Daniel Quinn
Bantam/Turner, fifth anniversay edition, New York (USA),
December 1997 (1992)
273 pages

Ishmael is a philosophical novel by Daniel Quinn published in 1992. Using the traditional style of the Socratic dialogue, it examines the effects of the human mythology around the idea of civilization and its impact on our natural surroundings. In that sense, Ishmael is directly linked to Beyond Civilization and other works by the same author (see my review of this other book here). As a matter of fact, some people see Daniel Quinn's work in the tradition of Green Anarchism and, above all, Anarcho-Primitivism, although the author himself begs to differ.

In the book, a nameless narrator is attracted by a newspaper ad that reads: "Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person." The whole theme reminds him of his own experiences during the counterculture movement of the 1960s:

During the children's revolt of the sixties and seventies, I was just old enough to understand what these kids had in mind —they meant to turn the world upside down— and just young enough to believe they might actually succeed. It's true. Every morning when I opened my eyes, I expected to see that the new era had begun, that the sky was a brighter blue and the grass a brighter green. I expected to hear laughter in the air and to see people dancing in the streets, and not just kids —everyone! I won't apologize for my naïveté; you only have to listen to the songs to know that I wasn't alone.

Then one day when I was in my mid-teens I woke up and realized that the new era was never going to begin. The revolt hadn't been put down, it had just dwindled away into a fashion statement. Can I have been the only person in the world who was disillusioned by this? Bewildered by this? It seemed so. Everyone else seemed to be able to pass it off with a cynical grin that said, "Well, what did you really expect? There's never been any more than this and never will be any more than this. Nobody's out to save the world, because nobody gives a damn about the world, that was just a bunch of goofy kids talking. Get a job, make some money, work till you're sixty, then move to Florida and die."

(Daniel Quinn: Ishmael, pp. 4-5)

I suppose that this quote itself can be read as some sort of mythological explanation, for it is absolutely true that the descendants from those hippies and counterculture fans of the sixties are now today's environmentalists.

So, when the narrator shows up at the agreed location to meet his teacher, he is quite surprised to find himself in a room with a gorilla. Nevertheless, they manage to establish some sort of telepathical communication and the lessons begin:

"I see," I said. "And what do you teach?"
Ishmael selected a fresh branch from a pile at his right, examined it briefly, then began to nibble at it, gazing languidly into my eyes. At last he said, "On the basis of my history, what subject would you say I was best qualified to teach?"
I blinked and told him I didn't know.
"Of course you do. My subject is: captivity.
"That's correct."
I sat there for a minute, then I said, "I'm trying to figure out what this has to do with saving the world."
Ishmael thought for a moment. "Among the people of your world, which want to destroy the world?"
"Which want to destroy it? As far as I know, no one specifically wants to destroy the world."
"And yet you destroy it, each of you. Each of you contributes daily to the destruction of the world."
"Yes, that's so."
"Why don't you stop?"
I shrugged. "Frankly, we don't know how."
"You're captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live."

"Yes, that's the way it seems."
"So. You are capives —and you have made a captive of the world itself. That's what's at stake, isn't it? —your captivity and the captivity of the world."
"Yes, that's so. I've just never thought of it that way."

(Daniel Quinn: Ishmael, pp. 26-27)

What Ishmael teaches the narrator is, first of all, to deconstruct our own mythology on how civilization (our way of life) came to be:

"Mother Culture, whose voice has been in your ear since the day of your birth, has given you an explanation of how things came to be this way. You know it well; everyone in your culture knows it well. But this explanation wasn't given to you all at once. No one ever sat you down and said, 'Here is how things came to be this way, beginning ten or fifteen billion years ago right up to the present.' Rather, you assembled this explanation like a mosaic: from a million bits of information presented to you in various ways by others who share that explanation. You assembled it from the table talk of your parents, from cartoons you watched on television, from Sunda School lessons, from your textbooks and teachers, from news broadcasts, from movies, novels, sermons, plays, newspapers, and all the rest. Are you with me so far?"
"I think so."
"This explanation of how things came to be this way is ambient in your culture. Everyone knows it and everyone accepts it without question."

(Daniel Quinn: Ishmael, p. 42)

Of course, we all know what the pinnacle of that story is: man! We always tell the story of the whole planet as if the birth of man was its sole objective. Teleology taken to a new high, but one that we rarely consider, blinded as we are by... well, the mythological explanation we tell ourselves but remains hidden from plain sight.

From that point, Ishmael and the narrator agree to tell the story of what they call "the Takers" (i.e., those humans who chose civilization) as compared to "the Leavers" (i.e., the hunter-gatherers). That is where we currently stand, actually:

"Right," I said. "Okay. Man's destiny was to conquer and rule the world, and this is what he's done —almost. He hasn't quite made it, and it looks as though this may be his undoing. The problem is that man's conquest of the world has itself devastated the world. And in spite of all the mastery we've attained, we don't have enough mastery to stop devastating the world —or to repair the devastation we've already wrought. We've pured our poisons into the world as though it were a bottomless pit —and we go on pouring our poisons into the word. We've gobbled up irreplaceable resources as though they could never run out —and we go on gobbling them up. It's hard to imagine how the world could survive another century of this abuse, but nobody's really doing anything about it. It's a problem our children will have to solve, or their children.

"Only one thing can save us. We have to increase our mastery of the world. All this damage has come about through our conquest of the world, but we have to go on conquering it until our rule is absolute. Then, when we're in complete control, everything will be fine. We'll have fusion power. No pollution. We'll turn the rain on and off. We'll grow a bushel of wheat in a square centimeter. We'll turn the oceans into farms. We'll control the weather —no more hurricanes, no more tornadoes, no more droughts, no more untimely frosts. We'll make the cloud release their water over the land instead of dumping it uselessly into the oceans. All the life processes of this planet will be where they belong —where the gods meant them to be— in our hands. And we'll manipulate them the way a programmer manipulates a computer.

(Daniel Quinn: Ishmael, pp. 84-85)

And one of the central elements to that mythology is, of course, religion:

"However, one major element of the cartoon remains to be sketched in before we go on... One of the most striking features of Taker culture is its passionate and unwavering dependence on prophets. The influence of people like Moses, Gautama Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, and Muhammad in Taker history is simply enormous. I'm sure you're aware of that."
"What makes it so striking is the fact that there is absolutely nothing like this among the Leavers —unless it occurs as a response to some devastating contact with Taker culture, as in the case of the Wovoka and the Ghost Dance or John Frumm and the Cargo Cults of the South Pacific. Aside from these, there is no tradition whatever of prophets rising up among the Leavers to straighten out their lives and give them new sets of laws or principles to live by."
"I was sort of vaguely aware of that. I suppose everyone is. I think it's... I don't know."
"Go on."
"I think the feeling is, what the hell, who cares about these people? I mean, it's no great surprise that savages have no prophets. God didn't really get interested in mankind until those nice white neolithic farmers came along."

(Daniel Quinn: Ishmael, pp. 89-90)

Innocent as it seems, Quinn introduces us to a few interesting ideas indeed. In reality, he brings up more questions than answers. It certainly does look as if religion (at least in its most institutionalized form, as opposed to just a set of vague myths) is born together with agriculture and civilization in the Neolithic. As a matter of fact, as Ishmael clearly says, it also looks as if we, civilized people, have an intrinsic need to find a prophet perhaps all too often. How come? What is the ultimate need that leads us to these prophets? It does not take a very bight mind to realize that we do feel as if there is something amiss in our lives. It is not only the Christian tradition that portrays us as sinful creatures who fell from God's grace into this harsh life. That very same idea is also present in other religions and it is actually how we feel. It responds to a very profound spiritual need. We do live with idea that we have somehow betrayed our own origins and chosen the wrong path... which led directly to this valley of tears, of course. No wonder we keep seeking a solution in one prophet after another.

And yet, religion does not appear to be of great help, judging by the large amount of different versions that we have created during the history of our civilization. Indeed, their "wisdom" tends to boil down to an acknowledgment of our own "sinful nature", a belief that things will be somehow straightened out in the after-life and an acceptance of our sorrowful existence:

"We now have in place all the major elements of your culture's explanation of how things came to be this way. The world was given to man to turn into a paradise, but he's always screwed it up, because he's fundamentally flawed. He might be able to do something about this if he knew how he ought to live, but he doesn't —and he never will, because no knowledge about that is obtainable. So, however hard man might labor to turn the world into a paradise, he's probably just going to go on screwing it up."
"Yes, that's the way it seems."
"It's a sorry story you have there, a story of hopelessness and futility, a story in which there is literally nothing to be done. Man is flawed, so he keeps on screwing up what should be paradise, and there's nothing you can do about it. You don't know how to live so as to stop screwing up paradise, and there's nothing you can do about that. So there you are, rushing headlong toward catastrophe, and all you can do is watch it come."

(Daniel Quinn: Ishmael, p. 94)

Does not that sound indeed like our current predicament? We are completely lost (have actually been lost for as long as civilization has existed) and, by now, have accepted that there is no way out. It definitely looks as if we have come to accept our flawed nature and the destruction of everything that surrounds us as our fate. It's simply something we cannot do anything about. There was a time when, at least, we bothered to believe in the possibility that this or that prophet might have found the magic recipe to solve all our problems. Yet, in this postmodern era we live in, we have abandoned even that hope. We have reconciled ourselves with the idea that fate will decide for us. Even worse, through science we have come to realize that we are not as important as we always thought, which completely destroyed the whole mythology about ourselves we had so carefully built over the course of a few thousand years:

"The gods have played three dirty tricks on the Takers," he began. "In the first place, they didn't put the world where the Takers thought it belonged, in the center of the universe. They really hated hearing this, but they got used to it. Even if man's home was stuck off in the boondocks, they could still believe he was the central figure in the drama of creation.
"The second of the gods' tricks was worse. Since man was the climax of creation, the creature for whom all the rest was made, they should have had the decency to produce him in a manner suited to his dignity and importance —in a separate, special act of creation. Instead they arranged for him to evolve from the common slime, just like ticks and liver flukes. The Takers really hated this, but they're beginning to adjust to it. Even if man evolved from the common slime, it's still his divinely appointed destiny to rule the world and perhaps even the universe itself.
"But the last of the gods' tricks was the worst of all. Though the Takers don't know it yet, the gods did not exempt man from the law that governs the lives of grubds and ticks and shrimps and rabbits and mollusks and deer and lions and jellyfish. They did not exempt him from this law any more than they exempted him from the law of gravity, and this is going to be the bitterest blow of all to the Takers. To the gods' other dirty tricks, they could adjust. To this one, no adjustment is possible."

(Daniel Quinn: Ishmael, pp. 107-108)

And that is where we sit right now. We have our "civilized liefstyle" that we think is the summit of creation itself. Yet, it is also a lifestyle that is clearly leading down the path to extinction. What are the main characteristics of this "civilized lifestyle"? The narrator, prodded by Ishmael, quickly finds the answer:

"Okay. As I make it out, there are four things the Takers do that are never done in the rest of the community, and these are all fundamental to their civilizational system. First, they exterminate their competitors, which is something that never happens in the wild. In the wild, animals will defend their territories and their skills and they will invade their competitors' territories and preempt their kills. Some species even include competitors among their prey, but they never hunt competitors down just to make them dead, the way ranchers and farmers do with coyotes and foxes and crows. What they hunt, they eat."
Ishmael nodded. "It should be noted, however, that animals will also kill in self-defense, or even when they merely feel threatened. For example, baboons may attack a leopard that hasn't attacked them. The point to see is that, although baboons will go looking for food, they will never go looking for leopards."
"I'm not sure I see what you mean."
"I mean that in the absence of food, baboons will organize themselves to find a meal, but in the absence of leopards they will never organize themselves to find a leopard. In other words, it's as you say: when animals go hunting —even extremely aggressive animals like baboons— it's to obtain food, not to exterminate competitors or even animals that prey on them."
"Yes, I see what you're getting at now."
"And how can you be sure this law is invariably followed? I mean, aside from the fact that competitors are never seen to be exterminating each other, in what you call the wild."
"If it weren't invariably followed, then, as you say, things would not have come to be this way. If competitors hunted each other down just to make them dead, then there would be no competitors. There would simply be one species at each level of competition: the strongest."
"Go on."
"Next, the Takers systematically destroy their competitors' food to make room for their own. Nothing like this occurs in the natural community. The rule there is: Take what you need, and leave the rest alone."
Ishmael nodded.
"Next, the Takers deny their competitors access to food. In the wild, the rule is: You may deny your competitors access to what you're eating, but you may not deny them access to food in general. In other words, you can say, 'This gazelle is mine,' but you can't say, 'All the gazelles are mine.' The lion defends its kill as its own, but it doesn't defend the herd as its own."
"Yes, that's true. But suppose you raised up a herd of your own, from scratch, so to speak. Could you defend that herd as your own?"
"I don't know. I suppose so, so long as it wasn't your policy that all the herds in the world were your own."
"And what about denying competitors access to what you're growing?"
"Again... Our policy is: Every square foot of this planet belongs to us, if we put it all under cultivation, then all our competitors are just plain out of luck and will have to become extinct. Our policy is to deny our competitors access to all the food in the world, and that's something no other species does."

(Daniel Quinn: Ishmael, pp. 130-132)

Pretty much anyone will automatically identify this lifestyle with sedentism. However, that is not completly accurate, as Ishmael explains to our narrator:

"But the problem remains. If I'm going to achieve settlement, I have to have more than I had before, and that more has got to come from somewhere."
"Yes, that's true, and I see your difficultu. In the first place, settlement is not by any means a uniquely human adaptation. Offhand I can't think of any species that is an absolute nomad. There's always a territory, a feeding ground, a spawning ground, a hive, a nest, a roost, a lair, a den, a hole, a burrow. And there are varying degrees of settlement among animals, and among humans as well. Even hunter-gatherers aren't absolute nomads, and there are intermediate states between them and pure agriculturalists. There are hunter-gatherers who practice intensive collection, who collect and store food surpluses that enable them to be a bit more settled. Then there are semi-agriculturalists who grow a little and gather a lot. And then there are near-agriculturalists who grow a lot and gather a little. And so on."

(Daniel Quinn: Ishmaelp. 139)

In this sense, Ishmael seems to argue that sedentism (and, by extension, agriculture) is not truly the root of the problem. Nobody is an absolute nomad. Not even animals. The problem does not lie there, but rather somewhere else. The problem is the way we relate to nature or, better yet, to the "community of life" we are a part of. As a matter of fact, we prefer to see ourselves (the God-chosen species) as outside of the animal realm. Indeed, we think of ourselves are emancipated from the realm of necessity that characterizes nature. We usually think of nature as something strange to us, something outside our own world. Thus, the issue is not that we practice a sedentary lifestyle, but rather that we chose to live outside the community of life. That is the ultimate root cause of our present-day problems.

It is this attitude that generates problems such as the overpopulation of our planet, which we naïvely believe will be solved by an increase in agricultural production:

"You need to take a step back from the problem in order to see if in global perspective. At present there are five and a half billion of you here, and, though millions of you are starving, you're producing enough food to feed six billion. And because you're producing enough food for six billion, it's a biological certainty that in three or four years there will be six billion of you. By that time, however (even though millions of you will still be starving), you'll be producing enough food for six and a half billion —which means that in another three or four years there will be six and a half billion. But by that time you'll be producing enough food for seven billion (even though millions of you will still be starving), which again means that in another three or four years there will be seven billions of you. In order to halt this process, you must face the fact that increasing food production doesn't feed your hungry, it only fuels your population explosion."

(Daniel Quinn: Ishmael, pp. 144-145)

Does this sound familiar? It certainly sounds like a good description of our green revolution, which was supposed to solve our food problem a few decades ago. Yet, as Ishmael correctly argues, it did not appear to lead us anywhere. We are still in the same dead-end type of situation. As it tends to happen with plenty of environmentalist authors, there is something missing here, though: the concept of social justice. Especially American authors appear to be quite afraid of appearing socialist. Yet, it does not take much to realize that a more just distribution of wealth is precisely what is missing from Ishmael's description. The problem, indeed, is not an insufficient production of food, but rather the way we distribute it. As a matter of fact, the same applies to other resources (water, welfare...). But pointing it out is somehow sinful in contemporary society, especially in certain countries, like the US.

And yet, let us not fool ourselves either. The distribution of wealth and social justice are definitely big issues we have not deal with that are needed in order to solve our current problems. However, there is another issue to bear in mind: we also have to change the productivist mindset we inherited from civilization itself. In this sense, socialists, communists and other members of the old left are dead wrong. Simply by distributing our wealth in a more just manner we do not solve the problems. The productivist mindset is not an intrinsic sin of capitalism only, but also of our whole civilized mentality. Since the beginning of times, our objective has always been to increase our "welfare" by means of increasing the production of material goods (i.e., promoting economic "growth"). That is the original sin not only of capitalism, but of civilization itself. If we truly want to address it, there is much more to deal with than just capitalism.

So, what is Quinn's answer to all these problems? He suggests we should turn our attention to what he called "the Leavers" on this book (i.e., those people who live in a manner according to nature or, at least, in a manner compatible with the community of life), especially to the accumulation of knwoledge they still pass to younger generations:

(...) "This is the connection. The Leavers are still passing that accumulation along in whatever form it came to them. But we're not, because ten thousand years ago the founders of our culture said, 'This is all shit. This is not the way people should live,' and they got rid of it. They obviously did get rid of it, because by the time their descendants step into history there's no trace of the attitudes and ideas you encounter among Leaver peoples everywhere. And then too..."
"This is interesting. I've never noticed this before... Leaver people are always conscious of having a tradition that goes back to very ancient times. We have no such consciousness. For the most part, we're a very 'new' people. Every generation is somehow new, more thoroughly cut off from the past than the one that came before."

(Daniel Quinn: Ishmael, pp. 209-210)

Bingo! That is the very essence of modernity. We keep telling ourselves that new is always good, just because. If anything, this trend got worse in the last few decades, in spite of what one may read out there. Thus, for instance, the central place that high-tech plays in our society is often taken as an excuse to overly discriminate against everyone beyond a certain age. We just assume that young people "get it", while older ones do not. Just like that, without any further proof.

And what is the price we pay for this constant praise of the new? We lose wisdom and condemn ourselves to having to reinvent the wheel all the time:

"Every one of the Leavers' ways came into being by evolution, by a process of testing that began even before people had a word for it. No one said, 'Okay, let's form a committee to write up a set of laws for us to follow.' None of these cultures were inventions. But that's what all our lawgivers gave us —inventions. Contrivances. Not things that had proved out over thousands of generations, but rather arbitrary pronouncements about the one right way to live. And this is still what's going on. The laws they make in Washington aren't put on the books because they work well —they're put on the books because they represent the one right way to live. You may not have an abortion unless the fetus is threatening your life or was put there by a rapist. There are a lot of people who'd like to see the law read that way. Why? Because that's the one right way to live. You may drink yourself to death, but if we catch you smoking a marijuana cigarette, it's the slammer for you, baby, because that's the one right way. No one gives a damn about whether our laws work well. Working well is beside the point...

(Daniel Quinn: Ishmael, ppp. 214-215)

But isn't it a bit crazy to put the hunter-gatherers as a model? To start with, the usual assumption is that their lifestyle left a lot to be desired, which is why we abandoned it in the first place, right? While this may be partially true, Ishmael explains to us how to a great extent that is a lie:

"Far from scrabbling endlessly and desperately for food, hunter-gatherers are among the best-fed people on earth, and they manage this with only two or three hours a day of what you would call work —which makes them among the most leisured people on earth as well. In his book on stone age economics, Marshall Sahlins described them as 'the original affluent society'. And incidentally, predation of man is practically nonexistent. He's simply not the first choice on any predator's menu. So you see that your wonderfully horrific vision of your ancestors' life is just another bit of Mother Culture's nonsense. If you like, you can confirm all this for yourself in an afternoon at the library."

(Daniel Quinn: Ishmael, p. 229)

In other words, what Daniel Quinn proposes is this:

"Then here is a program: The story of Genesis must be reversed. First, Cain must stop murdering Abel. This is essential if you're to survive. The Leavers are the endangered species most critical to the world —not because they're humans but because they alone can show the destroyers of the world that there is no one right way to live. And then, of course, you must spit out the fruit of that forbidden tree. You must absolutely and forever relinquish the idea that you know who should live and who should die on this planet."

(Daniel Quinn: Ishmael, pp. 257-258)

As with other Anarcho-Primitivists, the problem with Daniel Quinn is that, while his solution to our ailments makes actually perfect sense, it does not sound probable or perhaps even feasible. Sure, the same could be said of the current system we live in. Who could have said back in the 17th century that today's representative democracies with universal suffrage in a capitalist economy would have been possible? I am sure any such proposal would have sound as utopian as Quinn's, and yet here we are. Nevertheless, I am convinced that what makes this proposal perhaps even more unlikely than others we heard of in the past is the fact that it entails, at least to some extent, a return to a previous stage of civilization . If I understand him right, Quinn (and others, like Zerzan) is not so much proposing to do away with civilization altogether as much as dismantling most of it (i.e., its most negative features). In other words, Quinn's ideal world is made up of small, tightly knit communities, most likely in the countryside. It certainly sounds like the traditional Anarchist utopia. Precisely what Marx and others derided as Utopian Socialism. Now, that does not necessarily mean anything in particular. It could very well be that they are right after all. But it all sounds quite far-fetched, as in a pie in the sky type of scheme.

Entertainment Factor: 6/10
Intellectual Factor: 9/10