Hundreds of millions of years ago, long before humans or birds or even dinosaurs, there was a lone mysterious creature, one whose evolution would eventually result in all of the animal species on Earth. Scientists don’t know exactly what this universal common ancestor was, or what it looked like, but they do know this much: Sooner or later, if we trace our lineage as a species far back enough, we’ll see connections to every animal that’s ever lived.
It’s this idea of connection that fascinates Charles Foster, an Oxford professor whose résumé is, shall we say, eclectic: Over the years, he’s been a lawyer, a veterinary surgeon, a medical ethicist, a badger, an otter, a fox, a deer, and a bird. In his new book, Being a Beast, Foster chronicles his time living as a member of several different species. The time he spent as each one varied from a few hours to several weeks, but in each case Foster committed to experiencing the world the way the animal does: He lived in a hole in the ground. He rooted through garbage. If an animal relied on smell to explore its surroundings, so would he. If it vomited and re-chewed its meals, he’d make himself sick enough to try it. If it subsisted on worms — well, he can tell you all about the flavor differences of specimens from Kent (“fresh and uncomplicated,” according to the book) and Chablis (“a long, mineral finish”).
The goal of this whole experiment was twofold. On one level, he explains, it was a chance for him to better understand the link between himself and nature (“If you know what furry and feathered faces are just a few pages back in your evolutionary family album, you’re going to better know who you are.”). And on another, it was a chance to go deep into an interesting philosophical experiment: How far can you really go into the mind of another being, whether it’s an otter or one of your best friends?
Foster recently spoke with Science of Us about the challenge of eating like a badger, how to cultivate empathy for other species, and what he calls the “ancient and earnest need to unite the human and animal worlds.” Here’s a lightly edited version of our conversation.
You open your book by criticizing two types of nature writing. There’s anthropocentrism, or describing the world as humans see it, and anthropomorphism, treating animals as humans. What do you see as the problems with those approaches, and how is yours different?
Let me say what I think is wrong with both of those: They neglect the important fact that we as human beings, and we as nature writers, are necessarily part of nature. The greatest mistake of all is in the very first line [of my book], in which I say, “I want to know what it is like to be a wild thing.” I know nothing apart from what it is like to be a wild thing.
We are part of nature whether we like it or not. You’re probably sitting in a sleek Manhattan office. If you leave a pie out over the weekend in this sleek Manhattan office, when you return on Monday it’ll be covered in exuberant, completely wild bacteria and fungi. However urban you are, you are shaped by the nature around you. The categories of anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism don’t do justice to that fairly obvious reality, and that’s why I have a problem with them.
Another thing — I almost never describe myself as a part of the woods that I’m trying to describe. I’ve become a person who sees the natural world almost exclusively through my eyes, and that’s a very distorting lens. Why would we choose to see an immensely complex world through just one sensory modality? What that means in practice, because vision is so tightly bound to cognition, is that when I walk into the woods, I’m describing not the woods itself, but my thoughts about the woods. And my thoughts about the woods are less interesting than the most boring woods would be.
You also draw a contrast between your approach, trying to behave like an animal would, and “shamanic transformation.” What is that?
Shamanism is the practice which occurs in indigenous cultures and suggests a very porous boundary between us and other worlds. It suggests a species boundary is one that can be crossed. Shamans of all cultures will think they can transform into a bear or a wolf or whatever, and in that guise learn things about the world in which the bear or wolf lives. It’s not something I practice. It’s something that scares me rigid — I’m perfectly happy being a human being. It’s the only thing I know anything about. I’m unable to stop being human. But I’m perfectly happy to learn the lessons from the natural world about how to be a better human.
Can you tell me about some of those lessons? What did you learn from this whole experience?
Really trite things. I learned the importance of relationality. This was a project about relating to nonhuman species, but we relate to nonhuman species using the same tools with which we relate to humans. If you boost your relationality in one arena — if you think yourself into the paws or the wings of a nonhuman species — you’re probably going to be able to think yourself better into the shoes of a human.
The other thing is, we are dismally unsensual creatures. Pathetically and life-denyingly, we use one sense almost exclusively. We never smell, we almost never hear — we translate the things that we smell or hear into visual images. We smell a tree and conjure up a visual image of what that tree is like. We’re losing so much of the available information. It would seem pretty obvious that in our ordinary human lives — on the bus, or having dinner with our friends — if we operate using all the sensory modalities we have, we’re going to have a better time. We’re going to enjoy our time as a human being more, we’re going to perceive the world more accurately. It seems a shame not to use what’s available to us.
So how do you apply that, practically speaking? How do you use your senses more fully now?
Nothing exotic. Just by paying attention. I now know, to a degree I didn’t know before, that my nose works. It doesn’t work any better than anyone else’s, but if you address with your mind what’s coming in through your nose, you notice it. It’s almost embarrassingly obvious.
Usually we spend our time completely intoxicated by our own thoughts, and our thoughts are much less interesting than the things about which we think. I don’t want my cognition to get in the way of my appreciation of the world. I want it to be my servant, not my master. The experience of trying to think yourself into the head of a nonhuman species helps to subdue the tyranny of the visual and the cognitive.
This isn’t the first time you’ve tried to get into the mind of another species, right? In the book, you talk about a childhood obsession with blackbirds — how you collected their eggs and mapped out their nests to try and understand them better. Did that early experience influence how you approached this project?
I grew up as a kid in the north of England, and there was a blackbird that knew something about that backyard that I didn’t know. I tried everything I could to find out, and of course I failed. But it infected me — with a desire, first of all, to see the natural environment the way that creatures who know their environments much more intimately do. And second, with a question that is familiar to all philosophers: Is it possible at all to know about the nature of the other? You think you have good friends, but do you know anything at all about what’s going on inside their heads? A journey to someone else’s head is far greater than a journey to the most distinct galaxies. This book is an inquiry into how accessible otherness is — if you can think yourself into a nonhuman species, perhaps you can have a meaningful conversation with your wife or your kids or your best friend.
Did that process — thinking yourself into another species — change how you think about the question of animal consciousness?
No. This wasn’t an experience which involved long periods of study of the animals themselves. This is really a travel book, is how I see it. It’s an attempt to see the landscapes of things in the wilds of Scotland in a way that the animal inhabitants see them.
There were moments in the book — for example, when I encountered an urban fox — when I thought there was sort of an I-thou relationship. There was something in the exchange of glances between that fox and me that was of the same sort of order, same sort of category, as a glance between me and another human being. But this is not ancient wisdom — everyone who owns a dog thinks that dog has some sort of emotional appreciation of its owner. I have no doubt they’re right. We haven’t been very good at looking for consciousness, but the better we become at looking for it, the more ubiquitous it seems to be in the universe.
Was there anything, over the course of this process, that you found you couldn’t do? Or wouldn’t do?
There’s a huge number of things I couldn’t do, for all sorts of reasons. I can’t fly. I can’t make myself weightless. But most of the obstacles were a result of my own tyrannous cognition. Most of the time I’m describing my own thoughts — there were blissful moments of escape from that tyranny, but they were few and far between. I wasn’t, to any significant extent, learning what a badger was like; I was learning to perceive the woods using some of the physiological operators that I have and badgers have. And to reconstruct, in my own fumbling human words, what the landscape is like for an animal. This is not a shamanic enterprise — I’m not dwelling in the skin of an animal in any meaningful respect.
What were those moments like, when you felt your senses take over?
They were like I imagine synesthesia is, where someone can smell a color or taste a number — a complete mixing up of our normal sensory categories. There were fractions of a second in the woods where I smelled something without immediately replacing that smell with the visual image of what I was smelling. They just awakened in me the knowledge that a different way of perceiving the world was possible. I didn’t dwell in those nonvisual, noncognitive worlds for long, but I was experientially convinced of the possibility. I knew, intellectually, that badgers have scent maps of their woods, and that their [environment], because it’s perceived through the nose, swirls around and sweeps up and ebbs. It’s a much more fluid world than my static, visual one. But to actually taste that knowledge? It was just a fragment; I only had those realizations for moments, but they were quite exciting.
One of the passages that stuck out to me was when you described what different worms taste like — it was so detailed, and also so gross. How did disgust factor into your experience?
I don’t like eating worms. I didn’t eat a huge number of worms. My disgust is the same as anyone else’s. I’m a boring, middle-age, middle-class suburban Oxford don. I don’t like the idea of sniffing dung or eating worms more than anyone else does
But to reflect on our disgust is interesting. Why do I think it’s disgusting to eat worms? What does that tell me about how far I have diverged from the common ancestor badgers and I shared? It’s that sort of reflection which is useful, not the multiplication of adjectives in which I describe how worms taste. Those adjectives don’t tell me anything at all about the badgers’ world.
People have also brought up [the parts about] sniffing feces. I find it interesting that they are so interested — why is it that we have this very unhealthy relationship with our own bowels which makes us recoil? I don’t have the answer to that, but I suspect it stems from a general discomfort with the idea of ourselves as embodied animals. We don’t like our bodies or what they do; we tend to think of ourselves as primarily souls or spirits or minds. The relevance of disgust, I think, is first of all to indicate how far I have diverged from my evolutionary ancestors, and second to tell me something about my own self-perception — to point out to me that I’m pretty disgusted with my own body, and I have an unhealthy regard for the mind or the spirit. Those elements in us are worryingly dislocated from one another.