Ever 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.
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.
Brooks’ 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).
But 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.
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.