Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

A Gorilla’s Version of The Meaning of Life (And Why We Should Listen)

a review by Reason Wilken

Imagine this scene: A man is sitting in the dimly lit office of his adopted professor. The professor is explaining, in great detail, the origin of man and the course of human evolution. To illustrate his points, the professor draws various maps of the so-called “Fertile Crescent” in the Middle East and references biblical stories with the ease of an Ivy League historian. His student listens intently as the professor makes complex inferences and analyses of where man has been and where he is going. The professor is a gorilla. What is wrong with this picture?

In a word, nothing. Though one might not expect much in the way of cultural insight from a gorilla, Ishmael is clearly different. He has apparently taken to educating himself during the long hours in his cage, and as a result has become well-versed in human civilization. His area of expertise is, fittingly enough, captivity. Exactly what the concept of captivity has to do with the course of human evolution is not immediately obvious, but it quickly becomes clear.

Humans today associate themselves with a number of characteristics: “independent”, “productive”, “advanced” and “intelligent” to name a few. But captive? Captivity is for animals, or at most for the “less advanced” nomadic tribes who are dependant on their environment for food and shelter.

As we see it, us children of the Industrial Age are not at the mercy of anything or anyone. If we want food, we simply go to the store and purchase vegetables that we have grown or meat from animals that we have raised. If we need shelter from an approaching storm, we take cover in one of the weatherproofed, heated homes that we have built. Nothing can touch us, and we are capable of providing for ourselves and growing without limit. The world is our oyster, and there is no end to what our incredibly intelligent, productive and self-supporting civilization can accomplish.

Or is there? Especially in recent years, evidence has been piling up that our industrial civilization is not exactly living in a bubble. First it was global warming due to the destruction of the ozone, then came the lists of species that had become endangered or extinct due to our control of land, and most recently it is the energy crisis. Evidently, the current incarnation of humanity, however glorious, comes with strings attached. It is all too easy to continue to sail along with our current ways until we hit a wall. Most of us are quite aware of the adverse effects industrialization has on the planet, and we are just as tired of hearing about them. Frankly, it is quite depressing to know that as you are just going about your life on this earth you are destroying it in the process. Short of giving up all the advancements that modern civilization has made and reverting to a “primitive” hunter-gatherer society, it does not seem like there is much that can be done. Like a patient who is diagnosed with a terminal and seemingly unbeatable illness, part of humanity has simply given up on the hope that the world will ever be saved.

Giving up the hope of change and continuing blindly on our chosen path brings us back to the dreaded “captivity issue”. Ishmael describes humans as being “captives of a story told by ‘Mother Culture’” that portrays industrialization as a natural, desirable progression from a hunter-gatherer style of living. All of us are exposed to this ideology on a daily basis, from reading about the latest technological achievements to watching nature documentaries of “primitive” societies in remote parts of the world that are “still doing things the old way”. Meanwhile, our generation is running around extolling the benefits of the “new” industrial society and the freedom it affords. Granted, it would be almost impossible to put as much effort as we do into advancing technology if we did not believe, on some level, that it was morally right.

Ishmael likens our current cultural situation to an attempt for man to fly on homemade wings. He describes industrial society as a man-powered aircraft, one that was devised to allow us experience “freedom from the restraints that bind and limit the rest of the biological community”. These restraints might include population limits (based on available food), predation, and the inability to set up a stable society in one locale (due to hunting and gathering requirements). Our society pushes this “cultural craft” off a very tall cliff, and for a while it seems like our mission has been accomplished. We are flying high and have a vantage point over the rest of the world. None of the rules apply to us, and we are able to enjoy a feeling of superiority over all the other species. But while we perceive ourselves as flying gloriously, we are actually falling. As more time passes, we begin to see the ground we are rapidly approaching. Clues of our dilemma begin to appear like trees becoming visible on the landscape: Elimination of scores of species, global warming, starvation, overpopulation. Also visible according to Ishmael are “the remains of craft very like their own…merely abandoned—by the Maya, by the Hokoham, by the Anasazi…”. Even with such evidence, industrialized peoples do not realize their fate. They wonder “Why are these craft on the ground instead of in the air? Why would any people prefer to be earthbound when they could have the freedom of the air, as we do?”. They say “We must have faith in our craft. After all, it has brought us this far in safety” even as the end rises up to meet them head-on.

When one looks at our situation this way, it becomes clear why we might be described as “captives” of our culture even though we could not feel more free. We have invested so much in our current way of life in terms of time, energy and faith. We have put out the message to the world that our way of living is superior to any other way that has ever existed. We have tied ourselves almost inextricably to this craft, to be taken as willing prisoners of whatever may come of it.

For generations we have embraced the notion that industrial civilization evolved naturally from hunter-gatherer societies, when in reality it was a distinct split that began with the dawn of the Agricultural Age. Hunter-gatherer societies have not been entirely replaced by industrial civilization, and there a number existing today. Despite this fact, our cultural attitude has created a stigma surrounding smaller self-sustaining societies like these. Non-industrial people are “uncivilized”, “primitive” and “ignorant” no matter how organized or self-sufficient they are.

Gradually, our culture is beginning to realize that we are flawed in some ways and we cannot sustain our current drain on natural resources indefinitely. But even if it were widely accepted that industrial culture has a finite lifespan (which is quickly running out), it is unlikely that we would all be capable of adopting a simpler style of life. Even if the life of the earth were at stake (as it might soon be), it is still not plausible to believe that we would make the switch. The very philosophy underlying industrial (or as Ishmael calls it, “Taker”) culture runs contrary to hunter-gatherer ( “Leaver”) principles. This is not to say that Takers are bad and Leavers are good, just that their respective ideals are not complementary.

At the core of the Taker culture is a strong desire to care for and advance humanity. This is accomplished by growing enough food to support a large population, expanding the areas of the world in which humans can live, and making extensive use of natural resources to sustain our growing needs. Technologically, a great many advances have been made by industrial peoples: the invention of the steam engine (and subsequently the airplane and automobile), the ability to utilize the full potential of land through agriculture, and the ability to treat many diseases through discovery of new drugs. Unfortunately, most of this has been at great expense to the environment. At the core of Leaver culture is a strong desire to care for and respect the biological environment that sustains them. The majority of the time, Leaver peoples take not what they need but what is available. This may mean moving around in order to find more animals to hunt or food to gather. It may also mean that some members of the population will perish in the event that enough food cannot be found.

In principle, this is absolutely unacceptable to industrialized people. To the Takers, it seems obvious that we have to utilize every resource and milk the earth for everything we can in order to sustain and expand our race. Who in their right mind would allow members of their society to perish just because enough food could not be found? If supplies are tight, the answer is not to cut back consumption, but to increase supplies! If resources do eventually run out and the industrialized peoples do perish, then it will be with honor while trying to advance humanity. As Takers, we would almost rather die in glory while trying to further our race than to “revert” to hunting and gathering. Accepting the earth’s limitations and switching to a simpler life that could be supported on available resources would be conceding to failure.

So, how does one convince people to change without resorting to a dictatorial approach? How can today’s society truly be altered? Ishmael is a fairly perceptive gorilla, and he realizes that an important part of implementing change is getting others to listen. He realizes that people are not going to listen to cries of “You must fix your errant ways now before it’s too late! Save the world!” any more than they would listen to someone nagging them to do their laundry. Nagging and giving people ultimatums are not notoriously good ways of getting things accomplished. It is clear that we must be truly convinced, and not just told, to change our ways.

Ishmael is as much a salesman as he is a philosopher, and he understands the importance of packaging. Since most of us enjoy hearing good news and are inclined to listen to whomever bears it, he puts a positive spin on our dilemma. Instead of chastising Takers for their behavior and belittling them for their ignorance, he kindly offers to explain why the Taker way might not be the only (or the best) way of life.

Through explaining human cultural evolution in the context of the rest of the community of life, Ishmael shows us how man fits in and motivates us to work with the rest of the species for the greater good. He explains that we do not have to become a hunter-gatherer society in order to live like we “belong to the world” (as opposed to living like the world belongs to us). In order to reap the long-term benefits of the Leaver lifestyle (such as continued evolution and preservation of the earth’s resources) all we have to do is practice a few general (albeit challenging) principles. Among these are invoking a Peace-Keeping law, allowing the creatures around us to live and grow, and realizing that even Takers cannot speak with authority as to how others should live. According to Ishmael, the gods are the only ones who can do that, and the Takers must give back the title of Ruler to its rightful place. None of this means that we can no longer be agriculturalists or industrialists. It only means that we can no longer be ignorant.

(Reviewed 09-27-01)

Ishmael is available in bookstores everywhere and online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Borders. You can find links here.

Read my review of Daniel Quinn’s The Man Who Grew Young.


Reason Wilken is a recent (2001) honors graduate from UCLA with a BS degree in Biochemistry. She is currently considering her future and has started working with a Biotech Analyst and Investment Firm.  She will offer original essays and reviews of books speaking to the creation of a Positive Future.