Web Letters | The Nation

The Dumbest Story Ever Told: On David Brooks

In defense of a scientific left

Through the use of fMRI brain-scanning machines, neuroscientists are making some amazing, albeit still tentative, discoveries concerning the political aspects of the mind.
 • Democratic and Republican biases to political information (Kaplan) as well as their differing, disgust reactions to Abu Ghraib (Hamman),
 • Liberals and conservatives as to tolerance and perceived threats (Kanai),
 • Aggression and bullying (Decety),
 • Empathy (Iacoboni),
 • Roles of reason and emotion in political thinking (Westen),
 • Racial biases based on skin tone (Ronquillo)

But instead of incorporating those findings into their own work, to correct and augment it, the community of psychoanalytic professionals (this time, Gary Greenberg) repeatedly respond in the press with decidedly non-scientific, usually sarcastic (shame-based) attacks on the whole fMRI endeavor.

It seems that they intend to preserve unfettered the dark ages of Freud that not only provides them with personal and professional sustenance but which is essentially and sometimes only loosely conjured out of its roots in Western religion/philosophy. To the extent that they are successful, they will extend their reign as the recognized experts on the human condition. But their work has become “so last century” (Freeman).

Meanwhile, the hard sciences will still be sliding actual human beings on shelves into fMRI machines, stimulate them, observe the brain’s responses, to pile more hard data on top of hard data. Despite our political excitement, they will do so without much regard to their findings being hijacked by us politicos to pursue our pre-existing political agendas (this time, David Brook of the right and Gary Greenberg of the still largely psychoanalytically guided left).

In this, the right has an advantage over the left. It was never wooed or much influenced by the psychoanalytic construct and its cobweb confusions. It may turn out that it is in the nature of conservatives to avoid family therapy, even when they (Gingrich) and their loved-ones would clearly benefit from it. While many of the left (Oliver Stone) seem to bathe in it, even to the point of making supposedly political movies based on it rather than empirical reality. News flash: we abandoned Afghanistan to invade Iraq for the oil, not because of some president’s daddy complex.

Yet the left is ultimately a product of, or at least the protector of science-culture. From its beginning it has largely existed in opposition to religion (Galileo). And it will ultimately embrace neuroscience’s new findings in the face of the attempts of the psychoanalytic professionals to reach beyond their licensed expertise in family relationships to explain politics which is instead based on power processes and product.

Science will, as it always has, never quite find truth but it will sideline many falsehoods along the way. It’s just that neuroscientists, with their heads in the data, might not pay us politicos, either left or right, much mind.


Robert Mueller

Boulder, CO

May 25 2011 - 12:29pm

The Dumbest Story Ever Told: On David Brooks

Listen up

Come on, Gary, David’s book might leave a lot to be desired as a work of art, but you are clearly signaling your own dubious genealogy, to use the terminology you will be familiar with. I know you would like to maintain your ideological/cultural monopoly on explaining everything, but give the boffins a fair hearing! Language refers, not defers!

Stuart Mathieson

(Somewhere in) NEW ZEALAND

May 25 2011 - 4:05am

The Dumbest Story Ever Told: On David Brooks

An unseemly review

I can’t quite follow why Gary Greenberg consumed three pages trashing and satirizing Brooks. With all due respect for Greenberg’s credentials as a popular psychotherapist, book reviews appear somewhat outside his field. Not only was this one a bit of a slog, it was difficult to tell if Greenberg thought Brooks’s The Social Animal had any redeeming merit at all. It did seem clear there is some sort of pervasive animus against Brooks, a well-known moderate conservative. I felt Greenberg came dangerously close to an ad hominem attack on Brooks, without illuminating anything. If I want to find out if Brooks’s book is worth reading, I can always buy a copy or check out the reviews on Amazon.

For the record, I’m a gay social liberal, a lapsed conservative now voting Democratic, who enjoys both The Nation and Brooks’s occasionally insightful observations on PBS. If we are to grace the pages of The Nation by savaging prominent conservative personae, there are plenty of more deserving and corrosive targets around. Brooks at least appears to be of the opinion that we should make a better effort to find common ground, and possibly even understand each other, an opinion I happen to have good reason to share.

Alex Forbes

Phoenix, AZ

May 24 2011 - 4:09pm

The Dumbest Story Ever Told: On David Brooks

‘The science shines through’

Like Arianna Huffington before him, I’ve watched David Brooks struggle with reality on television and in print. I’ve read none of his books, but I’ll read this one, because, despite the sneering, sarcasm and strawmen in this review, the science shows through. Brooks has been sparking little insights from evolutionary psychology and neuroscience for a long time, and I’ve been writing comments to his screeds in the NY Times for a long and tedious time. I conceitedly assume he’s read mine, and others, and we’ve had an effect. Thanks for printing the article, but please consider a positive review of the book, without the sneering, and without hagiography. I concur completely with the other comments, that Greenberg needs to open his mind and whisk out some sticky cobwebs.

Ormond Otvos

Richmond, CA

May 24 2011 - 3:50pm

The Dumbest Story Ever Told: On David Brooks

Human nature

Throughout the piece, I kept thinking Gary Greeberg doesn’t understand what he is writing about. It became obvious why in the final paragraph. Greenberg writes, “Precisely because human nature is malleable…”

That’s your problem. Human nature is not malleable. It cannot be shaped by intentional efforts to change it. It changes over millenia through evolution, but it cannot be shaped into something more to our liking in our lifetimes.

“Behavior” and “belief” are malleable, given the right incentive structures a person’s behavior and beliefs can be shaped by external forces. But human nature is coded in our genes. The behavior of any particular parents has no impact on their child at the point of delivery (beyond pre-natal nutrition, smoking, etc.—things that impact the child’s biology).

(Imagine identical twin brothers who marry identical twin sisters, one couple lives in a commune, the other on Wall Street. If their children are taken at birth and raised together somewhere else, it won’t matter which parents conceived which child. The behaviors of the parents don’t matter at the gentic level. Well, unless there is some undiscovered reproductive mechanism that somehow “chooses” which genes offspring recieve. We’re taught it’s ramdom following a uniform distribution.)

Their efforts as parents can change their children’s specific behaviors and beliefs, but they can’t change the hard-wired circuitry of our genes.

I suspect our true nature isn’t terribly different from that of the people who for the first 5,800 years of recorded history regarded slavery as right and proper. We are smarter today because of the Flynn effect (a true change to aggregate genetic make up) and we have much better technology that renders slavery uneconomical (in most cases, e.g., the sex trade), but the capacity for humans to enslave one another is still there. The capacity for another Holocaust is still there. The capacity to butcher “others” over scarce resources is there if survival is threatened. Our culture (which overwhelmingly establishes incentives) is very different from the time of Moses and even early-nineteenth- century America, but I don’t believe our fundamental nature is.

Darin Zimmerman

Cedar Rapids

May 23 2011 - 11:47am

The Dumbest Story Ever Told: On David Brooks

Why is science considered incompatible with progressivism?

Why is that whenever I read a Nation article dealing with sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive science or neuroscience, I feel like I am listening to Sarah Palin or Christine O’Donell commenting on evolution and climate change? Most recently, Gary Greenberg’s rant on David Brooks’s newest book is another in the long line of sarcastic, culturistically fundamentalist diatribes against what is in fact valid and factual information that is essential to understanding human behavior. What are Greenberg’s credentials that he can so facilely and sarcastically repudiate any and all neurological, evolutionary and cognitive science as utter nonsense? In order to repudiate you must be intimately knowledgeable of the complexities involved in the science you claim has no relevance to human existence. You must show us why it has so little validity, not just sneer it off. I really do feel like I’m listening to an ignorant yokel smuggly expatiating on evil-lution and quoting pseudo-scientific creationist refutations whenever these Nation critics comment on the subject, usually prefaced with cliched dismissals of Wilson, Dawkins, and Dennett.

I find Brooks generally annoying in trying to tie conservative “values” to this subject, but the science he has obviously taken the time to attempt to understand is not the problem, and he, to his credit,at least has a working knowledge of it. To sneer at the extraordinary new insights the discovery of mirror neurons have given us is sophomoric, and unworthy of a magazine that calls itself “intellectual.” Mirror neurons, oxytocin and empathic functions that underlie the emergence of conscious feelings and cognitions are important components that helps us understand who we are, not as reductionist pat answers but rather as descriptions of somatic and neural system components that in interaction with much else, including the external environmental systems, both cultural and physical, within which we are situated and embedded, give us a handle on some of the baffling complexities of which both religion and cultural anthropology are deeply ignorant and dismissive.

The sneering arrogance of Greenberg’s critique has no point to it except to make political hay against the right’s most avuncular and sanguine apologist. It’s time the left, like the right, start respecting the recent findings of science and adapting their ideals to them. Science is not a religion to be repudiated, à la the fundamentalists of the world, but important knowledge to be accommodated and applied. It is of course embedded in cultural and political forces, but that is not a reason to deny any validity to it whatever. That form of reasoning is notoriously right-wing, like saying that since the wealthy couldn’t pay off the deficit if they are taxed 100 percent, then they obviously shouldn’t be taxed at all. Nothing in science requires a moral reset in order to acknowledge it. Instead, it requires us to take the effort and have the courage to constantly re-evaluate and re-understand an infinitely perplexing world.

Jan Arnold


May 20 2011 - 2:31pm