Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Social Animal works - despite everything

The Social Animal: A Story of How Success HappensThe Social Animal: A Story of How Success Happens by David Brooks

In 1967, Desmond Morris wrote a non-fiction best-seller called The Naked Ape, which described human behaviour in terms of animal instincts - aggression, hierarchy, sexual signals etc.

David Brooks has done the same kind of thing with the unconscious, which, he argues plays a far more important role in our lives than as some kind of primitive animal memory which only comes into play when the more advanced parts of our brain can't cope.

I don't know if Brooks read Morris, but I'm pretty confident he's read Malcolm Gladwell, whose Outliers is subtitled The Story of Success, and whose Blink is all about the unconscious.

But Brooks is much more than just another clever journalist jumping on a trend - although he may be that too.

The Social Animal, like Gladwell's books, takes research from psychology and sociology, and weaves it into an easily digestible sequence. But Brooks goes a step further, mixing his factual material with a kind of mini-novel, the story of Harold and Erica, a couple whose lives he traces from birth to death, dramatising his research findings through their experiences.

It sounds a weird mixture and could have gone horribly wrong. But in Brooks' well-judged prose, somehow it works. I sometimes found myself wanting to get away from Harold and Erica and back to some proper factual information, and sometimes the other way round, needing a bit of light relief from talk of the vital role of the amygdala.

Once in a while, I felt that Brooks didn't know much more about the research than he needed to complete his chapter. And I wondered just how universal his conclusions are, featuring as they do, in Harold and Erica, a very culturally specific American world - with Erica a strikingly successful woman who makes it to the White House from humble beginnings.

But any misgivings are put into perspective by the common sense and solid values that Brooks seems to be directing us towards. While he's a student of science, the book is peppered with references to literature and history, to which he gives equal weight. And then there are what appear to be the author's own views, such as the following brilliant theory of everything:

"The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past, we call genetics. The information revealed thousands of years ago, we call religion. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago, we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago, we call family, and the information offered years, months, days or hours ago, we call education and advice."

If Brooks reaches conclusions, they are along the lines of a message that humanity with all its flaws is heroic, and life is full of opportunities to shine. The Social Animal may have started out as a publisher's idea for a best-seller, but it is full of interesting material, and easy to like.

View all my reviews

No comments:

Post a Comment