What kind of creature is a human? If we don't know what we are, how can we know how to act? In Being a Human Charles Foster sets out to understand what a human is, inhabiting the sensory worlds of humans at three pivotal moments in our history.
Foster begins his quest in a wood in Derbyshire with his son, shivering, starving and hunting, trying to find a way of experiencing the world that recognises the deep expanse of time when we understood ourselves as hunter-gatherers, indivisible from the non-human world, and when modern consciousness was first ignited. From there he travels to the Neolithic, when we tamed animals, plants and ourselves, to a way of being defined by walls, fences, farms, sky gods and slaughterhouses, and finally to the rarefied world of the Enlightenment, when we decided that the universe was a machine and we were soulless cogs within it.
Charles Foster is the author of the New York Times Bestseller Being a Beast, which was longlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize and the Wainwright Prize, won the 30 million d'amis Prize in France, and is the subject of a forthcoming feature film. It has been translated into twelve languages. The author and editor of many books and hundreds of articles, Charles Foster won the IgNobel Prize for Biology in 2016, for work 'that make you laugh and then makes you think'. An academic, a vet and a barrister, he is married with six children and lives in Oxford.
– A New Statesman Essential Non-Fiction Book of 2021
"Dazzling and, yes, eccentric [...] Foster is a beautiful writer and an engaging companion throughout this [...] wonderfully fun if entirely bonkers read"
– Alex Preston, Observer
"Being a Human: Adventures in Forty Thousand Years of Consciousness is not the book its subtitle would have us believe. It's a better one. It's a lesson in what to watch for in nature. It's a discourse on the sentience we may have had as early humans and that, over millennia, we've somehow roasted into a crisp. It's funny. It's moving. It's mind-expanding. It's a collection of thoughts to read again and again [...] Foster is a writer of extraordinary ability"
– Rebecca Coffey, Forbes
"Foster's daringly imaginative exploration of alternative models of selfhood is an original and beneficial way of grappling with history [...] There is an increasing awareness today of the limitations of individualist models of selfhood, which many consider the root cause of some of our most urgent crises. The kinds of new and old imaginaries that Foster explores here, empirically and otherwise, are precisely what we need to remind us that there are many alternatives to the "I, me, mine" mindset"
– Anna Katharina Schaffner, TLS
"Foster is an amiable narrator. He is self-deprecating, feminist, in awe of what the natural world has to teach him. His observations – that it is hard to say where humans stop and aurochs begin; that the great disaster of the Enlightenment was its reduction of the universe to a machine – align firmly with those of Donna Haraway and Amitav Ghosh in recalling us to the epic mysticism of existence. He is, I think, also an optimist, still hopeful for humanity, even if we are never again going to run around Derbyshire in a deerskin loincloth"
– Rachel Andrews, Irish Times
"Controversial, yet oddly compelling"
"A wonderful, wild, dazzling book. You will feel more human for having read it"
– Tom Whyman, Literary Review
"A wild ride: brave, outrageous, hilarious, helpful, and urgent. Foster has no time for decaying paradigms; he tunnels underneath their crumbling foundations with a pickaxe to help them on their way. Being a Human will deepen and expand your sense of self. Essential reading"
– Merlin Sheldrake, author of Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, & Shape Our Futures
"Being a Human is a work of shaggy genius. Its subject is gargantuan in scale; its humour has a reckless panache; its argument is brilliantly original and above all it is written with a matchless audacity of soul. It is one of the most important books I have ever read"
– Jay Griffiths, author of Why Rebel
"This is the most wonderful book – deftly written, highly imaginative, and a delight to read – and its message is such that its importance simply cannot be overstated. It gives a devastatingly clear portrait of humanity as we have become, and of what we once had – and still could have – but instead are in the process of throwing away, perhaps forever"
– Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and his Emissary
"I'll read anything Charles Foster writes, and this is his most ambitious book yet. It is a historical investigation, a short story collection, a humour primer, a sheaf scientific papers and a work of philosophy all rolled into one, with a side helping of religious ecstasy and badger shit. It will tell you many things you didn't know about who you are. You should read it"
– Paul Kingsnorth, author of The Wake
"Being a Human is one of the most original inquiries into the who, what, and why of human existence to appear in recent years. Charles Foster writes with inspiring brilliance, originality, and simplicity. I love this book. It should be widely read, for the benefit of all us humans"
– Larry Dossey, author of One Mind: How Our Individual Mind Is Part of a Greater Consciousness and Why It Matters
"A fascinating book of immense scope and proportions [...] The evolution of the mind makes for a labyrinthine investigation worthy of Sherlock Holmes"
– James Crowden, author of The Frozen River: Seeking Silence in the Himalaya
"Monstrously great: book of the year from where I'm sitting. But I'm not sitting, I'm up and waving my arms about for the sustained achievement of this magical, brilliant thing. Being a Human contains a hundred things we desperately need to know. Hugely moving, filled with intelligence, it scurries between centuries with us between its teeth. Charles Foster has invoked a living presence in these pages, a contract with the uncanny. To know a thing about the future we need to retrace our steps into our old mind. We could start here"
– Martin Shaw, author of Smoke Hole: Looking to the Wild in the Time of the Spyglass
"What a mad, brilliant, mind-expanding book. Being a Human offers a thrilling deep dive through our evolutionary past, and a witty and learned commentary on why we are the way we are – and what wisdom we've lost along the way. Foster is a true modern polymath who writes with wit, humour and heart: I'll be pressing this book into other people's hands"
– Cal Flyn, author of Islands of Abandonment
"Charles Foster has created a book of immense, deeply felt intelligence. This book is a startling reset on our understanding of the journey of human thought. Approaching the question from a totally new perspective of lived experience, Foster shows us how we came to be the people we are, with the values we exert in the world. Not only are the revelations startling, but the metaphoric power of Foster's language is frequently astonishing. I wish I'd written this book, and that's my highest praise"
– Carl Safina, author of Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace
"Profound, erudite, provocative and funny, this outrageously brilliant and wise book is a challenge to the reductive materialism that dominates current understandings of the human animal-and the natural world. Foster draws on his empathy with the animist Palaeolithic to argue for a return to non-dogmatic forms of Enlightenment values that might take seriously the affective dimension of human nature and experience-to recover 'enchantment' and express the 'vertiginous wonder of the world' [...] Wildly eccentric and ranging widely, but always in control"
– Steve Ely, author of Englaland
"Charles Foster has written the unwritable – gifting us a perspective-tumbling insight into other worlds. Being a Human is both challenging and entertaining. By the time you have finished reading it you will not look in the mirror and see quite the same person as before"
– Hugh Warwick, author of Linescapes: Remapping and Reconnecting Britain's Fragmented Wildlife
"Few of us have given much thought to the dazzling human journey from hunter-gatherer to now. In a 10,000 year odyssey fizzing with masterful revelation, Professor Foster makes us relive our nature-centric past, shows us how much we have lost and makes us startlingly aware of who we really are"
– Sir John Lister-Kaye OBE, author of The Dun Cow Rib
"More turned-down page corners than any other recent book on my shelves. A brilliant, inventive, and unsettling exploration of our glorious and broken nature. Foster's work shakes us out of dozy estrangement from our own humanity and welcomes us into the mysteries of belonging [...] Its richness demands careful reading"
– David George Haskell, Pulitzer finalist, The Forest Unseen
"A daredevil read. Once again, Charles Foster has journeyed to places most of us wouldn't dare; and emerged with a book that is passionate and kind, deeply intelligent and uproariously funny"
– Helen Jukes, author of A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings
"How to enact a visceral archaeology of the human animal, not merely by ingesting and metabolizing the finest research, but by excavating the layers of one's own creaturely soul? Charles Foster journeys barefoot toward the tastes, textures, and rhythms that enveloped our early ancestors, the ecstasies and terrors that shivered the bones of our Paleolithic progenitors. Only someone fairly mad – possessed of a sensorial imagination verging on clairvoyance, an alarming appetite for physical duress, and an uncanny gift for wyrding his way into other shapes of sentience – would undertake such an impossible endeavor, dropping down and down into the depths within, spelunking in his soul's bone hollows, stirring up old, old ghosts in order to discover how thoroughly haunted our present existence really is"
– David Abram, author of Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology
"Charles Foster's writing is matchless. He approaches intellectual enquiry with heart, body and mind in that order – the only correct one. No-one else could tackle the whole of human evolution, the history and implications of our 'inadequate mutations' with such wit and elegance. Being a Human is both panoramic and intimate: an experiment in living, a manifesto, a brilliant synthesis, a conversation you'd have in a pub after hours of walking on a wind-scoured moor. Brace yourselves for a thrilling encounter with the other, with the marvellous, terrifying spectacle of the self. This book will leave you changed: both wiser and more bewildered. Which is to say more alive"
– Helen Mort, author of Never Leave the Dog Behind: Our Love of Dogs and Mountains
"An exhilarating book that asks all the big questions about our past, present and future, Being A Human contributes to the growing field of literature that tasks us with thinking, and behaving, like Earthlings. That Foster has managed to produce this clarion call for 'a vibrant scientific mysticism' whilst being funny and entertaining is little short of a marvel"
– Gregory Norminton, author of The Devil's Highway
"This made me feel good about being a Palaeolithic archaeologist; it's an exquisitely irreverent celebration of how best to be a human, and an exemplary lesson in the elemental nature we've so often left behind in lives that are, as Foster suggests, suffocatingly simple in relation to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. As a Palaeolithic specialist I am bound to agree with his thesis that the quality of life declined with the increasingly urban nature of early agricultural life, and plummeted significantly with the industrialisation that accompanied the enlightenment. Foster writes with a unique voice that is full of soul; a paean to our wild selves that could not come at a better time in Earth history. His central thesis – that we repurpose enlightenment scepticism and empiricism in order to rediscover the enchantment of our wilder selves is delivered with the observational panache and intelligence that is drawn from his own human nature, the wildness of nature, and the very wildness of academe. At times hilarious (check out page 105), at times revelatory, at all times with a prose red in tooth and claw, this is a glorious celebration of the shameful behaviour of humans."
– Paul B. Pettit, Professor of Palaeolithic Archaeology
"Foster is a wonderful prose stylist, and knows how to build a case and support it with plentiful detail. This powerful account is a remarkable achievement"
– starred review, Publishers Weekly
"A spirited romp through human history [...] This is a magpie book full of intriguing anthropological sketches [...] Fits neatly into the growing library of modern British natural history writing, alongside the best of Nan Shepherd, Robert Macfarlane, and Roger Deakin"
– starred review, Kirkus
"Foster is an amiable narrator. He is self-deprecating, feminist, in awe of what the natural world has to teach him. His observations [...] align firmly with those of Donna Haraway and Amitav Ghosh in recalling us to the epic mysticism of existence"
– Irish Times
"Clever, funny and wise [...] Being a Human delivers mind-expanding revelation and glorious originality and colour [...] This is my book of the year"
– Patrick Barkham, author of The Butterfly Isles