The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement


One could go on: We've tried feebly to reduce widening inequality. We've tried to boost economic mobility. We've tried to stem the tide of children raised in single- parent homes. We've tried to reduce the polarization that marks our politics. We've tried to ameliorate the boom-and-bust cycle of our economies. In recent decades, the world has tried to export capitalism to Russia, plant democracy in the Middle East, and boost development in Africa. And the results of these efforts are mostly disappointing.

The failures have been marked by a single feature: Reliance on an overly simplistic view of human nature. Many of these policies were based on the shallow social- science model of human behavior. Many of the policies were proposed by wonks who are comfortable only with traits and correlations that can be measured and quantied. They were passed through legislative committees that are as capable of speaking about the deep wellsprings of human action as they are of speaking in ancient Aramaic. They were executed by officials that have only the most superficial grasp of what is immovable and bent about human beings. So of course they failed. And they will continue to fail unless the new knowledge about our true makeup is integrated more fully into the world of public policy, unless the enchanted story is told along with the prosaic one.

The Plan

To illustrate how unconscious abilities really work and how, under the right circumstances, they lead to human flourishing, I'm going to walk, stylistically, in the footsteps of Jean- Jacques Rousseau. In 1760 Rousseau completed a book called Emile, which was about how human beings could be educated. Rather than just confine himself to an abstract description of human nature, he created a character named Emile and gave him a tutor, using their relationship to show how happiness looks in concrete terms. Rousseau's innovative model allowed him to do many things. It allowed him to write in a way that was fun to read. It allowed him to illustrate how general tendencies could actually play out in individual lives. It drew Rousseau away from the abstract and toward the concrete.

Without hoping to rival Rousseau's genius, I'm borrowing his method. To illustrate how the recent scientific findings play out in real life, I've created two major characters -- Harold and Erica. I use these characters to show how life actually develops. The story takes place perpetually in the current moment, the early twenty-rst century, because I want to describe different features of the way we live now, but I trace their paths from birth to learning, friendship to love, work to wisdom, and then to old age. I use them to describe how genes shape individual lives, how brain chemistry works in particular cases, how family structure and cultural patterns can inuence development in specic terms. In short, I use these characters to bridge the gap between the sort of general patterns researchers describe and the individual experiences that are the stuff of real life.


Harold and Erica matured and deepened themselves during the course of their lives. That's one reason why this story is such a happy one. It is a tale of human progress and a defense of progress. It is about people who learn from their parents and their parents' parents, and who, after trials and tribulations, wind up committed to each other.

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