Review of The Social Animal
In May of last year The Economist reported that “All Westminster is reading ‘The Social Animal’ by David Brooks, after sources close to David Cameron let it be known that the New York Times journalist had captured the very essence of the prime minister’s thinking on policy-making in the 21st century.”
In fact, David Cameron was so excited by The Social Animal that he met David Brooks when he came to London as part of a promotional tour for his bestseller.
Shaped by the Unconscious
The Social Animal is about the hidden sources of love, character and achievement that define who we are as people. These sources are rooted in the social relationships we encounter from the moment we are born and which operate beneath the surface of our conscious minds throughout our entire life.
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. As he traces the cognitive and social development of Harold and Erica, Brooks establishes that our unconscious both shapes and is shaped by society. The forces which form the unconscious include everything from the small decisions we make as individuals to the larger direction taken by society as a whole.
As in example of how this works, Brooks explores what happened when Harold’s parents (Rob and Julia) first met. Rob instinctively looked to see if Julia had the traits that evolved from their Pleistocene ancestors. For example, he cannot keep his mind off Julia’s attractive breasts, which had evolved to “serve as signalling devices and set of primitive light shows in the male brain.” Julia’s other features are attractive, and Rob’s unconscious mind is aware that attractive people generally make higher incomes. While Rob is ready to have sex fairly early on in the relationship, Julia was programmed to go at a slower schedule. This is because her prehistoric ancestors needed to choose mates that could gather enough calories to support both her and her children, and therefore Julia has to first be sure that Rob was dependable. She was assisted in this by her “trusting sensor” which had been honed by “thousands of years of genetics and culture.” When, later in the relationship, they had a chance to taste each other’s saliva, their unconscious minds collected genetic information about the other (women are attracted to men whose human leukocyte antigen code of their DNA is most different from their own, leading to offspring with healthy immune systems).
Rob and Julia’s relationship is just one of the numerous examples Brooks gives to try to show that most of the time we function like the automatic mode on a camera. While our unconscious doesn’t fully determine our behaviour (we can switch the camera to manual and exercise free will), the unconscious does influence us in a myriad of ways that scientists are only just beginning to understand. It is through our social relationships that these unconscious influences are primarily formed, even as Rob and Julia’s relationship was birthed in the web of relationships defining their prehistoric past.
Statecraft is Soulcraft
But what does any of this have to do with David Cameron?
To start with, The Social Animal is part of a new enthusiasm among intellectuals for using the latest discoveries in science (especially neuroscience) to better understand and advance human well-being. Towards this end, the final section of the book explores the political ramifications that these discoveries about the unconscious have for social policy, and it is these ideas which have apparently captured the very essence of the Prime Minister’s thinking on policy-making.
Brooks suggests that the end towards which politics must strive is not freedom but the well-being of society. This requires a holistic approach which aims to solve social problems with cultural remedies that grab us at the level of our gut instincts, intuitions and unconscious. The health of the neural network controlling our unconscious is determined largely by the health of social networks in which we grow up, and these social networks can be shaped by political forces. By giving attention to social networks, government can devise “programs that reshape[…] the internal models in people’s minds.” To do this the state needs “to be somewhat paternalistic”, occupyBing itself not merely with the external environment but with the internal landscape of a person’s soul. As Brooks puts it, “Statecraft is inevitably soulcraft.”
At first sight this might seem to be a charter for totalitarianism. After all, despots from Diocletian to Robespierre have spoken of the state in parental terms, believing that government, like a good parent, is entrusted with the job of creating virtue in the hearts of its citizens. In fact, when Mussolini first coined the word ‘totalitarianism,’ the term referred to a humane society in which everyone was taken care of and looked after by a state which encompassed all of life in its grasp.
Though Brooks sound uncomfortably Mussolinian when he writes about government “nurture[ing] settings that serve as nurseries for fraternal relationships” or social policy aimed at “reshape[ing] the internal models in people’s minds”, his specific proposals are relatively straight-forward. Military strategy in the Middle East should seek to undermine America’s enemies by building positive social relationships with locals. Policy to tackle poverty and AIDS should be based on redefining how people unconsciously think about life, so they no longer want to engage in self-destructive sex. Essentially, the government should try to change society by influencing the way people think about themselves and the world on a subliminal level. As Brooks notes, quoting the words of Haskins and Sawhill, “All of us need to be prodded to do things that will improve our long-term well-being, whether it is eating the right foods or setting aside funds for retirement…”
It is easy to see why Britain’s Prime Minister was hooked by this. Mr. Cameron has also put great premium on social recovery, using the language of ‘Big Society’ (as opposed to Big Government) to encapsulate this mission.
‘Our Whole Lives Are Their Business’
Brooks is a conservative journalist whose thinking is constantly tinged with a distrust of government and an almost unlimited optimism in the private sector. Government cannot solve society’s problems, he says, it can only create the conditions favourable to human flourishing and social mobility. Despite these qualifications, however, Brooks does think it is the job of government to make us happy and to act the part of Nanny in prodding us towards self-improvement.
Okay, Brooks recommends that the government goes about achieving this with a kind of side-ways approach, prodding us in the right direction or propping up the web of relationships in the private sector. He uses the phraseology “limited but energetic” to describe the government’s role in enhancing social mobility. Yet at the end of the day, Brook’s state remains an engine for promoting the greatest happiness for the greatest number – a utilitarian perspective that C.S. Lewis was right to criticize in 1958. Writing for The Observer, Lewis remarked:
The modern State exists not to protect our rights but to do us good or make us good – anyway, to do something to us or to make us something. Hence the new name ‘leaders’ for those who were once ‘rulers.’ We are less their subjects than their wards, pupils, or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, “Mind your own business.” Our whole lives are their business.”
Brooks realizes with a consistency that is almost frightening that if the government’s vocation is to promote human happiness, then our whole lives become the business of the state right down to the synaptic connections controlling the neurons in our brains. “The unconscious, he says, “needs supervision.”
Many would question whether the government should even be in the business of trying to supervise the unconscious. Traditionally, Christians have understood that this is the job of the church and the family, though they have usually spoken of the ‘heart’ and ‘affections’ rather than the unconsciousness. For example, Abraham Kuyper used the language of ‘sphere sovereignty’ to advocate a state strictly limited in its social responsibilities.
But there is a more fundamental problem. As I pointed out in my article ‘The Temptation of Caring Totalitarianism,’ historically totalitarianism never starts with steel fences and ID checkpoints. Rather, it begins with a leader who is human enough to empathize with your needs and just possibly shrewd enough to fulfil those needs as soon as sufficient power is entrusted to him. When totalitarianism does arrive, it arrives as the concomitant of a population that has been oriented to view the state as nurturer, educator, benefactor, protector, even as parent. And let’s not forget that Brooks explicitly says that government should occupy a ‘paternalistic’ role.
The Footsteps of Rousseau and Hamilton
At the beginning of the book Brooks wrote that he wanted “to walk, stylistically, in the footsteps of Jean-Jacques Rousseau,” whose utopian account of education in Emile was also presented through the lens of fictional characters. I wonder if it has dawned on Brooks that he is also walking in Rousseau’s footsteps by championing a state that is concerned ultimately with making us better people. He urges government to embrace what he calls “true socialism” (in contrast to mere statism) which emphasizes a “communitarian styles of politics.” Those familiar with Rousseau’s political thought will note the immediate parallels. Rousseau, who has been aptly called the father of modern totalitarianism, also recognized the formative role of culture. Moreover, Rousseau was also a communitarian in so far as he left no aspect of life outside the all-encompassing organ of the state.
Brooks calls Rousseau a ‘genius’, but he speaks even more glowingly of the early American political philosopher Alexander Hamilton. Significantly, however, Hamilton was also a statist who operated on the assumption that society is a lump of clay that can be fashioned by the state. Professor Art Carden summarized Hamilton’s vision for the nation as including “a strong sense of nationalism, zealous protectionism, enthusiasm for central banking, and methods of constitutional interpretation like the doctrine of ‘implied powers’ that essentially stripped away the Constitution’s restraints on the central government.”
This type of totalitarianism is far removed from the vision Brooks offers us in The Social Animal, even though he does describes his views as ‘Hamiltonian.’ The state Brooks advocates is not a harsh dictator; rather, it resembles a caring mother, patiently nurturing our souls to maturity. But that is precisely the problem, since traditionally this is a job that has rested with the church, not the state. Given this reversal of roles, I don’t think it is insignificant that The Social Animal has found such resonance with all of Westminster. After all, Cameron’s Government has assumed dominion over more than a few matters previously resting with the church. The most recent of these has been to lay the groundwork for having same-sex partnerships performed in religious institutions – something that the homosexual community believes is necessary precisely because of the way it trains our unconscious.
Though The Social Animal contains questionable assumptions on the cultural redemption that can be wrought as politics joins forces with neuroscience, it is not a bad book. The book is worth reading if for no other reason than the fact that David Brooks has compiled much fascinating information on the inner workings of the human brain.
A shorter version of this article will be appearing in the monthly magazine of Christian Voice, a UK ministry whose website is http://www.christianvoice.org.uk/. The article is reprinted here with permission.