Home: How Habitat Made Us Human

Image of Home: How Habitat Made Us Human
Release Date: 
November 4, 2015
Basic Books
Reviewed by: 

Readers interested in anthropology and the cultural exploration of why humans have created the idea of home and what this idea means will enjoy John S. Allen’s exploration in this newly published volume. Allen is a researcher in neuroanthropology, the study of relationships between culture and the brain, which examines our emotional responses and those pesky questions of what it is to be human and how we got this way, our responses to “home” and what it means to “feel at home.”

However, readers who are interested in reading about the architectural and cultural development of home as a place one returns to after a long day of work in the modern world, and what home looks like to various cultures across the world will be disappointed because Home is not about this topic. It is about the evocative word and the spaces it lights up in our brains and how our ancestors came to decide a set locale was a good and logical retreat from continuous roaming.

The subtitle, How Habitat Made Us Human, is a bit misleading: Allen never quite arrives at any conclusion at how habitat absolutely made us humans any more than meat-eating changed our brains to make us the upright humans we are today or evolution itself made us human. Allen also fails to acknowledge the many pets that often live within the confines of today’s home as well as the technology we place inside of it. The home Allen discusses is a quiet place, a place of rest and recharge, but can this occur if we have other people, animals, or technology competing for our attention that we never quite get to disconnect from the outside world?

Allen declares that “the most important relationship with the home, it is with all primates, is between a mother and her offspring” except that this leaves out the myriad homes where women are choosing not to have children, or who can’t have children, or male homosexual couples who aren’t mothers in the traditional gendered sense, etc. What does that mean for the term “home” then? Allen is rather dismissive of the idea of other people who live alone and ignores wide swaths of population who don’t fit a heteronormative cis-gendered stereotype.

Allen’s writing style is clear and straightforward. Any college reader can pick up this volume and understand it, even without understanding the deeper science that led Allen to his findings. Allen explains the concept of home divides the world in two—a domestic space and everything else. It does take some time for Allen to begin to weave into his narrative the understanding that not everyone has a home that offers safety or a space one would rather return to than remain in the “wilderness” (whether that’s the jungle, the city, or at work).

About halfway through the book Allen begins to examine housing and food insecurities and the stresses that arise in the human body through physical and mental distresses as well as the problems these create for children. For example, home is supposed to be where curiosity can safely be explored, and without this safety net, curiosity can quickly die and create cognitive development problems.

One of the most interesting chapters was one home improvement—the focus of so many television shows, dramas, and credit card woes today. It will be interesting for readers to learn about the need for decoration and improvement in the natural world just as we do the same today, except that we rely on Ikea. It would have been nice, though, if Allen had extended this chapter more to really dive into the deeper meaning of keeping up with the Joneses and how this has affected our homes and our feeling toward the space where we are meant to find relaxation and safety as well as pleasure.

Allen provides a plethora of end notes and an exhaustive index at the back for those scholars interested in learning more or checking up on his research.