February 22, 2024

Getting down and dirty with bioethics

Oxford don tries living as a badger to expand his horizons

In its most expansive mode, bioethics deals with the biosphere, our responsibility for all living things. It is a bold writer who tackles this, which helps to explain why the purview of most bioethicists is humankind. Animals usually get short shrift.

However Charles Foster, barrister, travel writer, veterinarian, theologian, Oxford don, father of six and medical ethicist has published a fascinating, if sometimes stomach-turning, account of his attempt to reconnect with the animal world.

In his recent book Being a Beast, he tells how he lived as a badger, a fox, a swift and an otter. “Lived as” means “lived as”. Badger Foster lived underground, ate earthworms, scraped squirrel road kill off the tarmac and ate it with his 8-year-old son (cooked with wood sorrel and wild garlic, mind you). Fox Foster lived in London like urban foxes, scurrying down laneways and eating rancid pizzas.

Otters were his least favourite animal. They are pitiless killing and eating machines, consuming the equivalent of 88 Big Macs a day. A human counterpart would “stay up for a couple of nights, drinking a double espresso every couple of hours, before having a cold bath followed by a huge breakfast of still-twitching sushi and then a nap, and then keep repeating until I die.”

The lesson of the book, which is being praised as both bonkers and brilliant, is that humans need to engage with the natural world. In its own eccentric way, it is a serious and profound book:

“I’m angry at humans who act towards the natural world with a lack of empathy which, if displayed towards other humans, would be seen as frankly psychopathic. We have this ability to engage the natural world on so many more levels than we actually do. I’m incredibly happy being a human being, but I’m much happier having learned the lessons about being human that these other species have taught me.”

Even human beings cannot escape from their wilderness heritage: it is wired into their psyche through evolution. As a Cambridge graduate, he ought to know. Here is what his classmates were told at graduation:

“You’re about to leave Cambridge, gentlemen. Now, it may very well be true that the meek will inherit the earth, but my advice to you is this: Until they show some signs of making a serious bid for that position, trample all over them.”

Now, presumably, the mature Foster regards this as otter bosh. 

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