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David Brooks's new book makes bold claims that the 'scientific revolution' will humanise our culture.

Dan Gould
  • 5 may 2011


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This article titled “The Social Animal and the science of human nature” was written by Madeleine Bunting, for guardian.co.uk on Wednesday 4th May 2011 10.30 UTC

There is a buzz building around the American journalist David Brooks’s new book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement. Brooks has a track record of spotting trends, labelling them and telling a good yarn in the process. This time, he is on to something much more ambitious and it seems everyone is gagging for it. When he arrives in the UK in two weeks’ time, there’s a No 10 seminar, as well as meetings with opposition politicians. Reportedly several cabinet ministers are already enthusiasts of the book. His Ted talk in March went down a storm.

He argues that a wide range of disciplines – including neuroscience, behavioural economics, psychology – are revolutionising our view of human nature and what is emerging is a “new humanism, a new enchantment”. He talks of a “dehumanising bias in our culture” and the “need for a deeper sense of what it takes to thrive in this life” and that what is meaningful are the “things which we don’t even have words for”. The “revolution in consciousness is going to have a profound, wonderful and humanising effect on our culture”, he argues. This revolution is based on three key insights evident in many of the scientific breakthroughs he refers to: the importance of the unconscious mind; emotions are not distinct from reason but inextricably bound up with it; we are not separate individuals but “emerge out of relationships” and are deeply formed and shaped by them.

Brooks’s argument is that our culture has routinely dismissed or ignored the evidence for these three key insights, and the results from this shallow reading of our human nature has been some catastrophic political decisions. In his Ted talk, he lists four of them: the western attempt to rebuild the Russian economy; the American invasion of Iraq and attempt to build democracy; the miscalculations of risk, which led to the 2008 financial collapse, and two decades in the US of failed attempts to reform education. On the latter, he simply sums it up as “people learn from people they love” so that any “talk of reform which is not about the relationship between teacher and pupil is irrelevant”.

Lots of people are going to like all of this. It speaks to a much gentler vision of human nature than the billiard-ball model of neoliberalism in which individuals just bump into each other as they try to pursue their own rational self-interest. It puts back into public debate questions about character, what it is, how admirable habits are cultivated across societies and by whom and what institutions. It places centre stage our sociality – our need for recognition and relationship.

Lots more people will say I told you so and we never needed science to demonstrate what wise people have been pondering on for thousands of years. Perhaps the statement that will most infuriate is when Brooks argues that “brain science helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy”.

Given that Brooks quotes plenty of philosophers – in particular Alasdair MacIntyre, with whom he makes fast and loose on issues of character – and then sweeps on to declare that the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers with their understanding of the importance of “sentiment” are of more help than the French Enlightenment thinkers’ emphasis on reason, this accusation of atrophy seems more than a little misplaced. In fact it sounds more like doing down the competition.

These are big claims, which take Brooks well beyond his usual opinion columns in the New York Times, and many philosophers and theologians will fume that he gets far more attention for arriving late at their party. Some other critics are scathing of his grasp of the science; he gets a pasting here.

I’m not sure that I share Brooks’s confidence that this “scientific revolution” will humanise our culture; it may reintroduce some neglected ideas into an elite culture which sounds seriously dysfunctional if Brooks’s account is more than just polemic.

Putting a word like wisdom back into currency can’t harm though I’m sceptical about how much it will humanise. The trends which dehumanise – inequality, exploitation of resources and people, the concentration of power – are deeply entrenched and won’t be toppled or resolved by discovering how many of our brain synapses are formed by love.

It’s interesting how Brooks’s thesis is almost point by point similar to Matthew Taylor’s Royal Society of Arts lecture last June – and Brooks will be giving a talk at the RSA when he is London.

There’s a striking romanticism going on here in which a generation raised on a very optimistic view of human nature during the 60s are searching to put together their lost inheritance. The world turned out far more brutal, unjust and irrational than they were brought up to believe. This science of a new humanism seems the only glimmer of hope in the midst of environmental crisis, growing inequality and the failure of politics to deal with either. Whether it offers the basis for a new politics – or a new faith – is quite another matter.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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