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The Social Animal

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In the Harold and Erica sections Brooks proves himself an able storyteller. The vignettes alternate with summaries of behavioral research on everything from attachment parenting to how customers decide which bottle of wine to purchase. One can imagine cocktail parties around the country bubbling with social science factoids from his book: that a healthy marriage is worth a “happiness bump” equivalent to an extra $100,000 in income; or that commuting is the daily activity most antithetical to contentment. Brooks ties it all together with an ambitious argument about the overweening influence of rationalism and the pitfalls of individualism.

According to Brooks, cognitive science’s main contribution is the notion that humans do not have an “essential self;” that the “I” in Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” is a fallacy. Instead, Brooks says, the more we learn about the way human beings operate, the more we realize that major aspects of personhood are culturally contingent. “When asked to describe their day, American six-year-olds make three times more references to themselves than Chinese six-year-olds,” Brooks writes. On a bedrock level, he argues, our experiences determine the way we see the world.

However the author is not a relativist; he doesn’t think that all experiences or all cultures are created equal. Cognitive science informs us “that your unconscious wants to entangle you in the thick web of relations that are the essence of human flourishing. It longs and pushes for love,” he writes. The most meaningful and productive experiences involve relationships with other people, and the most vibrant cultures are the ones that facilitate the formation of those relationships. Some readers will find that Brooks takes this argument to extreme lengths. “[W]hen you look deeper into the unconscious, the separations between individuals begin to get a little fuzzy,” he writes, leaving one to wonder whether the author believes that there is such a thing as a human essence, a soul.

Even if I’m not ready to credit science with having discovered the one best way to live, I enjoyed reading "The Social Animal" as a self-help book. But Brooks intends more than that: His book is meant as a serious political argument about the limits of individual agency and the duty of the state to help those who cannot help themselves.

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