Review of Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

I belong to a small cadre of old college buddies that I enjoy debating with. One of them, who is part Native American, recently suggested Ishmael as a book that we could all read and discuss. I have just finished reading the book, but I have not yet begun to fight. In preparation for battle, I am writing down some of my thoughts while the book is still fresh in my mind.

When I saw the title, I assumed that it would be about Islam, but nothing could be further from the truth. Ishmael is a Socratic dialogue dressed up as a novel, and its primary topic is the contrast between two different kinds of cultures, which the title character, Ishmael, calls the Takers and the Leavers. As examples of Leaver societies, Ishmael cites the Bushmen of Africa, the Alawa of Australia, the Kreen-Akrore of Brazil, and the Navajo of the United States. The Takers, roughly speaking, comprise what we typically call “modern civilization.” The main thesis of the book is that the Takers are destroying the world and that it is the Leavers who are on the right track.

If Quinn had simply come out and stated this thesis outright and tried to defend it using standard philosophical argumentation, he would probably have been largely ignored. After all, in many ways, Quinn’s main thesis is not a new idea, and a lot of people probably feel that they already know it is wrong, without having to consider it in detail. The brilliance of Quinn’s narrative is that, by using the Socratic method, he gradually opens readers’ eyes to their own prejudices and blind spots, and challenges them to question things that they have most likely taken for granted all their lives.

In my view, the first one-third of the book is the best. In it, Ishmael invites his student to describe the mythology of his own culture—the Taker culture—starting with the creation myth. The student of course objects that modern civilization is devoid of mythology and has no creation myth, only a scientific account of origins. Ishmael nevertheless insists that the student give his account of how things came to be this way. The student runs through the standard account of the Big Bang and evolution, and then Ishmael points out that the way the student tells the story, its climax is the appearance of man. This emphasis on the centrality of man is mythological, and not scientific, since science per se does not tell us that man is the center of the universe, either literally or figuratively. As Ishmael summarizes it, the Taker mythology begins with this premise: The world was made for man, and man was made to rule it.

Let me pause for a moment to say that I am fully with Ishmael up to this point. All biology professors will confirm that almost all their students harbor the preconceived (and false) notion that evolutionary theory gives man a special place in the grand scheme of things, and that it is almost impossible to beat this idea out of them. Even in college textbooks, you can often find references to, say, bacteria as being primitive while man is advanced. Never mind that the total biomass of bacteria vastly outweighs that of humans and that bacteria are far more diverse and well-adapted to every imaginable environment on earth—including the bacteria in and on our bodies, without which we would be unable to live. The hypothesis that the world was made for man, and man was made to rule it is not something that science tells us. People who tacitly subscribe to it but who think that they are being purely scientific are deluding themselves.

Returning to Ishmael, he continues that a key part of Taker mythology is that man was born to turn the world into a paradise, but tragically he was born flawed, and so his paradise has always been spoiled by stupidity, greed, destructiveness, and shortsightedness. At this point, Ishmael makes a crucial move. According to Ishmael, the reason the Takers blame their troubles on an innate flaw is that they have somehow got it into their heads that there is no scientific method of figuring out how people ought to live. Instead, we have to rely on prophets to tell us the one right way to live. According to Ishmael, nobody among the Takers has even tried to look at the world empirically to see if it might be possible to discover, by careful observation, how people ought to live. As Ishmael puts it,

Doesn’t that seem strange to you? Considering the fact that this is by far the most important problem mankind has to solve—has ever had to solve—you’d think there would be a whole branch of science devoted to it. Instead, we find that not a single one of you has ever wondered whether any such knowledge is even out there to be obtained.

Later in the book, Ishmael’s student concurs, “No one gives a damn about whether our laws work well. Working well is beside the point.” In my mind, this is the point in the book where the wheels start to come off. Of course a vast number of people in the Taker culture have tried to develop scientific ethics. Relativism about morality and values is admittedly dominant today, especially in the West, but it has not always been that way. Even today, has Ishmael/Quinn never heard of Ayn Rand and Objectivism? Still, I am prepared to gloss over this glaring factual error, in the interests of seeing where Ishmael wants to go.

Ishmael argues that there is an empirical law about how people, or indeed any living thing, ought to live. Extracting a clear statement of this law from the book is a little tricky because Ishmael constantly conflates two senses of the word law: a law in the sense of a natural law that can be empirically discovered and is physically impossible to violate, versus a law in the sense of a rule of behavior that one may or may not choose to flout. The book offers several formulations of the law, two of which are, “No one species shall make the life of the world its own” and “The world was not made for any one species.” However, these formulations are clearly just as mythological and unscientific as “The world was made for man.” My best attempt to formulate Ishmael’s law as a scientific hypothesis (as he insists it is) rather than a prescriptive command is this: If a species exterminates its competitors by denying them access to all food and increasing the supply of its own food without limit, then it will perish. Ishmael’s student remarks, “Funny…This is considered almost holy work by farmers and ranchers. Kill off everything you can’t eat. Kill off anything that eats what you eat. Kill off anything that doesn’t feed what you eat.” Ishmael replies,

It is holy work, in Taker culture. The more competitors you destroy, the more humans you can bring into the world, and that makes it just about the holiest work there is. Once you exempt yourself from the law of limited competition, everything in the world except your food and the food of your food becomes an enemy to be exterminated.

(Incidentally, this xkcd cartoon provides a vivid illustration of the above point.) The whole argument of the book hinges on the idea that if you live sustainably then you solve the most important problem of all, and everything else falls into place. There is, according to Ishmael, nothing fundamentally wrong with man. The Takers have simply bought into a false mythology that drives them into an unsustainable way of life, and this is the primary cause of social ills. “Among the Leavers,” says Ishmael, “crime, mental illness, suicide, and drug addiction are great rarities.” This is because the Leavers, through thousands of generations of experience, have lived in accordance with the law of limited competition. Instead of the Taker premise that the world belongs to man, the Leaver premise is that man belongs to the world.

The story the Leavers have been enacting here for the past three million years isn’t a story of conquest and rule. Enacting it doesn’t give them power. Enacting it gives them lives that are satisfying and meaningful to them. This is what you’ll find if you go among them. They’re not seething with discontent and rebellion, not incessantly wrangling over what should be allowed and what forbidden, not forever accusing each other of not living the right way, not living in terror of each other, not going crazy because their lives seem empty and pointless, not having to stupefy themselves with drugs to get through the days, not inventing a new religion every week to give them something to hold on to, not forever searching for something to do or something to believe in that will make their lives worth living. And—I repeat—this is not because they live close to nature or have no formal government or because they’re innately noble. This is simply because they’re enacting a story that works well for people—a story that worked well for three million years and that still works well where the Takers haven’t yet managed to stamp it out.

As I said earlier, this line of thinking is not really new. Framed less grandiosely, as a proposal that the Takers have taken the concept of human sovereignty over the world to an abusive extreme, causing innumerable problems, and that the Leaver style of sustainable living is to be preferred, I am rather sympathetic to it. (Among Christians, the Old Order Amish come to mind as proponents.) In fact, I daresay that I could put together a better scientific argument for it than Ishmael presents. Quinn’s grasp of population dynamics, both in ecological systems and in human society, is weak. It is certainly not the case that Homo sapiens sapiens is the only species in history to expand unsustainably by cutting off the branch it sits on, nor is it the case that food supply is the only determining factor of the size and growth of the human population. These are only two of the most egregious of multiple errors and misconceptions in this section of the book. However, I am not too bothered by this since I think these errors are fixable, and as I said, I am sympathetic to the overall critique of the Taker lifestyle.

What I am less sympathetic to is the idea that this is the main question about life, and that a Leaver society is paradise on earth. Ishmael is concerned only with the relationship between man and the world, and relationships between people are given scant attention. It seems to be simply assumed that once man enters into a right relationship with the world, relationships between people will also be automatically healed. This I have trouble believing.

The Christian premise, of course, is that man is flawed, because of sin, and that what sin destroys—and what therefore is in most urgent need of fixing—is not man’s relationship with the world, but first and foremost man’s relationship with God, and secondly his relationship with his fellow man. In this regard, Ishmael has a very interesting take on the first chapters of Genesis. Ishmael claims that the creation narrative—at least what scholars call the Yahwist contribution, i.e., not including Chapter 1—was actually written by Leavers. For Ishmael, the knowledge of good and evil should be interpreted as the knowledge of who shall live and who shall die. This is knowledge best left to the gods; for man to seize it amounts to trying to violate the law of limited competition. Similarly, the story of Cain and Abel should be read as a protest that the Takers, who are the children of the agricultural revolution that makes Taker society possible, are killing the hunter-gatherers. It is a fascinating interpretation, one that I have not heard before, and I do not know if it is original with Quinn. It does make sense of some otherwise mysterious features of the narrative. For example, the text itself leaves us scratching our heads as to why Cain’s offering was not acceptable while Abel’s was. This detail makes sense if the story was written as a polemic against agriculturalists. On the other hand, Ishmael’s reading of the knowledge of good and evil is, in my mind, not particularly convincing. In the text, the immediate effect of eating the fruit is to give Adam and Eve an awareness of their nakedness, and this has no plausible interpretation on Ishmael’s reading that I can see. Furthermore, on this reading it does not seem to make sense that Abel is the son of Adam and Eve; it would seem more logical to make Abel someone who is independent not only of Cain but also of Adam and Eve.

The last major observation I have is that towards the end there is a passage that strikes me as discordant with the rest of the book. Ishmael’s student suddenly decides that man is special after all, and the world does need man.

He’s the trailblazer, the pathfinder. His destiny is to be the first to learn that creatures like man have a choice: They can try to thwart the gods and perish in the attempt—or they can stand aside and make some room for all the rest. But it’s more than that. His destiny is to be the father of them all—I don’t mean by direct descent. By giving all the rest their chance—the whales and the dolphins and the chimps and the raccoons—he becomes in some sense their progenitor. … Oddly enough, it’s even grander than the destiny the Takers dreamed up for us. … In other words, the world doesn’t need to belong to man—but it does need man to belong to it. Some creature had to be the first to go through this, had to see that there were two trees in the garden, one that was good for gods and one that was good for creatures.

I have to say that if I had accepted everything taught by Ishmael earlier in the book, I would be decidedly disappointed by this line of thinking. Here we go again, trying to make man out to be something special when there is no scientific evidence for it. Why, for crying out loud, did any creature have to be “the first to go through this”? The world was getting along just fine without man, was it not? The whales and dolphins and chimps and raccoons had their chance without man having to give it to them. It is like saying that the world needs weapons of mass destruction just so people can choose not to use them. This strikes me as the nuttiest section of the book, inserted just to pander to the reader’s desire to feel special and have a program of action.

At any rate, I have to agree with my friend that the book is a good choice for raw material to have endless debates about. And where would we all be without that?

Posted March 2014

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