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Posted at 8:08 AM ET, 01/20/2011

Story pick: Sex and life, with footnotes

By Steve Hendrix

What a fascinating annotated tour of modern life David Brooks has pulled together for this week's New Yorker. His piece, "The Social Animal," is a delightful exercise that still has me wondering how he phrased his pitch to the editor (or how the editor phrased his assignment email).

Brooks has gathered a raft of recent research on deep questions of human morality, determinism, intelligence and consciousness and applied it to a couple of hypothetical lives. Like supertitles at an opera or one of those great Dave Berg Mad Magazine features that distinguished "What They Say" from "What They Mean," he dissects scenes of courtship, careerism and gelato-picking with the latest in neuroscience and psychology. You could just string together the factoids and keep the eyeballs glued ("the more a rat pup is licked and groomed by its mother, the more synaptic connections it has," or "Researchers at the University of Minnesota can look at attachment patterns of children at forty-two months, and predict with seventy-seven-per-cent accuracy who will graduate from high school").

But Brooks strings them together wonderfully within a rich context of social dilemmas. It's a state-of-the-art look at society and how science may be debunking education and achievement in favor of emotion and intuition. As a fan of Brooks' last archetypal creation, the "Bobo" hybrid of the bourgeois and bohemian, I was left a bit befuddled by his description of the model member of the "Composure Class." Maybe because I don't really know any members of this group of hyper-achieving, super-affluent, self-conscious do-gooders, it didn't speak to me as lampoon. (Well, my sister-in-law goes to the Ted Conference every year, but I've also seen her hang spoons from her nose at a dinner party, so she doesn't count.).

But whatever. Brooks' long description of such a man's dating ritual was riveting, whether I got him or not:

And through it all the conversation flowed. You’d think, if you listened to cultural stereotypes, that women are the more romantic of the sexes. In fact, there’s evidence that men fall in love faster and are more likely to believe that true love lasts forever. Though men normally spend twice as much time talking about themselves as women do, in this conversation Harold was actually talking about Erica’s problems. Surveys by the evolutionary psychologist David Buss suggest that, for both men and women, kindness is one of the most important qualities desired in a sexual partner. Courtship consists largely of sympathy displays, in which potential partners try to prove how compassionate they can be, as anybody who has seen dating couples around children and dogs can attest.

Of course, there are less noble calculations going on as people choose their mates. Like veteran stock-market traders, people respond in predictable, if unconscious, ways to the valuations of the social marketplace. The richer the man, the younger the woman he is likely to mate with. A man’s job status is an outstanding predictor of his wife’s attractiveness. Without being aware of it, Harold and Erica were doing these sorts of calculations—weighing earnings-to-looks ratios, calculating social-capital balances. Every signal suggested that they had found a match.

By Steve Hendrix  | January 20, 2011; 8:08 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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