The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks

The introduction of this book made me so excited and set my expectations so high that I was completely and thoroughly disappointed by the rest of the book.  Studies show, 90% of people don’t read past the second chapter of every book they read.  That’s basically how this book is written.  So-and-so old fart says reading books is like flying a kite, it elevates your mind but you have to keep it connected to the ground or else it just flies away.  The book provides a novel-like story of what I can assume is the author, and after every few paragraphs, a tidbit about how 45% of whomever does whatever and some Greek philosopher said something about it.  On top of this, although the author appears so enlightened by recent research about how the irrational mind is so important and how our social nature is so dominant in our reality, he continually regresses to old paradigms of status and wealth and individuality and rationalism.  So disappointing.  He even refers to the Chinese-Latina lady who marries the main character as a yellowish brown girl.  It’s almost as if the only reason he writes about the social irrational animal that we are is because it’s a cool, trendy thing, and it’s also still cool and trendy to think of us as rational individuals in pursuit of wealth and power.  It’s whatever seems more cool and trendy at the moment, depends on how he feels after lunch.    While he may argue that social connections make us happy, he also promotes the construct that happiness comes from wealth and career success and wealth and more wealth and status.  I had to wonder if he was using his two main characters as examples of what not to do in life, but I’m not entirely sure.  One of my old English teachers would tell me not to use the author’s personal life as reference, but the fact that this dude has three kids make me wonder if he is mocking the sterile, atomized, ambition-oriented woman and his alcoholic, atomized intellectual husband.  If I can’t tell, I figure most people can’t tell, so he sort of destroyed or obfuscated his own message either way.

NONE-THE-LESS, there are sufficient arguments in this book to make me highly recommend it to the reptilian masses who still think humans are born evil savages who only acquire compassion and morality through diligent obedience and worship of civilization, a Pope, or government, and people who believe the mind has a homunculus, a tiny human inside your brain who is totally rational and runs the show, and people who believe your unconscious processes are useless along with art, novels, music, emotions, everything that delights your unconscious processes.  Highly recommend it to challenge your French Enlightenment, 18th century views.

 * * *

 The nonfiction books I tend to read might be characterized by Netflix as mind-bending, myth-busting, counter-intuitive, paradigm-shifting, unconventional perspectives and insights.  For this reason, I am drawn to the more Dionysian, Hermeneutical, right-brain interpretations of the world.  I know I’m not alone and actually shaped by a growing legion of thinkers, writers, and readers who share this same sentiment.  The introduction to this book confirms this, and it was written in 2011.  The introduction does a great job of putting my sentiments into words.  “…the unconscious parts of the mind are most of the mind – where most of the decisions and many of the most impressive acts of thinking take place…”  the author quotes Timonthy D. Wilson, “Some researchers have gone so far as to suggest that the unconscious mind does virtually all the work and that conscious will may be an illusion.”  The author goes on, “The conscious mind merely confabulates stories that try to make sense of what the unconscious mind is doing of its own accord.”  There’s some research that the brain makes up its mind up to seven seconds before you realize it. 

 The introduction then talks about people whose lives are disasters, because they cannot place a value upon whatever they encounter, so they may actually give too much weight to the trivial or harmful things like gambling or promiscuous sex while giving too little weight to the really important things like long-term relationships and saving money.  This is like everyone I know at work including all senior management.  My hypothesis is that 12 years of public school indoctrination clutters your mind and doesn’t teach you to value or weigh countless pieces of information.  Knowing that the Civil War was fought between northern and southern states is given equal weight to knowing that the First Battle of Bull Run was won by the Confederates.  People who do well in school are those who memorize everything but have little idea how to weigh or judge or apply critical thinking to anything.  Now take a step back and think about why this benefits those in power.  If your mind is cluttered with trivial factoids in addition to a few important things, but you can’t tell which is which, then for the rest of your life, while your mind may appear cultured and potent, it is actually cluttered and impotent, and anyone with supposed authority can fill your mind with the “right” ideas, the “right” perspectives, the “right” attitude, the “right” information and tell you what is important and what is not.  In other words, the school system produces sheep who think they have the discerning, potent, sharp minds of wolves.  They think they’re rational, intelligent, thoughtful, independent thinkers, but in reality, almost everything they know and think has been spoon-fed them to elicit a certain type of obedient, submissive, “conventional,” “acceptable” behavior.  

 It’s like public schools boast that they’ve given you this gigantic toolbox with thousands of tools, and of course, countless pieces of nuts and bolts that are completely useless.  Then you’re asked to fix a leaky faucet, and you’re like, well, I have this great, huge toolbox five feet-high on wheels, but I couldn’t tell you the first thing about what tool I need to fix the faucet much less locate it easily.  The toolbox isn’t laid out logically.  Certainly, there are drawers, but inside each draw, tools are not organized by utility but rather by texture and weight.  Good luck with that. 

 * * *

 “The unconscious is not merely a dark, primitive zone of fear and pain.  It is also a place where spiritual states arise and dance from soul to soul.  It collects wisdom of the ages.  It contains the soul of the species.”  I would add that it has direct access to our DNA, a more important document and volume of information than anything ever written by any human, a living instruction manual on how to thrive in symbiosis with nature and other living organisms including our own species.  That we have turned our backs on this incredible manual by undermining the importance of the language of the unconscious (music, art, storytelling, symbolism, superstitions, fables, ancient rituals, etc.) and invested all our trust in technology and some futurama utopia where AI is our super nanny, is perhaps the greatest joke, mistake, tragedy of humanity and probably going off script will result in our extinction.  I mean we have this amazing living document of millions of generations of living organisms who learned to survive and passed this wisdom on to future generations, and we’re all like, nah, I’m fine, I gots me this deranged, overly rationalist utopian vision of the future to guide me.  Not even sure who the hell wrote it, but some people say it’s some invisible old man with superpowers.

 I understand what happened.  I understand the Enlightenment.  I understand that a bunch of smart Protestant Europeans discovered science and used it to undermine the authority of the backwards Catholic Europeans and their oddball Pope, but it was actually a power play.  If the Pope were Buddhist, they would have been anti-Buddhist.  But instead of dethroning the authority and supremacy of the Pope and his religious superstitions, instead of emptying the throne, they filled it with a new class of industrial plutocrats who would be worshipped for their wealth and power as the Pope was once worshipped.  Instead of getting rid of all irrational worship, the masses would instead worship Capitalism, corporations, and monopolies.  Instead of the Church and the Pope fulfilling all your needs and protecting you from eternal damnation, Capitalism and corporations and the plutocrats would solve all your individual needs for a price, while an onerously bureaucratic and monopolistic government would fix all our social ills and liberate us from worrying about the sick, infirm, disabled, deranged, elderly, young, and poor.  We would be brainwashed into thinking that we were following the most scientific, progressive, rational plan for humanity, when in fact, all we were doing was surrendering our freewill and minds to a selfish, self-serving plutocracy that has now firmly planted their tentacles all over our government which is used to spy on us, indoctrinate us, extort our productivity and reallocate it to the plutocrats while making us all believe we were faithfully donating our wealth to the poor and needy.  If you can’t see this, your eyeballs are planted up your asshole.

 At this point, alarm bells may ring, and the indoctrinated masses will immediately follow script by accusing people like me and other rebels of some tinfoil hat, anti-government, conspiracy theory, anti-NWO bullshit.  It may never occur to them that somehow 12-years of state indoctrination miraculously produces independent, analytical, scientific, logical minds, but freely choosing to read books and researching information on your own makes you a psychopathic, brainwashed, irrational slave to some master conspiracy-theory promoting devil who wants to destroy civilization.  It’s simply called Stockholm Syndrome.  12-years of brutal oppression, judgment, destruction of your ego, the humiliation of red-marking your work, assigning you a grade, connecting your self-esteem and self-valuation to a number, and somehow, you escaped unscathed and all the more discerning, free-thinking, and rational.  Explain that shit to me.  I’ve read many books on mind control and indoctrination, and I’ve yet to come across people, when confronted with the truth, not fight tooth and nail for everything they thought was real and honest. 

 Our minds are not our own, reality is not ours, it is not some facet of our organic brains but rather everything we know and believe and are, actually all comes from what others have told us, and we are rather an integral part of a larger organism of existence and life, a culture.  Whether we like it or not, we are an integral part of the instruction manual that created us, that we now defiantly and casually discard and disregard as a Freudian slip.  We have gone off script, and like every single mutant that has gone off script, they have expired and become extinct.  To be on script does not mean to lose freewill.  The plutocrats may argue that and try to convince you that by defying nature, you are free, but actually, you are just a servant to them and their script.  You can still read a script and infuse your own personal twist.  If you were raised all your life to believe one thing, then perhaps freewill is the ability to stand back and weigh the value of continuing along that path or trying out a new path on your own. 

 True to its message, the book is written as a novel of what I would assume a fictional character named Henry.  His social moments and struggles are highlighted and then adorned with research factoids, somewhat disconcerting in that the research is mostly of the social science variety which is not really science at all but lots of surveys and generalizations about dynamic and complex human behavior.  The often used, xx% of people are this or that lends some sort of scientific or mathematical credence to their assertions.  It’s like saying that three in four mothers make up 75% of all mothers.  Wow, that’s science!  But I get the gist of it.  Social “science” is revealing but not in the same way as the natural sciences.  Social “science” is actually rather all about hypothesizing which is not an altogether useless activity.  The natural sciences are all about hypothesizing at first, but then they eventually do lab experiments to isolate causal factors to establish causal efficacy.  In other words, they can say, oxygen combusts, because they have isolated the oxygen in the air from all other chemicals.  Social “science” cannot say the youngest sibling will be a rebel, because you cannot isolate youngest siblings, they wind up having no siblings and become only childs.  Their rebellion is also not a single-factor phenomenon like combusting oxygen but rather a complex multi-factor phenomenon that is based on a critical mass of social inputs.  None-the-less, you can say that I hypothesize that youngest siblings tend to rebel more than older ones because of a bunch of compelling anecdotal evidence and polls suggesting that three out of every four youngest siblings make up 75% of all youngest siblings.

 The money chapter, at least so far as I’m reading it is Chapter 7 when the author brings up Reductionism and how most of modern Western Rationalist thought is based on this philosophy that to understand something, you take apart all its components and reduce it to its component parts.  One of my old bosses used to have a saying that always drove me insane, “the devil is in the details,” and it just occurred to me that he was a total Reductionist.  But worse, he applied it to humans, and poetically enough, he enjoyed tearing apart people and finding all their tiny faults and then proudly pointing them out to them and believing that this process would miraculously turn them into a better person.  Instead, almost every single person who worked for him despised him and most quit because of him.  But in his deranged mind, he was improving the world by tearing it apart.  I wish he could read this chapter.  The book then explains how the world is transitioning to the idea of emergent systems, how you can’t tell how anything will work until you put the pieces together and upon which a new emerging phenomenon occurs.  Often in meetings, the deranged Reductionist boss would be constantly sending out warning signals about how a particular idea or plan could backfire and how you needed to find all the devils in the detail before you could take the first step forward with anything.  His mind was possessed by fears, minutiae, pettiness, and a complete inability to value or weigh anything with importance or triviality.  Everything had the same ability to destroy the whole project. 

 I would always be arguing for taking that first step and seeing what happens.  My saying was that the best laid battle plans were destroyed at the first skirmish.  Things emerge that you could never have planned for.  Of course, planning is important, and I plan for every vacation, but I don’t plan out every hour or minute like some people.  I provide myself with a general guideline like, on Thursday, I’ll venture Chinatown and see what happens for a few hours.  Sometimes it’s a total bust and you’re bored out of your mind, but other times, you encounter a gem you would never have encountered had you laid out plans for every 15 minutes of the day. 

 Another cognitive mistake like Reductionism is Disorder.  People think that a central commander is required to establish and maintain order.  What they miss is the concept of Spontaneous Order.  We are a social order and structure craving creature.  Left to our own devices, we would not descend into barbaric savagery and eat our children.  If you threw a hundred people together in a cocktail party, order would emerge.  People would mingle and gradually establish some sort of social order. 

People would gradually start to create cliques and surround themselves with people of similar interests or demographics.  People are drawn to the familiar, and in a strange situation like with a hundred strangers, they will unconsciously move toward people they are familiar with.  Only when they are in a comfortable, safe, familiar setting are they more likely to venture outside their comfort zone and approach someone completely unlike them.  In other words, we don’t need a central commander in our lives.  And worse, central commanders do not create order.  They create what they believe is orderly to them, but this may in fact be totally chaotic and hostile to everyone else.  And often times what is orderly to them is surrounding themselves with the best, wealthiest, and most connected people while moving the most foreign and threatening people furthest away from them.

 One of the questions I have of the book is how the author seems to be favoring the power of the unconscious mind, but then he also seems to be lauding the same old educational system that favors the analytical mind.  There is the story of a poor girl who goes to some charter school where they are overly strict and try to inculcate the kids into believing college is the promised land, and through chanting and condescending raps, they indoctrinate the kids into believing in ambition and obedience is the way to happiness.  The author also relays how middle-class parents have a much more rigid, structured life for their kids, almost robbing them of a childhood and how poor kids have more interaction with extended families and free play time.  Naturally, the poor kids have the disadvantage of the stresses of poverty which make their parents more unstable and less nurturing, but I think the author confuses a lot of things.  Poor kids do have certain advantages and disadvantages along with richer kids.  Richer kids may wind up making more money, but they may not necessarily be happier or more fulfilled.  Going to college and making money are not good measures of happiness and self-fulfillment. 

 After a while, you get the impression that Harold is actually the author.  Harold’s mind is schizophrenic and drops countless references and quotes from others as if he can’t think for himself for a second.  He bounces between the most cutting-edge research that is transformative and innovative and then falls back on old social science bullshit and the idea that the most successful and happy people in the world have the most material wealth and highest GDP per capita.  At the same time, in the same mind, he applauds innovation and Eastern philosophy and then a few paragraphs later, he’s the biggest cheerleader for Western individualism, Rationalism, and the entire bullshit constructs of the social sciences that places Western civilization above and beyond all the savages and superstitious apes of the East. 

  * * *

 Chapter 14, section The Rationalist Version is another money chapter, worth the entirety of the book.  In it, the author provides the history and problems with Rationalism, how the scientific method and scientific, reductionist approach to interpreting nature was misapplied to the human social field, and equally worse, misused from a positive interpretation to normative policy-making, from what is to what ought to be.  It is one thing for social “scientists” to assert that three in four people make up 75% of the population, but then it is another for them to say, because of this, it is necessary to keep 25% of the population in prison, under the strict control of the administrative state, and heavily subsidized by the middle class.  I can only wish the entire fucking world would read this chapter.  The social “sciences” are a sham, as bad if not worse than the witch doctors or carnival charlatans they make fun of.  Do yourself a big favor and read, Illiberal Reformers by Thomas C. Leonard who reveals the origins of the social “sciences” as a Progressive tool to provide “scientific” justification for an administrative state to run and control all our lives.  All these political scientists, economists, sociologists, psychologists with their Ph.D.’s and mathematical papers and complicated, contrived studies and social engineering systems are all nothing but charlatans distracting you from the simple fact that they don’t really know shit about what they are talking about, that they are nothing near scientists and their methods are nothing near the scientific method.  As a graduate in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania, I can tell you first hand that the social “sciences” are an obfuscating sham that teaches students the more analytical you sound, the more formulas and graphs you use, the more you cite the bullshit work of other charlatans, the more you can confuse your audience and make them feel inadequate, the more important and prestigious you will seem and the faster you will ascend the ladder up the anal cavity of the rich and powerful who will use you to rationalize or at least obfuscate their exploitative, selfish, deranged plans to protect and consolidate their power and wealth.  You then can get an invite to Davos and eat caviar with the most inscrutable, self-deluded assholes in the universe.  (Later on the book actually mentions Davos.)

 * * *

 Perhaps the most mind-blowing passage comes in Chapter 15.  “We tend to think of Level 1 (unconscious processes) as the early part of the brain, which we share with the animals, and Level 2 (conscious processes) as the evolutionarily recent part of the brain that distinguishes us as human.  But back in 1963, Ulric Neisser made the intriguing suggestion that it might be the sophistication of our unconscious processes that make us human: It is worth nothing that, anatomically, the human cerebrum appears to be the sort of diffuse system in which multiple processes would be at home.  In this respect it differs from the nervous system of lower animals.  Our hypothesis leads us to the radical suggestion that [prepare for your mind to be blown] the critical difference between the thinking of humans and of lower animals lies not in the existence of consciousness but in the capacity for complex processes outside of it.”  [Boom!  Brain splatter everywhere.]

 The chapter on morality sums it up pretty well.  We are moral not because we Level 2 makes us more moral, and Level 1 is all immoral and impulsive.  We are moral, because our sense of morality is embedded in our DNA and at a visceral level at Level 1.  In other words, if you divorce people from Level 1, not only do they stop protecting their interests and the interests of their loved ones, but they also stop being moral.  And this is exactly what has happened.  The more you educate people or make them operate at Level 2, the more you can convince them to do immoral things.  By filling up their minds at Level 2, you cut them off from their moral feelings at Level 1.  As Stalin may have said, a thousand deaths is a statistic, a single death is a tragedy.  Whether you like to admit this or not, Americans have become virtual sociopaths by supporting a government that steals, lies, cheats, and murders on behalf of them and our so-called national interests.  We either do not vote or vote for one of two parties that both support all this stealing, lying, cheating, and killing.  Our system is rigged for the elite, and instead of resisting them, they simply divide us in two ends of a political spectrum that is manufactured to separate us almost evenly. 

  * * *

 The author promotes politics that focus on social support networks as the foundation of building character in individuals, but he just doesn’t get it.  You leave people alone, and they form their own social support networks.  You don’t need Big Brother leading the way, setting up programs to encourage it, or redistributing wealth to pay for it.  The focus on individual liberties is not about individualism.  You could just as easily call it social liberties, liberties that allow us to interact socially with one another freely, but applied to each individual.  When you have a free person, that person does not revert to his reptilian savage past.  This whole book is about trying to explain this and the author misses this point completely.  When you liberate the individual, and when you have a free human, since that human is fundamentally a social animal, that human will behave socially.  That social behavior, multiplied by all individuals, creates a socially-cohesive society.  The only role for government is to enforce these social liberties.  If I take away your social liberty of freedom of movement by kidnapping you, only then should government detain and punish me for infringing upon your liberty.  Government shouldn’t be setting up social clubs for people to meet one another.  We can fucking handle that by ourselves thank you very much.

 By the end of the book, I was exhausted by all the social “science” stats and references along with the entire life of Harold and Erica.  Both are miserable people.  Harold an alcoholic and Erica a high power CEO sycophant who winds up working for the White House and going to Davos and eating caviar and sipping champagne with the world’s most deluded, narcissistic, entitled, misguided assholes who wrongly internalize their success.  The only positive points to their lives are when they are immersed in artistic, intellectual or social endeavors.  Otherwise, they are atomized, automatons searching for meaning where it doesn’t exist.  Success, status, power, money, all bullshit.  That should be the moral of the story, but it seems to me the author is confused and keeps arguing that ambition and success are inherently desirable, but he doesn’t ever say to what good end except getting a better education and making more money which is a rather circular argument, because that’s what leads to success in his view.  So you work your ass off so your kids can afford college so they can work their ass off so their kids can afford college.  Makes a shitload of sense?  Just as with K-12 education, college shouldn’t be expensive and frankly, three years are just as good as four.  What makes everything expensive are facilities, athletic programs, unnecessarily elaborate shops and labs, administrative bullshit, textbooks, and subsidizing pointless research that proves three in four social studies comprise 75% of all social studies.  The modern education system K-grad school is a huge bullshit, over-priced scam created to not only enslave the masses but also the professional middle class.  If you are a professional middle class person, and you haven’t thought about this, you are proof that even white collars can be brainwashed.

I don’t believe the author uses Harold and Erica as his stooges, because he throws out social “science” data in favor of arguments that contradict other arguments he makes.  The author is simply confused, especially in the last few chapters on politics.  He applauds American Presidents who were total hypocrites and had slaves, supported the stealing of land from Indians, Manifest Destiny, suspension of civil liberties, you name it.  He blames urban sprawl on the free market and forgets the heavy hand of government in subsidizing highways and developers.  He doesn’t even mention the banking cartel AKA the Federal Reserve.  The author has drank some of the Kool-Aid, but not all.  More importantly, he’s revealed the odd beauty of social “scientists” coming to the realization that much of their work is horseshit.  We are mostly our unconscious processes, we are mostly social animals, and what our inner-voice, conscious mind has to say is mostly bullshit and after-the-fact rationalizations for a complex system they can neither understand nor control.  While our brains belong to us individuals, our minds belong to the networks that we grew into interacting intimately with our DNA.  I wish everyone was required to read this book.  (I just read the subtitle.  Achievement.  Doesn’t belong there.  Achieve what?  Money, power, wealth?  What the hell is the author talking about?)

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