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Good Reads  Evolutionary Biology  Human Evolution

Being a Human Adventures in 40,000 Years of Consciousness

Nature Writing
By: Charles HW Foster(Author)
379 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Profile Books
Being a Human
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  • Being a Human ISBN: 9781788167185 Paperback Jun 2022 In stock
  • Being a Human ISBN: 9781788167178 Hardback Aug 2021 Out of Print #252883
Selected version: £10.99
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About this book

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.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A decidedly mixed bag
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 17 Jan 2022 Written for Hardback

    In Being a Human, Charles Foster attempts to inhabit three past eras to find out first-hand how humans came to be who they are. He lives like an Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer, an early farmer in the Neolithic, and he briefly visits the Enlightenment – or so we are promised. When I received this book, I was, admittedly, slightly unsure. Any attempt to live like past humans, especially hunter-gatherers, is fraught with difficulties as so many things have irrevocably changed: the flora and fauna, the landscape, the knowledge most of us have gained but also lost, or the fact that we lived in large communal groups. When the flap text also mentions shamanic journeys I was fearing the worst: am I about to witness yet another affluent man's mid-life crisis?

    In short, the answer is no. Or at least, not immediately. Foster, an erstwhile veterinary student who is now a barrister teaching medical law and ethics, previously wrote Being a Beast in which he tries to inhabit the world of several animals. Here he takes this exercise in method-acting to the human world. The book is divided into three parts and purposefully spends most pages on life in the Upper Palaeolithic, fewer on the Neolithic, and only a short section on the Enlightenment, commensurate with how long humans inhabited these periods. He also makes it clear from the outset that this is less re-enactment and more thought experiment, an attempt to enter the mental and spiritual world of these people. Fair enough on both points, and I was happy to read the book in that spirit.

    I found the first part very enjoyable, revolving as it did around four long wild-camping trips with his 13-year-old son in each season. Here, he shows a healthy amount of humility and self-deprecation. He admits that "we are just messing around" and how the vicinity of the nearby village shop "means that we're bogus" (p. 29), how "the grumble of [a nearby] road makes a nonsense of our experiment" (p. 45). Or how, when his son gets into the spirit of things, he is put out: "This is my project, not his. I'm the sensitive one, the one with the psychic pretensions" (p. 96).

    It also features some amazing writing, in places poetic and rich with metaphors such as when listening out for the sound of water dissolving rock: "the hum of eroding rock resonating with the eroding cells of my own body, and it brings a sort of macabre comfort. It's quite something to share solidarity with a limestone cliff, even when the solidarity is in the fact that we're both dissolving" (p. 139). In others, it is base and pungent: "The last thing I ate was a hedgehog. That was nine days ago. From the taste of them, hedgehogs must start decomposing even when they're alive and in their prime. This one's still down there somewhere, and my burps smell like a maggot farm" (p. 71). This part is a gonzo road trip into the birth of consciousness, symbolism, and language, accompanied by carefully annotated diversions into archaeology and anthropology.

    But then.

    The shorter part covering the Neolithic is quite a contrast. Instead of the full immersion attempted above, Foster is more an observer, occasionally mentioning short periods helping out at various farms. It is a shame, as he had the opportunity: two Welsh friends are doing an honest attempt to recreate life in this period. Why did he not sign up with his son for several apprenticeships throughout the seasons? Gone, too, are the humility and self-deprecation; my impression is that Foster comes to this period with strong preconceptions. He largely rehashes the "agriculture was our fall from grace" narrative that others such as Harari and Diamond have expounded amd gives a serviceable summary of some points raised in Against the Grain. I agree with many things he says, but also feel he is a tad too confident in his assertions, glossing over both subtleties and uncertainties. He catches himself in a few places ("I'm generalising too wildly. I'm judging the whole by the worst. I have tendencies that way" (p. 219), or "I'm doing it again – libelling a whole massive epoch" (p. 222)) but then goes ahead and does it anyway.

    When we get to the Enlightenment section the book derailed completely for me. Instead of an attempt to inhabit this period we get a 35-page screed against the dogma of materialism. How did we get here? The setting is a dinner with several Oxford scholars, one of which makes fun of his project and asks him: "why all this theological mumbo-jumbo?" (p. 305). Foster's response: "The experiences you choose to call supernatural are completely natural ones" (p. 306). Pipes up one of the guests: what are we talking about here? The list Foster gives includes, but is not limited to, clairvoyance, out-of-body experiences, precognition, telepathy, etc. In his eyes, Enlightenment thinking exorcised mind and soul from the non-human world, leading to dualism and then materialism, with everything else unworthy of study. Rather than, in true Enlightenment spirit, questioning everything, he feels "the fingers of the thought police on my collar, and the chill of stifled dissent" (p. 314). "For the Enlightenment Taliban, science isn't a method: it's a religion" (p. 315). When he then trots out Rupert Sheldrake and quantum mechanics I, momentarily, lost it.

    The reason I am disappointed with how the book devolves is not that I disagree with his ideas (though I do), but with how poorly written it is. To be clear, I agree that scientific developments have been used to exploit the natural world. When he mentions the universal use of the phrase "natural resources", I was reminded of Eileen Crist's Abundant Earth. However, as before, he catches himself – "I hate the shrill fundamentalism in me that's elicited by the Professor's shrill fundamentalism" (p. 310) – and then proceeds regardless. Granted, Foster is honest and does not hold back but there is little nuance here. Some generalisations and logical fallacies stood out in particular for me.

    Foster discards the whole scientific enterprise based on the ridicule from a few, claims science does not question everything but then falls back on special pleading when discussing the investigations that scrutinise paranormal phenomena and fail to find anything ("it doesn't work under controlled laboratory conditions!"), invokes quantum mechanics – my dear, how frequently you are abused – in support of the paranormal, and finishes by claiming a conspiracy of silence because scientists would be afraid to undermine the paradigm on which their careers are built.

    Overall, then, I found this book a decidedly mixed bag. I really enjoyed how it started, but was very disappointed by how it veered off course from its promised attempt to inhabit these three historical periods and ended in an incoherent diatribe.
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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.

Nature Writing
By: Charles HW Foster(Author)
379 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Profile Books
Media reviews

– 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

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