The Social Animal: Bad Novel Meets Bad Science

David Brooks is a divisive character—many have hated him, many love him, and many just don’t know what to think of the media pundit who serves us up with a heavy-handed dose of “the world according to David Brooks” regularly in the New York Times op-ed. He’s gone from hard-hearted conservative to softy family man, and he spends most his recent opinion articles talking about values. Of course there is nothing wrong with these recent Brooks retreats into the mind, and his underscoring of the importance of maintaining strong social ties over focusing obsessively on material success. I agree with his basic premises completely.

But then, a few months ago, came his novel-cum-pop-science hybrid, The Social Animal. When I finished, I did come to the realization that Brooks basically encapsulates in book form everything that is wrong with both popular fiction and popular science.

So for those of you who did not read about the book when it was first released, The Social Animal is about two characters, Erica and Harold, who meet, get married, both lead successful careers, enjoy retirement, and in the end one of them dies. Running throughout the book are frustratingly superficial forays into neuroscience that are so awkwardly inserted that you feel somehow embarrassed reading the book. It reminds me exactly of those cheesy videos shown in high school health class in which “characters” are used only as means to the end of explaining sex in a clinical and condescending way.

Of course, what’s most exasperating about the book is the so-called “narrative.” Absolutely nothing bad happens to these people, who are more like stereotypes cobbled from the blog “Stuff White People Like” than actual, well-developed fictional characters. They experience no serious inner conflict; they are so unlikable because they are so plastic. Interestingly enough, Brooks’ ostensible goal in the book was to demonstrate how our behavior is more dictated by our relationships than by our individual will. Although he constantly tries to hammer this into our heads by sprinkling this or that study into the narrative, Erica and Harold’s relationship with each other and friends and family seems robotic. The protagonists feel so inhuman to me that it makes it the height of irony to use them as individual examples of our common, shared humanity.

Now, Brooks is no fiction writer, so perhaps we should cut him a break on this front. He is, after all, bringing serious psychology and neuroscientific studies into the public eye, right? He’s educating the masses on the latest scientific explanation about human nature, isn’t he? Surely we should be grateful for that. Unfortunately, he does the public a larger disservice by taking studies completely out of context, by referring to the high speculative pseudoscience of “evolutionary psychology” and treating it as actual fact, and by committing a number of other errors that would make any scientist cringe. Here’s a perfect example, the scene in which Harold and Erica first meet:

“Erica was impressed by him: women everywhere tend to prefer men who have symmetrical features and are slightly older, taller, and stronger than they are. But she was more guarded and slower to trust than Harold was. That’s in part because, while Pleistocene men could pick their mates on the basis of fertility cues discernible at a glance, Pleistocene women faced a more vexing problem. Human babies require years to become self-sufficient, and a single woman in that environment could not gather enough calories to provide for a family. She was compelled to choose a man not only for insemination but for continued support. That’s why men leap into bed more quickly than women. Various research teams have conducted a simple study. They hire a woman to go up to college men and ask them to sleep with her. More than half the men say yes. Then they have a man approach college women with the same offer. Virtually zero per cent say yes.

So Erica was subconsciously looking for signs of trustworthiness.”

This is the sort of half-baked stuff that Brooks draws from repeatedly, the same material that has become fodder for popular, but discredited books like The Female Brain. An excellent critique of this Brooks-esque genre of pop science, a book called Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine, was reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement earlier this year. The book and its respective review explain how most of what we read that connects neuroscience with observed human behavior is bungled by non-experts who want an exciting story that still hews to our preconceived notions of human nature.

If Brooks fails on both the fiction front, as well as the science front, then what are we left with? Perhaps a good moral to the story? Unfortunately, the only moral that can be gleaned from this book—other than the obvious truth that we are as much a product of our relationships as we are a product of our individual choices—is that good things happen to rich people. What a revelation!

This guest post is contributed by Katheryn Rivas, who writes for online universities blog.  She welcomes your comments at her email Id: katherynrivas87@gmail.com.

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