Will the Social Animal Achieve Adulthood?

New York Times columnist David Brooks has a new book out titled The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. I have watched Brooks for years as a commentator on the PBS News Hour and have always liked him, even though I usually side politically with his colleague Mark Shields. That said, in my view, The Social Animal is a brilliant piece of work, far exceeding my expectations. I have some issues with the book, but they aren’t worthy of discussion in light of what the book accomplishes.

During the past couple of years, I have mentioned the new research in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology so many times that I am always pressed for an original way to bring the subject up again. But David Brooks has this to say: “We are living in the middle of a revolution in consciousness. Over the past few years, geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, anthropologists, and others have made great strides in understanding the building blocks of human flourishing. And a core finding of their work is that we are not primarily the products of our conscious thinking. We are primarily the products of thinking that happens below the level of awareness.”

I’m torn between wanting to say amen or duh. My frustration comes from having been aware of and very much interested in this enterprise for several years, while still waiting anxiously to see some societal benefit resulting from this research. Instead, regardless of the context or subject, whenever these new realities are mentioned, the conversation goes on as before with no acknowledgement that anything has been learned.

For example, when it comes to politics, we don’t reason so much as we relate, and if we can’t relate to the other side, we tend to dismiss the others’ legitimacy, or we flood our minds with an emotional response during their argument so we can ignore what they say altogether. An instance of relating over reasoning is evident with the faction known as the “birthers.”

These people cannot relate to President Obama; therefore they will not accept any evidence of his having been born an American citizen. Because he is viewed simply as not being one of them, they can’t accept him as legitimate under any circumstances. Many well-educated individuals felt the same way about George W. Bush; he wasn’t in their group, and therefore wasn’t regarded as intellectually up to the task at hand. His presidency was viewed as illegitimate by nature of his implied incompetence, regardless of the issue.

Relating is relating, period. The principle applies to religion as well, since compelling evidence is no match when pitted against the will to believe. Our propensity for relating can seldom be overstated, nor can its impact on society and matters of politics in particular. Now that President Obama has released his long-form birth certificate, those who can’t relate to him are scrambling for another cause to prove his illegitimacy.

If we are in the middle of a revolution of consciousness, as Brooks suggests, one can’t but wonder when we will begin to reap the rewards of this amalgamation of research. In The Social Animal, Brooks does something daring. He admittedly sets out to emulate Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile by creating fictional characters to show how our minds are influenced by our biology and the environment.

Now, anyone who does this sort of thing risks a great deal of criticism because the possible options for such characters are infinite and author bias is detectable. Some of the simple-minded reviews of The Social Animal on Amazon bear witness to the subjectivity of the enterprise and the very imperfection of human emotions that Brooks writes about. cont’d on Page 2

Published by the LA Progressive on May 10, 2011
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About Charles D. Hayes

Author and publisher Charles D. Hayes is a self-taught philosopher and an impassioned advocate for lifelong learning. At age 17, he dropped out of high school to join the U.S. Marines. After four years of duty, he became a police officer in Dallas, Texas, and later he moved to Alaska, where he has worked for more than 35 years in the oil industry. In 1987, Hayes founded Autodidactic Press, “committed to lifelong learning as the lifeblood of democracy and the key to living life to its fullest.”
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