by michael on April 6, 2011

 Stephanie West Allen, my dear friend, this morning sent an email containing a selection of paragraphs from a book review by George J. Marlin of New York Times columnist David Brook’s new and best-selling book, The Social Animal.

Stephanie lives in Denver and is a writer, lecturer, lawyer and practitioner in Neuroscience and conflict resolution. See her informative websites: and I have known Stephanie for several decades. She is a gritty negotiator with a keen mind.

Marlin’s book review appeared this morning on the website The Catholic Thing, I had never visited that website. I will do so regularly in the future.

George Marlin has, it appears, an in-depth background on competing theories of the origins and causes of human behavior. He writes fluidly, for example, on the distinction between the French and The British Enlightenment:

“The British Enlightenment held that people have innate social and intuitive senses; emphasized the influence of sentiment and affection; and viewed society “as infinitely complex networks of living relationships.” The French Enlightenment on the other hand, misses the mark for believing that reason, logic, and science alone would solve human woes and that “society and its institutions [are] machines, to be taken apart and reengineered.”

Marlin also casually references theories of human behavior: reductionism, behaviorism, the mechanistic view. I must take Marlin at his word for his insights into the Enlightenments and into theories of human behavior for these areas are territories untraveled by me.

The main themes of the book are of interest to me, and, no doubt, the reason why Stephanie took the time to mail the review to me. Brooks’ book is about “human nature and explains why we can, among other things, love, achieve, and develop character.” If I summarized the central theme of my book into one phrase, I’d say my book was about developing moral character and moral will.

Here are a few key paragraphs from Marlin’s review.

“The “study of conscious mind highlights the importance of reason and analysis; study of the unconscious mind highlights the importance of passions and perception.” And our conscious side, Brooks argues, can be cultivated so as to curb the very powerful unconscious mind, which can be impulsive, irrational, and prone to immoral, hurtful, and criminal acts.

“To accomplish this cultivation, children need parents, then friends and role models to teach them the virtues of self-discipline, hard work, valor, self-reliance, and responsibility. They must be instructed how to control social impulses that conflict (i.e., cooperative virtues conflicting with competitive virtues). Brooks agrees with sociologist James Coleman “that parents and community have a greater effect on achievement than school.” Hence, religious and cultural norms that build character are best learned in the home.

“Aquinas and Aristotle take for granted that man, by nature, is a social and rational being. We are substantially different from any other creature and have the ability to achieve, to build, to write, to joke, to love because we possess that God-given spiritual power – the reflecting mind.

We can control passions, however, because the mind permits us to know the natural law. According to Aquinas, “the natural law contains the precepts related to man’s drive to preserve himself, which he shares with all things; those related to his animal drives such as sex and the rearing of children; and those which make him specifically human – his need for society, his desire for knowledge and for God.”

“The standard formulation of natural law is this: do good and avoid evil. From culture to culture and from person to person, variations may occur in what is meant by “good,” but there has been utter consistency in the imperative to seek the good. And because we have a conscience (the functioning of the intellect in making moral judgments), we can choose to avoid evil.

The complete book review is worth reading. Based on Marlin’s review, I speculate that Brooks’ book, The Social Animal, is also worth reading.

Thanks Stephanie

More later

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