Most of these biological facts don’t matter, at least for Brooks’s purposes. What of our view of humanity changes if, when parents achieve an “attunement with their kids,” the molecule that “floods through their brains” is schmoxytocin, not oxytocin? The salient fact is that some molecule or some part of the brain underlies various aspects of consciousness or unconsciousness. But this is hardly news. As the philosopher Jerry Fodor once quipped, it’s been clear for a while now that mental processes occur north of the neck. The rest is a sort of biological bookkeeping that, while significant to the specialist, seems to provide the popular writer only with a long list of factoids. It’s not that these facts are wrong or unconnected to the higher-level phenomena—lust, emotional uplift, or insight—that Brooks discusses. They’re just superfluous.
In any case, surely what matters most to us about human nature typically takes place at a more macro level. In the language of biology, human nature is a phenotype—a trait or set of traits that is observable—and the underlying mechanics are a different matter altogether. (By analogy, imagine that an accountant opens a spreadsheet on his computer and unexpectedly announces that you have ten million dollars in your account. It’s true that, when the file was opened, this and that line of code in the computer program was executed. But it would be odd to conclude that this is the level at which something interesting just happened.) This kind of argument can be taken too far but Brooks at least owes us an explanation of why all these biological details are supposed to matter to his project.
But perhaps the biggest problem with much of the science in The Social Animal is that it doesn’t tell us anything that Brooks’s narrative hasn’t already said. Most of us learn about human nature from experiences in real life or from the lives of those portrayed in fiction. And that’s probably as good a way to learn as any. When we begin to see, in Brooks’s story, that the adolescent Erica will never get far if she doesn’t master her anger, it doesn’t help to be told that, during times of stress, epinephrine surges or that self-control in children is a good statistical predictor of success later in life. As many have noted, our folk psychology differs from our folk physics in that, while the latter is notoriously poor, the former often seems remarkably good. Indeed, as Noam Chomsky famously suggested, when it comes to revealing what makes people tick, a scientific psychology might never outperform the novel.