Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Social Animal by David Brooks

The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement

Author: David Brooks
Publisher Format: Audio - Books on Tape 16 hours,
also Random House  Hardcover, 448 pages
Narrator: Arthur Morey
Year of publication: 2011
Subject: psychology, neuroscience, sociology,
Genre:  non=fiction
Source: public library audio download
Rating 5 of 5

I first became exposed to David Brooks from his weekly appearances on the PBS News Hour on friday nights.  I find his commentary to be balanced, nuanced, and entertaining, especially given the state of what often passes for "news reporting" these days.  So I was drawn to look at this book even though I would normally not have been interested in delving into the subject matter, particularly in the lazy days of late spring and summer.

Social Animal is a deep and thought-provoking book.  That said, it is not a difficult book to read, but the ideas presented are so interesting that it took me longer to read this book than any I've read in the past two years.  It was so interesting, I had to read (or listen because I had both versions) to a segment, and then go away and let that sink in.

Brooks gives us two individuals, Harold and Erica, whom he follows from pre-conception to death, showing us how their genetics, their environments, and their life choices influence how they think, relate to others, and ultimately succeed or fail in various phases of their lives.  It is fascinating reading, so much so that although I borrowed this from the library, I have it on my "to buy" list, waiting until the paperback comes out so I can mark it up with all kinds of comments, like a college text book.

There are so many concepts presented that it might have been a confusing mishmash, but Brooks' singular ability to weave them together in a coherent, flowing narrative is the true strength of the book. That same bombardment of new (to me) ideas makes it difficult for us non-sociologists to write a cogent review.

We follow Harold and Erica as we learn how much babies know at birth, as Brooks explains humans' inheriting a flow of information, which he characterizes into patterns:
  • from deep in our evolutionary past = genetics
  • from thousands of years ago = religion
  • from hundreds of years ago =  culture
  • from decades ago = family
  • and from years months, days, hours ago = education and advice.
He posits that high school is the time of sorting out relationships, and labels this the real substance of high school life.
The people in the executive  suite believed that the school existed to fulfill some socially productive process of information transmission, usually involving science projects on poster boards,  but in reality of course, high school is a machine for  social sorting.  The purpose of high school  is to give young people a sense of where they fit into the social structure.

I found his portrayals of today's parenting types and techniques amusing and evocative.  He uses phrases like
"Bourgeois mommy wars," "uber boobers," "play date queens (Sancta mommies)" and the "Mopey martyr mommies".  Each of these brought mental pictures of prams, nannies, and post Betty Friedan parents.  He compared these to single parents (mostly female) and the stresses they faced trying to provide the same kinds of opportunities for their children that came so easily to the Sancta Mommies.

By presenting us with two people from different cultural backgrounds, (Harold is from a two parent WASP family, Erica is the product of a single oriental mother and hispanic father) he is able to weave in theories of cultural differences in physical ailments, brain patterns, geographic languages (e.g., "raise your right hand" vs. "raise your hand east") and myriad other tidbits of learning, bombarding us with notions that make infinite sense, and produce "AHA" moments many of us never spent any time dwelling upon.

Here are a few of his other intellectual gems:
"A brain is something that exists within a single skull, a mind exists within a network of interactions and relations. It is important not to confuse brains with minds."
In a discussin about how modern man thinks, he uses the analogy of  clocks and clouds -
 "Clocks can be taken apart into defined pieces, studied, put back together...Clouds are irregular, dynamic and idiosyncratic - hard to study - they change constantly....The  temptation of modern  research is that it tries to pretend that every phenomenom is a clock that can be evaluated using mechanical tools and regular techniques."
"Nations don't clash only over land, wealth and interests, they fight to compel others to see the world as they do...One of the reasons the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been so stubbornly unresolved is that each side wants the other to accept its historical narrative."
"Most people either inherit their party affiliations from their parents, or they form an attachment to one party or another early in adulthood.  Few people switch parties once they reach middle age."
And finally one of my favorites, when he was describing a politician aiming higher up the pole.
"He'd spent the first part of his life defining himself by his career rank.  He'd developed the social skills useful on the climb up the greasy pole:  The capacity to imply false intimacy, the ability to remember first names, the subtle skills of effective deference.  He got elected to the Senate, and had come to master the patois of globaloney:  the ability to declaim for portentous hours about the revolution in world affairs brought about by technological change, environmental degradation,  the fundamental decline in moral values, had achieved fame and a spot as chairman of the senate's foreign relation committee and was often talked about as a presidential hopeful."
The story of Harold and Erica as they  meet, fall in love, marry, climb the corporate ladder, branch out on separate career paths, and ultimately retire together, is enchanting, challenging, interesting, and one that is sure to make the reader stop and think.  Social Animal is a work that bears reading and re-reading.  It may not be a life-changer, but it is certainly going to be a life-enhancer for many.
"Globaloney" !!  Don't you just love it?  It's a word I have tucked away to soothe me through the next 17 months of campaigning.


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