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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 220

Charles Foster on Being a Human: Adventures in Forty Thousand Years of Consciousness

Being a Human: Adventures in Forty Thousand Years of Consciousness (book cover)

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.

Charles Foster is the author of Being a Beast, which won the 2016 Ig Nobel Award for biology and was a finalist for the Baillie Gifford Prize. He teaches medical law and ethics at the University of Oxford and his writing has been published in National Geographic, the Guardian, Nautilus, Slate, the Journal of Medical Ethics and many other venues. He lives in Oxford, England.

Shermer and Foster discuss:

  • the personal journey of how Charles Foster became human,
  • what it’s like to be a badger, otter, deer, fox, bird, and human,
  • When did the “lights come on” for humans?
  • hard problem of consciousness,
  • symbolic language, communication, cognition?
  • Paleolithic and Neolithic cognition?
  • Göbekli Tepe and symbolic communication,
  • cave paintings and symbolic communication,
  • wired for God, agency, intention?
  • Rupert Sheldrake and spooky action at a distance,
  • paranormal/supernatural phenomena,
  • enlightenment thinking and how it can be restrictive,
  • What happens when we die?
  • Who or what is the self?
  • transubstantiation: does the wafer and wine really become the body and blood of Christ?
  • empirical truths vs. metaphorical truths,
  • Are religious truths different from scientific truths?
  • why Foster is religious and believes Christianity is the right religion.

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This episode is sponsored by Oregon State University:

This episode was released on October 23, 2021.

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