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Review: David Brooks – The Social Animal

I would give this book ten stars if I could! David Brooks has truly written a magnum opus – one that seamlessly weaves together decades of research in the neuroscience and psychology of the mind into a single coherent narrative that is both a literary and technological tour de force. Starting with an (admittedly slightly hokey) premise that follows the birth, childhood, adolescence and adulthood of two completely opposite archetypes trapped in the ubiquitous present, Brooks cleverly overlays a wealth of scientific knowledge illuminating the underlying reasons why they behave the way in which they do. At times scabrously witty (Brooks is particularly good at skewering the uber-wealthy, Aspen-, Davos- and Hampton-inhabiting set, while politicians on both the left and the right are unmercifully lampooned), Brooks ushers in mellifluous prose that combines the inner- and outer-worlds of his principal characters into a seamless whole. Far better than all the blinks, nudges, switches et al. in synthesizing decades of research into a readable whole, what truly distinguishes Brooks’ work from other popularizations is the beauty of his prose. (The chapter on the sunset years and eventual death of one of his protagonists is particularly moving).

I have read a number of the criticisms of this book and found all of them wanting: one school of thought posits that while knowing the underlying neuroscience of what moves us is of only academic interest since it does nothing to help us modify our behavior. This criticism is facile. Brooks not only points out what we can do to effect a more complete mindfulness (e.g. engaging both our level 1 and level 2 brains by partaking in both artistic and technical training); Indeed he proposes a new, societal approach to politics that shows us that many of the seemingly intractable problems of today (poverty, income inequality, inferior education), are social problems refractive to the classic cudgels of money and regulation. Only by engaging these emergent systems with social, behavior-based approaches can we transition our society from its current partisan impasse to a higher level. Brooks compares the French enlightenment with that of the British and argues that the latter better understood the ‘animal spirits’ and ‘moral sentiments’ that truly move society: What Brooks has done is to show, not tell us how to make this possible in this evocative tome that marries science with literature in a way that would make both Proust and Priestly proud.



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