The Social Animal by David Brooks is a fascinating book that connects many dots from scientific theory and philosophy to the real world. It is, as the subtitle suggests, a book that gives “the hidden sources of love, character and achievement.” The book takes the reader on a fictitious journey of two people, Harold and Erica, and it shows how their lives intersect and develop through a colorful narrative supplemented by scientific facts and data. Brooks goes below the surface to the the how’s and why’s of the actions and rational of humanity. He makes sense of the chaos and brings the simple but truthful explanation to the nature and nurture of humanity.
Many authors on the subject of humanity tend to either look at just the facts or just the fiction, but not Brooks. I really enjoyed the fact that he humanized the characters with names, parents, and histories, from beginning to the intersection of their lives together. Brooks’ method of fiction intertwined with facts drew me in as a reader. It made me want to learn and understand the characters in the story. Which also caused me to empathize with their struggles: from Harold’s independence to Erica’s meltdown and personal epiphany as a middle schooler at New Hope academy. I was there in the struggle with them, feeling their pain. I like the historical background given, for instance with Harold’s parents first date to the journey leading to Harold’s birth. It made me want to know and understand the facts being presented because I was caught up in the fiction. I found the interplay of fact and fiction brilliant in communicating not only a story but the meaning of it as well.
Many authors on the the subject of humanity tend to lean towards nature or nurture as the dominate determiner of a person’s life and existence. Brooks takes a both and approach with the tension between the strength and weakness of nature verses nurture. As you read the story of Erica’s life you see the dominate side of nature. There is the nature of her single parent impoverished home life mixed with the personality and rage of Erica as a person. Both background and personality combine to produce a person that is driven to succeed. With Harold, you see the opposite of tradition two parent middle/upper middle class household with a working father and stay at home mother. Harold is not just a product of mere nature, but due to the intentionality of his parents, he is a product of nurture. The interesting part is that both Harold and Erica find not perfection, but success and each other. Therefore, the book does not side with nature or nurture, but rather shows the successful path of both. One might argue that Erica’s life only occurs due to luck, but I do not think that her life is anymore lucky than a two parent, single income, upper-middle class home in 21st century America.
Conclusion for me was the tension that lie in the stories, lives, backgrounds, and data coming together in the book to provide for a theory of social science for humanity. The plot of the story does not exist without the tension of Harold’s person and past and that of Erica’s. The beauty and the social science occurs due to the tension of two totally different people coming together as one. The tension of nature verses nurture and even from a literary perspective is the tension of fact interwoven with fiction. The tension is not bad nor destructive but dynamic, it’s the tension that holds the book together.