Barbara J. King, chancellor professor of anthropology at the College of William & Mary, is the author, most recently, of “How Animals Grieve.”
When traveling in a foreign city, or even just working late at the office , we may suddenly be flooded with a feeling: I just want to go home. There’s a scientific reason behind that yearning, says neuroanthropologist John S. Allen. Unlike any other species, he writes in his new book, we are “fundamentally home-minded.”
In his engaging and informative natural history, “Home,” Allen explores “how habitat made us human.” To demonstrate, he takes readers on an evolutionary tour, with stops at ape nests, ancestral human hearths and American cities where thousands go without homes.
Rest, restoration and relationships — what I will call the 3Rs — are at the heart of home for us, Allen writes. Home isn’t just a physical place, it is also a cognitive one shaped by our biology and our culture. “You can’t buy a home,” Allen explains. Rather, a home is something “that you have to build yourself, according to the blueprints drawn from your evolutionary history, cultural traditions, and personal experiences.” We create — or try to create — a space that shelters our bodies and minds from the outside world and, through its comfortable familiarity, calms our senses so that we may focus on food, rest and social interaction.
For humans, a “feeling for home” may have arisen about 2 million years ago with Homo erectus, our ancestor who first controlled fire. The ancient hearth was more than just a food-processing site, it was a place where children were raised, tools constructed and emotions communicated. Our modern homes are more architecturally complex but no less centered on our cooperation to satisfy basic evolved needs; throughout human history, home has been and still is “a venue for pooling energy resources.”
What is the difference between a place of rest and a home? Allen looks to zoology for answers. High in the forest canopy, for example, chimpanzees carefully construct nests of vegetation each night. These nests are places of rest but, Allen says, not homes, because they are rarely built in the same spot twice and don’t house much social interaction. Prairie dogs, interestingly, make something more closely related to human-style homes: Their large colonies are divided into households and even into specialized rooms such as nurseries and sleeping areas — hallmarks of home-building.
To understand what makes a home, we must look also at the flip side, Allen argues: how we experience being without one. Allen examines the deep trauma faced by homeless children and adults. He also argues that some people are “physically housed, but cognitively homeless.” With a roof over their heads but no home capable of providing the 3Rs, people may find themselves “in an emotionally vulnerable and distressed state.”
Allen’s treatment of all things home is broad in scope yet weakened by important omissions. Allen halts his survey of prehistory abruptly with Neanderthals about 30,000 years ago, with no consideration of what home meant for Homo sapien cave artists, farmers and early city-dwellers. More important, Allen’s sense of home is limited. Early on, he recognizes the “cultural fluidity” of the household unit, going well beyond the nuclear family. Later, though, discussing single-dweller homes, his tone verges on the dismissive. “Some people live alone, and quite successfully and happily. That’s all well and good,” he writes, “but most people live all or most of their lives with other people.” He declares that “obviously, the most important relationship within the home, as it is with all primates, is between a mother and her offspring,” which isn’t obvious (or necessarily true) at all. While it’s correct that “for many people” the “relationship between a reproducing human male and female” is the primary one, a broader definition would be welcome and more accurate.
Moreover, why are all the homes Allen considers so thoroughly human-centric? Where are the cats, dogs, bunnies, birds, snakes, fish and other animals with whom we reside? My own home is a restorative place precisely because it includes another species, and I suspect it is little different for millions around the world who choose to live with animal companions.
We humans are still evolving; our cultural practices are dynamic. Allen notes, if fleetingly, the “technological assault” that many homes — at least in highly developed parts of the world — now experience. Data collected by the Pew Research Center shows that 73 percent of American households own a computer with a broadband connection to the Internet.
A question inevitably emerges: When even at home our flashing computers and trilling cellphones tug constantly at our attention, can those homes possibly remain the places “of recovery” that they have been for us in the past?
By John S. Allen.
Basic Books. 292 pp. $28.99