The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement is about the modern life of humans. It explores attachment, parenting, education, love, family, culture, achievement, marriage, politics, morality, aging, and death by exploring a wide range of disciplines, including evolutionary psychology, neurobiology, cognitive science, behavioral economics, and education theory. Given the table of contents, I expected The Social Animal to be a dry recitation of facts, but Brooks structured his book in an unorthodox way. Instead of a chapter on evolutionary psychology, followed by one on child development, he tells a story!! Following Rousseau’s approach in Émile, Brooks makes his larger points within a fictional narrative. His main characters are Harold and his wife Erica. The plot extends all the way from the day Harold’s parents meet to the day Harold dies, yet it takes place in a perpetual present-day America. This literary creativity is presumably intended both to keep my attention and to provide a natural frame for all the research that Brooks reports. So as the characters in his narrative live through childhood, we hear about the science of child development, and as they begin to date, we hear about the biochemistry of sexual attraction…which completely made me blush.
Brooks moves so fast there is little opportunity to distinguish the established findings from the unlikely ones, and no chance to follow up on some of the more interesting claims. He tells us in a sentence that taller men get paid more, but says nothing about the fascinating question of why this is so. Some of the fun facts are far less exciting. There is an occasional drift into neuro-psycho-babble – phrases about brain parts and neurotransmitters that sound scientific and substantive but don’t add anything to his argument. After all, why do we care how many neural connections a baby makes in a second? What does that even mean?!
In The Social Animal, Brooks tries to advance a broad thesis – we overvalue cognitive function, analytical reasoning and autonomous behavior as the motors of success, and we undervalue emotion, intuition, and social influence. With that broadness, the book grows into a strange hybrid – part scientific figures, part impassioned argument, part self-help, part satire, and part melodramatic novel. Nevertheless, a central argument emerges. Brooks believes success and happiness, and the kind of politics that make these possible for the greatest number of people, depend greatly on an understanding of “the inner mind – the unconscious realm of emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, genetic predispositions, character traits and social norms.”
As I read through this book last week, I was sitting under a shade tree in a little village off the beaten path in Mukono, Uganda. (Yes, I find a good tree in every country!) Uganda has quickly become one of my “homes.” The people, the emotions, the sights, the contradictions, the nature, the music, the colors. They combine to create what is known as the “Pearl of Africa.”
Before even reaching Passport Control at the airport, we waited in a terribly long line to be checked for Ebola, and there were numerous signs peppering the columns.
This one held my attention for the hour:
At the risk of repeating what Deve said in his post, though not nearly as eloquently, relationships are at the core of our existence. We crave the desire to love and to be loved. Brooks emphasized this point in his own way, explaining our interconnectivity with our mirror neurons. “We automatically simulate others, and understand what others feel by feeling a version of what they are experiencing, in ourselves.” Reading this, I wonder, can we ever entirely feel the exact way as others feel? We feel through our own filter, our own worldview. Our previous experiences shape us and effect our simulation of others.
I read these words and took notice of the teenagers surrounding me. Last summer, while under this same shade tree, I listened intently, one-on-one, to many of their stories. It was an effort to record their personal history and communicate it to their “sponsors” in the USA, to establish a deeper connection, a deeper relationship. Listening, hour after hour, was emotionally heart-wrenching. These children come from all walks of life with horrendous pains and struggles. They have experienced more in their short lives than I will ever experience for the rest of my life. I cried along with them. I hugged them. I felt their pain, but did I really feel their pain?
While I loved Brooks’ in depth psychological and scientific analysis, I circled round to something I am more familiar with – the Holy Spirit. Because of God, because of His Spirit living and breathing amongst and within us, I can empathize with the children in Mukono. We, as humans, may not be able to truly live in another’s shoes, but our relationship through God brings us together as children and family to connect and feel each other pain. Have you ever had that moment where you are sitting, listening to someone, and you can quite literally shoulder their emotions? Perhaps that is what we call intercession? That may be the moment the Holy Spirit is crying out and asking us to hold tight, to feel what they feel, and connect our hearts in this greater family of God.
And this led me to Jesus. I remember reading of one of his miracles and completely embodying the feelings of the woman following Jesus in the crowd. I thought of her story. She’d been sick for dozens of years. She’d run out of doctors, money, even hope. Her friends abandoned her, her church neglected her, and she hadn’t been home in years. But then Jesus came to town. The crowd was thick, people were pushing, but she was desperate. She followed Jesus at a distance and gradually inched closer to Him until there were only two people between Him and her. She pressed her arm through the crowd and reached for the hem of His jacket. And when she did, her body changed. She stopped, letting the crowd go by her. But He stopped too. “Who touched me?” He asked. She slid behind some tall men and said nothing. “Who touched me?” He asked again. He didn’t sound angry, just curious. So, she spoke up – her hands and voice shook. Jesus stepped toward her and asked to hear her story. I imagine everyone waiting and waiting as Jesus listened. The crowd waiting; the city leaders waiting; a girl was dying, people were pressing, disciples questioning, but Jesus – He was listening. Listening to her whole story. He didn’t have to. The healing would have been enough, but Jesus wanted to do more than heal her body – He wanted to hear her story. The miracle restored her health, the kindness, listening and social connection restored her dignity.
The real connection is through story, through relationship. Jesus exemplified that through listening and loving and teaching. The children in Mukono were courageous enough to share their stories. We must be ready to be social animals – not just listening and observing, but entering deeper into relationship and sharing. That’s what I got out of the book anyway! 🙂
 David Brooks, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (London: Short Books, 2011), Loc. 64.
 Ibid., 38