Columnist author David BrooksEver since I read David Brooks’ The Social Animal (2012), I have felt that the two of us are uncannily on the same intellectual trajectory. In that book, he assimilates an enormous amount of research to champion the importance of social and emotional function as opposed to rational cognition. In my lifelong study of the evolutionary meaning of major mental illnesses, I have traced the origins of our social emotions. From the motivations that drew primates into forming groups to those that transformed apes into the first humans and finally to the exotic passions that animate our own species, I have traced subjective experiences of becoming human.

Brooks' Road to Characteer"Now in his recently published book, The Road to Character, we again mirror each other’s work. But first let me acknowledge Brooks’ talent as a writer. He is so very easy to read that I sailed through the book in a single sitting. In his introduction he refers to Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s 1965 Lonely Man of Faith, which describes “two opposing sides of our nature,” Adam I and Adam II to which he refers throughout the book.

Adam I wants to build, create, produce, and discover things. He wants to have high status and win victories…Adam II wants to embody certain moral qualities…have a solid sense of right and wrong—not only to do good but to be good.. to live in obedience to some transcendent truth.

Brooks thinks that after the great depression and World War II, we were so fatigued by sacrifice that we were receptive to the philosophy of Adam I and that Adam II has been lost amidst self-actualization psychology that stresses the projection of the individual over communal ideals.

Morality and humilityBrooks’ description of these two sides of human nature are almost identical to what I have referred to in this blog as the Old Mind and the New Mind.

Briefly summarized, the Old Mind is the 6-million-year legacy of hominin evolution resulting from natural selection at the level of interpersonal relationships, notably pair-bonds and kinship tribes, but also sub-groups within groups along with inter-group relational networks. The idea is that relational selection took root in our hominin “tribe,” because, threatened with extinction by deteriorating climates and low birthrates, we could no longer afford the wasteful luxury of competition within or between groups. Relationships themselves began to be the target of selection simply because of the increased productivity from the coordination of group behavior that resulted. Individual dominance was replaced by the authority of justice, which, in turn, selected for morality (the-good-of-groups).

Status seekingBut then, as is on florid display in the manic phase of bipolar disorder, our own Homo sapiens species super-imposed upon this ancient legacy the passionate inclination for individual self-display, biologically similar to birdsong and bright feathers, but traditionally referred to in us as vanity. I dub this newly minted rage for vanity our New Mind, which then is drawn into a Faustian alliance(*) with our atavistic primate impulses for domination to comprise exactly what Brooks is calling the self-promoting, status-seeking Adam I.

Old Mind New Mind


In the last chapter, Brooks vaguely relates his two Adams to the traditions of Romanticism (A-I) and Moral Realism (A-II). And this is where I have something to add to this important and timely book. I am quite sure, judging by The Social Animal that Brooks believes that both Adam I and II are both firmly rooted in our evolved biology. But, in case you think that the presence of moral character is merely culturally derived and the result of an “intellectual tradition,” you might be interested in looking at this post to get a different view.






(*) Faust is a literary figure who made a deal-with-the-devil in order to become successful.

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4 Comments on “Adding Evolutionary Biology to David Brooks’ “The Road to Character””

  1. I love this linking of your long-evolved ideas with Brooks’s. Clearly there is synchronicity here—or great minds thinking alike . . . or kismet or something.

  2. Thanks for your summary of key ideas in Brooks’ book, which I have not yet read. The ideas are interesting, but not novel. Competition vs cooperation and materialism vs spirituality have been used for a long time to explain individual differences and cultural dynamics. What I look to you for is to explain why these opposing features of human nature evolved and how these features influence the development of different forms of mental illness.

    I saw the Disney movie “Monkey Kingdom” recently and recommend it to you. The movie shows Indonesian monkeys in their natural habitat and their remarkable adaptation to their forest environment. It also shows the interplay of competition (in the form of status hierarchies) and cooperation in their day-to-day behavior.

    1. Mark,
      What an unexpected pleasure to find this most interesting comment this morning.

      Yes, what I bring to the table is a how the subjective experience of severe mental illnesses relates to the evolution of social emotions, plus a proposed mechanism for the monumental transition from selection at the level of individuals in apes (dominance) to selection at the level of associations between individuals in hominins (authority). I came to understand that each of the major mental illnesses represents the escape from regulation of the specific emotions that formed the very substrate of each of the social structures in the three milestones of human evolution: group formation in primates (the depressions), the switch from dominance to authority in early hominins (schizophrenia), and finally the superimposition of individual “self-display” in Homo sapiens (the manic phase of bipolar disorder).

      I definitely will see “Monkey Kingdom.”
      I make the distinction between “cooperation” in primates, explained by game theory between self-interested individuals, and “coordination” in hominins, explained by the evolved influence of relationships suppressing the interests of individuals, naturally selected for its ever-increasing productivity and fecundity.


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