By Nicholas A. Christakis. Little, Brown Spark. 544 Pages. $30.00
Review by James Cornwell
In the United States, we live in a time of intense sectarianism overshadowing other periods of deep division within recent memory. In 2016, following a divisive election, our country elected a president who was and continues to be a more polarizing figure than most voters have seen in their lifetimes. This has led to radicalizations on both sides of the aisle, as the two major parties in America pull farther and farther away from the center.
In Europe, things look perhaps even more bleak, as the parties of the center-left and center-right in several European countries gradually give way to left-wing socialists and right-wing nationalists and contentment with the liberal order continues to disintegrate. Even our beloved Church continues to fray as our debates become increasingly more fractious and divisive. Our societies, it would seem, are all coming apart.
Into this divide steps Nicholas Christakis to examine what — if anything — holds human beings together. This social glue is what he terms “the social suite,” which consists of: (1) the capacity to have and recognize individual identity, (2) love for partners and offspring, (3) friendship, (4) social networks, (5) cooperation, (6) preference for one’s own group, (7) mild hierarchy, and (8) social learning and teaching. These features, he argues, have been endowed in each of us through the processes of evolution. To support his narrative, he draws on an impressive array of data, from social network research to case studies of communes and 19th-century shipwreck societies. The overall thesis of the work is that what we hold in common is vastly more important than what divides us (a thesis that you can see dramatically presented on YouTube to a group of Yale students during the controversy surrounding his wife, Erika Christakis).
Those familiar with other work on the evolutionary origins of social behavior and culture will find substantial overlap with books by other popular social scientists such as Steven Pinker, David Sloan Wilson, and Christian Smith. Indeed, the basic thrust of the book closely resembles Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. However, Christakis adds his own flavor to a good deal of this research, and introduces recent developments that provide additional extensions of classic findings, so even readers well-versed in this subject will find something new. His analysis of social network research in the context of human friendship represents pure added value — suggesting, for example, that our friendships with others may depend, in part, on the genes of third parties, because people may have genes that make them behaviorally more likely to introduce two of their friends to one another (p. 252).
While Christakis is exceedingly respectful and fair to religious groups and thinkers in his work, he does manifest the religious blind spot typical to secular social scientists in a couple of ways. For example, in discussing the Shaker community, Christakis identifies celibacy as the reason that it ultimately failed, suggesting that celibacy is somehow antithetical to maintaining community (p. 72). I suspect that the hundreds of celibate religious communities spanning multiple denominations and religious backgrounds that have subsisted for over a thousand years in some cases would disagree with this assessment.
Other statements, such as “no one is interested in whether you love yourself, whether you are just to yourself, or whether you are kind to yourself” (p. 239), in support of the notion that all morality is necessarily social, seems similarly overstated. Moral codes forbidding suicide, prostitution, and drug use, for example, all seem to contradict this claim. Even so, it was refreshing to read a social scientist who isn’t also a thoroughgoing utilitarian — preferring instead to invoke Phillipa Foot as his contemporary ethicist of choice when discussing the ethical implications of his work (p. 412).
Since this book belongs to the species of recent works highlighting the ethical side of human nature, it is useful to think about how books like this function in an increasingly secular society like ours. On the one hand, books that highlight the natural dispositions human beings have towards love, community, and fellowship are useful in that they underscore an important theological truth: Goodness makes sense. It is in our nature to be social, to love, to give up our lives for our friends. We Christians, as an incarnational people can understand this, perhaps in a way that those whose lives haven’t been formed in the light of a God who took on human nature and ascended with it into heaven cannot. Therefore, it is helpful to have science provide us a common ground with which to reason with the surrounding culture about such matters.
Still, like all works of social science, this book demonstrates the limitations of empirical work for determining the validity of non-empirical claims. Social scientists can observe regularities in human behavior to understand the sorts of social orderings and rules that appear to have certain effects, but there is a danger of treating them as self-evidently motivating. An example of this is Peter Singer’s oft-cited “expanding circle of moral concern,” which suggests that human beings are continually broadening our applications of moral rights to more and more individuals over time (a point of view Christakis highlights in this book). By describing this as a purely natural or mechanical process that unfolds as time goes, we might be tempted to overlook the role of individual motivation. Why should we expand our circle of moral concern? Why should we value friendship? Why should we love and support one another?
This leads to another useful take-away from this book: As much as we would have it be otherwise, we, as Christians, really cannot rely on “nature” to provide an answer to many ethical questions. We are a people united in our belief that our human nature is beloved and capable of union with the divine, but what precisely human nature is, is a truly complicated question. People that want to propose, for example, a set of universal moral rules surrounding human sexuality (which seems to be at the center of many intra-Anglican debates) are going to be hopelessly unable to ground such rules in “nature.” Any attempt to do so will shipwreck against the ground of the variety of functional communities and societies with varied rules and practices in this domain, diversity ably highlighted by Christakis. Some aspects of our humanity do transcend cultural boundaries (Christakis does frequently support this point), but some do not, and if we are to find ways to ground our ethics in something transcendent, we will need go beyond simply cataloguing what has been or is generally done in order to find what we ought to do. We must also listen for God’s call to discern what sorts of people we are to become in the midst of such historical and cultural diversity. I’m no theologian, but my hunch is that those places where the divine unites wholly with the natural—that is, in Christ and his Sacraments—may be a good place to start in such a project.
In sum, readers looking for a comprehensive exploration of what social science currently tells us about human community-building will find much to love about this book. In a world that every day feels more and more divided, the book provides us with empirical evidence for hope by highlighting shared human propensities for community. To this a Christian might add, however, that the reason for this hope is that love is stronger than death, and that hell and the grave have already been defeated in the glory of the resurrection.
James Cornwell is an assistant professor of psychology and management who teaches and lives in the Hudson Valley of New York. He and his wife, Sarah, have five children: James, Thomas, Francis, Rose, and George.