Evolutionary psychology

Evolutionary psychology romance: The characters are plastic dolls, so no adult wanted to hear anything more

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Lots of people think David Brooks’s evolutionary psychology romance (The Social Animal) flopped.

That surprised me. Who knows, it may signal a wholesome change in the wind: Not every stale idea or exhibition of poor taste can be rescued by throwing the word “evolution” about or invoking “neuroscience.”

Consider “Mean Street: What David Brooks Got Wrong and Montaigne Got Right” by Evan Newmark (The Wall Street JournalMarch 11, 2011):

…sorry, but I won’t be reading the entire book. The magazine piece was enough for me. It just didn’t ring true – and for good reason. It isn’t.

To make his case, Brooks invents “Harold” and “Erica”, two imaginary 21st century overachievers, and tells how their lives and fates are determined by neuro-science, shaped by “hidden” forces they can’t really control.

This narrative device is a killer. It’s hard to care much about “Harold” and “Erica” when Brooks deconstructs their love into “waist-to-hip ratios,” “clear skin” and other breeding metrics worthy of farm animals.

Yes, exactly. Determinism is okay if you are writing a tragedy. Think, Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s mega-not okay if Brooks is writing about his Bobos in Paradises.

That’s because determinism is only interesting as high tragedy, not as The March of the Windup Toys. Hey, if you were in one of my writing classes, I’d tell you that for nothing, and spare you Brooks’s book.

Also, Will Wilkinson at Forbes writes, in “The Social Animal by David Brooks: A Scornful Review” (Mar. 10 2011),

“This is the happiest story you’ve ever read,” Brooks begins. It isn’t. It is depressing. “It is about two people who lead wonderfully fulfilling lives.” Actually, it is about two boring people who lead muted, more or less satisfactory lives in the successful pursuit of achievement as it is narrowly defined by their culture. That such emotionally straitened, humorlessly striving characters are cast as romantic leads in the science-certified “happiest story” of all is baffling and sad. More baffling still is that Brooks’ intends this chilling portrait to offer consolation, to persuade us there is much to gain, and little to fear, in losing our unscientific illusions about human nature. Something in The Social Animal is badly awry.

It all comes of substituting yuppie dolls “Harold” and “Erica”
for Hamlet and Ophelia.

And here’s Brooks, explaining himself. No, I didn’t listen. It wouldn’t help.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

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