David Brooks and the Social Animal

In his NY Times op-ed The Social Animal, David Brooks writes that the “individualist description of human nature seems to be wrong. Over the past 30 years, there has been a tide of research in many fields, all underlining one old truth — that we are intensely social creatures, deeply interconnected with one another and the idea of the lone individual rationally and willfully steering his own life course is often an illusion.”

He goes on to say that the Republican party hasn’t kept up with science: “Recent Republican Party doctrine has emphasized the power of the individual, but underestimates the importance of connections, relationships, institutions and social filaments that organize personal choices and make individuals what they are.”

Brook then declares this worldview the main impediment to modernization of the Republican party: “These problems straining the social fabric aren’t directly addressed by maximizing individual freedom. And yet locked in the old framework, the Republican Party’s knee-jerk response to many problems is: ‘Throw a voucher at it’.”

Brooks misses two crucial points in his op-ed, as he does in most of his recent op-eds covering similar “human nature” issues. He does not get “culture” and he does not get “power and inequality.”

We are not just social animals, we are cultural animals! But the Republican party does not get this fundamental fact of human nature. For the Republicans, there is one set of values that matter, and we can impose those values on others. It’s not just an ideology of individualism, it’s an ideology of culture.

They derive much of their political power from that one culture view. Gun control, the right to choose, the importance of equal opportunity – these imply a view of society that Republicans mobilize to reject. Recognizing that there are other equally valid ways of being is not part of that plan.

However, not recognizing culture creates major political problems. Rather than addressing the complex relations between ethnic groups in Iraq from the start (Sunni, Shiites, and Kurds, to name just the main ones), we had the repeated assertions that the “Iraqi people” would embrace the value of US freedom.

It was naïve to the extreme. The same is true about inequality. While Brooks has written about the importance of education and Sam Club’s Republicans, he doesn’t get how closely inequality and power are linked. Five million dollars is the new standard for having made it; everyone else gets what they deserve.

Put differently, power corrupts. And power today is tied to money. Republicans support policies that favor the rich. Is it any surprise that an ideology of individualism is what people at the top embrace?

That’s culture too, rich people finding meaning in an ideology that supports their lifestyle. Brooks might have spoken not just of human nature, but of actual economic results. An August article in his own NY Times shows that in recent history, the economy has grown more under Democratic administrations than Republican administrations. Not surprisingly, the economy has also become more equal during those times. A rising tide raises all boats, while concentrated wealth leaves the rest to hope for that trickle down effect.

Individualism, one culture, and the power of wealth. Science is not part of that picture. Science works against that picture! So science is placed to one side, since it doesn’t help in getting conservative votes and maintaining the wealth of privileged sectors of society.

The importance of evidence, the recognition of diversity, the things that tie us together rather than divide us – instead of these, the Republicans have given us weapons of mass destruction and swift boating, homogeneity and wedge issues. Of course in that environment the “language of community, institutions and social fabric has been lost, and now we hear only distant echoes.”

In the end, Brooks advocates a different conservatism: “people are socially embedded creatures and government has a role (though not a dominant one) in nurturing the institutions in which they are embedded.” He hopes for “a conservatism that emphasizes society as well as individuals, security as well as freedom, a social revival and not just an economic one and the community as opposed to the state.” That sort of conservatism would be helped by recognizing culture and power alongside our social connections.

Brooks’ simple assertions about our “human nature” also need to take a step forward if he’s going to match his dynamic conservatism. While being social animals today and neural Buddhists back in May makes for good op-ed writing, it’s not good science. One fundamental cause or central essence misses the boat on the diversity in evolution, the multiplicity in culture, and the plasticity in our brains.

Miss that boat, and you miss the tide of science. And just like money, science doesn’t trickle down too well.

3 thoughts on “David Brooks and the Social Animal

  1. “…we are cultural animals! But the Republican party does not get this fundamental fact of human nature.”

    If we define culture as socially learned norms, value, and beliefs then it would seem like those running the current GOP campaign have an extraordinary sense of culture. They have proved quite adept at tapping into people’s cultural models of the way world works. They’ve even done their own work to shape those models, of course. They aren’t talking about “issues”, for sure, but they seem to understand something about culture as a shared understanding of the way the world works, and how to exploit that to the fullest.

  2. CH, I agree with you. Republicans get how to use “culture” in very effective ways! But with Brooks, he’s trying to say if the Republicans accepted that we are social animals, suddenly the party will be transformed. It’s not so simple as that.

    As for that specific line, I debated about that one. What I mean is humans as cultural animals in a scientific and anthropological sense. If that idea shapes your world view, then it becomes more difficult (at least for me) to accept certain other ideologies or shared understandings.

    On a side note, the comments on Brooks’ piece are quite interesting and run the gamut of political tastes. Here’s the link: http://community.nytimes.com/article/comments/2008/09/12/opinion/12brooks.html

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