Book review – Being a Human: Adventures in 40,000 Years of Consciousness

9-minute read

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 (you cannot really unsee germ theory) but also lost (who here can kill and prepare an animal or make a fire without modern tools?), 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?

Being a Human

Being a Human: Adventures in 40,000 Years of Consciousness, written by Charles Foster, published in Europe by Profile Books and in the US by Metropolitan Books in August 2021 (hardback, 272 pages)

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).

“[The first] part is a gonzo road trip into the birth of consciousness, symbolism, and language [and] features some amazing writing”

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 scouring has its own sound […] 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. I regret its death under the wheels of a cattle truck far more than its parents or children can possibly do” (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. He gives a serviceable summary of some points raised in Against the Grain; e.g. how farming was slow to catch on, and how it seems to have spread by farmers pushing out hunter–gatherers, rather than the latter adopting farming practices, a finding supported by ancient DNA studies. 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.

“Foster comes to [the Neolithic] with strong preconceptions […] 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.”

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, with the inviting professor rather patronisingly making fun of his project and asking 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 my shit.

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 excellent book 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. Foster is honest and does not hold back, I will give him this much, but there is little nuance here. Five generalisations and logical fallacies stood out in particular for me.

“the Enlightenment section [is where] 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.”

First, I agree that some of the ridicule he experiences is unwarranted and that some academics are closed-minded, but for Foster this corrupts the whole scientific enterprise, which is a gross exaggeration. Do I think there is more between heaven and earth? We cannot rule it out, but the evidence in favour so far is not convincing. Leading to point two; trying to throw Enlightenment values back at science is a favourite tactic of peddlers of the paranormal. Fact is, in the last three centuries scientists have questioned, and answered, many things. My impression is that some people do not like the answers. Leading to point three; many supernatural ideas, such as telepathy mentioned here, have simply not stood up to scrutiny, and we cannot replicate its extraordinary claims. Foster falls back on special pleading: “outside the laboratory […] in the realm of well-attested story, the effects are often much more dramatic” (p. 325) and “the laboratory experiment necessarily excludes the conditions that are the usual context and justification for direct Mind-to-Mind interaction of the dramatic kind” (p. 326). I find it hard to believe that I have to mention that the plural of anecdote is not data, and that humans are notoriously prone to wishful thinking, seeing patterns in noise, confirmation bias, etc.

Fourth, I do not really understand quantum mechanics, but as physicist Sean Carroll points out, neither do physicists. Foster admits to no such thing and instead confirms my suspicion that quantum mechanics must be one of the most abused notions in science, taken out of context at every turn. I am not sure that we can scale up from quantum entanglement to telepathy (Foster admits this much but points to the ideas of physicist Erich Joos to prop it up. I would like to hear the thoughts of Joos and others on this). And fifth, because it gets better, Foster claims that the reason there has been no systematic investigation of these phenomena (which contradicts what he wrote earlier) “is, simply, fear that the existing paradigm, on the basis of which all modern scientific careers in the biological and related sciences have been built, might be destroyed” (p. 325). And there we have it, we tie a neat little bow around it all with claims of a grand conspiracy of silence.

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.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Being a Human

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:



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