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Featuring guest Charles Foster

Charles Foster | Inhabit the World

Charles Foster tells the story of a journey from a curious, wandering child and the constant pull toward conformity and indifference to the wonders of the world around us. In his attempt to understand what it's like to be other than himself, he better understands the creator of all things.


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Charles Foster tells the story of a journey from a curious, wandering child and the constant pull toward conformity and indifference to the wonders of the world around us. In his attempt to understand what it's like to be other than himself, he better understands the creator of all things.

Description

Charles Foster has spent a lot of time trying to deeply understand what it is like to be other than himself. It has led him to explore and emulate the life of badgers, foxes, and swifts as well as the lives of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers. In doing so he hopes to better understand all the people in his world and ultimately himself. He talks about his journey from a curious and wandering child to who he is today, including the place of religion and the place of science, both of which have the opportunity of enriching our view of the world and allowing to see into the other, but which also have the possibility of limiting our openness to inhabit otherness and therefore hinder our ability to better understand God.

Before You Read

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Transcript

Foster:

So the universe seems to be a place which has been conceived in the way that it is, because it facilitates relationships, because love is at the heart of it. So you move from an observation of personality in the eyes of a dog or a fox, to a conviction that love is one of the basic substrates of the universe. And therefore, the creator of the universe is probably to be characterized by the label love.

I’m professor Charles Foster from the University of Oxford. 

Hoogerwerf:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Colin Hoogerwerf. 

I first became aware of Charles Foster only in the past year when his recent book, Being Human, came across my radar. In the book, Charles Foster attempts to better understand what it means to be human by inhabiting the lives of earlier humans, going back to paleolithic hunter-gatherers. It’s a subject that we’ve talked about before on the podcast and one I think is really interesting. But Charles Foster has been writing books on a breadth of topics at the intersection of science and faith for a long time. We talk about one of his earlier books, The Selfless Gene: Living with God and Darwin in the first half of the episode. He also tells his story of a journey from a curious wandering child to a curious wandering adult and the constant pull throughout toward conformity and indifference to the wonders of the world around us. Then we talk about Being Human and the book he wrote right before that, Being a Beast, which is also about what it means to be human. In that book he goes out and attempts to live like a badger, fox, and several other creatures. I hope you’ll come and inhabit the world of Charles Foster for a while. 

Let’s get to the conversation. 

Interview Part One

Hoogerwerf:

Charles Foster, happy to be talking to you. Welcome to the podcast.

Foster:

Great to be with you. Thank you for having me.

Hoogerwerf:

So I’ve read a bunch of your books over the last few months, and they cover a lot of topics that I think are relevant to BioLogos. But one of the things that stands out is that I think you’re a bit hard to characterize. So you’re a barrister, veterinarian, adventurer of sorts, writer occasionally attempting to be a badger. So go back a ways if you would, what leads a person to such a career, and maybe specifically, what were the first scientific inclinations, you remember?

Foster:

What led me to such a career? Lots of answers, a short attention span, maybe. A conviction that everything’s joined together and the usual barriers that we put up between disciplines are nonsense. I believe, therefore, that the only way to appreciate properly that the world is one place is trying to inhabit intellectually, and probably physically as many parts of it as you can, and seeing how the parts relate to the whole. So my background, intellectually, is that of a wandering child, and I’ve never stopped being that. And all children until they’re stopped by their mobile phones, by their TV addiction, or whatever it is, are interested in absolutely everything. And they don’t see, of course, the distinctions between things which we feel necessary to assert in order to proclaim that we’re specialists in one field or another. And of course, those barriers stop us being specialists in anything approximating reality, because reality isn’t carved up in the way that we normally do. So yeah, I was a child fascinated by the natural world, who, as most children do, thought that we could understand what the world meant by understanding a little bit about how the world in fact was. So as a passionate naturalist, I recorded all my sightings of birds and mammals. I mapped to the garden in our suburban South Yorkshire house, and plotted on my maps the flight paths of the birds. I, like all normal children do, crawled around on my hands and knees, because that’s a much more interesting perspective on the world and the perspective that you get from standing on your hind legs and looking down at it. And I progressed, if that is progression, from asking how does this work? What does this mean? What does this entail? What does this mean for the way that I should live? What does this mean for the way that the whole cosmos is bolted together?

Hoogerwerf:

So what was first, veterinarian, or the barrister? How did that kind of academic journey start?

Foster:

Chronologically, I read Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge, and that was an extension for me of my childhood fascination with how animals as machines worked. And when I was at Cambridge, I had the opportunity to read some law as well. And I was fascinated by the idea that transcendental principles up somewhere in the ether, could in some way dictate what happened in the messiness of human life and the law courts and the collision of those top down philosophical principles with what happens in human bedrooms and human shops and human minds fascinated me then and continues to fascinate me. The whole business of the sorts of creatures that we are is at the center of the question, what is it legitimate for the law to do? So I started quite early on in my legal studies to look for a legal anthropology and it seemed to me that the methods that I should use in that search were similar to the methods that I had used in crawling through the bracken in search of knowledge about deer or whatever it was.

Hoogerwerf:

If I can be so bold as to ask what about the religious background of your childhood? What kind of role did that play in who you’ve become?

Foster:

Oh, I think that all human beings are unnecessarily religious, everything that human beings do can’t help but be a religious act, or a religious omission. And so I didn’t distinguish between religious things in my life, whether it’s child life, or adult life and non religious things. But, I grew up in a caring, respectful, loving, essentially secular household. We went to church at Christmas and at Easter. But I became a religious child. That now seems to me to be a seriously wrong turn. I sat out in the wild world that I loved, in the wilderness, just at the top of our suburban street. And I loved it. And I knew that there was a force in there, which was the source of everything that I love, not just in the wild world, but in everything. And it seemed to me, and seems to me, that that force had more of a characteristic of personality than the force which I had come to describe in the equations I was learning at school. And that one of the aspects of that personality was that it was ethical, that it was moral. And the only part of my life in which anyone spoke about ethics was the church which we occasionally went to. And so I came to identify this animistic fascination, this conviction that there were consciousnesses out there, with the ethics which were taught in this church. Because that was the only place that was talking in anything like a coherent way, about anything ethical, and I intuited that this wild world was an essentially ethical place. This was a wrong move, because the type of Christianity which was articulated in this church down the road was—I want to put it kindly—it was a very stark kind of conservative evangelicalism. It was an iteration of Christianity which I now find difficult to see is a brand of Christianity at all. It was a brand which insisted on the importance of uttering propositions about the nature of God, which it now seems to me to be very difficult to utter with anything like the the blithe confidence that they were uttered there. It was an iteration that was very happy to condemn anyone who couldn’t utter these propositions into a lake of fire for eternity. That, for me, was Christianity for a very long time. And the disjuncture between that type of Christianity and the love which I felt suffused the natural world and suffused the lives of my entirely non-Christian parents was disjuncture which took me many years to escape from and to recognize indeed.

Hoogerwerf:

So we’ve talked quite a bit on the podcast about the differences between the US and UK, particularly the tensions between science and religion seem to be less pronounced in the UK, though it seems like there are obviously some nuances there that you’ve just kind of hinted at. Did that kind of religious conservatism also lead to tensions with science at that time? And did that lead you to struggle with what you had these two things you were in love with?

Foster:

It didn’t lead me to struggle with that at the time because I fell into some very good Christian scientific company quite early. That saved me from those sorts of worries. I mean, had I listened more attentively to those wise, Christian scientific friends, I think that I wouldn’t have sojourned so bitterly, in this very conservative tradition for as long as I did. So what I’m admitting to, is that I occupied a number of different islands which weren’t really connected with one another. So I could believe, for the purposes of the Sunday service in X, but for the rest of my working week believed something which was entirely unconnected with it. And it wasn’t until very much later that I saw that it was unsatisfactory and started to dissemble things—disassemble things, I’m sure I dissembled things as well—disassemble and reassemble them into something which feels to me to be a better representation of the way the universe really is.

Hoogerwerf:

So in The Selfless Gene, where you explore, I think, a lot of these ideas, maybe most directly, the theistic evolutionists don’t come away without a bit of critique. You say, when talking about cooperation and altruism, and, quoting here, “the theistic evolutionists are over deferential to the Darwinians on these issues, perhaps the ones with biological backgrounds are steeped so thoroughly in Darwinian orthodoxy, that rebellion against its axioms, is intellectually or psychologically impossible. Perhaps they’re concerned about being labeled creationists, a perfectly legitimate concern itself. And perhaps the ones with theological background do not sufficiently appreciate the ubiquity of cooperation and apparent altruism in the natural world.” So Biologos doesn’t use theistic evolution as a label anymore. We prefer evolutionary creation, which puts the emphasis on creation as opposed to evolution. But regardless, I wonder if you think that still holds? It’s been 12 years, I think, since you’ve written that.

Foster:

Yeah, you’ve anticipated my response. I wouldn’t write that now. I think a lot has changed. So, I think that it is increasingly recognized in all camps, Christian and otherwise, that the old orthodoxy of genetic determinism is dead, that competition is not the only game in town, that complexity is generated in ways which are less ethically offensive than what was previously recognized. There was much more of a vibrant and fluid conversation between genes and environment than there was, that gene switching is far more significant a player in the game then mutation is, but certainly that the role of gene switching and therefore the possibility of genes being related to environmental pressures, including nice environmental pressure is a much more potent driver for natural selection than was realized. So, yeah, I wouldn’t put it in these terms.

Hoogerwerf:

Yeah, I think this is really interesting. But I like this idea of rebelling against the axioms of Darwinian orthodoxy. And, and we’ve talked about some of this. It’s pretty complex. And sometimes I feel like we’re, at BioLogos, still working on convincing everyone that Darwinian thought is acceptable. And now we’re saying, but it’s not totally right, which, I think is fine to do. That happens in science, but there is complexity in communicating that and almost like it gives rhetorical ammunition to those who have been trying to say that evolution doesn’t explain how we came to be.

Foster:

I think, as a marketing exercise, it’s particularly difficult because biologists are miles behind all other types of scientists in clinging to their orthodoxies. So physicists are far happier to think that the world might be a much more serious place than are the biologists to, at least in their nine to five day jobs, feel it impossible to leave significantly, the canons of Darwinian orthodoxy. They’re worried about their tenure. And yet, when they come home, they’re greeted by their wives and their children, they don’t for one moment believe that their orientation towards them can be explained by reciprocal altruism or kin selection or any of the other ways in which altruism is classically expressed. They look their dog in the eye and don’t for one moment believe that that dog is merely a machine which is of no real moral weight, which isn’t to some extent conscious, which doesn’t have a real relationship with them of the sort, if not, to the same extent, as their relationship with their human relatives and so on and so on and so on. So you have this really toxic sort of schizophrenia in the biological establishment, between what people do and say during the day, and what people do and say when they are being real people outside the laboratory. And so addressing biologists, particularly from your perspective as an apologist is difficult, because you have to pay I suppose, some sort of lip service to the daytime orthodoxy, while also trying to free them to act by the intuitions, well the knowledge, of the greater complexity of the world which they recognizes and as they get out of the lab

Hoogerwerf:

Yeah, and you have to also understand that the way science works is by sticking to an orthodoxy, usually for a long time, and that there is a risk in being too open minded, right?

Foster:

Hmm. I’m not sure about that. It seems to me that we do need urgently to recover particularly in the biological sciences, that radical skepticism, that radical irreverence of the enlightenment, which has been lost. So that there is a frankly, religious fundamentalism in modern biology, which says that there are lots of questions that cannot be asked, because they’re questions that can’t be posed in the language of the orthodoxy. And you look and see what happens to people like Rupert Sheldrake, a genuinely revolutionary, enlightenment skeptic. He has been hung out to dry by the scientific establishment, fearful of the, from smashing up too many of their pigeonholes, which they cherish more than the truth.

Hoogerwerf:

Has that always been the case in science? I mean, Galileo, and so many others who’ve—I recently read Suzanne Simard’s book about her finding out how trees communicate with each other. And it took a long time for her to be accepted. Is that just the nature of scientists who are pushing the boundaries?

Foster:

I think it’s an observation which, as I’ve said earlier, applies to the biological sciences. And I think it’s an artifact of A, the supreme beauty and great explanatory power of of Darwinism. And B, the fact that as that beauty and explanatory power was first being recognized, it was recognized in the context of other debate with religious faith. Wilberforce and all that. And so the original apologists for Darwinism took on themselves, the language and the passion of religious fundamentalism, and have never lost it. So that’s, for what it’s worth, my explanation for why it’s happened and for why it’s not happened in sciences outside biology.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hi Language of God listeners. Here at BioLogos we think that asking questions is a worthwhile part of any faith journey. We hope this podcast helps you to think through long held questions and consider new ones but you probably have other questions we haven’t covered yet. That’s why we want to take this quick break to tell you about the common questions page on our website. You’ll find questions like “How could humans have evolved and still be in the image of God,” “how should we interpret the Genesis flood account?” and “What created God?” Each with thoughtful and in depth answers written in collaboration by scientists, biblical scholars and other experts. Just go to biologos.org and click the common questions tab at the top of the page. Back to the show! 

Interview Part Two

Hoogerwerf:

Well, let’s switch gears a little bit here. I want to talk about some of your more recent books, Being Human and Being a Beast. So Being a Beast was first, right. How did that book come about? And I’m curious what the conversation with your editors was like for that book, where you start off by going to live in a badger hole, or at least as close to one as you could come.

Foster:

Sizzler said that every book starts with a picture. And that’s certainly true in my case. The picture was of a fox, who I vaguely remember seeing in a wildlife park when I was a child. I could just see its nose poking out of the box where it was living. And I thought to myself, then I would quite like to be in that box, because it’s raining outside and I’m cold. And as I got older and understood a little bit more about the neurological hardware and software of foxes and other animals, I wondered whether it was possible to know what it was like in that box. So that was how it started. But more generally, that book is an inquiry into the accessibility of otherness. So I think most of us wonder if the conversations that we have, our conversations just with ourselves, whether we can ever get outside the echo chambers of our own heads, whether it’s possible to know anything at all about other people, whether we’re condemned to loneliness and condemned to have conversations at cross purposes. And I thought, if I can understand even to a tiny extent, what it’s like to be a badger, something very different from me, perhaps then I can have a real conversation with my wife or my children. And that’s what that was, what the book came to be about, a search for reassurance that I wasn’t alone, necessarily alone.

Hoogerwerf:

So I have a couple of people who have asked this question in the past, in my mind, and in my notes here. And as you mentioned, people have been asking this question for a long time. Thomas Nagel, famously in his essay, What it’s Like to Be a Bat. Wittgenstein says that if a lion could talk to us, we wouldn’t understand it. So two, kind of on the side of not being able to understand what it’s like to be another creature. And then I’ve been reading a lot of Frans de Waal recently who has maybe some different ideas here. I’m curious, you obviously think it’s important to try to understand the animal perspective. In response to some of these people, what do you say to the possibility of actually being able to know what it’s like to be another creature?

Foster:

I don’t see that, in principle, it is any less possible to know something about what it’s like to be a badger than it is to know what it’s like to be a human being other than oneself. Of course, there are obstacles in the way of understanding what a badger is about, its life is like—badgers don’t speak English and can’t tell me what they’re thinking or feeling. But on the other hand, humans are much better at lying in a sophisticated way. We are superb dissemblers not only to one another, but also to ourselves. And it seems to me that probably those two types of difficulty cancel one another out. Wittgenstein and Nagel weren’t biologists. They didn’t, I don’t think, appreciate the enormous amount of shared experience and shared hardware and software that we have with these very close evolutionary relatives like bats or badgers. There’s an increasing recognition, I think, this anthropomorphism, which has been so decried, is a good first guess, as to what a nonhuman animal might be feeling. That’s how the American biologist Carl Safina put it. It might be a terrible second guess. It’s always bound to be a really, really terrible third guess. But it’s a good start. 

So I think there are reasons for saying coherently that if you believe with reasons that you can have a genuine conversation with your best friend, you might be able to understand to a tiny degree, some parts of what it’s like to be a nonhuman.  So I don’t think that this experiment of mine, which is recorded in Being a Beast is completely radically misconceived in principle. I think, as a matter of fact, my own experiment was almost a complete slam dunk failure. But that’s an indictment of the method. Still less is an indictment of the principle behind the experiment. And I think that somebody who’s a more intuitive person than I am, probably female, probably dyslexic, and therefore less tyrannized by language then I am, will be able to make a much better job of the experiment, which is the real—I wrote about this in Being Human quite a lot, of course—but the real obstacle to understanding what a badger’s life is about is the fact that I articulate everything about my world in terms of linguistic propositions. And those linguistic propositions have almost no relation to the things which they express. I’m looking out my window in Oxford now and I’m looking at a tree. And I’m getting visual images from that tree, which are hitting my retina and I’m translating those images almost immediately into things which have nothing whatsoever to do with that tree. So remembered fragments and poems about trees, remembered physiological facts about trees. I’m not looking at that tree at all. I’ve never seen a tree because of the power that language has over me. My son Tom, who appears in both Being a Beast and Being a Human has the glorious gift of dyslexia, so he has seen a tree. He doesn’t chop the world up into linguistic fragments in the same way that I do. And so I imagine that Tom’s view of the world, which has a much more epistemologically satisfactory view of the world, a much more accurate view of the world, a view which takes into account much more of the data that’s about in the world then I take into account is much more akin to that of a badger than my view. That’s one of the reasons, apart from the fact that I love him, why Tom went with me on these attempts to enter other worlds.

Hoogerwerf:

Yeah, yeah. I was just reading a bit about Martin Buber, his “I/thou” relationship. And talking specifically about a tree and being able to see a tree as more than an “it,” something that’s just important to us. And it feels to me like that is also an idea that is part of our faith and spirituality to do that. And so is there something we learn from this attempt to be like another creature that is really important to how we are in the world as spiritual beings?

Foster:

Absolutely. So a number of things, firstly, an ethical point, I suppose any attempt to enter the position of anybody other than oneself, is a good thing. Because the self is what destroys. The self is what corrupts. The self is what insists on bad stuff. And empathy, I think is like everything else, you get better at it, the harder you work at it, if you try something really hard, like trying to feel what it’s like to be a nonhuman animal, it causes your empathy muscles to hypertrophy, just like going to the gym. And probably when you come back to the kitchen table, you’re probably gonna be slightly less un-empathetic towards your wife and your children. So that’s one thing. Another thing is that the harder you look at almost everything else in the world, I think the more conscious you are of consciousness, which seems to be fairly ubiquitous in the cosmos. The better we get looking at consciousness, the more we find it. So we see personal pronouns sprouting up all over the place, if we look hard enough. The only reason that anyone has ever been able to postulate for the eruption of consciousness in this promiscuous way is that it facilitates relationship of a sort, which doesn’t connote any selective advantage. It’s the sort of relationship which is only good for relationships. So the universe seems to be a place which has been conceived in the way that it is because it facilitates relationship, because love is at the heart of it. So you move from an observation of personality, in the eyes of a dog or a fox, to a conviction that love is one of the basic substrates of the universe. And therefore, the creator of the universe is probably to be characterized by the label love.

Hoogerwerf:

So, Being Human, seems like the obvious kind of trajectory from Being a Beast. And so let’s talk about that for a minute. So a while back, we put together a multi-part podcast series that asked a lot of the questions you asked in both of those books, most broadly, what does it mean to be human? And then that series which Jim and I narrate together, we find ourselves drifting toward, I think, slightly different perspectives on this human uniqueness question, where Jim is looking for humans to be not just different in degree but different in kind. And I lean towards saying that while I think we are unique, I think everything else might be unique in its own way. Can you help solve this debate for us or at least place yourself within it?

Foster:

It’s easy to please myself on it. I’m entirely with you. So I think it’s biologically, historically implausible to distinguish as radically as your colleague wants to do between humans and nonhumans. And it seems to me to be theologically unnecessary. Yes, humans are special. Those Genesis stories make it clear that being made in the image of God is something which is true of us in a particular way. But it doesn’t follow, it would seem to me, from those accounts, that the image of God is not also stamped in some way upon nonhumans. And it would seem to me to be inevitable that if God has created nonhumans, and in any way, his thumbprint must be on them in some way. Maybe not to the same extent as in humans. Maybe they’re different from us in the sense that they’re not fixed with the same responsibilities as we are, as a result of being given that awesome stewardship responsibility. One of the ways in which I am frequently confronted with this question is in the context of my academic work on dignity, and whether that can do any real philosophical work. And people, of course, talk normally about human dignity. But does it follow that ideas of dignity which are forged in the human context, can’t do some work in the context of animal dignity? And I think it doesn’t follow at all. The reason that I find it difficult to say what the dignity of a dolphin, for example, would entail for our treatment of that dolphin, is because I don’t have as much idea about what thriving as a dolphin means, as I do about what thriving for human means. But there is plainly some way in which a dolphin can be a dolphin rather better. And a way in which a dolphin can be a dolphin rather worse, in both welfare terms and ethical terms. And I think there’s probably good dolphins and bad dolphins. But I can’t, because I don’t know the parameters of dolphin life as I know the parameters of human life, I can’t say specifically what those are. But it doesn’t follow that they don’t have dignity in something like the same way as I had. Similarly, it seems to me that one can’t draw that hard line that your colleague wants to draw between the metaphysical status of humans and other animals.

Hoogerwerf:

Yeah, I’d like to take this chance to really slam this point home with Jim gone, but I guess I should try and be another creature here and practice my empathy and channel Jim a little bit. Could we both be right? I mean, I am convinced that there are a lot of places where humans really do seem to do so many things so differently. I mean, nothing else is as, well as far as we know, considering these questions. But, yeah, why does this argument seem to persist?

Foster:

I think it seems to persist because it flatters us. And we all like to be told that we are special with a capital S. I mean, one obvious way in which we are very special is that we have huge brains. The only reason that we have huge brains, as a matter of evolutionary fact, is because huge brains confer a capacity for relationship, which confers a massive selective advantage if you’re trying to prevent yourself from being eaten by leopards on the south or east African veldt. It helps to have lots of friendly eyes looking out for the leopard. Now that capacity for relationship, it would seem to me, has, in humans, created all sorts of capacitors which are evidenced in us in ways which are not evidenced in non-human animals. And that includes a capacitive relationship of a particularly intimate kind, not just with us, but also with the whole cosmos. So I doubt, but I don’t know, that even something as sophisticated as an orca feels the same sort of kinship with a star as my brain allows me to feel. The metaphorical grooming ways in which we maintain our relationships have generated art, literature, dance, music. All of these are characteristics which can have and usually do have a distinct theological inflection. And the exercise of those capacities means that we’re almost bound to articulate our difference in something like the terms of the imago dei.

Hoogerwerf:

So in Being Human, you attempt to live like a Paleolithic and Neolithic human, kind of in the same way that you attempted to live like a badger and a fox. Was it any easier than the animals perspective, realizing this gets rid of the question of when we became human, what a human is.

Foster:

It was far harder. Because it was far harder to try to be a human than to try to be a fox in some ways. So being a human myself, it was far harder to discard all my modern humanness. And it was particularly hard because now I am convinced, as you know, having seen this book, that almost all of what all humans are is essentially upper paleolithic. So I can’t scrape away, in my effort to go back into the upper paleolithic, everything which I’m trying to inhabit. When I was trying to work out what it was like to be in a fox as well, for example, although there was a rather more implausible thing, in some ways to try to do at least it was obvious to my imagination, what the problem involved. But having to enter the mind of an upper paleolithic hunter-gatherer meant, on the one hand, abandoning my modern humanity, but on the other hand, required me to remember that most of what I am now is quintessentially hunter-gatherer and the tension between those two demands I found very difficult when I was researching this book

Hoogerwerf:

In some of the places, in both books I think, we feel a kind of, I don’t know what to call it other than like an anti-human stance, or maybe an anti-modern human. There’s obviously a lot of value to be found in, as we’ve talked, about trying to understand the otherness. But specifically in the Neolithic and Paleolithic mind. And the modern human mind has led to all kinds of problems, obviously, most notably the current climate and environmental catastrophes. How should we think about this? Is it kind of a nostalgia that we should be aiming for, or an actual return to some sort of lifestyle of neolithic or paleolithic people, just an appreciation?

Foster:

We’ll certainly not return to the lifestyle or presumptions of the Neolithic. But let me just first of all, what you start off by almost saying, you’re too gracious to say it directly, but you sort of hinted that I’m a grumpy misanthrope. I am disappointed in humans, but I’m only disappointed in us, because I know what we might be. I think we are essentially glorious creatures. And I say, when we don’t act gloriously I’m sad. Should we try to act as upper paleolithic hunter-gatherer? Well, I do paint what many people will think is a romantic picture, in the first part, of the hunter gatherer life, that was a life of intense relationship with a nonhuman world where our boundaries with humans and nonhumans were very porous. When we didn’t have the sort of arrogance, presumption that the world is there, just for our benefit, which has done such catastrophic harm over the millennia. It was a world in which we saw death as not just not the end, but as a state in which our agency would increase. It was a time when we saw the world as a thrillingly multi-valent place. We realized that it was possible for a piece of bone to be carved into the shape of a wolf. And if a piece of bone can be a piece of bone, and at the same time, without stopping being a piece of bone, be a wolf, then there is no end to the possibilities which the world contains. I would love to return in my own life, and I’d love to attend in our corporate lives to that wondering way of perceiving the world, in which there is a recognition that everything in the world is suffused with moral significance. And therefore, that we need to have a respectful choreography, liturgical approach to everything that we do. For hunter gatherers, for example, eating anything is really problematic, because everything has a soul. To eat even a plant means that you are relocating that soul, and therefore the plant has to be asked for permission to kill and eat it and has to be thanked, and that is surely a good orientation towards the world. So should we return to that way of doing things? Yes. Can we be hunter gatherers in the way that they were? No. There’s not enough stuff now to hunt and to gather, but we can have, I think their way of attention to the world, their appreciation of the moral significance of everything. And we can have that excitement of seeing how full of possibility the world is.

Hoogerwerf:

Well, I think I did have a chance to enter that world while reading your books. So thank you for that. What’s, what’s your next project?

Foster:

Well, there’s a book being published by Penguin Books in February, which is a book of short stories about various animal species. The idea of that book is that huge concepts like climate change and mass extinction fail to move us. They’re just too big and too scary and too abstract. So the only things which will actually get to our gut and cause us to change are little local stories about little local animals to whom we can relate. Because we are little local animals ourselves, we are little local stories. So this is a book which seeks to show the challenges of living alongside the likes of us. So that’s that book. And then I’m working at the moment on another book, which is about edge places and edge solutions. The thesis there is that nothing significant or interesting has ever happened at the center of anywhere. For one thing, you can’t see the center from the center. So you don’t know anything about it. You’ve got to go to the edge in order to see the center and all examples of innovation in evolution, and literature, and science and everything else have always come from the edge. And even if a painter is supported by his patrons, the medici, now he’s still by definition, an edge person who is subverting the center by taking their money. So that’s the work in progress at the moment.

Hoogerwerf:

Great. Well, this has been a fun conversation, and we haven’t even dipped into some of your other books and work that I think is really interesting. So maybe we’ll have to talk again sometime. We’d like to end our interviews with one last way of getting to know you. And that’s by asking what you’re reading, not what you’re writing.

Foster:

Well, at nine o’clock every night, I’m reading, at the moment, to my 11 year old son, B.B.’s wonderful book, The Little Grey Men which is about the last gnomes in England. And when I’m not doing that, in my own reading time, I am reading, for the umpteenth time Beowulf. I’m trying to plow through it in the original and it’s hard and exciting and very worthwhile.

Hoogerwerf:

Well, thank you, Charles, for talking to me today. 

Foster:

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you for having me.

Credits:

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the Fetzer Institute, the John Templeton Foundation, and by individual donors who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Nate Mulder is our assistant producer. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. 

BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum or visit our website, biologos.org, where you will find articles, videos and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

Charles Foster is a writer, traveller, barrister, veterinarian, among other things. He is a fellow at Green Templeton College at the University of Oxford. His books cover a large variety of topics, including travel, evolutionary biology, natural history, anthropology, theology, archaeology, philosophy and law and are all attempts to answer the questions ‘Who or what are we?’ and ‘what on earth are we doing here?’ His books on science and faith include The Selfless Gene: Living with God and Darwin (2009), Wired for God? The Biology of religious experience (2010), and The Jesus Inquest (2006).


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