Reason Wilken

My Reviews

My Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

The Gorilla From Another Angle

My Ishmael is a sequel to the original novel, and reveals another side of the philosophizing gorilla that author Daniel Quinn’s readers have come to know and love. The book is set in the same time frame as the original, and centers on the relationship between Ishmael and another yet-unknown pupil. Twelve-year old Julie Gerchack is a good deal younger than the expected student for a sophisticated teacher like Ishmael, but possesses a logical power that is way beyond her years.

Unlike the previously documented pupil Alan Lomax (of Ishmael), Julie is drawn to this teacher not so much for enlightenment as for escape. A child of divorce, Julie has to singlehandedly deal with her overweight, alcoholic, full-time working mother. As a result, she assumes the role of “dutiful daughter” and preoccupies herself with school and maintaining the household. When she glimpses Ishmael’s ad, Julie feels that she might be able to be “useful to someone” and can’t resist answering it.

At their first meeting, Julie’s pessimism about the general state of affairs in the world is clear. When asked her reason for coming there, she replies that she just wants to “run for her life”. Ishmael asks what she is running from, and she replies “From everything. From people walking into schoolrooms with machine guns. From people bombing airplanes and hospitals. From people pumping nerve gas into subways. From people cutting down the forests…”. Unlike Alan Lomax, Julie seems to be acutely aware of just what is going wrong in the world. During her education with Ishmael, she will learn why.

Ishmael began his course with Julie in his usual fashion, by teasing out her version of “the story”. “The story”, of course, refers to the tale of human evolution as told by ‘Mother Culture’. Julie herself tells Ishmael that she thinks humans are “cursed” and incapable of living to their potential without destroying the Earth in the process. In short, humans are depicted as being at  an awkward stage of intelligence: smarter than other animals such as the insect or the earthworm, but not quite as smart as the gods that rule the world. As a result, humans are intelligent enough to develop new technologies (such as the automobile) but not intelligent enough to recognize the negative consequences (air pollution) until it is too late. The whole situation is simply beyond humans ability to solve it, so Mother Culture proposes that we just go on living this way for as long as we can (which at this rate is not very long).

Ishmael proposes that the crux of Taker (that is, industrialized) culture is based on one practice: the storage of food under lock and key. Taking control of necessary resources into the hands of a few forces the rest of the population to work to get their share. Ishmael illustrates this system by telling Julie the story of Terpischore (a planet named after the muse of dancing). Early on, all the inhabitants lived off of the land by foraging and hunting the available food sources. They lived in the “hands of the gods” and left their livelihood up to them (thus they were called Leavers). Eventually, a few of the people began to “dance” (farm) a few days per month in order to grow the foods they liked to eat. As time went on, some thought that it would be better to have even more of the foods they liked, so they danced a few days per week. Eventually, some of the people were dancing every day. Not only did they now have more control over their lives, but their lives had more control over them.

The Takers that led the dance were firmly convinced that it was the best way to live,  and so they decided that everyone should dance like they did. If they had to work for their food, so should everyone else. In order to force the Leavers to dance, the Takers put the food under lock and key. This of course caused dissention among the Leavers, who had gotten along well without having to grow their food. In order to control the uprising, the Takers had to develop more powerful weapons (such as guns). Thus began the “Great Dancing Revolution”, which is better known as the Agricultural Revolution.

Aside from merely growing and storing food, the Agricultural Revolution brought with it a variety of new laws and practices. Whenever there is power of some kind to control (such as the possession of money, land or stored food), there needs to  be a system of government. The Takers created laws in order to provide legal protection to those individuals who have valuable possessions. Jobs were created in order to provide motivated individuals with a means to earn a living and secure food for themselves. An educational system was put together in order to prepare children for the workforce. In comparison to Leavers, Takers seem to be working very hard in order to scrape by on the basic necessities of life.

The educational system is one aspect of the Taker culture that Ishmael particularly detests. As most students know, school is not the idyllic learning experience that it is cracked up to be. Ishmael remarks: “What one sees first is how far short real schooling falls from the ideal of ‘young minds being awakened’”. Nor does school thoroughly prepare students for the workforce. The average college student takes many courses that, while interesting, most likely won’t come in handy during a job interview. Examples of this might include calculus of three dimensions, chemical thermodynamics or advanced conversational Latin.

 According to Ishmael, the main purpose of school is to keep people out of the job market so it won’t overflow with candidates. Moreover, when a student finally does graduate from college, a good job is far from guaranteed. A new graduate today starts at the bottom of the ladder, much like a person without any education would have fifty years ago. The number of people competing for jobs is always increasing, so the bar has to be raised. College and graduate degrees are no longer rare achievements among the job-seeking population, they have become par for the course.

Finally, the school system is also designed to “turn out graduates with zero survival value” — meaning that they would not be able to survive without income to purchase food. If graduates could truly take care of themselves, it would turn the whole Taker plan on its head. Individuals would not have to get jobs in order to have some of the food that was locked away because they would be able to grow their own. They would no longer have to work their lives away as captives in the “Taker Prison”.

As this story is unfolding in front of Julie, she is reminded why she sought to meet with Ishmael in the first place — she wanted to get out and “run for her life”. Up until now, she hadn’t been sure what she was running away from. Deep down Julie had felt confused and somewhat ashamed of the despair she felt about the world, as if her cloudy outlook was her problem alone. Her work with Ishmael helped to wipe some of the tears off of her mind’s eye and allowed her to view their place in this “ ‘wonderful program’ ” more clearly. Julie came in thinking that human nature was to blame for much of the world’s problems, but left feeling the opposite way. Listening to the various aspects of the Taker cultural system and realizing their weaknesses, Julie had a startling revelation: it wasn’t just her. And for once in her short life, this piece of information came as welcome news.

(Reviewed December 31, 2001)

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




THE WEB OF LIFE by Fritjof Capra

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The book Web of Life is an attempt to synthesize philosophies from various areas of science into a coherent plan for improving human social structures. Author Fritjof Capra ( a theoretical physicist) refers to theories of quantum physics, mathematics, cybernetics and ecology in making his case for change. Peppered throughout Capra’s summation and analysis of classical theories (such as Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and Descartes’ method of analytic geometry) are more recent and less-known prophecies.

Prominent among these are the “Gaia (Living Earth) Theory” and the notion of “Deep Ecology”. Development of these theories through reference to other fields of science makes up the bulk of this novel. It is due to this extensive exploration of scientific theory that Web of Life reads more like a science textbook than the story that it truly is. This is definitely not a Sunday-by-the-pool approach to scientific writing, and thus may not hold mass appeal.

Capra begins by enumerating some of the problems facing humanity today — such as global warming, pollution, and depletion of natural resources — to motivate change. He calls for a “paradigm shift” that would mold the current anthropocentric view of humanity into a more realistic one. Capra proposes that this new paradigm should be based upon the theory of deep ecology. Capra defines deep ecology as a “holistic worldview” that emphasizes humanity’s connection to the rest of the universe. Capra proposes that the current incarnation of “ecology” is really quite shallow, and is based on a human perspective and emphasizes the “use-value of nature”. Deep ecology goes beyond the respect and understanding of natural processes, and fosters a deep spiritual connection with the universe. As Capra puts it, deep ecology “views humans as just one particular strand in the web of life”.

The notion of the universe as a web of interconnected elements leads naturally to the discussion of Gaia theory. Gaia theory states that the Earth is a dynamic, vital, self-regulating entity that functions more like a living being than a chunk of rock. Elements such as the temperature and salinity of the oceans are carefully regulated through processes called “feedback loops”. Capra uses the CO2 cycle as an example of temperature regulation. He describes how an increase in temperature increases the activity of soil bacteria, thus accelerating the process of rock weathering (by which rocks combine with water and atmospheric CO2 and break down). This process forms chemicals known as carbonates, which wash into oceans and are taken up by algae to make their shells. When algae die, their shells fall to the ocean floor, build up and are eventually sink into the mantle of the earth and are incorporated into lava. Of course, the lava eventually erupts out of a volcano, releasing atmospheric CO2 and cooling the planet.

An even more vivid illustration of the Gaia self-regulation concept comes in the form of the “Daisyworld Theory”. Proposed by James Lovelock, “Daisyworld” uses a simpler model to show the ‘living earth’. This model is based on the condition of increasing temperature over time for a world with only two species: black (heat-absorbing) and white (heat-reflecting) daisies. Each daisy has a certain temperature range in which it can flourish. As the earth begins to warm up at the equator, black daisies are able to absorb enough heat to grow. But as the temperature increases further, the equator becomes too hot for the black daisies and the heat-reflecting white variety begin to take over. Eventually, the temperature rises to the point that no daisies are able to exist near the equator, and only the white variety can grow at the poles. The increase in white daisies with increasing temperature helps reflect heat and cool the planet. Thus by changing the distribution of the daisies, the earth’s temperature is regulated.

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Deep Ecology and Gaia Theory are only two of the numerous scientific arguments (among them the disciplines of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and so on) put forth in this book. The end goal of the extensive treatment of these scientific phenomena is quite simple. Capra aims to increase each human’s degree of “ecological literacy”in an attempt to restructure humanity to be closer to reality. Although Capra does not outline any detailed proposals (that, after all, would be another book), he does provide argument for doing so.

All of the parts of the earth once considered to be inanimate — rocks, soil, atmospheric gases — have a demonstrated roles to the contrary. The planet on which we live — which we had assumed to be a mere caterer to the wants and needs of humanity — is in fact a life force. This necessitates policies that are based on this reality that incorporate ecological principles into the rules of life. One of the most important principles is the interdependence of living systems.

Life is based on a horizontal network of relationships and cycles, while the current structure of humanity is mostly linear. Humanity does not recycle most of the things we depend on for modern life: oil, minerals, land. We burn the oil, mine the minerals and populate the land without giving appropriate thought to the consequences. To remedy this over-consumption, Capra proposes a slow (in order to allow invention of alternative environmentally-friendly processes), long-term “ecological tax reform”. This measure would employ taxes to make ecologically damaging processes “reflect their true cost”, eventually making them prohibitively expensive. Hopefully, by the time this measure achieved its intended purpose it would not be too late.

(Reviewed December 08, 2001)

Available at Amazon.com


The Man Who Grew Young by Daniel Quinn & Tim Eldred

Deja Vu: Humanity in Reverse

At some point in our lives, most of us have wished that we could do things again. If we could just go back to childhood for a ‘do-over’, what would we change? If given a second chance, we might have made different (and perhaps better) choices with regard to our lifestyles and goals. As they say, hindsight is 20/20 and life would certainly have been easier if we could have known the consequences of our actions beforehand. Daniel Quinn’s latest novel “The Man Who Grew Young” indulges this fantasy. It is the story of a world that is getting younger (and surprisingly, wiser) with every passing day, and of the man that got to do it all again.

The book is written in comic-book style, and reads more like a script than a novel. In fact, it is a script—if one were to make a movie about the evolution of humanity and than press the “rewind” button. Our protagonist is Adam Taylor, who has been selected (unbenounced to him) as “the one who sees with his own eyes the beginning and end of his own kind”. The story opens at the gravesite of Adam’s late wife Claire, but something odd is happening. Instead of lowering the casket into the grave, it is being raised up. This is not a funeral but a “wake”in the most literal sense.

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After Claire is “born again”, she proceeds through her relationship with Adam in reverse. Claire gets younger every day, and their son passes from childhood back into infancy and finally to his final resting place in Claire’s womb. Adam and Claire move out of their house back into their old apartment, go on their honeymoon, and are released from their marriage in a backwards ceremony. The couple moves from going steady to their first date to their first meeting, after which they never see each other again.

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Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

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

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.

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Infinite Wealth by Barry Carter

In Barry Carter’s recent book entitled “Infinite Wealth”, a unique model for wealth creation is presented. Carter challenges current capitalistic ideals and offers up a more positive system of corporate conduct. In the new age, success will not be about “climbing the corporate ladder” or getting the gold watch after a set number of years. Instead, Carter says that what sits upon a person’s shoulders is far more important than what is in his pocket. Wealth will no longer be measured in terms of dollars and cents, but in I.Q. points. Brainpower, creativity and collaboration will become more important in the quest for success than hard-nosed determination and conformity to the company mold of the “ideal” employee. In fact, in Carter’s paradigm, “employees” no longer even exist. The idea of the subordinate employee has gone the way of the coal engine, and in its place is the notion of “holding partners”. Each of these holding partners functions like an independent contractor, and the more they contribute the more they gain. Knowledge is the currency of the future, and the value of an employee is determined not by their corporate rank but by the value that they add to the company as individuals.

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Reason Wilken is a 2001 honors graduate from UCLA with a BS degree in Biochemistry. She is currently working with a Biotech Investment Firm as an Analyst.  She will occasionally offer essays and reviews of books speaking to the creation of a Positive Future.