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Social Animal, The – Review

by: Brooks, David

Publisher: Random House Publishing Group, New York

Cover: Thomas Beck Stvan & Ruby Levesque

Copyright: 2011

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, 07/02/2011

Summary: Really two separate expositions. The long part, as exemplars of the human condition, we are introduced to Harold and Erica and in Chapter 2 and follow their lives from birth to death. The short part is a narrative compilation statistical measurements of human social behavior interspersed throughout the story of Harold and Erica.

David Brooks is a conservative op-ed columnist for The New York Times and a favorite talking head of this reviewer. The conservative moniker in relation to THE SOCIAL ANIMAL is relevant because of low-level discordant static emanating from the 424 pages of this book. (Low-level discordant static is a cute way of saying potential contradictions).

Essentially, what Brooks attempts to achieve in this work has been more deftly handled in such works as V. S. Ramachandran’s PHANTOMS IN THE BRAIN, Bruce Lipton’s THE BIOLOGY OF BELIEF, and Steven Johnson’s MIND WIDE OPEN, to name just a few. The social science observations, such as 89 percent of all people do not believe in love at first sight, or that people make snap judgments concerning a person they meet within the first tenth of a second of the encounter are all rather standard stats trafficking. Even the not so standard fair, such as 75 percent of anti-Western terrorists are from middle-class homes, is rather generic information for those who study history. [With the notable exception of the American Revolution and possibly the American Civil War, all political revolutions start and are nurtured by denizens of the middle-class]. In short, the statistical picture drawn of social humanity in THE SOCIAL ANIMAL is rather mundane. Where this book takes off from the trodden path is in addressing the definition of a person–of people.

In answering the question of “where” people come from, Brooks succinctly and provocatively supplies an answer that colors the life story of his two main characters, Harold and Erica. While Harold and Erica do not represent everyman (women inclusive), they are supposedly statistical abstracts. Despite the minutia of their lives, the substrata of who and what they are is representative of all of us. Brooks paints these representative portraits with the requisite detail of a novelist. Which is to say, he taps and reveals a plethora of emotions, which correspondingly, defines his definition of a person.

As to where these people come from, where Harold comes from specifically, Brooks says that we could get the “biological answer” and explain conception, pregnancy and birth. But to adequately deal with the “person”, Harold, we must go beyond biology. The biological entity, Harold, comes into existence and becomes a “person” only in relation to his parents. Brooks writes on page 43:

. . .people don’t develop first and create relationships. People are born into relationships-with parents, with ancestors-and those relationships create people”.

It is a fascinating supposition, froth with lurking inconsistencies. This is especially true in light of what the author writes some ten pages earlier on page 32:

. . .starting even before we are born, we inherit a great river of knowledge, a great flow of patterns coming from many ages and many sources.”

Still, defining a “person” as a product of relationships makes logical and intuitive sense. But if a newborn is not a blank-slate, the obvious question is what would a human be without relationships. As Brooks points out, a fetus starts growing brain cells at the rate of 250,000 every minute. By the tenth to twelfth week of existence (first trimester), a fetus exhibits behaviors of dreaming. At what point does a “relationship” start between mother and fetus? Is it even possible for a human to survive without being born into a social-cultural “relationship”–nurtured to some extent by parents or a parent?

The short, logical answer is no. There can be no “person” without relationships. There is no scientific documentation of human children raised outside human society without such relationships. Then of course there are the numerous stories of “feral children” [ ], children raised by animals. Most of these stories are fabricated and of the one or two cases in which there is adequate documentation, the children were abandoned at an early age by parents, meaning there was some human relationship at work prior to abandonment. All this pondering steers us into territory which Brooks-appropriately-avoids. Abortion.

In reading THE SOCIAL ANIMAL one is left with the impression that we as individuals are reactive creatures. Our reactions are always emotional and upon that emotional foundation we build reason and logic by which we carefully craft our supposedly intrinsic “humanity”. Thou shalt not kill is a nice fiat if you’re a computer, but for a human, emotion percolates through reason producing exceptions. A woman carrying a new life she neither wants nor can relate to decides to abort it. An anti-abortionist, with no relationship to the woman, finds nothing wrong in killing a doctor with no relationship to the woman or her fetus, and the doctor, related to neither woman, fetus nor anti-abortionist, finds nothing wrong in removing the new life carried by the woman. Hence, abortion, at its root, is a relationship issue. That is to say, the woman is not related to the fetus, the anti-abortionist is not related to the woman nor the fetus, the doctor is not related to the woman, the fetus nor the anti-abortionist and everybody else-that is to say us-are not related to any of the above. So, killing in general is okay, killing in specifics can be okay.

As stated, Brooks does not tackle macro-relationship issues in his sojourn into “person” socialization. Instead what we get is the parallel development of life for Harold and Erica within the institution of marriage. Still, the focus is on the individual; Erica as a political operative and Harold as a thinker-observer. The author’s treatment of his two protagonists is thorough. They come across as complete “persons” with many financial and social accomplishments and the time and motivation to explore and contribute to society. The only element lacking in their lives is drama. And for the Harolds and Ericas shuffling along the pathways of life without lofty ambition or a mind-map of their futures, Brooks provides a hints as to why. It all comes down to relationships.

Chapter 22 of THE SOCIAL ANIMAL, the final chapter, is a work unto itself. Here in sixteen pages, Brooks accomplishes what Walter Mosley took an entire book to do in the LAST DAYS OF PTOLEMY GREY–though without the drama. This chapter alone makes the book worth reading. To fully appreciate the chapter however, you probably have to read the entire work. The time is worth it.

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