Intelligent Design

It doesn’t matter whether you like David Brooks’ “Social Animal”; your moral and intellectual superiors do

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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.

10 Replies to “It doesn’t matter whether you like David Brooks’ “Social Animal”; your moral and intellectual superiors do

  1. 1
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    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

    ?

  2. 2
  3. 3
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    😀

  4. 4
    Neil Rickert says:

    I have not read the book, and I have no intention of reading it. I did read PZ’s review, and that did not encourage me to read the book.

    Brooks is a regular on NPR, and from often listening to him there, I have come to the conclusion that I do not trust his judgment. It isn’t just a matter of agreement or disagreement. I agree with some of what he says. But I have trouble with the reasoning he gives as the basis for his views. Perhaps he is an example of “The Peter Principle.”

    Elizabeth Liddle “commented” on evolutionary psychology and on cognitive science. I am skeptical of much of what comes out of those fields.

  5. 5
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    Well, cognitive science is a huge field. Which bit of it are you skeptical about?

    As for evolutionary psychology, I am simply bemused by the idea that it is one of the “disciplines in which those who worship at the altar of science have the most faith”.

    I can scarcely think of a discipline in which most scientists have less faith.

    That doesn’t mean that evolutionary theory has no relevance to cogntive science – it does.

    But what goes by the name of “evolutionary psychology” is mostly bunk, based on a model of heritable traits that is simply false.

  6. 6
    Neil Rickert says:

    Well, cognitive science is a huge field. Which bit of it are you skeptical about?

    The parts that seem to be too much like philosophy of mind.

    As for evolutionary psychology – I agree with you that much of it seems to be bunk.

  7. 7
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    OK, fair enough 🙂

    But then, those aren’t the parts in which “those who worship at the altar of science have the most faith”!

    It just seems a weird parenthetical comment to me.

  8. 8
    nullasalus says:

    I can scarcely think of a discipline in which most scientists have less faith.

    Who said anything about scientists? “Those who worship at the altar of science” would seem to indicate people who are beholden to scientism.

    And ‘a discipline in which most scientists have less faith’? Is there a study you’re referring to? Or is this another case of personal anecdote turning into almost certainty?

  9. 9
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    It’s a case of personal anecdote informing an overly confidently expressed opinion, Nullasalus 🙂

    I do try to stick plenty of IMOs around the place, but when I don’t you can take it as read, unless I give a citation.

    And I don’t know who the people who “worship at the altar of scientism” are supposed to be.

    Sounds a bit like personal anecdote turning into almost certainty to me 🙂

    Seriously, evolutionary psychology papers tend to be regarded by most people I know (don’t know if you would call them scientismists) as not much more than journalistic speculation. I don’t think I can recall one that actually contained data.

    (That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, it’s merely a personal anecdote…)

  10. 10
    CannuckianYankee says:

    Lizzie,

    The “altar of science” is not necessarily science; in fact it is not. Those at the altar are those who don’t question scientific claims. They accept them because they’re claimed by “scientists,” and I put that in quotes, because they are also the ones who tend to believe things like: “9 out of 10 dentists agree, our floss is best.”

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