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The Social Animal

Paul Bickley

A story of how success happens
David Brooks
Short Books, 430pp, ISBN: 9781907595448

It'the-social-animal-13222.jpgs interesting how some books end up with different subtitles in different countries. On this side of the pond, The Social Animal promises to be a treatise on 'how success happens'. This places it firmly in the company of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The story of success and other life manuals informed by neuroscience and behavioural economics. In the US, however, it concerns 'The hidden sources of love, character and achievement', putting it in the company of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. And The Social Animal has attracted a level of interest amongst politicians of left and right more fit to the latter than the former.

When David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, came to the UK in June, he was feted by Downing Street, met Ed Miliband, and lectured at the Royal Society of Arts. British political thinking has recently taken a dramatic turn towards behavioural- and neuro- sciences, not least because the policy wonks have been asking themselves why they can't seem to get people to behave very well.

For as Brooks observes, all societies have a stake in getting their citizens to behave 'virtuously' - obey the law, try to be gainfully employed, raise children to do the same - but somehow we've lost the knack. We fail to buy pensions or save for old age, and won't stop eating chips and chocolate no matter how many little red marks they put on the wrapper. It's about people being civically minded, trying their hardest to find gainful employment or education, being peaceful, productive and raising children capable of doing the same. At its most basic, its about whether people are capable of meaningfully living in society at all.

The central, most obvious and yet most useful claim  of the book is that we've been led down blind alleys by  false anthropological assumptions. Specifically, we have been enchanted for too long by the idea of Homo economicus - the idea that we are individualistic, rational, utility maximising entities. Instead, we are often irrational, emotive, short termist, more influenced by a network of relationships than by attempts to persuade our conscious reason. What is at work, according to the behavioural economist and neuroscientists, are the nimbler and more intuitive, but often mistaken, subconscious functions of the brain. Get this, argues Brooks, and you'll stop trying to pull rational and cognitive levers to influence behaviour and you move onto more realistic territory.

The topography of that territory is not clear, since Brooks presents a plethora of occasionally contradictory research which, in the style of Rousseau's Emile, is hung around the lives of two central characters, Harold and Erica. We follow them from childhood to old age, witnessing their challenges, successes, failures and moments of growth. At intermediary points, Brooks cites interesting research on topics as diverse as the memory of chess grandmasters, parental contact with babies, or the psychology of killers in the Rwandan genocide, and generalisations flow.

His main concern is to prove the interdependence of minds, the primacy of the relational over the rational. Policy makers neglect culture, morality and sociality at their peril. You'd be hard pushed to find anyone to disagree that people often act highly irrationally - think of all those inchoate answers given by rioters when someone asked them why that did it. These things may or may not be useful from a policy point of view - but they are also truisms available to us without recourse to Gnostic enterprises of experimental psychology.

For Brooks, this thinking is flourishing in the space left by the 'atrophy' of philosophy and theology, as he - or his sub-editor - said in a New Yorker column. Against that, a number of recent theological works have concerns which intersect with his, particularly when it comes to debunking the 'Cartesian myth of the ego' - James K.A. Smith's Desiring the Kingdom comes to mind. And one of the implications of his thesis is that we need institutions that can form people in character and virtues, as well as those which can help them imbibe knowledge. I wonder what kind of institutions might serve?
As welcome as his rejection of the rational animal model, as agreeable as his fulminations against misguided government interventions of this or that kind, he's saying the right things for the wrong reasons, operating on an entirely materialist paradigm. The substance of human consciousness, for him, is reducible to the material processes occurring in the admittedly clever, complex and deeply interdependent human nervous system(s). But even non-scientists will detect the ruse. This is to claim far too much; the relationship between the brain and reality is, as the humanist scientist and philosopher Raymond Tallis recently put it, far more 'mysterious', and the research far more speculative, than Brooks' argument allows for.

So in the end, his British publishers were right to subtitle it in the way that they did - his story is a narrative of 'success', not virtue. Brooks's metaphysic is essentially materialist - happily in a fairly subtle and nuanced way, and recognising some of the complexities and possibilities of human motivations - but materialist all the same. There's no space for an exploration of the nature of a 'good life', or 'virtues' which amount to anything other than maximising utility, because here his language and categories fall short.

His anthropology that of a slightly more complicated cousin of Homo economicus. At best success is loosely the same as having achieved upward social mobility. At worst it about getting on in the rat race. It's a shame, since lurking under the riots of 2011 are precisely questions of what it is to know love and develop character, and the extremely toxic effect a particular understanding of achievement.

Paul Bickley