On Misunderstanding David Brooks Redux

Misreading Brooks’ The Social Animal seems to be all the rage. To H. Allen Orr’s skewed interpretation, we can now add this aside from one of my favorites, James Wood:

These days, one is continually running up against a crass evolutionary neuroscientific pragmatism that is loved by popular evolutionary psychologists and newspaper columnists (of the kind who argue that we are happiest living in suburbs and voting Republican because neuroscience has “proved” that a certain bit of our brain lights up upon seeing Chevy Chase or Greenwich; or that we all like novels because stories must have taught us, millennia ago, how to negotiate our confusing hunter-gatherer society—I exaggerate only a little).

Now first let me admit: that’s pretty damn good. Classic Wood: a tightly compressed insight laced with acerbic wit. I’ll give him that.

But Wood is guilty of missing the same point as Orr: Brooks is decidedly not out to argue that we are biologically wired to be Bobos in a moderate Republican paradise. His point is that the “new sciences of human nature” account for how we are formed and habituated by the ethos in which our dispositions are incubated, and that our account of–and orientation toward–a vision of “the good life” is acquired, inscribed in us by the rituals and practices of a culture that then prime us (dispose us) toward certain ends.

We don’t think our way through the world. And contrary to the functional libertarianisms of both left and right, we are not fundamentally choosers: our action in–and comportment to–the world is the product of unconscious dispositions and habit which are NOT (repeat: NOT) biologically hardwired but rather acquired on the platform of our biological makeup. We are not conservative animals; but we are habitual animals. That’s why our policies and educations need to broach the question of formation. But wherever there is a project of formation, there is also the specification of a telos–and it is precisely that “imposition” on the myth of autonomy that is refused by the ideologies of left and right.

Brooks isn’t offering some new-fangled version of B.F. Skinner; he’s exploring how contemporary cognitive science confirms the insights of Aristotle. The Social Animal isn’t trying to offer “scientific proof” for conservatism; it’s trying to show that science confirms a Burkean (and Ruskinian?) conservativism long-forgotten–a concern for virtue formation.