Charles Foster is an English writer, a traveler, a veterinarian, a taxidermist, a barrister, and a philosopher. Like my previous guest Steven Kotler, he believes in getting deep into subjects in a very immersive and experiential way. In his earlier book called Being a Beast, Charles shares his experiences of trying to live as an otter, a badger, a stagg, a fox and other animals and birds, all in order to better understand what being a wild animal is really like. His latest book is called Being a Human, where he and his 13-year-old son live in the wilderness as Paleolithic hunter gatherers to really understand what it means to be human.
Charles rolls up his sleeves and puts himself into the shoes of our ancestors going back many thousands of years. And when asked why he bothers to drag himself and his children off into caves, he answers as follows: because I don’t trust books, and you get a wholly different kind of knowledge by doing and feeling things. So this is a man trying to be a better human, a better father, a better son, a better husband, a man who dives deep into a subject in order to enhance his understanding of arguably the most important topic that faces us all. He’s a traveler through time and space. Being a Human is a travel book, essentially, about traveling across generations, and Charles’s curiosity is infectious.
Mark Bidwell 0:39
Hi, this is Mark Bidwell, welcome back to the third episode in the new season of the OutsideVoices Podcast. The season started with Steven Kotler exploring how to learn, how to find flow, how to stay young as you get into middle age. Steven’s very immersive experiment, learning to park ski at the ripe old age of 55, significantly impacted me prompting me to take on two physically challenging experiments similar to his experiments, which a number of people who know me quite well have come up to me and said, Mark, you should know better, I’m far too old for that. Our second guest was Kevin Kelly, someone else who has shaped my thinking and my work over the last few years. Kevin’s new book, Excellent Advice for Living, not surprisingly, is excellent. And his insights about how we’re going to be using AI technologies, which he characterizes as universal AI assistants, and their role in elevating ourselves and humanity were very, very interesting and prompted me to explore some creative projects in that area. And my third guest this week is someone like Kevin, with very broad interests. Charles Foster is an English writer, a traveler, a veterinarian, a taxidermist, a barrister, and a philosopher. And like Steven, he believes in really getting deep into subjects in a very immersive, experiential way. In an earlier book, which I read of his, called Being a Beast, had Charles living as an otter, a badger, a stag, a fox and other animals and birds, all in order to better understand what being a wild animal is really like. Now, his latest book is called Being a Human, where he and his 13-year-old son live in the wilderness as Paleolithic hunter gatherers, to really understand what it means to be human. And this is a question that all of us, to some extent, to a greater or lesser extent are addressing. And Charles really digs into it and rolls up his sleeves and lives, puts himself into the shoes of our forefathers, our ancestors going back many 1000s of years. And when he was asked by a professor with whom he was having dinner at Oxford College, why he bothers to drag himself and his poor children off into caves, he answers as follows: “because I don’t trust books, and you get a wholly different kind of knowledge by doing and feeling things”, which is, of course, the right answer for someone doing what Charles does. But it just reminds us of the importance of actually getting out there and doing stuff versus reading and talking about it. And that’s one of the reasons why I love this book. So this is a man trying to be a better human, a better father, a better son, a better husband, a man who looks at the world through very different perspectives, someone who dives deep into a subject and immerses himself in order to enhance his understanding of arguably the most important topic that faces us all. He’s a traveler through time and through space. It is a travel book, essentially, traveling across generations, and his curiosity is infectious. I hope I have done justice to Charles and his work with the interview that follows. So here is Charles Foster.
Mark Bidwell 3:58
Welcome to the program, Charles, thank you very much for joining.
Charles Foster 4:01
Glad to be here. Thank you.
Mark Bidwell 4:02
We first met, virtually, just before COVID. And I’d read your first book, Being a Beast. Then COVID got in the way, so I’m very pleased that now that we are getting back together. You’ve got another book out called Being a Human. But before we get into your work as an author, I think I’m right in saying you’re a barrister, you’re a vet, you’re an academic and you’ve written something like, someone who mentioned to me, over 30 books is that correct?
Charles Foster 4:29
Depends how you count, I suppose, but too many.
Mark Bidwell 4:31
It’s a remarkably broad range of professional activities. There’s an expression of, are you a fox or are you a hedgehog? A fox being someone who’s able to draw from an eclectic array of traditions versus a hedgehog who is very deep, but very narrow in expertise. So it might be characterizing me more as a fox than a hedgehog, but I’m curious – two questions: of such a diverse range of professional activities, how did you land on those? And second, how do you spend your time across those? Because they’re all quite, though I’m sure there are some connections, they all feel quite unrelated as well, and quite challenging from a time perspective, I’d have thought.
Charles Foster 5:09
So how did I land? Well, I was a passionate childhood naturalist, and the natural world has always been my inspiration. I’ve always come back to the natural world when I’ve been hurt. I’ve always gone to the natural world when I wanted to be really entranced, and so veterinary medicine was an obvious thing to do. At that time I was laboring under the misapprehension that, in order to understand the real nature of something, you needed to understand how the various parts worked, that you could understand something by cutting it up. And that’s what veterinary medicine teaches. And there are some insights that one can learn from, and knowledge of the anatomy and physiology of the distinct parts. But there are also lots of things that you miss by that analysis. And I became increasingly concerned that the vision of the natural world which was so important to me, was not being captured by this reductionist, murdering, dissecting approach, which is the approach of medicine and veterinary medicine. And that took me increasingly into wondering how I should try to recapture that wonder, how I could get a better model of the world, which accorded better with my intuitions about the extraordinariness of the place that we live. And that turned me increasingly philosophic. But you’re right, I became a barrister, and that was encouraged by an epiphany when I was at university. I was studying veterinary medicine at the time, but I happened to go into the law library, and I took out a law report, and I read this extraordinary set of stories about the way in which transcendental principles of the law tried to control the messy things that happened in bedrooms and in pubs. And that collision of the abstract, the transcendental with the mess of real life has fascinated me, and to some extent still fascinates me. Practice at the bar was throwing up all the time, really fascinating ethical problems, and I got frustrated that I didn’t have time to look as closely at those problems as I wanted to, and so I started writing about those problems and drifted increasingly into academia. So now I’m at the University of Oxford, and my academic life is mostly concerned with questions of identity and personhood, and what we can conclude about identity and personhood from dramatic medical situations where, for example, dementia strips us of lots of the attributes which we would normally use to describe us, or traumatic brain injury makes us a radically different person, apparently, from the one that we’ve always thought we were. But although those activities might sound very disparate, I think it’s all the same project. I think it’s all the business of trying to decide what sort of creatures we are. I think there’s a massive queasiness in modern humans about saying what sort of animals we are. And in the olden days, religions gave us satisfactory answers to those questions, or at least answers to those questions that we could work with, which gave us a sense of our dignity, which accorded with our own intuitions about our own importance. So I want to know what sort of creature I am, because it just seems to me that I can’t know what sort of creature I am, unless I conduct a broad range of inquiries, and unless I know what sort of creature I am, how can I say meaningfully anything which involves a personal pronoun? How can I say to my wife or my children, I love you? How can I say this is my, Charles Foster’s set of political views? So I want to know what sort of creature I am. That’s what it’s all about, just a view through various lenses.
Mark Bidwell 9:05
So I didn’t specifically ask, but your academia draws on multiple disciplines, different disciplines, or are you associated with a particular department and have a certain label of academia on you, or you try to avoid that?
Charles Foster 9:20
So I’m a member of the Law Faculty here at the University of Oxford. And as I’ve said, my research there mostly concerns philosophical questions about identity and personhood, and the adequacy of dignity and autonomy as decision making principles, but viewed through the lens of horrible things that happen to people.
Mark Bidwell 9:39
Okay, and then the first book was Being a Beast, and the second book was Being a Human and I think what’s common about them is they’re both deeply immersive experiences for you physically and literally. The first book, Being a Beast, you’ve lived as different animals to try to understand the world through those lenses and then the second book is more about travel, I guess, traveling back through three different time periods. You were looking at the world through the eyes of your father and also your son as well, that was the other element of it. You mentioned that the key driver for the project was to understand more about you. Having done Being a Beast, what were the questions that were left with you, that you felt that you hadn’t answered, that got you into the next project, Being a Human?
Charles Foster 10:22
I was aware in Being a Best that I was trying to do something which in one way was ludicrously impossible, to try to think my way into the sensory world of something very different from me, but in another way, ludicrously simple, because the creatures that I was looking at are not as complex as human beings. So I wanted to try to learn the lessons about being a human that I had learnt in the apprenticeship which I had served as part of the research for Being a Beast. So as you say, immersion, so having immersed myself in the worlds of badgers, foxes, red deer, and so on in Being a Beast, I wondered what would happen if I used that same technique to try to immerse myself in the lives of my human forebears?
Mark Bidwell 11:11
Which was harder? I’m curious if it was much harder than the last project, or could it have been, a badger literally living in a hole and eating worms, from a physical experience point of view, struck me as being quite challenging, but, and we’ll get into it, trying to throw yourself back into the life as a hunter gatherer, did that feel far more psychologically and emotionally harder?
Charles Foster 11:31
It was much harder. Research for Being a Beast was enormous fun. It was fun and games with my family, crawling around on all fours, hand gliding, standing on tops of trees, and trying to enter their sensory world, and so on. But I was always aware that this was going to be a slam dunk failure, I was always aware that I wasn’t going to get very far in this project. And all that I was really looking for, knowing that I was going to fail massively, was some indication that a tiny little bit of otherness was going to be accessible. So the reasoning in Being a Beast was, look, if I can understand even a tiny bit about something as different from me as a badger or fox, maybe I can have a conversation with my children, and my best friends that aren’t at cross purposes, maybe I can get into their heads. And so trying to get into the heads of human ancestors was far more difficult, because there’s a lot more things going on in human heads, and there was a much greater psychological pressure to understand, because I knew that the consequences of that inquiry would impinge on the way that I live my life now in a much more immediate way. It was more difficult because humans, even ancient humans, can lie to us, it’s part of their complexity. The cave paintings are not always telling a straightforward story. So I was burdened by the knowledge that whatever I discovered was bound to change me if I was going to be honest about it. And I was burdened by the ghosts of all these ancestors who were constantly wandering through my intellect and my imagination.
Mark Bidwell 13:17
And appear on the pages, of course, as well.
Charles Foster 13:19
And appear as literal ghosts on some of the pages.
Mark Bidwell 13:24
Let’s start with the first period of history, the Paleolithic period. I think you characterise it as, if you’re walking through a museum tracing history, you get into a room where you see a nuclear family around a fire with a tool. That’s where the museum starts getting interesting, that this is a hunter-gatherer construct of society, and this is, what, 30-40,000 years ago?
Charles Foster 13:28
40,000 to 50,000 maybe, let’s split the difference at 45,000. All of these human revolutions are not terribly speedy revolutions, and they happen at different times and different places of the world. But they’d say 45,000.
Mark Bidwell 14:00
And it was the beginning of, I suppose, the archaeological record that you relied on to some extent was the cave paintings, at the time of which you referred to as, when consciousness had appeared and pronouns were beginning to be used by individuals. And that was characterised by the archeological paintings, which were almost, I think you said, that’s a travel journal or a travel book for man back in those days.
Charles Foster 14:26
Yes. So the first observation to make is this: my book, Being a Human, like lots of books about the archaeology of early behaviour in modern humans, is a very Eurocentric book. So more and more, we’re recognising that lots more happened and happened earlier in Africa than we previously realised. But this ignition of behaviour in modern consciousness probably happened in Europe at about, say 45,000 or so years ago. And you can see it, not in the very early phases in those cave paintings, but in, as you said, the transition from extremely boring dowdy artifacts in the human evolution galleries, to things which shout out “I, I, I”, and therefore having them implicit the notion of the same sort of relationship with thou, thou thou, as we recognise as central to modern human relationships, which are our defining characteristic. We are our relationships. And we see quite early depictions of the human figure, we see a desire to beautify artifacts, to indicate that there is something sacramental about our quotidian activities of eating and hunting. So we see an expression of our own moral significance embedded there in the very earliest traces of Upper Paleolithic life. And we also see hunter-gatherer wandering activity. So, walking, journey, constant transition from place to place, and no doubt from idea to idea. It would seem to me that the business of simply putting one actual metaphorical, one physical or figurative foot in front of one another all the time is part of what we mean when we say we’re behaviourally modern, so humans are creatures who are constantly remaking themselves, who are seeing themselves as on a journey, each step of which takes them into new realms, each of which needs to be understood, respected. And the other really important thing that you see at this time is recognition of the moral significance of everything else in the world, the nonhuman world. It seems clear enough that although they meant not to put themselves front in this way, the whole of the nonhuman world was ensouled, which creates a terrible problem if you’ve got to eat. It means that whenever you’re hungry, you have to de-soul something else. And that requires, if you’re ethical about it, a strenuous choreography of request to the animal to allow it to be killed, of thanks to the animal that has allowed to be killed.
Mark Bidwell 17:19
And compare that to today, I was checking this number before, every human being is responsible, not responsible, but basically there are 180 animals slaughtered per year per head of population on this planet. Those two positions are rather different, you can’t do that if you felt all the animals had souls, of course.
Charles Foster 17:40
No. It puts a burden on us to justify genuinely the way that we eat. I’m not a vegetarian, but the death of an animal is not something that can be taken lightly. So we eat meat, if there is something serious to be celebrated. And the equation goes, will the world as a result of our celebration, be overall a better place, so much better place that it outweighs the evil of killing this animal. And there’s another utilitarian calculation going on, I suppose, as well, in relation to some of these animals. If there weren’t the animal food industry, lots of animals would exist happily now and have on balance happy lives, wouldn’t exist. By denying them the opportunity to exist, you’re diminishing the amount of their happiness in the world, therefore, let them live, and kill them decently and eat them respectfully in order to maximise the amount of good in the world. But it is certainly not true that the life of a battery chicken contains more good than it does evil.
Mark Bidwell 18:50
Yep, that might be one of the things we touch on, your visit to the slaughterhouse. But let’s get back to it, so as you were entering this world, the world of hunter gatherers, which I think it’s fair to say it was probably the favourite place in the three time zones that you inhabited, is that a fair characteristic or not?
Charles Foster 19:06
It was the favourite place, because I realised quite early on that I, like you, like all humans are at bottom, hunter gatherers, and returning to what we really are is an exciting and affirming and, for us, modern people, exhilarating and sometimes shocking, but always formative experience. So I like doing it for that reason. I have a psychological aversion to being sedentary, and so I feared these latest sedentary phases of the book. But the hunter gatherer phase of that book is hugely longer than the subsequent phases. That’s not just because I enjoyed researching and writing that section more. It’s to reflect the far greater length of time that we spent as hunter gatherers than anything else. Depending on how you do calculation, between 75%-95% of our time as humans. That’s what we really are, strip the suit off a Stuttgart banker, and you find the hunter gatherer beneath. That’s what we really are, and it seems to me that our modern health, both psychological and physical and political and sociological depends to a large extent on coming to terms with our hunter-gatherishness, and on grafting that insight somehow into the way we live our modern lives. So it was a more urgent as well as a more congenial quest.
Mark Bidwell 20:37
And your 13-year-old son I think at the time, he took to it like a fish to water or a duck to water, didn’t he? And it seemed to me that he was able to adapt far more quickly than you to that environment, is that fair?
Charles Foster 20:50
Absolutely. Partly because he’s a child, and as Plato said about knowledge, the whole business of knowing anything is the process of unforgetting. So as we grow older as human beings, we forget more and more and more about what things are really like, and what things are really for, as opposed to the whole process of the Romantic movement. It was the process of making ourselves children again, giving ourselves child-like, but not childish eyes with which to see the world. So yeah, Tom, not having my pretensions as an adult about the way the world is, not having my delusional self-confidence about my ability to construe the world was better able to see it. But also, he’s more plastic than I am as a 13-year-old, therefore more adaptable, but also, he has the glorious gift of dyslexia. So he doesn’t construe the world in linguistic terms in the same way that I do. So I’m sitting at my desk in Oxford at the moment, and I’m looking out at a tree. And as I look at that tree, I get some visual images from it, which are hitting my retina and I’m translating those visual images almost immediately into things that have nothing to do with that actual tree. So I remembered fragments of poems about trees, remembered physiological facts about trees, but I’m not really looking at that tree. Tom, because of his dyslexia, doesn’t do that, he doesn’t live in a linguistic world, which is a self-referential and self-reverential world. He lives in the real world. Tom, if he looked out the window, would see the tree in a way that I can’t. And I think that that was how people acted in the first few thousand years of modern human consciousness. Yes, they had language, but language wasn’t tyranous. It was a tool for them, they used it to represent the world out rather than it, language, or the nerdish left hemisphere or how he would put it, telling them how the world should be, dictating the terms with which they should perceive the world. So Thomas, as well as being fantastic company, was a great research tool, and I had alongside me someone who was very similar to an Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherer cognitively. And he’s also an expert at the practical things, so much better at building shelters, is much better at skinning rabbits, is much, much more patient in collecting berries, all the skills which hunter-gatherers needed to have in them.
Mark Bidwell 23:27
Yes, now you’ve answered my first question, which was your quote, I’ve never seen a tree, never seen a dog, at least as an adult. But you’ve answered that, so we tick that question off my list. But I’ve always thought it is interesting, one of my questions towards the end of this will be, what can individuals sitting at their workplace do today, what can they take from your inquiry? Because I’ve always found the kind of work that I’ve been drawn to has got far more the characteristics of hunter-gatherer work than the more structured process-oriented sedentary management work for instance. I am talking about the corporate world, but for me, hunter gatherer – it’s sales, it’s business development, and mergers and acquisitions. It’s project-based work, where you felt that you weren’t suffocated and had to do something for three years before the next thing came along. But I’m not sure how far the analogy goes, or how far that would take our frame of reference into the world of work, because it’s changing so quickly, and everyone’s experience is different, I guess.
Charles Foster 24:25
Yes, but the business has been constantly on the move, the business of coping with an entirely new environment every step of the way, is a very modern corporate and hunter-gatherer way of looking at this.
Mark Bidwell 24:39
Yeah, so then let’s move to the next phase. It feels to me that we become, as humans, more suffocated, there’s more structure put in place, there’s more, I wouldn’t say evils, but certainly some of the social hierarchies are imposed, ownership is imposed. As we move from the hunter-gatherer Paleolithic world to the Neolithic world, more social division. The word progress, which I know how you’re going to respond to, I’ve heard in previous interviews you’ve given, that you’ve got quite a strong view on the word progress. But can you talk a little bit about that journey, both your physical journey from Paleolithic and Neolithic, and what are some of the theories that were coming out of that?
Charles Foster 25:19
Well, the physical journey was coming out of the woods, stopping wandering, going back into an agricultural society, and seeing in various places in the world what the business of agriculture had done to our relationship with the natural world and our relationship with ourselves. So in the Upper Paleolithic phase, we had seen ourselves as part of the natural world. We hadn’t seen ourselves as in any way masters of it, although there were circumstances which were discussed, in which it was legitimate to crop the natural world. We were always very conscious that the natural world was ultimately going to crop us, that we were going to be eaten by the worlds which sometimes we could eat. Our relationship with the nonhuman world changed radically with the Neolithic Revolution. So I postulate in the book that that revolution, wrong word really, might have come about when fire was used on a big scale in order to clear forest for the grazing of animals, because you were killing huge amounts of animals at a time. It just wasn’t possible to go through the necessary liturgy in order to say, please can I kill you, and thank you for letting me kill you, if you’re destroying things on such an enormous scale. So there needed to be a radical realignment of human’s relationship with the natural world and the obvious one, whether or not it involved the invocation of a sky god who could give you the necessary forgiveness for what you’ve done, or whether that didn’t involve the invocation of such God, led to the notion that humans were different from the things which they were destroying, that they were in a situation of control, of mastery over these things. it gave us in one stroke, several strokes over several thousand years, but it came to the same thing, a sense of our own importance. It was a hubristic moment. And we all know what happens if your hubris, a nemesis ultimately happens. Goodness, aren’t we seeing that nemesis now? So if you have a notion of yourself as a master over the things of the forest, what more natural than to think, oh, I can have mastery over and control over the women in my clan. So you have sexual division, have social hierarchies, that are very rare in much more egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies, you have war, partly, I’m sure, as a result of this notion of control, partly as a result of a reliance on one or a few crops. In the hunter-gatherer world, if you’d fail to catch the caribou at that particular mountain pass that year, you just move to a different food source. And you are a brilliant naturalist, you had a massive ecological smorgasbord on which to graze. Your eggs literally weren’t in one basket. And when we come to the agricultural world, if your harvest failed in your fields near Jericho, you would starve, unless you took your flint tip spears, and went to take the bounty of the harvest from your neighbors across the hill. So we get lots of things coming together: hierarchies, war, and because communities now got larger, we also have the birth of all the diseases which have taken such a toll on mankind. You have epidemics of lots of infectious diseases, you have dental caries, and you have industrial disability of various kinds, as the women typically are sitting all day grinding, we see arthritis from repetitive activities for the first time in their skeletons. We see Us, and it’s really not a very pretty picture.
Mark Bidwell 29:18
This is when I think medieval superstitions start appearing, is that fair to say? Or have I got my facts wrong here? Medieval might be the wrong word.
Charles Foster 29:25
Past superstitions or concerns, if we go back to the Upper Paleolithic, we have this idea that everything has agency. And the shamans in the Upper Paleolithic world would go on journeys to the other world, which might have been conceived as over the cave wall, which is one of the reasons why you have those immaculately conceived paintings of bison for example, with the back leg of the bison missing. Is it because the artists got lazy or didn’t know the bison had four legs? No, it’s because one leg of the bison is on the other side of the cave wall, in the other world, the world to which the shaman went in order to get knowledge, to get gifts to bring back. And you had, I’m sure as you have in modern hunter-gatherer societies, insofar as we haven’t destroyed them, a clairvoyant relationship with animals and plants and even rocks, this is an animistic world, full of spirits. I think what happened in the Neolithic world was that the orientation of the spiritual world became different. It had previously been horizontal. My relationship with the plant next door, my relationship with the rock across the valley. In the Neolithic, we got sky gods for the first time, which may have been identified with the sun, may have been identified with something more abstract. But that diluted the intensity of our relationship with the things on the same plane as us. But I think, as far as superstitions are concerned, we have always been creatures with an idea that we ourselves are spiritual creatures, and that everything else is to some extent a spiritual culture, until we get to the Enlightenment, which we might come to in the course of our conversation. Yes, superstition, interpreted those relationships in slightly different ways in the various ages, but there was still that conviction that we weren’t just made of stuff, and the other things weren’t just made of stuff. There were other ways of communicating with them, which weren’t merely material, and that we endured. So in the Upper Paleolithic it is perfectly clear that the agency of the human dead increased after their death, that they weren’t just snuffed out. And I think that’s a thought which continues through the Neolithic period. So this superstition was reframed in the Neolithic period, but I think it had broadly the same content as it earlier had.
Mark Bidwell 30:01
We touched on the Neolithic, you visit a farmer controlling vast numbers of acres with lots of equipment and a couple of workers. And then you also visit the slaughterhouse. Both of those are pretty grim illustrations of where the subjection of nature, which was a characteristic of Neolithic life, has got us to. Particularly the slaughterhouse was a very, very grim few pages of reading, I must say.
Charles Foster 32:37
Yes. Any Upper Paleolithic hunter gatherer going to any modern slaughterhouse would be appalled. I think they would use the language of blasphemy, they might not be clear about which God was being offended, but it will be the language of sacrilege.
Mark Bidwell 32:53
Then we move to the Enlightenment, which is a very short period of the book for the reasons you mentioned earlier on. But you talk about, there was some great quote with which the chapter started, and it gives you a preview of forthcoming attractions – “When a well packaged web of lies has been sold gradually to the masses over generations, their truth will seem utterly preposterous, and its speaker a raving lunatic.” And your dinner at your college, I guess, characterised it slightly differently?
Charles Foster 33:25
Importantly, it wasn’t my college.
Mark Bidwell 33:28
I wasn’t going to ask you where it was.
Charles Foster 33:30
No dysfunctional conversations like that happened at my college, which was a very convenient…
Mark Bidwell 33:40
The book was so immersive, I could see that very, very easily, I could hear that conversation. Was that almost verbatim, or was it a mixture of a number of conversations, just to make the point?
Charles Foster 33:58
It was a cocktail of a number of real conversations. So yes, there wasn’t one single, horrific, high table night when these conversations happened. I drew fragments of conversations together from various places and various times together, but those conversations did happen.
Mark Bidwell 34:17
It was basically a clash of your perspective versus, and you had a very quiet, unfortunately, supporter, the physiologists who decided to remain quiet throughout the dinner and then you were battling with the Shakespearean and with, I suppose, the Professor Black I think it was, right?
Charles Foster 34:37
Yeah. And I’ve been criticized as creating strawmen and putting words into their mouths, which I know I’ll be able to easily respond to, but those words were said, and they’re said day by day, moment by moment, in the academy without any embarrassment. So we do seem to have in the Academy a real sort of set of hermetically sealed silos of people, particularly in biology, where people won’t let their feelings about their wife and their children and their own significance intrude into the way that they do their biology. They won’t let the insights of particle physics intrude into the way they do their biology. They seem often to be far more attached to their old stale teaching paradigms than they are to the truth of the matter, which is very much an un-Enlightenment way of looking at things. The Enlightenment is supposed to be about completely fearless inquiry, you go where the evidence leads. But that’s not the way that a lot of modern biology happens. Here, you don’t go where the evidence leads, you go where the old paradigm tells you you must go. And then when you come home, and you embrace your child, you know that the love that you feel for your child is not explicable by kin selection or reciprocal altruism, or any other odd ways. But when you go back into the lab, and on your job the next day, you forget what happened when you were telling your child a bedtime story. It also troubles me that there is this big division between the poetic imagination, which is brought to a lot of research in physics on the distant borders of the subject, on the one hand, and biology. So we know that time doesn’t behave in the way that biology just assumes that it does. We know that spacetime is an illusion, we know that everything is as a matter of fact, connected to everything else, we know that the electrons, which are spinning in a molecule in my thigh, are spinning in the way that they are, because the electrons in a molecule on the far side of the universe are spinning that way, and vice versa. And we know that, if anything has been close to another thing, it affects the behaviour of that thing forever, instantaneously, and at whatever distance. And we know that the action of observers affects what is observed. This is the basic Einsteinian premise. All these observations which are a trite for the physicists have not been brought to bear very often in the way that lots of modern biology is done. Biology, to a large extent, is so stuck stutteringly in the 19th century. And that’s a shame because, fascinated though I am with the world of physics, the orbits of the planets, the behaviour of subatomic particles, those things aren’t as fascinating or as significant to me as life. Mars is not as interesting to me as Mark Bidwell is, and certainly not as interesting as my children. So it’s a shame that this almost mystical way of looking at the world, which is given to us by physics, is not imported into that part of the world, namely, the biological world which we inhabit.
Mark Bidwell 38:23
So let’s get specific, because one of the events, I don’t know whether it triggered the event, but you touched on it at the beginning, is your out of body experience several years ago. And then there were some other cameo events, which you touched on in the book, there was your father’s transistor radio turned on up more after death. And then there was the story of meeting the woman at a late night, was it in Vietnam or in Thailand, the woman who’d had a brain injury, a head injury, and all electrical devices near her ceased to operate. There were a number of things that were pretty hard to explain, that you touch on in the book, a number of situations. How do you think about those, having been through your inquiry? Or what lens would you look at those situations through?
Charles Foster 39:14
As entirely unsurprising, given the web and weave of the cosmos as it now appears to me to be, and the thing which stops us from perceiving more of those sorts of things is not that they’re not out there but that we’re not tuned in. And I think there was a time, a hunter gatherer time, when we had the faculties to view these things as part of the natural world. So I don’t think these are supernatural. I think these are natural, and that we have become atrophied and truncated. And at the beginning of the Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen, he uses an epigraph from Rainer Maria Rilke which says something like, this is at bottom the one thing that was demanded of us, to have courage for most strange, the most singular that may happen, that mankind has in this sense been cowardly has done life endless harm. The experiences that are called “visions”, the whole so-called “spirit world”, all these things which are so close to us and so akin to us have by daily parrying, been so crowded out of life, that the faculties within which we might have grasped them have atrophied. And that summarises my position.
Mark Bidwell 40:24
And presumably, that was what was going through the minds of the physiologist at dinner who decided not to say anything.
Charles Foster 40:30
Mark Bidwell 40:31
We haven’t quite got the order right, but I think there’s a quote here aroun, maybe we go to the quote: shamans are central to any inquiry into human origins. And you touched on, I think you had an encounter with a shaman. And obviously, I think the original book that you referred to, The Mind in the Cave by David Lewis Williams, talks quite a lot about shamans as well. Can you share a bit more about that quote? My understanding of shamans, maybe it’s a reflection of how I define shamans because there are all sorts of shamans who probably don’t call themselves shamans who we’ve come across in our lives. But today, most shamans are probably associated with people who lead people on Ayahuasca ceremonies in a Peruvian jungle and stuff. But how do you define shamans? And why do you say they’re so important to this inquiry into human origins?
Charles Foster 41:27
So I see a shaman or a shaman as someone who shuttles between this plane in which we normally live and others, in order to bring back some sort of information, or some sort of gifts from that other world. An intermediary, a priest of some sort, they’re a bridge builder, a shuttle. And I think that shamans are connected with the ignition of modern human consciousness in the way that David Lewis Williams suggests, namely that shamans go to wherever it is they go to, some other plane of existence, and from that distant perspective, they look back at the world that they have left. And they get a perspective on that quotidian world, which gives them the objectivity to say that these creatures are discrete from one another in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise have been. To see both individuation and connection in a way which hadn’t previously been visible, and Lewis Williams devots the whole book to explain exactly how that might have occurred, and it seems convincing to me. And as you’ve suggested, we have lots of modern examples of shamans, it may be that the best model of the shaman that we have is the model of Christ. So here is someone who, like an apprentice shaman undergoes horrific torture and death, goes to another place, does some work there, and then comes back in order to deliver a benefit to the community. So that is the motif, which is all of a piece with the way that shamanic cultures operate.
Mark Bidwell 43:22
Interesting. Interesting. I’m mindful of time, can I just run through a couple of other unrelated questions? Well, not unrelated, but they might feel unrelated. But coal tar soap appears quite frequently in the book. What does that mean? And the reason I asked this, because having read it, I made a note to actually go buy some when I’m next in the UK, because I’ve responded very viscerally to the idea of it, just because of the smell, and it sends me deep back into my childhood. What does it mean for you, and why did you include it on several occasions?
Charles Foster 43:54
My father used it. He was religiously devoted to it. In the book, the constant reappearance of the smell of coal tar soap was an indication that my father was there in some way. Like you, it was because my father used it, it’s tied up with my childhood. So perhaps this wasn’t ghostly coal tar soap, maybe this was some harking back to childhood where, as we’ve discussed, I knew more about the way things really are than I do now. I’m sure any half-competent psychoanalyst could have a field day with my coal tar soap.
Mark Bidwell 44:34
Well, the next question relating to that, I think there’s a quote here, maybe I’m not going to get it quite right, but being a proper father, you articulated as sending him, your son, into the cold, to fast and to fear and to learn his story. And then the second piece to this, being a proper son is to wear his father’s burdens around his neck. We haven’t touched on the story, but I think it’s a really important part of this when we come to some of the subsequent insights if you like. But can you say a little bit about being a proper father? That was obviously, you wrote those words, but also there was a feed coming throughout the book, and also your relationship with your father.
Charles Foster 45:13
Yes. I think I’m a very possessive father, I have six children, and I’m very, very bad at letting them go. And I’m conscious that my interest in these hunter gatherer traditions is wholly at odds with the way that I hang on generously to my children. Because we don’t have any more proper rites of passage, we have a rite of passage for teenagers, which is no more significant and no more dignifying, giving them their first iPhone. And they will work out their own rites of passage by drinking cider at a bus shelter, and we’re worth more than that. You talked about a story, and I think that any story, as any writers workshop will tell you, needs to be signposted, and it needs to move through time in a way which makes some coherent sense. Things have to happen, mere self-referential streams of consciousness is extremely boring. And if our stories as human individuals are just homogenous, undifferentiated sacks of sensation, we’re not going to be very interesting or very fulfilled people. And rites of passage play an important part, it would seem to me in the individual human story. There are some obvious ones which are imposed by our biology, marriage, death and so on, but there should be others too. Because we have a duty to shape our lives in accordance with what we know to be right and dignified. So that was what I was talking about when I was talking about wanting to send my own beloved son Tom out to find out the sort of person he is and will be,
Mark Bidwell 47:00
And there’s a breakpoint at piece where he asked you, tell me a story, dad, and you didn’t have one. How would you answer that story today, or that question today? What would be the answer for Tom?
Charles Foster 47:11
I would tell him the whole story that I relate in being a human, namely, a story which parallels the biblical world, doesn’t it? Although I didn’t think of it like this at the time. So, one of relative Eden, when we had a proper relationship with the nonhuman world, and therefore with ourselves, because we’re part of this nonhuman world, a fall when we enter the Neolithic period, a further fall when in the Enlightenment, we conceive the world as a desouled place, we reconceived it as a machine and ourselves demeaningly as mere parts of a machine, but as a story in which we have the agency to turn the clock back and push the clock forward in a way which allows us to learn the lessons of the last 45,000 years or so.
Mark Bidwell 48:06
And is that the Hero’s Journey or not? How different is that from Campbell’s Hero’s Journey?
Charles Foster 48:12
It is similar. I think that all humans are heroes, and in the book, I’m conscious, and I think I apologise towards the end of it for coming over as slightly misanthropic, and always denigrating everything which has happened since the Neolithic Dawn. That is a disappointment which springs from my conviction that we are extraordinary creatures with immense possibilities, and that the disappointment lies in the fact that we don’t realise those possibilities, but we can and must, and I increasingly see, particularly in people of the generation below us, realising that the stories that we have told them about the world and about their place in it are just not up to the job. They know that they’re bigger and better, and more lasting and more significant than we tell them that they are, they are not just homo economicus. They are not just blobs of matter, we are more than that. So the desperate search for a new story is what surely characterises everything which is written in modern literature, everything which produces the tensions in modern politics, although it often takes a dramatically wrong turn. Nationalism is a pathetic pastiche of the story that we should be telling about ourselves, but at its core, there’s a desire to relate more intimately to the land, to the place, to other human beings in a way in which we once did. Yes, it’s taken a horribly perverted form in the modern political arena, but the basic instinct is an old and potentially redeeming one if we direct it right.
Mark Bidwell 50:00
I quote, there are two pieces to the quote, I might have interrupted you – being a proper father, and then being a proper son.
Charles Foster 50:06
So your father’s bones are around your neck. So, certainly in the Neolithic, and almost certainly earlier than that, people would carry their ancestors’ bones around with them when they went on their journeys, or when they went out into the fields to tend to their goats. It was an acknowledgment of the continuity that we biologically have and culturally have. And it was an acknowledgement of the continuing presence of the past, that the most powerful books are those which talk about human beings as able to tune into a past which is still there in the trees, in the mountains, in the rocks, and which in some ways we can access, which in some way affect that the way that we do things. Having your father’s knuckle bones and a necklace around your neck is just a very extreme way of doing that, an extreme way of acknowledging that you’re part of a community of the dead now. And I expect that that mitigates the terror of one’s own biological death too. Lots of the great mystics have talked about the necessity to live one’s death now in order to draw the teeth with which it would ultimately budge you.
Mark Bidwell 51:34
Brilliant. There is not more, but if we close now with this part, my question, I guess, is what’s been the response of the book? I suppose I’m wondering, how would the physiologist have come up to you in the street? How much has this book given people confidence to share with you some of their experiences that might sound a little bit supernatural? How have people responded in the street, or perhaps online to the book in that context? I was interested in your experience.
Charles Foster 52:07
I hope, and I’ve got some reason for saying this, I hope that it has encouraged some people to come out as mystics, which is what I think all human beings really are. To say on a page that you have a feeling that your dead father is there, and to put that thought in the same chapter as thoughts about the Bohr-Einstein debate, makes it respectable to say things about our intuitions, which we’d otherwise feel embarrassed about utterly. So that has happened.
Mark Bidwell 52:45
It has. There were a number of things in the book that certainly triggered memories for me personally, about my parents, about my past, and obviously, then the next question is, what steps can I take as a parent to ensure I do my best to be a good parent? So there were a number of things that resonated for me on a very personal level, and I guess I’m not unique in that sense. You also say that you’re not trying to, you know, there’s a number of questions, and you’re trying to answer about how to improve one’s state. But when we spoke before this meeting, before this call, I asked you the question, what changed most for you? Can you share that, and what do you do differently today, what have you stopped doing? And maybe what have you started doing as a result of your inquiry, and then any other insights? We touched on the need for a new story, for instance, and I’m interested in what’s the ‘so what’ from your work in this book?
Charles Foster 53:53
The first observation, which came most forcibly from Being a Human, but was reinforced, particularly by how the Upper Paleolithic phase of Being a Human, and that is to acknowledge our embeddedness in the nonhuman world. So the biologist and philosopher David Abraham says that there are only relatively unwild places. So a shopping mall, if you walk through it with your senses properly switched on, is a wild place, and we should approach it and respect it and feel at home there, being wild creatures ourselves in a way that we might not otherwise feel. A related observation is to acknowledge that, although we’re part of the natural world, we are dramatically special parts of it. So we do have a de facto sovereignty over the natural world, which has been abused in the most horrific ways. And that acknowledgement should lead us to try to direct our sovereignty right. If we have power in our hands, as we do have, and we have the relationship with the natural world, which we know we do have, let’s marry those two together in a way which isn’t frankly psychopathic in a way which it often is in our modern ways of living. But as you’ve hinted, the desperate quest for story is behind all this. Why are we in such a mess, politically, economically, ecologically, is because we don’t have a right story. Now we’ve inherited a pastiche of the Enlightenment view of the world, which, as we were discussing, conceives the world as a machine, and there’s nothing obviously immoral about smashing up a machine. There is something obviously immoral about desouling something, about killing something which is alive. If we acknowledge the aliveness of the world, realising that the hole is far greater than the sum of the parts, surely we will behave towards it in a more compassionate way. I think there are ways of working most generously at our empathy, or empathy for one another, and for the nonhuman world. And empathy is like anything else, the harder you work at it, the better you get at it. So doing an elaborate piece of zoological method acting like I did in Being a Beast or anthropological or, archaeological method work I did in Being a Human might, and I hope it did for me, I have to ask my wife if it really worked, I hope it increased my own empathy muscle empathy, maybe a slightly less unsatisfactory husband and father and friend. But the overall thing that came through to me was, what an epic story. Let’s live up to it.
Mark Bidwell 56:50
I’d also say, what an epic story you wrote. The travel journey that’s characterised in this book was epic, as well. So I appreciate, within the confines of what you said, I would like to share my appreciation, because it has been a fantastic read. And it was challenging, but it really does force you to actually take a long, hard look at a lot of what one does as a human, as a father, as a husband, as a friend. There aren’t many easy answers out there, but it’s been fascinating for me, I really have enjoyed it.
Charles Foster 57:24
Thank you so very much.
Mark Bidwell 57:26
A couple of final questions, which I always end my interviews with, if you don’t mind a couple more minutes, if that’s okay, Charles, what have you changed your mind about recently?
Charles Foster 57:35
I’ve changed my mind about my ability to affect anything politically. I now have a rule of a complete fast from the news, I avert my head whenever I pass a newsagents that I don’t see the headlines, I don’t have the conceit that I can do anything about it. And I know that to continue with that conceit does terrible things to my mental health. So I’m working on how to be politically disengaged in that sense, while at the same time being politically more engaged in the sense in which it’s possible to make a difference. I have become much less loudly grandiose about how the world should change, and much more local and team making and small scale. So that’s the big thing.
Mark Bidwell 58:37
Okay. Second question. I’m super interested in this as well, because when I spoke to you the other day, you were saying, you just came back from a very remote visit to Scotland. I think in the book, you jump on a boat and go down and hang out with a bunch of people in a port in Spain. But my question is, where do you go to get fresh perspectives?
Charles Foster 58:57
That’s very easy. I go to Greece. We’re very fortunate, we have a house in a very remote part in southern Greece. It’s an ungoverned and ungovernable place, and the muses are there in a way that they simply aren’t here in Oxford, which I also love. And it’s poised right on the edge of Europe, is poised right on the edge of lots of other notions and places too. It’s poised on the edge of Europe, it’s poised on the edge of modernity. It’s poised on the edge of the Western way of looking at things. I think it’s part of the Greek genius that because almost anywhere in Greece, you can see an edge, you can see the sea, at least that you stand on a stepladder. So the whole country is characterised by edges and edginess. There’s a sort of a metaphysical uncertainty in the whole of the Greek way of life, which produces a sort of poise, which I find really inspiring. These are people who live rather like peoples who have their father’s knuckles on there, with the constant knowledge of their own mortality. And that produces both a seriousness and a serious levity, the cocktail of which is very intoxicating. And talking about bones, they dig out their parents a year after they have died and wash their bones in their homemade wine before putting them in a box, and coming to pray for them on the date of their death. And that sounds murkish, but it brings to the business of, of their Homeric feasting, a sort of intensity which I find very exciting and very liberating, and in accord with what I understand human beings to be. And so I can write fantastically more words per unit time while I’m in Greece than I am in Oxford. And I also like the homemade wine, which is one euro a liter.
Charles Foster 59:53
And then the final question, what’s been your biggest failure or disappointment? And what did you learn from that?
Charles Foster 1:01:24
Again, a really easy question. So I never found a language in which to talk to my parents. So we were, although we loved one another very much, continually at cross-purposes, we could never connect at the level that we wanted to, we were never able to articulate in language, our love for one another. And I wish that I had worked harder at finding a common language. This experience has led me down to the validity of language itself, which is one of the themes that I explore in Being a Human and to reference non-linguistic ways of relationship. Not just relationships, but of knowing. So that’s been the most influential thing, the most disappointing, the most regretted thing.
Mark Bidwell 1:02:14
Thank you for that. Thank you very much for being so open, and also spending your time to put up with my questions and talk about your journey. I loved it. I’m hoping we can meet in person, I know that we spoke that I’m going to be spending some time in the UK in the next few months.
Charles Foster 1:02:33
Please be in touch. Thank you so much for your interest in this book, and yes, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our conversation, Mark. Thank you.
Mark Bidwell 1:02:39
Wonderful. Thank you for your time.