The Social Animal   Leave a comment

Not an obtuse or facetious title, for once, but a post about a book.

A while ago – and I meant to write this not long after, but I’ve been busy/rubbish, so if I mis-remember, mis-represent or make any other mistakes it is entirely my fault so please take this post in that spirit – I read The Social Animal by David Brooks. It doesn’t sound like my sort of thing, does it, so: why? Well, curiosity.

The book is made up of three interleaved parts, and it admits to two of them.

The first, and most interesting, is a huge number of nuggets of information from various surveys and scientific studies, usually sociological or psychological in nature. Unfortunately, many are presented without citing a source, and due to the nature of the book none are discussed in any depth. Often there is simply a statistic thrown into a sentence for decoration, or to attempt to justify certain things about the characters in the story.

The story is, supposedly, the other half of the book. It’s only there – according to the author – to provide some kind of context for the presented facts, and make them more readable and digestable. Maybe, therefore, it doesn’t deserve too much scrutiny, but it does have its flaws. Firstly, it doesn’t really work; it takes the reader through the lives of almost two generations of a family, from the meeting of the main character’s parents, through to the main character’s eventual death. The odd thing being that this eighty-odd year period all seems to take part in the first ten years of this century; its trying to present facts about the world as it currently is breaks any temporal flow of the story.
More importantly, the characters in the story often feel like an attempt to manufacture strawmen. Rather than the facts presented justifying the actions of the characters, it can feel like the characters are created to justify the facts. Of course, fictional characters can get up to anything the author wishes, and their actions don’t have any bearing on the real world, so in that way they can undermine the purpose of the book; the characters are successful (in a somewhat contrived manner) because they are characters in a book, not because they have the properties the author (and his many selected facts) claim successful people have.

The third part is unstated, but utterly unsurprising: the book is a platform from which the author can espouse his particular views and morality, and by providing lots of statistics, studies and so-on he can make it look like it’s all backed up by Science.
The main point of the book is that, as suggested by the title, humans are social animals, and that stability and social interaction is far more important to success (and also happiness) than anything else – intelligence (at least, as measured by IQ), money, or whatever – and that amongst certain groups this is fostered, and success literally breeds success, and in other groups the opposite is true.

That doesn’t sound such a terrible hypothesis, but unfortunately he goes on to espouse some political and moral opinions that I’m not sure really follow.

Late in the book, he claims that a political system like that used in the United States’ early years, based (the author claims; I do not know whether this is true, or simply American nostalgia for some supposed golden-age at the birth of their country) primarily on free competition, would be optimal. After spending most of the book saying that economics is rubbish (being based on assumptions such as that humans are a) rational and b) primarily motivated my material gain, wheras both are demonstrably false), and that happiness is based on social rather than material factors anyway, I can’t really see how the conclusion “so we should implement unfettered economic competition” is reached.

But far more problematic are his morals, which seem to be, in many ways, “old fashioned”. For instance, he is dead against childbirth outside of marriage (particularly to teenage mothers), suggesting it is the result – and cause – of moral turpitude, and that only the imposition of strong moral principles – should that be capitalised? – can prevent such enormities.

Full disclosure: I’m not in favour of morals; they will fuck you up. Morality is just unthinking obedience to the bigotry of men long-dead. So my not being entirely enamoured of this point of view is unsurprising.

But that said, I don’t think this holds water; in the UK, births to teen mothers have been generally falling since 1971 (and haven’t been lower since the mid-fifties), and in the US they’ve fell almost every year since 1991, so if our morals are becoming, as the author implies, more relaxed, then it doesn’t correlate with an increase in teenage pregnancies. Further, the most moralistic “solution” to such things – abstinence-only sex education – is not, as the articles cited at the bottom of that Wikipedia article will tell you, effective in preventing any of sex outside of marriage, unplanned pregnancy, or the transmission of infectious diseases. So I don’t see how the author could claim to have reached his opinions through scientific observation so much as boring old conservative nostalgia.

But that wasn’t the part of the book that I found most vexing. I’ll quote this directly lest I seem to put words into the author’s mouth; it is the start of chapter 2, and Julia is the main character’s mother: “It is sad to report that even in her late twenties, Julia kept her Spring Break personality alive and on call. Responsible and ambitious by day, she would let her inner Cosmo girl out for a romp on Saturday nights. In these moods, she still thought it it was cool to be sassy.” This continues for several sentences, including “She still thought she was taking control of her sexuality by showing cleavage”, and ending on the delightful “[…]she would walk perilously close to the line of skankdom without ever quite going over”. I feel that any comment I made about these passages would be stating the bloody obvious, and any readers who don’t understand why should have a good hard think about things. I shall simply say to the author: she’s your character, you can make her do whatever you want! If that behaviour upsets you so much, perhaps you should have skipped straight to her pregnancy, maybe with her having her shoes off, cooking a nice meal?

It’s also worth noting that Harold, the main character, later becomes an alcoholic, promoting some rather sympathetic discussion of addiction.

Anyway, to end this on a less important but even snarkier note, I quote the start of Chapter 5: “Popular, good-looking, and athletic children are the subjects of relentless abuse”. As a formerly fat, unpopular child, whose sporting ability was only matched by his lack of interest, I would like to say: oh, those poor darlings!

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