And that’s what matters.
Every Darwin myth you’ve ever heard is crammed into David Brooks’ recent happy face novel., The Social Animal (Even so, P.Z. Myers didn’t like it.) But, the curious thing is, notes John Gray in “Mr. Brooks’s Miracle Elixir”, is who did like it:
DAVID BROOKS is not the first contributor to the airport book stand to whom our leaders have turned for enlightenment and instruction. In the search for insight on the issues of the day, the politicians who are meant to be guiding us toward a better world have nudged, blinked, pirouetted on tipping points and anxiously pondered the wisdom of crowds. Yet none of these brightly packaged manuals has proved to have the practical usefulness that was promised. But not to worry, those who govern us are invincible positive thinkers who will never give up the hope of finding someone who will tell them how to conjure away all our problems. The political appeal of Brooks’s book The Social Animal has been nowhere more pronounced than in Britain, where the youthful David Cameron leads a rebranded Conservative Party in a coalition government. Having instructed all members of his cabinet to read this best seller, Cameron then sought the author’s counsel when Brooks was promoting the book in the UK. A seminar at 10 Downing Street was duly arranged and the prime minister’s media advisers seem to have been much impressed by Brooks’s performance. Not to be left on the sidelines, the Labour opposition leader, Ed Miliband, also met the writer. What is it about the New York Times columnist’s book that gives it such an irresistible appeal to politicians?
“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.” These first lines go a long way toward explaining why Brooks’s book litters the desks and bedside tables of elected officials.
Because, Gray says, these leaders are leading their nation into oblivion, they get off on Darwin’s happyfaces: “The central evolutionary truth is that the unconscious matters most” is sweet music to the ears of conscious failures who want to govern anyway.
The knowledge provided by cognitive science and evolutionary psychology—the disciplines in which those who worship at the altar of science have the most faith—is no different from any other kind of understanding: it can be used for all manner of purposes, including the most atrocious. The Nazis understood the workings of crowd psychology better than almost anyone at the time; if they had remained in power long enough to benefit from scientific advance, their ability to perpetuate their peculiarly horrible form of tyranny would undoubtedly have been improved upon. Contrary to postmodern relativists, the growth of human knowledge is a fact. But that fact does not make human beings any more likely to be virtuous, or rational. However fast and far science may advance the dilemmas that beset us, ethics will remain as problematic as before. Indeed, since the increase in knowledge enlarges the power to do evil, these dilemmas may be more formidable.