already limited in his or her behavior by the restrictions inherent in the experiment's design. How the subject would behave in any given future situation outside the "laboratory" and over time would be extraordinarily difficult if not impossible to predict with sufficient accuracy. Brooks, however, pays absolutely no attention to this problem or, for that matter, any others associated with testing itself. Rather, he merely lays out the results of seemingly endless psychological and neuroscientific experiments as if these results were unquestionably universally valid and applicable. For example, in discussing the virtues of deferred gratification as an indicator of achievement and  success in later life, he cites the following experiment:

Children from disorganized, unstable communities have a much harder time acquiring the discipline to succeed in life. And a famous experiment conducted around 1970 demonstrated that the ability of 4-year olds to postpone gratification by leaving a marshmallow uneaten for a time as a condition for receiving a second marshmallow was a very good predictor of success in life. The kids who could wait a full 15 minutes had, 13 years later, SAT scores that were 200 points higher than the kids who could wait only 30 seconds. Twenty years later , they had much higher college completion rates, and 30 years later, they had much higher incomes. The kids who could not wait at all had much higher incarceration rates. They were much more likely to suffer from drug and alcohol problems.  (Brooks, 123)

Besides the risible nature and the staleness (done in 1972) of the "famous marshmallow" experiment, one can easily find numerous flaws in its design and its conclusions. To begin with, the grouping of the subjects seems arbitrary and culturally, rather than scientifically, determined. What constitutes a "disorganized, unstable community?" In fact, what constitutes a community? Ethnic groups living in one area? People living in the same apartment building? Wealthy white people living in one geographic location within one racially and ethnically diverse city? A band of gypsies? The definition is itself enormously broad and thus problematic. What, moreover, are the causes of instability in a neighborhood? And are these causes sufficient to call an entire "community" disorganized and unstable?

Then there is the question as to what extent does the actual socio-economic conditions prevailing in these "communities" effect the future behavior and development of the test subjects.  Brooks overlooks completely this question, mouthing the results precisely as the testers described them. But if we factor in such common phenomena as poverty, poor schools, inadequate nutrition, street violence, reduced and restricted career opportunities, and so on, the results appear to be less than conclusive as a "very good predictor" of achievement. Any one or all of these factors could well contribute to the lack of success and achievement that Brooks and the testers so resolutely attribute to the inability to wait for a marshmallow. Moreover, the children who escaped these "traps" may have escaped them in myriad ways other than simply being able to exercise control when confronted with a marshmallow.

Brook's patent disregard of multi-factorial causes and external stressors for test results and conclusions continues throughout the book, as does his remarkable failure to even note the utter absurdity and deep flaws of many of the experiments he cites. For example, in his attempt to tackle the question of unconscious moral intuition, he cites an experiment created by Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia. Brooks describes it as follows:

Imagine a man who buys a chicken from the grocery store, manages to bring himself to orgasm by penetrating it, then cooks and eats the chicken. Imagine cleaning your toilet with your nation's flag. Imagine a brother and sister who are on a trip. One night they decide to have protected sex with each other. They enjoy it but decide to never do it again. (281)

 Brooks's restatement of the experiment mirrors the absurdity of the experiment itself. "As Haidt has shown in a string of research, most people have a strong intuitive (and negative) reaction to these scenarios, even though nobody is harmed in any of them. Usually, Haidt's research subjects cannot say why they found these things s repulsive or disturbing. They just do. The unconscious has made the call." (ibid.) That unconscious moral intuition is at work exclusively here is already an unjustified conclusion. These images represent social taboos that are deeply and immemorially inscribed in the social-symbolic. They are given meaning largely due to their repetition in popular imagistic and discursive forms. The repulsion the "research subjects" feel is thus largely the result of the continual conscious apprehension of these sort of acts within the context of everyday life. Bestial necrophilia is clearly associated with unacceptable behavior in the real world, as is eating a beloved pet, and the Bible, Sophocles, modern psychiatry, and just about every tribal culture on the planet make it manifestly clear that incest should be assiduously avoided. Moreover, the fact that "nobody is harmed" is not a necessary requirement for conscious moral indignation. Although many ethical issues do entail some form of physical or mental harm, there are some that do not, but are yet morally repugnant. In certain respects, environmental ethics does not include direct physical harm. Neither does questions concerning the morality of racism, sexism, homophobia, pornography, wire-tapping, prostitution, doctor shopping, price gouging, and so on. That someone would be offended morally by an act that did not involve physical harm does not seem remarkable, nor would it, I suspect, require "the unconscious to make the call."

 The above experiment, among many others, invokes Brooks's idea of the unconscious. This is yet another concept in the book that is neither properly explained nor grounded in some coherent theory. The term is dropped in as if there is no contention whatsoever about its nature and, in certain cases, its very existence. What sort of unconscious is Brooks referring to? Is this the Freudian model of the unconscious?  Is it the Jungian formulation, tending more toward collectivity and esotericism? Or the Skinnerian/Behavioral mechanistic view? Or Jacques Lacan's unconscious structured like a language? Has what Freud defended so vigorously against skeptical philosophers in The Ego and the Id  (Freud, 3-4) suddenly become an absolute certainty and totally demonstrable? Unfortunately, the reader will never be able to answer any of these questions. The unconscious simply exists and exists unquestionably within the nomenclature of Brooks's neuroscientific discourse. Indeed, the unconscious is such a reliable and identifiable transmitter of certain actions, inductions, and ideas, Brooks even gives us its precise location in the brain and, more remarkably, its exact speed within the complex networks of the brain. In intuitively choosing a political candidate, for instance, unconscious facial recognition, according to Brooks, "kicks in" in just a microsecond. (WSJ,com., p. 3) Unfortunately, no one has of yet calculated its speed in conveying a feeling of repulsion when one imagines eating his or her pet dog or cat.

 Brooks's  simplistic reduction of complex ideas like the unconscious extends to the subject of intelligence as well. The notion of IQ is by no means a fait accompli. The IQ controversy has raged ever since Alfred Binet's scale measuring the mental ages of students was converted by the German psychologist W. Stern. Stern gave birth to the intelligence quotient by arguing that mental age should be divided by chronological age, not subtracted from it. The Binet scale -- originally intended as a practical device for measuring learning disabilities and degrees of retardation in school children-- was then further altered under the influence of the American school of psychology led by H.H. Goddard. (Gould, 159) This in turn led to the use of the scale as a device for "social ranks and distinctions, reification and hereditarianism." (155) Subsequently, opinion regarding IQ tends to range widely, with some arguing that there really is no such thing as IQ if it is understood as a measurable entity within the human brain, while others take it to be a completely reliable gauge of intelligence and achievement. Brooks, nonetheless, disregards this gaping space of controversy, and applies the term IQ in its most conventional usage: a quotient that accurately measures some entity called "intelligence" and is passed on directly from parents to their children, particularly from mothers to their offspring.

Thus, from Brooks's uncritical viewpoint, intelligence measured by IQ does something or it does not do something. In assuming this position, he slips very easily into the reifying and hereditarian fallacies, stating unquestionably that intelligence is both directly inherited and it is "the single best predictor of school performance."  Given the uncertainty of the status and function of IQ and the enormous complexity of genetic provenance, Brooks simply rattles off the "fact" that "The single strongest predictor of a person's IQ is the IQ of his or her mother. People with high IQs do better in school and school like settings." (Brooks, 163) Following these rather flat statements about IQs and their functions, Brooks tries to introduce environmental factors. He establishes that certain environmental factors affect IQ scores, but limits these factors to familial interactions and motivational sources, once again completely avoiding socio-economic conditions. For instance, black children, in yet another study, were found to have lost six points on their IQ scores for every year they missed in school. (p. 64) The question of why they missed these years in school, however, never arises, and one would assume that the causes for missing a year in school would be more central to the decline in IQ scores than the raw statistic associated with missing a year in school. If the "facts" and statistics fit the theory and, more importantly, the ideological agenda, the theory must be correct--unquestionably.

Selectively picking "facts" and opinions from what amount to secondary and tertiary sources to prove one's conclusions and thus buttress one's ideological position is not the only shortcoming in Brooks's handling of scientific theories of human nature. Sometimes he is just wrong. In his section on pedagogy and educational philosophy, he states that humans and animals are similar in certain respects but separated by the "fact" that animals do not pass on knowledge from one generation to the next--in short, they do not teach their offspring. Although this may be true of blood worms, it is not at all the case with certain advanced species. There have been numerous recent studies--in primary journal literature--which have revealed that, for instance, elephant mothers teach their young important lessons about food gathering and protection, as well as how to use numerous other tools necessary for survival within the herd.  [See, for example, T.M. Caro and M.D. Hauser, "Is There Teaching in Non-Human Animals?" in The Quarterly Review of Biology, Vol. 67, no. 2. Jun. 1992.] Primate research--contrary to Brooks's statement about the lack of education among chimpanzees--has also uncovered certain ways chimps hand down survival skills.

Brooks's tendency to chose selectively and disregard relevant material in favor of establishing his conclusions is legend. One could go on ad nauseam pointing out errors and oversights in the material devoted to supporting his view of human nature. But suffice to say just about all of the material on testing and its relation to the central themes of the book sacrifices clarity, precision and objectivity; and nowhere is it more evident than his butchered section on the superiority of empirical and emotion based theories over those centered on reason and rationalism--if, indeed, the two could be definitively separated.

2) Brooks's handling of philosophical subject matter is perhaps the worst and most pretentious aspect of the entire book. In a few succinct sentences, he masters knowledge that important thinkers have struggled with--often unsuccessfully--for millennia past. Socrates spent an entire lifetime seeking wisdom and, in the end, one could argue, died for it. Brooks is able to grasp it in three sentences, which can be summarized as: just act like an efficient CEO:  "Wisdom doesn't consist of knowing specific facts or possessing knowledge of a field. It consist of knowing how to treat knowledge: being confident but not too confident; adventurous but grounded. It is a willingness to confront counterevidence and to have a feel for the vast spaces beyond what's known." (Brooks, 168-169)

Pretentiousness is the least of Brooks's problems when it comes to presenting and understanding intellectual history. The section in the book dealing with rationalism vs. empiricism makes little sense, overlooks important "counterevidence," and is factually inaccurate in many respects. His general thesis in this section appears to be that reason only gets us so far, but, in the end, emotion and empirical evidence achieves the highest form of knowledge. His approach to proving his conclusion is to, initially, disparage rationalism. Without ever really defining what he means by rationalism, or, more important, to which rationalists he addresses his criticism, he proceeds to impugn the so-called "rationalist tradition" in general:

This tradition, rationalism, tells the story of human history as the story of the logical, conscious mind. It sees human history as a contest between reason, the highest human faculty, and passion and instinct, our animal natures. In the upbeat version of this story, reason gradually triumphs over emotion. Science gradually replaces myth. Logic wins over passion. (223)

To begin with, what mind other than "the logical, conscious" mind could this "tradition" tell its story about? If Brooks is referring back to the pre-Socratic period where this "tradition" actually began, one would be hard-pressed to find a mind other than one that thought, perceived and reasoned. Moreover, from the assumed beginning of this "tradition," there were numerous variations on the theme Brooks proposes. The most significant being the work of Aristotle. Aristotle, as is commonly known, broke from his early mentor, Plato, and began a parallel tradition that has lasted to this day. Without going into detail, Aristotle was clearly not a prisoner of reason. Although he held the mind, logic and reasoning in general in high esteem, he also concentrated much of his thinking on the natural world and its ecological relationships. This project was based largely on empirical observation and natural classification, and thus required the work of the senses to strike a balance with that of intellect. Aristotle, moreover, wrote one of the most important works on drama, Poetics, in which he reduced thought or theme to a relatively unimportant role, and strongly emphasized the concept of catharsis or purgation. This concept was strictly of an emotional nature, since its purpose was to trigger and thus release the emotions of pity and fear through tragedy. Aristotle also wrote extensively on emotion, and it is difficult to accuse him of dogmatically following the "narrative of rationality" when he asserts, for example, in the Nichomachean Ethics, that happiness is the highest goal of human life.

Even the culprit of Brooks's invented narrative of rationality, Plato, expressed considerable interest in emotion and emotional states. While there is no argument that he preferred reason and scientific discourses to lyric expressions, he dealt in considerable detail and with great tolerance in the Symposium with many types of love and passion. In Phaedrus's estimation, Eros is the oldest god, and one of the greatest. Love is humankind's benefactor. Pausanias interjects that base love is love of women and young boys. But noble love's object is young men. Meanwhile, Agathon. another guest, goes on to lay out a somewhat curious argument regarding the object of love: love is the awareness of a need not yet acquired or possessed. None of these arguments refer directly to intellect or "rationalism." Rather, their purpose is to explore the rich complexity and variations of love, sex and emotion. It is only at the very end of the Symposium that the Socratic/Plato reasserts the philosopher's love, and he tends to define this love as the love of the good and beautiful. Hardly a starting point for a tradition of cold logic, unrelenting reason and a profound rejection of the emotions, senses and the passions.

Brooks goes on to trace this "narrative" through the Greco-Roman period, claiming that reason and logic continued to thrive. Well, obviously they did not disappear; but if we look carefully at the great Roman writers and thinkers, much of their work centered on sex, love, violence, passion, and a number of other seemingly illogical subjects. Petronius's Satyricon, for instance, among many other Roman writings, focuses, through a series of stories, on the weaknesses of the flesh. And, as such, the novel reflects its title, that is, a story about people living like satyrs who have no control of their animal instincts. Obviously, much more could be said about the worldly character of the writing and philosophy of this period. Suffice to say, however, that much of it dealt with the travails of everyday life and bodily pleasures, and did not show extraordinary dependence on logical reasoning, even though much of the period's intellectual heritage stemmed from Plato and Aristotle. Moreover, a period in which Nero was the greatest benefactor of the arts and literature could hardly be characterized as one in which "the party of reason made great strides." (223)

The errors of oversight regarding the intellectual history of the Greco-Roman period are miniscule in comparison to those involved in Brooks's three sentence history of thought in the Middle Ages. He writes: "But after the fall of Rome, the passions reasserted themselves. Europe fell into the Dark Ages. Education suffered, science lay dormant, superstition flourished." (ibid.) While the decline Brooks charts was characteristic of the so-called Dark Ages, the reasons for this decline were not the "passions reasserting themselves." In fact, one could argue quite the opposite; that a superfluous use of reason and logic stultified scholarship and scientific research in this period. With religious dogma at its absolute zenith, many philosophers and scientists were caught up in the minutia of logical and theological proof. This, one should recall, was the period in which Thomas Aquinas set out in his Summa Theologica to discover, logically, if excrement existed in eternity, and was himself roughly criticized by Duns Scotus for using contingent proofs in his arguments for God's existence (his ontological arguments). Perhaps Duns Scotus anger was a show of passion, but not, I suspect, enough to prove that "the passions reasserted themselves" in the Middle Ages.

The distorted and factually incorrect account of the rise of the "rationalist tradition" reaches its lowest point in Brooks's assessment of rationalism and its relation to empiricism. He begins his assault on the rationalist tradition with a patronizing remark about Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon: they introduced scientific method into philosophical inquiry. While this is to some extent true, it serves merely as a springboard for a broad critique of Descartes's method, which is demonstrably wrong: 

Descartes aimed to begin human understanding anew. He would start from scratch and work logically and consciously through every proposition to see, step by step, what was true and certain. He would rebuild human understanding on a logical foundation. (224)

This summary completely misses the point. Descartes did not seek to establish certainty exclusively through logical argument--which is, of course, what he deemed the source of the "large number of falsehoods that I had accepted as true." (Descartes, p. 12) In fact, his distrust of the "logic chopping" and increasingly pedantic argumentation of the Scholastics served as one of his principal motivations for seeking a more reliable way of viewing and interpreting reality and the world. It was clearly not logic that induced him to seek a new philosophical method, but, quite to the contrary, the need to establish certainty on existential grounds. It is thus not by argument that he finally reaches his goal of certainty in the Second Meditation, but, rather, by the fact that his existence is assured by the process of thought, not by its specific contents. At this point of the proof, a logical argument is about as significant as his judgment regarding the color of an apple. Although all philosophical proofs require that the argument(s) be logically coherent, Descartes was clearly not concerned mainly with "rebuilding human understanding on a logical foundation." Moreover, one should also recall that this passionless, logic obsessed thinker was able to abandon the modus ponens long enough to write a 422 article work on the emotions and human psychology, The Passions of the Soul.

This erroneous account of Descartes' project, however, serves a higher purpose: the disparagement of the French Revolution and, ultimately, of the European Enlightenment. Following lockstep in the party line of the right-wing interpretation of history, Brooks denounces the French Revolution, and manages to do so in a few uninformed epithets. In his view, the French Revolution was merely a manifestation of the excesses of reason: "Over the past centuries, many great errors and disasters have flowed from the excessive faith in pure reason, At the end of the eighteenth century, revolutionaries in France brutalized the society in the name of beginning the world anew on rational grounds." (Brooks, 226)  A curious interpretation, indeed. A revolution that was multifaceted, unfolded in numerous stages, changed forever the socio-economic and political face of Europe, and was intended to end the "brutalization of a society" consisting, not of aristocrats, as Brooks would have us believe, but of workers, peasant farmers, tradesmen, shopkeepers, women and those generally oppressed by precisely the same "society brutalized" in the name of pure reason, is, in the end, reduced to a mere manifestation of excessive reason.

Brooks's critique of rationalism is so thoroughly flawed and self-serving it is virtually impossible to cover its shortcomings in a finite space. While arguing against reductive tendencies in rationalism, he himself reduces a complex and multi-faceted set of philosophical and scientific movements and ideas to one monolithic, undifferentiated mass. Are we to suppose that Spinoza said precisely the same thing as Leibniz? Or that Descartes and Kant had no differences regarding reason? And then there are the purely inane remarks intended to degrade the so-called "rationalist tradition." "Rationalism looks at the conscious mind , and assumes that that is all there is." (227) If we grant, along with numerous historians of psychology,  that Freud was the discoverer of the unconscious, what other mind could these earlier "rationalists" have known? Rationalism also serves as the straw man for imposing and supporting right-wing ideology in just about every discipline. For instance, Brooks blames rationalism for Taylorism, claiming that "corporate leaders under the influence of Frederick Taylor tried to turn factory workers into hyper-efficient cogs." (226) That this was the principal practical intention of Taylorism is correct, but it was not reason or rationalism that motivated Fredrick Taylor and the corporate leaders; it was capitalist exploitation and total control of workers in view of increasing production and therefore profits.

3) The shadowy, though persistent, presence of right-wing ideology is another major flaw in the book. If Brooks had just followed the standard conservative line in his themes and conclusions, there would be little to criticize, other than the conservative themes and conclusions. But Brooks indulges, in a covert manner, most of the ideas and attitudes of the far right, and in this respect, he dresses up the discredited and largely classist, sexist, elitist, and racist positions of writers like Charles Murray, Dinesh D'Souza, Jared Taylor, and others. in what appears to be more acceptable garb.

This tendency is perhaps most obvious in his handling of the central female character in the book, Erica. Unwilling to present her simply as an ethnic type, Brooks creates an extraordinarily intricate description of her hybrid heritage and background. This is not, however, merely a literary device, but more so, I suggest, a means of creating a deeply biased, atypical, and negative picture of ethnic minorities in general. Erica is a Chinese-Mexican-American. An unusual combination, but the perfect occasion for developing a classist and racist description of ethnic minorities. Her family's economic position is oddly variable. Her parents are, at some points, economically stable, at others, poverty stricken. "They couldn't make the rent, and they'd have to scramble to find a place in a different neighborhood, with empty lots, high crime. . ." (103) They move constantly, from neighborhood to neighborhood, restive and errant in their search for stability. Moreover, Erica is the perfect stereotype of the "underclass" child. "At age ten, she almost got arrested." (99) She lives for the most part in a dark, dank, "unstable" environment, with the only hope outside her crushing poverty, being the subtly metaphoric "New Hope" charter school. Already Brooks has set up the underlying social theme of the entire book. Success for the lower classes must be left to those who are in a superior socio-economic and intellectual position. This is further emphasized by the way in which Erica enters her only route out of obscurity and poverty, the New Hope charter school. After struggling with an incompetent and failed social service system--the bogey-man of all right-wing ideologues--Erica finally gets a shot at hope at New Hope. But she does not earn entry into the school on her own merits; it is provided for her surreptitiously by an obese billionaire board member. He was a "hedge-fund manager who made billions of dollars." (114)

There are numerous--too numerous to cite--other examples of the absolute dependence of social and economic subclasses on an elite, wealthy minority. Erica reaches her cherished dream of success by subjugating herself to many of her bosses and mentors. She takes advice, listens submissively and advances in her career, but only in a subaltern position. Even in her only rebellious, individualistic move away from the mind-numbing, flaccid Harold, she enters into a dependent adulterous relationship with a powerful male financial giant. Mr. Make-Believe. (275-279)

Brooks, in the end, does not use terms like Charles Murray or Dinesh D'Souza, calling poor people and minorities the "underclass," and, in Murray's case, relegating them to "reservations" (read: concentration camps). But he does not have to. The basic narrative and ideological structure of The Social Animal, the plot twists, carefully chosen studies, [Without an exact count, it is clear by estimate that the majority of Brooks's cited studies are ones finding negative statistics regarding the poor and minorities.] and characterizations of the novel, lead ineluctably to the message that there are superior and inferior types. In other words, some take the path of success, provided by wealth and private means, while others follow that of abject failure, of the street culture: "Then there were her [Erica's] childhood friends. Many of her oldest friends had rejected the values of the Academy [New Hope]. She'd gone down one cultural path, and they'd gone down another--toward gangsta rap, tats and bling."  (143) The message entailed in this choice of "paths" is clear. The only path to success is to embrace the "values" of the "Academy," and to reject those of the subculture. This is not as egregious a characterization of inner-city youth as a writer like D'Souza, who dismisses them as "cool niggers," relegating them to a destructive "underclass." But the intention is quite the same. In Brooks's view, the only recourse for the poor, the "destabilized," the lost "blingers," and lower-class minorities in general is to act propitiously at the very moment the upper class provides them with an opportunity--even if it is only as subtle as a fat hedge-fund manager tapping his chubby finger on the conference table at New Hope.

The right-wing line on women is also towed, but in a very subtle way. It appears that Brooks extends absolutely equal rights to women, in all fields, particularly in business matters. But this is only a veil, under which lurks the standard misogyny of the Right. For instance, Erica's education, unlike Emile's, reveals an underlying animality, typical of certain women and of the "subclasses," the so-called "wilders." While learning to play tennis at New Hope, her frustration descends into staring at her coach "like a feral animal." (119) Perhaps a hissing cat, or a vixen? She stomps off the court, throwing her racquet to the ground. But this does not last long. Authority, in the form of her tennis coach, intervenes and tames her, guiding her to the path of success through self-control.

One of the most disturbing and egregious habits of far right theory is its stress on controlling reproduction and the lack of sexual restraint among minority women. Brooks does not make this a central point in his classist view, but he hints at in a very subtle way. For example, he cites a study that girls who menstruate early have much higher rates of sexual promiscuity and pregnancies at an early age. This, one must admit, is far less noxiously racist than Jared Taylor's account of a similar problem: "welfare recipients…the majority of Americans believe...are already living at public expense have no right to bring yet more people into the world whom we must feed, house, clothe, medicate and try to educate." (Taylor, 349) But its simple mention, without citing the fact that the onset of menstruation is usually accompanied with heightened pubescent sexual desire, seems to reinforce the constant right-wing attempts to lay blame entirely on the victims rather than on a complex set of environmental, socio-economic, physiological, and biological factors.

In the end, it seems that the only way to describe The Social Animal is as a book about everything that tells you virtually nothing.  Brooks's notion of the social animal is social only if one conceives of social as represented by facts like "The average Asian-American in New Jersey. . . .is eleven times more likely to have a graduate degree than the average American Indian in South Dakota." (Brooks, 153) But, in my view, the ultimate goal of all of these skimmings about social behavior is not really to provide the reader with a book on social behavior. Rather, it is a thoroughly pretentious attempt to establish the already established power and dominance of a wealthy, educated class over all others, and to use this ideological position to evolve a historical theory of dominance. The theory, however, is based on a biased and often incorrect reading of the history of certain ideas. In the course of his book, Brooks asserts that intuitive and empirical systems are superior to reason based ones. But the evidence he supplies is unconvincing, and, besides, how, one might ask, is it possible to completely sever intuition from understanding, emotion from reason? John Locke, one of the earliest British empiricists, learned much from Descartes, while George Berkeley--another important empiricist -- clearly borrowed a great deal from the idealist (Platonic) tradition. But the specific historical facts and connections are unimportant in Brooks's case. His main concern is to follow the "party line" in devaluing the European Enlightenment, and in doing so, diminishing the profound impact of the liberal tradition in America. The specific details of the history of thought are largely superfluous when Brooks is piecing together his defense of business, industry, success and achievement. A tendency attested to by his one line analysis of the remarkable, diverse cultural achievements of the Renaissance. "Things began to pick up again during the Renaissance with the developments in science and accounting." (223)



Brooks, D. (2011). The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. New York: Random House.

Descartes, R. (1984). The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, v.1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Freud, S.  (1960). The Ego and the Id. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Gould, S.J. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Greenberg, G. (2011)"The Dumbest Story Ever Told" The Nation (June 6, 2011).

Taylor, J. (1992). Paved With Good Intentions: The Failure of Race Relations in Contemporary America. New York: Carroll & Graf.


 © 2011 Mark Roberts

Mark S. Roberts, Ph.D. is author, editor and translator of several books, including Sade and the Narrative of Transgression, edited by David B. Allison, Mark S. Roberts and Allen S. Weiss  (Cambridge University Press, 2006), and Nietzsche and Paradox, by Rogerio Miranda De Almedia, translated by Mark S. Roberts (SUNY Press, 2007).


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