David Brooks brings us a detailed journey through the building blocks of the self in his new book, The Social Animal: A Story of Love, Character and Achievement. With his insight and gift for narrative Brooks weaves an engaging and compelling story of Erica and Harold. Brooks uses the characters of Erica and Harold as platforms on which he visualizes the results of numerous psychological, social and cultural studies. Placed in contemporary time the two characters show us a holistic picture in practical terms of the unconscious effects of physical and social context on behavioral and character traits. The narrative takes us through typical life events and stages: infancy, childhood, school, parenting, work-life, attachment, aging. At each stage, Brooks illustrates his views of the human condition by selecting a flurry of facts and anecdotal studies.
The psychologist in me would say that this is a rather shallow attempt at synthesizing profoundly complex issues. Brooks certainly makes use of many studies from the brain and social sciences, but never dwells long enough to give us a detailed sense of major underlying implications or competing scientific positions. So too, the character development of Erica and Harold lacks the depth and breadth one would expect — Brooks fails to explore much of what typically seems to motivate human behavior: greed, ambition, lust, violence, empathy. Despite these flaws in the execution of the idea, Brooks’ attempt is praiseworthy; perhaps in the hands of a more skilled social scientist, or Rousseau who used this technique much more effectively, this type of approach would gain a better grade.