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Ishmael (novel)

Ishmael - novel by Daniel Quinn that was awarded the largest prize ever given to a single work of fiction, the $500,000 Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award.

Ishmael is a novel that provides a fresh perspective on the world that we find ourselves in today. With this it brings its readers a new way of looking at human history and an alternative to the way we live now.


Warning: Wikipedia contains spoilers

The story begins with a newspaper ad: "Teacher Seeks Pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person," which the nameless main character of the novel responds to out of nostalgia for his days of idealism where he would have bought into something of this sort without hesitation. He is also of course intrigued but is reluctant to admit it.

To the man's surprise he finds that his teacher is a gorilla that can communicate. At first baffled by this the man quickly learns the story of how the gorilla came to be this way and he accepts the gorilla, Ishmael, as his teacher. The novel continues from this point as a socratic dialogue between the man and Ishmael as they hash out what Ishmael refers to as "how things came to be this way" for mankind and the environment.

Ishmael begins by telling the man that his life, which began in the wild, was spent mostly in a zoo and a menagerie, and since had been spent in the gazebo of the man that extricated him from physical captivity. He tells his student that it was at the menagerie that he learned about human language and culture and began to think about things that he never would have pondered in the wild. Subsequently, Ishmael tells the man that his subject for this learning experience will be captivity, primarily the captivity of man under a civilizational system that forces him to exploit and destroy the world to live.

The narrator has a vague a notion that he is living in some sort of captivity and being lied to in some way but he can not explain his feelings.

Ishmael uses the example of Nazi Germany as he attempts to show his student that the people of his culture are in much of the same situation. Either held captive with the mythology of being superior, or "like an animal swept up in the stampede" of the captivity of those around them.

Before proceeding Ishmael lays some ground definitions for his student so they can be on the same page as they continue to discuss. He defines:

Ishmael tells his student that the Leavers' story began three million years ago and was going along fine until the addition of the Takers mentality to the human race around ten thousand years ago. The Taker's story is built on the premise that man is the pinnacle of evolution (or creation), that the world was made for man, that man is here to conquer and rule the world, and that human rule was meant to bring about a paradise. These premises are put into the form of a story that the Takers enact due to constant regurgitation of them by "Mother Culture". In addition, the Takers' culture is built on the premise that there is something fundamentally wrong with humans, and it is only this flaw that has created the pit of destruction we are falling ever faster into. However, Ishmael brings us the insight that:

"There's nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world. Given a story to enact, in which they are the lords of the world, they will act as the lords of the world. And, given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitable, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now."

Ishmael goes on to help his student discover what physical law the Takers have rejected as applicable to them and thus not lived in accord with. This law is grounded in the fact that "man is not alone on this planet. He is part of a community, upon which he depends absolutely." This being the Community of Life. The law which he is referring to is the Law of Limited Competition, or the Law of Life , which is in short, "you may compete to the full extent of your capabilities, but you may not hunt down competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food. In other words, you may compete but you may not wage war."

Ishmael explains that all species inevitably follow this law, or as a consequence go extinct. As a culture the Takers believe it is their right to take as much as they desire from the earth and its living community, while the rule of the Law is that you can take what you need, but must leave the rest alone. As a consequence of the Taker's refusal to abide by the Law of Life, the diversity needed to sustain life on the planet is severely threatened, and the balance between food populations and feeder populations destroyed.

As a means of extracting all that is possible from the Earth and settling in one distinct area the Takers develop the universality of agriculture as their ideal. Yet, unlike the Leaver's, the Taker view on agriculture incorporates more than the concept of settlement; it is designed to support growth, unlimited growth. This unlimited growth comes in the form of a constantly increasing food supply that inevitably leads to an increased population.

"The Taker population has been proving this for ten thousand years. For ten thousand years they've been steadily increasing food production to feed an increased population, and every time they've done this they've increased it even more."

Daniel Quinn dubs this harmful form of agriculture, which is unique to the Taker's, "Totalitarian Agriculture".

Ishmael makes the point that as we have attempted to render ourselves exempt from the Law of Limited competition, we have created a huge imbalance in the Community of Life. But, the earth is ultimately self-balancing, and our flouting of the law will ultimately be checked - in the form of our extinction.

Ishmael goes on to help his pupil discover just how the Takers rendered themselves above the laws governing all of life. As an example, he brings to light the story of Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit. He tells his student that this story was one developed by the Leavers about the origin of the Takers. In the Garden of Eden there are two trees the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The first being that for mankind - and ultimately all species who abide by the Law of Life - and the second bearing the forbidden fruit, hence the one for the gods and the gods alone, for "the knowledge of good and evil is fundamentally the knowledge the rulers of the world must exercise... and the gods ruled the world for billions of years, and it was doing just fine. After just a few thousand years of human rule, the world is at the point of death."

Ishmael makes the point that it was the Leavers that developed this story because if it were of Taker origin the knowledge of good and evil would be considered a liberating ascent, instead of being forbidden to Adam and foreshadowing doom for the species. He goes on to discuss how, for the ancient Semetic herders among whom the tale originated, the story of Cain killing Abel symbolizes the Leavers being killed off and their lands taken so that it could be put under cultivation. These ancient herders realized that the Takers were acting as if they were gods themselves, with all the wisdom of what is good and evil and how to rule the world. And as a result the gods banished these people from the Garden and they were brought from a life of bounty in the hands of the gods to one of being the accursed tillers of the soil.

Ishmael brings together his synopsis on human culture by telling his student about the way in which the Leavers lived in accordance with the Law of Life and presents him with a model for living in a fashion that is in accord with the laws of the biotic community.

First, "each Leaver culture is an accumulation of knowledge that reaches back in an unbroken chain to the beginning of human life. This is why it's no great wonder that each of them is a way that works well. Each has been tested and refined over thousands of generations." This is one of the main attributes of Leaver culture- there is no one distinct way to live that is forced on all the differing people residing over the world - diversity reigns. Furthermore, the Leavers as a collective unit abide by the laws of the living community, and therefore live in the hands of the gods, and lived soundly for three million years, while the digression of the Taker culture overwhelmed the Earth.

Ishmael finishes with a summary of how we can begin to end the environmental genocide began by the Takers 10,000 years ago:

"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 the forbidden tree. You must absolutely and forever relinquish the idea that you know who should live and who should die on this planet." 

The student is left with the idea that he must help others see that in order to save the world we must follow the Leaver's mentality about letting the rest of the community live, but wonders how to go about it. Ishmael admonishes him to "Teach a hundred what I've taught you, and inspire each of them to teach a hundred.

Follow-ups to Ishmael by Daniel Quinn include The Story of B, My Ishmael, and Beyond Civilization. Quinn's autobiography is entitled Providence: The Story of a 50 Year Vision Quest and details how the author arrived at the ideas behind Ishmael.

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See also: New tribalists, Eco-anarchism , Permaculture, Nonviolence