Saturday, December 4

Being a Human Review: Two Go Crazy in the Stone Age | Science and Nature Books


CHarles Foster’s previous book, Be a beast, it’s one of the weirdest things I’ve ever read. In it, the author, a lawyer, law professor, part-time judge and former veterinarian, tries to live like a series of animals, often in the company of his charming and highly dyslexic eight-year-old son, Tom. We see Foster eating worms and burrowing in the dirt like a badger, swimming naked like an otter, foraging for food in containers like a fox. Now Foster is back with a follow up, Human being, which acknowledges the accusations of eccentricity and even insanity that were pointed out in the last book.

Foster’s new work continues the project of his predecessor, although this time, rather than seeking to understand the brain and body of animals, his question is closer to home: what does it mean to be human? It begins with a controversial argument: far from being a story of progress, the history of humanity is a story of disenchantment and loss, one in which we have broken our ties with other species and with the natural world in general and in which we live. meager, circumscribed. lives. “Few of us have any idea what kind of creatures we are,” he says and embarks on a quest to find out.

This dazzling and, yes, eccentric book is structured as a tendentious march through time. The first section, by far the longest, dates from the Upper Paleolithic era, between 50,000 and 12,000 years ago. This, according to Foster, is when humans were most essential and authentic. The book begins in winter and meets Foster and the loyal Tom., now 13, and as smart and sensitive as ever, huddled together to live as hunter-gatherers in a Derbyshire forest, feeding on roadkill and carrion.

Or not feed themselves at all. One of the themes found throughout the book is that perhaps the main loss experienced by humans in their march towards modernity is a connection to the supernatural, the numinous, the mystical. “Shamanic experiences are central to any research on human origins,” says Foster, while “regular meals are deadly … Like wolves, we were destined to gorge and starve. Starving cells live longer.” . Foster begins to starve himself (Tom, thankfully, is allowed to eat), seeing bright lights in the pains of his fasting., believing that not eating helps you see beyond the surface of things. “The last thing I ate was a hedgehog,” he says. “That was nine days ago.” Foster meets a man, whom he calls X, and his son, visionary mirrors of Foster and Tom, ghostly visitors from the prehistoric past. He starts listening to a song – “La li-li-li, li-li” – that seems to be the voice of the Upper Palaeolithic.

The second section of the book is set in the Neolithic, about 12,000 years ago, when, according to Foster, “we started to get bored and miserable.” It was at this moment, when we went from hunter-gatherers to farmers, from wandering nomads to settlers, that the “relationship with the natural world changed from a relationship of wonder and dependence on everything, to the control of a few feet and some species.” Tom is conspicuously absent in much of these later sections: he is a son of the Upper Paleolithic and there is no place for him in the dark places of the Neolithic: the slaughterhouse where Foster meets a slaughterhouse called “Steve the Peedo”; the pesticide-soaked industrial farm; the fox hunt (all that Foster sees as the logical conclusions of the processes started in the Neolithic).

The final section of the book is the Enlightenment, where the pernicious methods of the Neolithic took hold and codified and where the last elements of mysticism were lost to the hyper-rationalism of the scientists and philosophers of the 18th century. It was here that we finally condemned ourselves to “modern life behind bars,” to “the delusions of security: pension policies, smart investments, a big house with an electric garage door, and the peak of shopping malls.”

Foster is a beautiful writer and an attractive companion throughout this strange and sometimes maddening book. The argument that we as a species have lost something in our passage from wandering animism to settled civilization is a powerful one, and is widely supported by scholarly citations and dense footnotes, although the reader also finds evidence in favor of the thesis on Foster’s own life. . There is a kind of book of shadows that is revealed through the pages of Human being, one in which Foster is using the freedom of the hunter-gatherer as a way to strike down the limitations of his suburban Oxford existence, the father of six and the husband of a “prudent wife.”

Foster must be a nightmare to live with. “I tend to travel abroad alone,” he says, to avoid the “hint” of the experience. “I play whistles, flutes, and a little Celtic harp in pub folk sessions, and the trumpet in a college jazz band, and that keeps the black dog at bay … like playing my instruments at home doesn’t. “. He tells us that he feels “guilty for being a terrible father”, then he goes alone to a wasteland, and only calls his family when “I need someone to check my back for ticks and give me lasagna.” One day, he gets on a boat bound for Bilbao, wanting to sit in a bar among “stevedores and pimps who speak Basque.”

On Human being, Foster has set out to establish “what I need to thrive” and it is clear that this is in part a desire to be free not only from the trappings and conventions of modernity, but also from the burdens and obligations of adulthood. As a manifesto for life, I’m not sure it works: Foster certainly doesn’t seem like a happier man despite all his rampant shamanic experimentation. However, as the subject of a book, it is a wonderfully fun read if it is a completely insane read.

Human being by Charles Foster is published by Profile (£ 16.99). To support the guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply


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