Smile, You’re in a Rat Race: ‘The Social Animal’

Forget the tortoise and the hare. A moralistic fable for our time should instead feature lab rats in a maze, sniffing and scrambling for the exit marked ‘SUCCESS’.

Of course, both these beastly metaphors are just ways of picturing the hounded and harassed human being; but isn’t the point of human beings that we are, or should be, better than dog-eat-dog creatures? Well, don’t look to David Brooks’s new book The Social Animal for reassurance.

People aren’t as rational as philosophers and scientists used to believe, Brooks explains. In the last 30 years or so, a ‘cognitive revolution’ has shown the importance of our inner, intuitive, emotional, cultural, genetic, and unconscious mind, resulting in a deluge of new findings in neuroscience, psychology, business management, and other disciplines whose guinea pigs are us.

Most of the book consists of Brooks carefully sifting through all this material and picking out such gems as a study showing that friendship networks in the US Senate are ‘remarkably similar in structure to the social licking networks among cows’ (313-4). To which he adds the gloss of his own traditionalist opinions, for example, his assertion that all human societies worship God (150), meant to suggest that God-worshipping is one of those profound and essential human traits. Possibly, Brooks hasn’t heard of non-God-worshipping religions; possibly, he hasn’t noticed that today’s humanity is a mixture of the secular and the skeptical as well as the religious; or possibly on this issue his unconscious, conservative mind really has got the better of his reason.

To be fair, Brooks does report many interesting insights from contemporary research, but even in such cases the spin can be head-turning. For example, after explaining that societies and cultures are emergent systems (meaning that they are made up of patterns and relations, not just collections of individuals), he offers the following illustration: ‘let’s say an ant in a colony stumbles upon a new food source. No dictator ant has to tell the colony to reorganize itself to harvest that source … once the custom has been set, future ants will automatically conform’ (109).

OK, so it’s the fable of the conformist ants, here starring Harold and Erica, two 21st century humans whose fictitious life story runs parallel to Brooks’s survey of cognitive science results. Harold and Erica are so good at the conformist thing that they happen to either share Brooks’s own interpretations, or to experience the successes and failures that unfailingly prove him right.

Erica, for example, the mixed-ethnicity child of Chinese and Latino immigrants, rises up through sheer determination to become, first, a wealthy and successful businesswoman, and later the US Commerce Secretary. This must prove that anyone can make if only they have the right intuitions. Erica evidently has a knack for uncovering the secrets of success, because she notices that the rich spend their weekends improving themselves with books and exercise, while the lower-middle class relaxes with movies and video games (173). Relaxation, lest we forget, was also the undoing of the hare.

What Erica does not get is the simple statistical fact that, while in principle each individual rat can be a winner, in practice only the luckiest or the most aggressive ones can succeed at the game of the survival of the fittest.

Had this book been published during the economic bubble that burst in 2008, it might have been less sickening. Since then, however, several million people have lost their jobs, their homes, their savings, or merely just their sense of security. Even if they jumped through the requisite hoops — graduated from college, worked hard, raised families, exercised — they still got the electric shock treatment in the end. The smug faces and the guilt-trippers will say otherwise, but this predicament has little to do with faulty levels of cognition and much to do with an economic system unable to provide us ‘social animals’ with the dignified, humane lives we deserve.

Still, don’t expect Brooks to concern himself with the shortcomings of our brutally competitive economy — the word ‘capitalism’ doesn’t even appear in the index.

Instead, he resorts to the old conservative trick of reducing the social dimension of human life to the ambit of the mind, and preferably the mind of unruly animal instincts instead of the mind of rationalism, consciousness, and self-control. It’s a trick reactionary Catholic writer Joseph de Maistre already perfected right after the French Revolution, when he wrote, in defense of the old order, that man is a ‘cognitive, religious, and sociable animal’ for whom nothing is more vital than prejudices, that is to say, ‘opinions adopted without examination’.

Brooks wants cognitive science to validate modern conservatism, but the opposite case could more easily be made. After all, once we (properly) explore the hidden workings of the mind they are no longer hidden; once we examine our irrational prejudices we subject them to our reason; and once we understand what makes us tick we can, if necessary, adapt and modify our behavior, not only inside our heads but also out there in our social and political structures. (This, incidentally, is why old de Maistre was virulently anti-science).

We could even, possibly, one day, build a society based not on ruthless competition but on universal co-operation — the kind of society Harold and Erica, trapped inside the perspective of the hamster wheel, would never dream of.

The Social Animal, says Brooks immodestly, is ‘the happiest story you’ll ever read’; but you’ll probably find less misery and more charm in the tale of the tortoise and the hare.

RATING 3 / 10