I am not a member of the Composure Class, journalist David Brooks’s term for young achievers with perfect hair and teeth. An example of the type meets his mate, writes Brooks, “at the Clinton Global Initiative, where they happened to be wearing the same Doctors Without Borders support bracelets.”
I am far closer to the "bourgeois bohemians" skewered in his 2000 book Bobos in Paradise. I’ll even confess that I found his earlier take on my Restoration-Hardware-grooving peers entertaining.
It was shallow, of course. But shallow is the least of the problems with “Social Animal,” Brooks’s latest article in the New Yorker and an excerpt from his soon-to-be-published book of the same name.
In a "live chat" with readers in a New Yorker blog this week, Brooks called himself a “comic sociologist.” Yet “Social Animal” is so at odds with itself that I found myself gaping in pained awe at its conflation of society, culture, and evolutionary psychology. It’s all swirled into a weird confection told from the perspective of “I’ll call him Harold” and “let’s call her Erica,” two fictional members of the Composure Class.
Brooks’s big idea is that the most crucial kind of human hardwiring involves social connectedness. Our ability to read social situations—that “maybe sentiments were at the core of everything,” rather than achievement or rationality—is what makes us most successful in life.
The blurb for the article claims that it’s about “How the new sciences of human nature can help make sense of a life,” but there’s nothing new about this realization or the science behind it. And the old head-vs.-heart argument has been with us for millennia.
I’m reminded of management articles I helped edit in the early ‘90s for a certain business magazine, in which the writers seemed awed by the power of “soft” people skills (as opposed to the “hard” skills of financial planning). Once I suggested to a senior editor, who also thought this was a revelation, that the need to acknowledge emotions would sound laughably obvious to any woman. (To his credit, the editor then blushed.)
However, the problem with “Social Animal” is not just obtuseness about gender. It is steeped in such unconscious privilege that it mashes up personal observations, the insights of fictional characters, and truckloads of contentious research. Brooks writes:
“Many members of this class, like many Americans generally, have a vague sense that their lives have been distorted by a giant cultural bias. They live in a society that prizes the development of career skills but is inarticulate when it comes to the things that matter most.”
Then Brooks, in his illustration of how the “new” research on social behavior plays out in Harold’s life, indicates that it’s all hardwired, anyway.
So which is it? “A giant cultural bias” that makes everyone unhappy or social hardwiring that makes Harold destined to be a successful member of the Composure Class—and yet he’s still anxious? So all he has to do is realize that emotions matter?
Then he’ll be really happy and really composed, because he’s upper middle class, handsome, tall, and presumably white.
That last paragraph is my own sarcastic take. But early on in the Harold story, I was so confused by Brooks’s comic tone that I wondered if the entire article was a parody. For example, in describing the biological connection babies make with their mothers even before birth, he drops in this nugget with no source: “Fetuses who have been read ‘The Cat in the Hat’ while in the womb suck rhythmically when they hear it again after birth, because they recognize the rhythm of the poetry.”
Apparently I’m not the only one who was confused. In that New Yorker Internet chat, reader Roland puts it to Brooks: “To what extend [sic] was the piece meant as a joke?”
Brooks’s reply: “Probably not as much as you might have taken it.”
There’s a longer explanation for that remark, of course, which is why the interview is far more instructive than the article itself.
Another reader asks why he only focuses on the Composure Class in the article. Brooks says, “This is an excerpt from a larger book. Much of the book is actually about people in poverty and those who live in disorganized homes.”
He appears to understand that the real social problems are faced by those not in the Composure Class. Yet such nuance isn’t in the New Yorker piece.
That may not have been his editorial decision to make, but I do hold Brooks accountable for the way he glosses decades of social science and neuroscience research. That’s the biggest sin of “Social Animal” and likely the book as well.
In the interview with readers, Brooks notes that in writing the book he realized he’s not a science writer. “I’m not very good at describing how something is happening,” he admits. But what he doesn’t acknowledge is the degree of imprecision in social science research and even the biases in measurement that can crop up in the physical and biological sciences.*
In describing the way “Erica was subconsciously looking for signs of trustworthiness” in her first meeting with Harold, Brooks refers to research by evolutionary psychologists Marion Eals and Irwin Silverman (here, at least, he cites the source) “suggesting that women are sixty to seventy percent more proficient than men at remembering details from a scene. In the previous few years, Erica had used her powers of observation to discard entire categories of men as potential partners….”
Yes, such a gender difference may be hardwired. But the problem with sticking the reference into a narrative about a fictional character is that it sounds like a simple fact. Brooks doesn’t stop to indicate how many research studies this fact is based on, how many subjects were involved, and how many other variables were accounted for in the source research. Race? Age? Country of origin? Economic class? Who knows?
The damning implication is that such crucial variables don’t matter.
There are all sorts of other howlers like this in “Social Animal." But what saddens me most is that they undercut Brooks’s revelatory conclusion. At the end of the piece, he has Harold see the light while listening to a speaker at an “ideas festival” in Aspen.
This speaker, a fictional young and hip neuroscientist, is asked by an audience member how all his research has changed him personally. As part of a long, lovely, unexpected response, the neuroscientist says:
“I’ve come to think that flourishing consists of putting yourself in situations in which you lose self-consciousness and become fused with other people, experiences, or tasks…. Happiness is determined by how much information and affection flows through us covertly every day and year.”
If only Brooks had put these words in his own voice. If only this excerpt had been about his own heartfelt struggles to come to terms with the meaning of life as a “social animal,” especially in a world in which bourgeois bohemians or the Composure Class seemingly have it all. If only he’d taken his own advice.
* Another recent New Yorker article, “The Truth Wears Off” by Jonah Lehrer, describes in fascinating detail why even the hardest science can be difficult to replicate. As Lehrer notes, “[I]t appears that nature often gives us different answers.”