is a philosophical novel by Daniel Quinn published in 1992. Using the traditional style of the
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
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.
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
"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!
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,
"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
"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."
"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
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
(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
"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."
"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."
"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
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
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
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
"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