Friday 29th Sep 2023

Lecture: ‘What Kind of Animal are you?’




Charles Foster teaches medical law and ethics at Oxford University, and writes about natural history, anthropology, archaeology, travel, evolutionary biology, theology, philosophy and law. Recent books include Being a Beast, in which he describes the time he spent living in a hole and eating worms in order to inhabit the mind of a badger.

Review by Michael-Tyler (DG/Year 12):

On 14 September, most recently author but sometime barrister, veterinarian, and philosopher Charles Foster visited Christ’s Hospital to give a lecture on the lives of animals and their place in our own. For the first time in recent Ridley Lecture memory, he ascended the stage sans PowerPoint and instead spoke reflectively and honestly about the things his experiences in the wilds had taught him.

We joined Charles and his ‘test subject’ son, Tom, as they lived the lives of worm-eating badgers, encountered soulful and intelligent foxes, and considered the plight of the frenzied otter. One of Charles’ most significant points was the grace period of childhood: in which, he claimed, we are not yet fully emancipated from the way nature made us; we are freer to slip into different perspectives and engage with the Earth in situ, which made Tom’s genuine and enthusiastic reaction to these new lives so valuable in Charles’ observations. Our urbanised perspective was challenged time and again throughout the talk, as we came to realise that crawling through muddy tunnels and sleeping in caves was, traditionally speaking, the norm for thousands of years of human history. ‘If you think that’s weird: you’re weird’, repeated Charles after every eyebrow-raising story of eating earthworms (which, apparently, taste best in autumn and would pair well with a claret).

By physically emulating the lives of and trying to think as a wild creature does (although Charles would stop the author here and insist that they, too, are a wild creature), Charles was able to gain insight into the common perspectives and shared experiences across all of nature. When he was concentrating his nose on the air to find whence in the forest his earthworms’ scent was emanating, he was able to release the clutter of cognition that plagues human experience and focus on the extraordinary gifts of his own senses. Watching a fierce battle between otter siblings over scarcity of food caused in chief by human pollution, he reflected on the fundamental drives of life and the tragedy of family driven apart by desperation. Precariously climbing trees to seek communion with swifts, his same body felt entirely different than it had when being a badger; he was suddenly landlocked and entirely alien to the winged existence of the creatures both a few feet and a world away from him.

Having spent so much time in the animal kingdom, an audience member asked, surely Charles must have a favourite member? What was it? After some deliberation, we heard the answer: the fox. Seemingly aware of the underwhelming impression this answer gave, Charles apologised for not picking a more cinematic creature like the bright-burning tiger or spectral shark, and elucidated thus: to him, the fox is the most recognisably human (and the human is the most recognisably foxy) of all the creatures he has encountered. The animal soul (a concept which had been denounced by the Church with the Renaissance, but which Charles thought essential to understanding the world) was at the forefront of all the fox’s doings, witnessed most poignantly and distressingly when a fox whose friend or family member has been killed at a roadside (as many foxes are, particularly in cities) will return to the site, sit solitary and emit a keening cry not used for any other situation. Simply put: the fox mourns its dead. This realisation was profoundly important for both Charles and the audience, as we experienced some of the deep and common empathy which he said arose from experiencing the lives of other creatures.

‘Why do you do it? What do you gain when you leave the forest?’ was, aptly, the final question. The answer came immediately and with total conviction: to understand better the creatures we all are, to remind oneself of the real, natural world, and ultimately to better oneself as a human being.