Being a Human: Adventures in Forty Thousand Years of Consciousness - book cover
Psychology & Counseling
  • Publisher : Metropolitan Books
  • Published : 31 Aug 2021
  • Pages : 400
  • ISBN-10 : 1250783712
  • ISBN-13 : 9781250783714
  • Language : English

Being a Human: Adventures in Forty Thousand Years of Consciousness


A radically immersive exploration of three pivotal moments in the evolution of human consciousness, asking what kinds of creatures humans were, are, and might yet be

How did humans come to be who we are? In his marvelous, eccentric, and widely lauded book Being a Beast, legal scholar, veterinary surgeon, and naturalist extraordinaire Charles Foster set out to understand the consciousness of animal species by living as a badger, otter, fox, deer, and swift. Now, he inhabits three crucial periods of human development to understand the consciousness of perhaps the strangest animal of all―the human being.

To experience the Upper Paleolithic era―a turning point when humans became behaviorally modern, painting caves and telling stories, Foster learns what it feels like to be a Cro-Magnon hunter-gatherer by living in makeshift shelters without amenities in the rural woods of England. He tests his five impoverished senses to forage for berries and roadkill and he undertakes shamanic journeys to explore the connection of wakeful dreaming to religion. For the Neolithic period, when humans stayed in one place and domesticated plants and animals, forever altering our connection to the natural world, he moves to a reconstructed Neolithic settlement. Finally, to explore the Enlightenment―the age of reason and the end of the soul―Foster inspects Oxford colleges, dissecting rooms, cafes, and art galleries. He finds his world and himself bizarre and disembodied, and he rues the atrophy of our senses, the cause for much of what ails us.

Drawing on psychology, neuroscience, natural history, agriculture, medical law and ethics, Being a Human is one man's audacious attempt to feel a connection with 45,000 years of human history. This glorious, fiercely imaginative journey from our origins to a possible future ultimately shows how we might best live on earth―and thrive.

Editorial Reviews

"Dazzling and eccentric . . . Foster is a beautiful writer and an engaging companion throughout this strange, occasionally maddening book. The argument―that we as a species have lost something in our move from wandering animism to settled civilisation―is a powerful one, amply supported by learned quotations and dense footnotes . . . A wonderfully fun if entirely bonkers read."
The Guardian

"Foster is a writer of extraordinary ability. His descriptions of nature dazzle . . . Being a Human [is] 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."

"A truly wonderful book . . . in the literal sense of the phrase. A book of wonders, so many of them to be seen living simultaneously in the present and the past, that you constantly find the now in the then and the then in the now."
―Lewis H. Lapham, The World in Time podcast (Lapham's Quarterly)

"A magpie book full of intriguing anthropological sketches . . . that fits neatly into the growing library of modern British natural history writing, alongside the best of Nan Shepherd, Robert Macfarlane, and Roger Deakin. A splendid assessment of the many ways there are to be a person, for good and ill."
Kirkus Reviews (starred)

"A wondrous and moving examination . . . To get back in touch with the 'constant ecstatic contact' [with nature] he argues humans need, Charles Foster witnesses shimmering visions, eats roadkill, contemplates birdsong and language, and hypothesizes that consciousness exists beyond humans. 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."
―Publishers Weekly (starred)

"Being Human is a startling reset on our understanding of the journey of human thought. Approaching the question from a totally new perspective of lived experience, Charles 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."
Carl Safina, author of Becoming Wild

"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, humor and heart."
Cal Flyn, a...

Readers Top Reviews

Terry Simpson
It seems impossible to imagine what consciousness might have been like in deep pre-history, but this is a very entertaining account of an attempt to do just that, and a strong critique of what we've lost in the modern world.
This was gripping and great to follow Charles and Tom back to eras where formerly I had only picked up flints and shavings and pottery - nearly finished it!
C. M. E. Beckingham
This enthralling read and follow up to ‘Being a Beast,’ uses a different formula, (more Pirsig sans motorbike this time). Although it is just as erudite, intelligent and witty. Creating a plausible, informative tract by distilling 40,000 years of human history into about 100,000 words sounds inconceivable. However, this is a journey through history without dates (no mention of 1066), ‘historical’ events (no battles or treaties) and famous people (no Leonardo or Henry VIII). It becomes possible by using ideas from disciplines such as archaeology, anthropology, economics, politics, sociology, geography and psychology to explain the evolution of human culture and perhaps, even the meaning of life (certainly the essence). In doing so, it reveals (or seeks to) why so many of us in the modern world struggle with anomie and alienation, as we seek to find some kind of meaning, for ourselves. It’s up to the reader to take what they want from this book. Some, like Professor Black (who you will meet in later chapters), will balk at the idea that the ‘age of rationalism’ is a scourge and that modern religion and materialism are poor substitutes for the respect and empathy for nature we begun to lose at the end of the last Ice Age, when our species started to settle in one place and farm instead of wandering as hunter gatherers. However, my sympathies though are with Tom and X who understand the critical importance of our fragile relationships with nature. This should be quite a depressing book. It is after all a description of decadence and the failure of human society. But it isn’t. It is both enlightening and a joy to read. And now… I’m going to read it again.
G. W. HallinJoshua E
Frustrating read if you believe in science and evolutionary psychology- Another Romanticist who desperately wants to believe in magic, is fervently anti-Enlightenment, trusts emotions over empiric fact, and makes the usual mistake of conflating science with industry but then actually (on page301) goes on to conflate science with 17th Century Christianity in its foolish belief system separating mankind from the rest of the natural world. Shocking. Author says Richard Dawkins, who probably has done more to appreciate our place in the natural world than any other humans on the planet, is an "embarrassment." Enough said. Read this only if you if you want to continue living in a Romantic bubble, unaware of reality and therefore unable to do a thing about it.

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