Saturday, March 26, 2011

David Brooks and Evolutionary Conservatism (1): The British Enlightenment

"This is the happiest story you've ever read. It's about two people who led wonderfully fulfilling lives. They had engrossing careers, earned the respect of their friends, and made important contributions to their neighborhood, their country, and their world."

That's how David Brooks begins his new book--The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. The tone of comic irony in these opening lines and in other parts of the book seems oddly discordant, because it undercuts the seriousness of Brooks's intention in surveying the recent research in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology to explain human nature and human happiness.

In fact, the early reviews that I have seen--by Thomas Nagel (The New York Times), Alan Wolfe (The New Republic), Will Wilkinson (, and PZ Myers ( all been so scornful of the book that I wonder whether Brooks loses many of his readers from the opening lines.

And yet, in contrast to these reviewers, I find this to be one of the most intellectually stimulating books that I have read in recent years. So I have to wonder what it is that I see in the book that would explain why my reaction is so different from these reviewers.

I'll have to admit that one explanation for this might be that I happen to agree with a lot of what Brooks is arguing. But I also happen to disagree with parts of this book--particularly, one chapter (Chapter 20: "The Soft Side") that seems to me to be the weakest part of the book. I'll explain that disagreement in a future post. Here I'll explain my main point of agreement.

The uniqueness of the book is the attempt to fuse a fictional narrative and an intellectual argument in a manner that, as Brooks indicates, follows the model of Rousseau's Emile. Just as Rousseau uses the story of Emile and Sophie to illustrate his philosophic teaching about human nature and human society, Brooks uses his story of Harold and Erica to illustrate his understanding of how modern cognitive science illuminates human psychology.

The title of each chapter indicates some feature of human nature--such as "Attachment," "Culture," or "Morality." Brooks narrates some events in the life of Harold and Erica that illustrate that theme. He then surveys some of the recent research in cognitive science that explains the relevant facet of human psychology, and he draws out the implications of this for social life and public policy.

The primary idea running throughout the book is the supremacy of the unconscious mind (Level 1) over the conscious mind (Level 2). He explains:

I want to show you what this unconscious system looks like when it is flourishing, when the affections and aversions that guide us every day have been properly nurtured, the emotions educated. Through a thousand concrete examples, I am going to try to illustrate how the conscious and unconscious minds interact, how a wise general can train and listen to the scouts. To paraphrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan from another context, the central evolutionary truth is that the unconscious matters most. The central humanistic truth is that the conscious mind can influence the unconscious. (xii)

Moreover, he sees this as vindicating a philosophic position, which he identifies with the British Enlightenment, and this is the general point of agreement between Brooks's book and my defense of evolutionary or Darwinian conservatism:

Brain research rarely creates new philosophies, but it does vindicate some old ones. The research being done today reminds us of the relative importance of emotion over pure reason, social connectedness over individual choice, character over IQ, emergent, organic systems over linear, mechanistic ones, and the idea that we have multiple selves over the idea that we have a single self. If you want to put the philosophic implications in simple terms, the French Enlightenment, which emphasizes reason, loses; the British Enlightenment, which emphasizes sentiments, wins. (xiii)

In Brooks's fictional narrative, Harold writes a book about the British Enlightenment. Harold explains to Erica that the British Enlightenment included thinkers like David Hume, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke, while the French Enlightenment included those in the tradition of Descartes, Rousseau, Voltaire, and Condorcet. Those in the British Enlightenment were not irrationalists, who denied the importance of reason. But they did stress the limitations of reason and the importance of emotion and desire as guiding reason. Moreover, they believed that morality was rooted in moral sentiments or emotions rather than the logical deductions of pure reason. And while those in the French Enlightenment looked to human reason as the source of the deliberately designed order of human morality and politics, those in the British Enlightenment saw social order as largely evolved rather than designed.

This distinction between the British and French traditions was originally developed by Friedrich Hayek. It was then developed by Thomas Sowell--in his book A Conflict of Visions--as an ideological debate between a realist vision of social order and a utopian vision.

In Darwinian Conservatism, I adopted this distinction and argued that Darwinian science is on the side of the realist vision of the conservative tradition. As Sowell indicates, the central idea of the realist vision is evolution--the idea that social order is spontaneously evolved rather than rationally designed. Hayek understood this, and he saw that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection grew out of the social theory of evolved, spontaneous order that was developed by Adam Smith and others in the Scottish and British Enlightenments.

Insofar as Brooks argues for cognitive science supporting the philosophic tradition of the British Enlightenment, he seems to be close to what I have identified as evolutionary conservatism. But I can't be sure about this, because he is unclear about two crucial points.

First, although he occasionally acknowledges the importance of reason as interacting with emotion or sentiment in human life, he generally suggests that human behavior is so largely shaped by the unconscious that it's not clear that he leaves any room at all for rational judgment. This denies the insight of the British Enlightenment that while pure reason by itself cannot account for moral and political order, there is still room for prudential judgment to exercise influence in human affairs.

The second possible point of disagreement is that while Brooks generally argues that moral habits and customs are best shaped by the spontaneous order of civil society rather than by the coercion of government, his affirmation that "statecraft is soulcraft" suggests a statist enforcement of moral order.

I will have more to say about these and related points.

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