A Thing Most Brutish

In William Shakespeare`s mysterious and evocative play “The Tempest”, an imaginary hybrid creature is introduced. Caliban is presented as only semi human. His appearance in the play is an inspiring and clever theatrical device which forces the audience to question what truly makes us human beings, as distinct from other animals, or even other natural forces on this planet as those things are still imbued with the powers of elemental life.

Charles Foster has explored this complex subject with characteristic wit and courage. Foster is a polymath. He is a writer, traveller, philosopher, barrister and veterinarian. In his varied career and life he has attempted to delve into the worlds of animals, nature and human civilisations.

He is sceptical about the preconceived notions that humans hold of the animal kingdom which he addressed in his book “Being A Beast”. In this book he attempted to overturn anthropomorphism by appropriating animal habitats and behaviour, living as a badger, otter, deer, fox and bird.

The sequel to “Being A Beast” is “Being A Human”, and this light hearted tract is written with serious intent. It is partially a rebuke to the obstinacy of the scientific and academic community who are resistant to anyone challenging them. Foster believes that too many are fearful of losing their positions and income, and as a consequence biological science has turned into a kind of religious dogma, rather than a rigorous and vibrant discipline which allows fresh inquiry.

However it is also an entertaining and enlightening book which attempts to explain why and how the human species consciously separated itself from the rest of the living world by producing its own culture and civilisation.

The author confounds the popular interpretations of Darwin. Darwin, he argues simply reminded us that we form an integral part of the natural world, and,

“That, properly handled, could have generated a fitting humility. But….this part of Darwin’s message was transmuted into (something) cynical and dangerous”.

Foster proves his own humility by living as a reconstructed caveman, deliberately apart from the supposedly modern world. His experiment demonstrates how destructive our own pride and vanity has become, not to mention our innately selfish desires for comfort at the expense of our own mental and physical health.

Modern humans in advanced societies have never truly understood real privation, or how it actually feels to face starvation. In ancient, primitive societies illness and death was a familiar occurrence.

The taboo and shame about these elements of human experience is actually a modern phenomena, along with the sterile and crude methods that are utilised, i.e the now secular tradition of cremation is just a way to cleanse death, when in the past the deceased members of the community would have the dignity of full burial rituals.

This book reminds us that we are insignificant in the whole scheme of things, no-one is important. We forget that we all die, and whatever we endure while we are living the glib platitudes of pompous politicians can never alter that undeniable fact about ourselves.