The center of moral authority is shifting in Western culture. In the 20th century it shifted from clergy to psychiatrists, from Jonathan Edwards's followers to Freud's. Now the ground is shifting again, to neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists, and behavioral economists: the high priests of the brain. Try browsing any major news site without encountering a story about how our brains are primed for insider trading, serial monogamy, or Chipotle burritos.
These stories reflect real and remarkable progress. We understand more of the brain's biochemistry, the neurotransmitters and synapses that make it the most complex system known in the universe. Researchers have designed ever more clever experiments that tease out the complexities of human behavior. (Did you know that men who have just walked across a rickety bridge find a young woman more attractive than do men who have just been sitting on a bench?) The results have reaffirmed what the wise have always known: We know very little about ourselves—the habits and hunches that shape our choices before we know we are choosing. But can neuroscience offer insight into not just the way we are, but the way we ought to be?
To judge by The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (Random House), David Brooks thinks so. Like Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There and Brooks's other forays into what he calls "comic sociology," this book is funny, frequently wise, and almost always spot on in its set pieces on the ways of cosmopolitan elites. But none of his past books were so packed with illuminating summaries of otherwise obscure and technical scientific findings, and none addressed so explicitly ...1