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The barrister who became a badger: why did Charles Foster decide to live like an animal?

He ate earthworms as a badger, tore open binbags as an urban fox, and was hunted by a bloodhound as a deer.

“I have become The Man Who Eats Worms,” Charles Foster shrugs, sorrowfully. “It’s not really a very interesting subject. It doesn’t tell you anything about how badgers experience the world.”

This combination of self-deprecation and a quest for deeper purpose is what defines Foster, the 53-year-old barrister and Oxford medical tutor who decided to shed his professional human trappings and live like an animal.

It also defines the book he has written about his experiences, called Being a Beast – a wild blend of nature writing, memoir, philosophy and scientific study.

A copy sits on his dining room table, nestled among sheet music and exercise books. Foster lives in this treasure trove of a house near the centre of Oxford – bedecked with stuffed animals as well as children’s collages and paintings – with his wife Mary, who is a GP, and their four young children.

The beady eyes of fox heads peer at visitors who arrive in the hall. A glaring otter surveys the kitchen worktop. Across the room, a gull perches, suspended, beside Foster’s conservatory-cum-study, which has a view of a leafless tree. Everywhere you look is a jumble of earthy miscellany – boots and globes and veterinary magazines. It’s probably closer to being a wilderness than most suburban terraces.

As he clatters around making coffee, Foster looks momentarily devastated when I admit – as a lifelong Londoner – to not being particularly outdoorsy.

“We all live in the wild,” he says. “We are necessarily wild animals, even if we choose to wear clothes instead of skins.”

But Foster wanted to go further, dropping from his height of 6ft 3in to the ground to live like, and among, the animals.

Eating earthworms, licking slugs and scuffling around on all fours – noses to the ground – he and his then eight-year-old son (or cub) Tom lived nocturnally for six weeks as badgers in a Welsh wood; his farmer friend dug out a sett for them in the hillside with a JCB.

In the East Lyn river, Foster thrashed around as an otter, catching the occasional unlucky fish in his mouth, and failing to notice a leech attached to his lip for an hour as his face numbed from the cold. The winter depressed him, and his jacket was stolen from the riverbank. His otter experience was not his highlight.

He had more luck as an urban fox in London’s East End, where he slept in backyards, prowled the streets, and rooted around people’s bins, eating leftovers he covered in mixed spices to avoid the taste of strangers’ saliva.

Foster used to live in the East End, but he didn’t like it much and moved to Oxford seven years ago. Foxes proved better Londoners than he was. “The foxes showed me a London that was old and deep enough to live in and be kind about,” he writes. “They negotiated an uneasy peace between me and the East End.”

But they weren’t all good. One vixen stole a chicken leg from him – a moment he delighted in, finding it his most authentic experience as an animal. “There was that eye-to-eye connection, in which, fancifully or otherwise, I thought there was reciprocity,” he recalls. “There was that I-thou relationship, which all my theory about the natural world has told me, but it’s often difficult to feel.”

Foster also paraglided to be closer to the swifts he so admires, and attempted to be hunted as a red deer in Exmoor. His friend set a bloodhound on him. Foster tore across a field and through a wood, only for the dog to catch up, take one look at him, and turn away back to its master.

It’s difficult to imagine Foster’s adventures on this cosy weekday morning, chatting to him over coffee with his donnish persona, woolly jumper and jeans, just before he heads in to college.

“It upsets me very much,” he sighs, when I bring up how his academic life contradicts his animal ambitions. “I’m being hypocritical in sitting at a table and drinking out of a china cup.”

Indeed, Foster calls his book “an admission of failure” to achieve his aim, which is to relate to nature and our animal ancestors on a sensory – rather than cognitive – level.

He believes humans are “trapped into a visual way of looking at the world”, and derides nature writing as “a colonial enterprise” in which we impose our gaze on the land. He describes the “outrage” and “arrogance” he felt when he reverted to standing upright after six weeks as a badger. “It seemed presumptuous,” he sighs.

Foster was once one of the humans he now wishes had more empathy with nature. He used to hunt and shoot voraciously. Every winter, he stalked deer in the Highlands. He shot wildfowl in Kent. He bought his daughter a shotgun when she was ten, and wrote a monthly column in The Shooting Times.

“The fact that I did it when there was no nutritional justification is something of which I am now very ashamed,” he admits. “But the reason I took up hunting was because I wanted to continue to have that relationship with the natural world which I had experienced in its greatest intimacy when I was a child.”

As a young boy growing up in Sheffield, Foster kept nature diaries and became obsessed with a blackbird in the back garden. He seems envious of how much closer – “literally! They’re closer to the ground” – children are to animals, and “worries sick” about his children “unlearning everything” they sense about nature.

But Foster is more of a campaigner than the whimsical naturalist he is in Being a Beast. His purpose has become more political since it was published.

“We act towards the natural world with a lack of empathy, which, were we to express ourselves like that towards humans, would be regarded as frankly psychopathic,” he laments.

“I would like people to think, when they’re about to bite into their steak, is this tantamount to cannibalism? This steak is part of the buttock of a fairly near relative.”

Being a Beast by Charles Foster is published by Profile Books.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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How nature created consciousness – and our brains became minds

In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Daniel C Dennett investigates the evolution of consciousness.

In the preface to his new book, the ­philosopher Daniel Dennett announces proudly that what we are about to read is “the sketch, the backbone, of the best scientific theory to date of how our minds came into existence”. By the end, the reader may consider it more scribble than spine – at least as far as an account of the origins of human consciousness goes. But this is still a superb book about evolution, engineering, information and design. It ranges from neuroscience to nesting birds, from computing theory to jazz, and there is something fascinating on every page.

The term “design” has a bad reputation in biology because it has been co-opted by creationists disguised as theorists of “intelligent design”. Nature is the blind watchmaker (in Richard Dawkins’s phrase), dumbly building remarkable structures through a process of random accretion and winnowing over vast spans of time. Nonetheless, Dennett argues stylishly, asking “design” questions about evolution shouldn’t be ­taboo, because “biology is reverse engin­eering”: asking what some phenomenon or structure is for is an excellent way to understand how it might have arisen.

Just as in nature there is design without a designer, so in many natural phenomena we can observe what Dennett calls “competence without comprehension”. Evolution does not understand nightingales, but it builds them; your immune system does not understand disease. Termites do not build their mounds according to blueprints, and yet the results are remarkably complex: reminiscent in one case, as Dennett notes, of Gaudí’s church the Sagrada Família. In general, evolution and its living products are saturated with competence without comprehension, with “unintelligent design”.

The question, therefore, is twofold. Why did “intelligent design” of the kind human beings exhibit – by building robotic cars or writing books – come about at all, if unintelligent design yields such impressive results? And how did the unintelligent-design process of evolution ever build intelligent designers like us in the first place? In sum, how did nature get from bacteria to Bach?

Dennett’s answer depends on memes – self-replicating units of cultural evolution, metaphorical viruses of the mind. Today we mostly use “meme” to mean something that is shared on social media, but in Richard Dawkins’s original formulation of the idea, a meme can be anything that is culturally transmitted and undergoes change: melodies, ideas, clothing fashions, ways of building pots, and so forth. Some might say that the only good example of a meme is the very idea of a meme, given that it has replicated efficiently over the years despite being of no use whatsoever to its hosts. (The biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for one, didn’t believe in memes.) But Dennett thinks that memes add something important to discussions of “cultural evolution” (a contested idea in its own right) that is not captured by established disciplines such as history or sociology.

The memes Dennett has in mind here are words: after all, they reproduce, with variation, in a changing environment (the mind of a host). Somehow, early vocalisations in our species became standardised as words. They acquired usefulness and meaning, and so, gradually, their use spread. Eventually, words became the tools that enabled our brains to reflect on what they were ­doing, thus bootstrapping themselves into full consciousness. The “meme invasion”, as Dennett puts it, “turned our brains into minds”. The idea that language had a critical role to play in the development of human consciousness is very plausible and not, in broad outline, new. The question is how much Dennett’s version leaves to explain.

Before the reader arrives at that crux, there are many useful philosophical interludes: on different senses of “why” (why as in “how come?” against why as in “what for?”), or in the “strange inversions of reasoning” offered by Darwin (the notion that competence does not require comprehension), Alan Turing (that a perfect computing machine need not know what arithmetic is) and David Hume (that causation is a projection of our minds and not something we perceive directly). Dennett suggests that the era of intelligent design may be coming to an end; after all, our best AIs, such as the ­AlphaGo program (which beat the human European champion of the boardgame Go 5-0 in a 2015 match), are these days created as learning systems that will teach themselves what to do. But our sunny and convivial host is not as worried as some about an imminent takeover by intelligent machines; the more pressing problem, he argues persuasively, is that we usually trust computerised systems to an extent they don’t deserve. His final call for critical thinking tools to be made widely available is timely and admirable. What remains puzzlingly vague to the end, however, is whether Dennett actually thinks human consciousness – the entire book’s explanandum – is real; and even what exactly he means by the term.

Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, seemed to some people to deny the existence of consciousness at all, so waggish critics retitled it Consciousness Explained Away. Yet it was never quite clear just what Dennett was claiming didn’t exist. In this new book, confusion persists, owing to his reluctance to define his terms. When he says “consciousness” he appears to mean reflective self-consciousness (I am aware that I am aware), whereas many other philosophers use “consciousness” to mean ordinary awareness, or experience. There ensues much sparring with straw men, as when he ridicules thinkers who assume that gorillas, say, have consciousness. They almost certainly don’t in his sense, and they almost certainly do in his opponents’ sense. (A gorilla, we may be pretty confident, has experience in the way that a volcano or a cloud does not.)

More unnecessary confusion, in which one begins to suspect Dennett takes a polemical delight, arises from his continued use of the term “illusion”. Consciousness, he has long said, is an illusion: we think we have it, but we don’t. But what is it that we are fooled into believing in? It can’t be experience itself: as the philosopher Galen Strawson has pointed out, the claim that I only seem to have experience presupposes that I really am having experience – the experience of there seeming to be something. And throughout this book, Dennett’s language implies that he thinks consciousness is real: he refers to “conscious thinking in H[omo] sapiens”, to people’s “private thoughts and experiences”, to our “proper minds, enculturated minds full of thinking tools”, and to “a ‘rich mental life’ in the sense of a conscious life like ours”.

The way in which this conscious life is allegedly illusory is finally explained in terms of a “user illusion”, such as the desktop on a computer operating system. We move files around on our screen desktop, but the way the computer works under the hood bears no relation to these pictorial metaphors. Similarly, Dennett writes, we think we are consistent “selves”, able to perceive the world as it is directly, and acting for rational reasons. But by far the bulk of what is going on in the brain is unconscious, ­low-level processing by neurons, to which we have no access. Therefore we are stuck at an ­“illusory” level, incapable of experiencing how our brains work.

This picture of our conscious mind is rather like Freud’s ego, precariously balan­ced atop a seething unconscious with an entirely different agenda. Dennett explains wonderfully what we now know, or at least compellingly theorise, about how much unconscious guessing, prediction and logical inference is done by our brains to produce even a very simple experience such as seeing a table. Still, to call our normal experience of things an “illusion” is, arguably, to privilege one level of explanation arbitrarily over another. If you ask me what is happening on my computer at the moment, I shall reply that I am writing a book review on a word processor. If I embarked instead on a description of electrical impulses running through the CPU, you would think I was being sarcastically obtuse. The normal answer is perfectly true. It’s also true that I am currently seeing my laptop screen even as this experience depends on innumerable neural processes of guessing and reconstruction.

The upshot is that, by the end of this brilliant book, the one thing that hasn’t been explained is consciousness. How does first-person experience – the experience you are having now, reading these words – arise from the electrochemical interactions of neurons? No one has even the beginnings of a plausible theory, which is why the question has been called the “Hard Problem”. Dennett’s story is that human consciousness arose because our brains were colonised by word-memes; but how did that do the trick? No explanation is forthcoming. Dennett likes to say the Hard Problem just doesn’t exist, but ignoring it won’t make it go away – even if, as his own book demonstrates, you can ignore it and still do a lot of deep and fascinating thinking about human beings and our place in nature.

Steven Poole’s books include “Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas” (Random House Books)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times