Can it be that it was so simple then?
A guide to the mindset of our evolutionary past By Anna Katharina Schaffner
Most philosophers approach the question of otherness as an intellectual problem. Not so Charles Foster, whose emphasis is firmly on the experiential dimension. In his previous book, the prizewinning Being a Beast (TLS, May 13, 2016), Foster sought to experience the world as an animal might. The experiment entailed modelling his sensory experiences on those of badgers, otters, foxes, deer and swifts. It also included sleeping in burrows, crawling through the forest at night, eating worms and licking snails.
In his most recent book, Being a Human: Adventures in 40,000 years of consciousness, Foster crosses the borders of time in the development of a single species. On his quest to find out what kind of creatures we are, he seeks to inhabit the minds and lives of our Stone Age ancestors. It is a mad but brilliant undertaking, and one that results in an elegantly eccentric and provocative account. As in Being a Beast, Foster is accompanied on his journey by his son Tom, now thirteen. The teenager often seems temperamentally more adept than his father at the long thought and “non-thought” experiment, in which the skills of sensing, feeling, and questioning the boundaries between ourselves and our environment are pivotal. Tom, who is dyslexic, is “a linguistic cripple, and so a sensory and ontological athlete”. Together, father and son emulate Thoreau; they withdraw for long periods in all four seasons into the Derbyshire woodlands, where they try – and for the most part fail – to catch hares, and have to make do with roadkill and old hedgehog meat instead. The latter, Foster tells us, made his “burps smell like a maggot farm”.
In order to illuminate our present state, Foster believes, we need to delve deeply into our evolutionary past. For that past “is everywhere: nestling in our genes, our proteins, our bones and our algorithms”. Neither a historical study, nor a philosophical treaty, nor yet a re-enactment manual, Being a Human is perhaps best described as a consciousness adventure story or a spiritual-evolutionary travel book, guiding us into the landscapes and mindsets of the distant past. It is also a fierce counter- narrative to the conventional “ascent of man” story that celebrates language, the mastery of fire, and settling as the engines of progress and civilization. Above all, Being a Human is an entirely unapologetic hymn to prehistoric hunter-gatherer culture.
In its romanticization of all things Stone Age, Foster’s book can occasionally read like an anti-Enlightenment tract. Yet Foster also invites us to live up to the central Enlightenment value of fearless inquiry, urging us to take seriously other ways of knowing and the resulting forms of wisdom – sensual, felt, intuited, spiritual. Foster privileges feelings over facts throughout, but even so his account is neatly woven out of archaeological, anthropological and bio-evolutionary snippets, and philosophical musings. For example, he calls on biologists “to acknowledge that the power of their old, worn axioms has been overstated, to listen to the creaking of their paradigm and either mend it or get a new one. They are material reductionists from nine to five – for the sake of their salary and their tenure and out of cognitive dissonance”. On his favourite topic – direct, unprocessed contact with reality – he writes: “Apprehension, not comprehension, is the only true epistemology. We can know something only if our view of it is obscured by the Cloud of Unknowing.” Nitpicking scholars will find fodder for quibbles in some of these sections, but to do so would be beside the point. Two imaginary characters from the Upper Paleolithic, the ghosts of long-dead ancestors, haunt the narrative. There are no great epiphanies, but there is a steady stream of thought-provoking, aphoristic insights.
Foster focuses on what he considers the three pivotal periods in human evolution: the early Upper Palaeolithic (from around 35,000 to 40,000 years ago), the Neolithic (c.10,000–12,000 years ago to the dawn of the Bronze Age) and the Enlightenment. The first period, the the age of hunter-gatherers, is Foster’s lost Eden, and it takes up most of the book. It was the period in which “behavioural modernity” first reared its head and in which our ancestors were intimately connected to each other, to the land and to other species. Their brains grew in size to help them navigate their ever more complex relationships. This golden age of connectivity, Foster tells us, was a time of leisure, reflection, great storytelling and fabulous cave art. Humans discovered their souls and their sense of self, as well as symbolism, abstraction and complexity. It was also the age of animism, for “as soon as the hunters found that they themselves had souls, they found that everything else did too”. The hunter-gatherers were attuned to and at peace with the transience of phenomena. Healthy, humble, fit and grateful, they never killed more than they needed to survive.
Our woes started in the Neolithic period, the age of domestication, when cereal and cow-herding were discovered and humanity began to settle. It was then that we traded awe for convenience and control. Our leisure time radically diminished, and we became slaves to the animals and the land that we sought to exploit. We lost our connection with nature and our intimate knowledge of the many different species with which we were once so familiar. Priest-curated stories strangled the mind and the imagination: “Thoughts as well as sheep were corralled”. Neolithic art, too, took a “boring and miserable” turn.
The “divorce proceedings between humans and the natural world” were completed thousands of years later, in the Enlightenment period. Ruled by reductionist materialism, it resulted in the “systematic desoulment of the universe”. Homo deus became Homo economicus, and the servants of scientific fundamentalism became our new high priests. This period is given short shrift perhaps because, in the long history of our species, it is so vanishingly brief – even if the outcomes of Enlightenment doctrines now put both our civilization and planetary habitat at grave risk.
Foster brusquely reassesses the importance of fire in the history of human evolution, casting it as an “indiscriminate weapon” that drove a “wedge between humans and the rest of the natural world”. The mastery of fire, he argues, also had consequences for human psychology: our new ability to exercise cruelty against the natural world on a vast scale changed our identities. No longer “ontological equals of the deer and trees”, we began to think of ourselves as their masters instead. And so we manoeuvred ourselves into a highly undesirable situation. Agriculturalism not only diminished our leisure time, but also damaged our psyches and shortened our lifespans, introducing all sorts of illnesses associated with a sedentary lifestyle. Farming is a bit like heroin, Foster argues, – “easier to get into than out of. Surpluses boost population, and high population kills all the animals and eats all the berries from miles around, making return impossible”.
Foster’s penchant for hyperbole is often entertaining, sometimes very funny, and occasionally tiresome. There are instances when his narrative slips into a less attractive polemical mode. It is surely a step too far to describe written language as a “weapon of mass spiritual destruction”, or early farmers as “the first Nietzscheans; jackbooted annexers of territory”. Some of his own good friends call him “howling mad” and one (a farmer) castigates him as “fascist”.
It is also true that the radical relationality, holism and at-one-ness with nature that Foster admires so much in our Palaeolithic ancestors can be found elsewhere, and much closer to home. Non-dual ways of viewing the world, for example, are deeply embedded in most Buddhist philosophies and ways of being, and to this day shape the lived experiences of many Southeast Asians. Various deep ecology and post-humanist thinkers advocate a non-hierarchical and non-exploitative way of thinking of ourselves as parts of a larger whole, urging us to ditch species supremacism and “become planetary” once again. As Foster himself points out, complexity theorists, as well as quantum physicists and pioneers in the theory of mind, are beginning to question core materialist assumptions such as the mind and matter divide.
These reservations aside, Foster’s daringly imaginative exploration of alternative models of selfhood is an original and beneficial way of grappling with history. How can we ever truly understand people whose sense of self was so very different from our own? What might it really have felt like to live in an era in which our sense of identity did not map onto bodily integrity, and our skins were “permeable to the whole world, human and non-human”? 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 is Professor of Cultural History at the University of Kent and Director of Perspectiva’s Emerge project. Her most recent book is The Art of Self-Improvement: Ten timeless truths, 2021