Ishmeal by Daniel Quinn

Ishmael, easily one of Daniel Quinn’s best and certainly most popular book, was the launching pad to a beloved and famous series that shook the world in how we think about ecology, our environment, and the way we have been living for thousands of years. Not only that though, the book can be accredited to starting what is known as The New Tribalism movement, influencing minds across the globe, and is perhaps even a major attributing factor in the fight to save our species and planet from a catastrophic collapse. Not only a knowledgeable anthropologist and ecologist, Daniel Quinn utilizes a unique literary genius, using a very Socratic form of dialog to get to the very heart and soul of our world culture as we know it today. A modern day Malthus meets Plato, he makes the blind see in Ishmael, opening our eyes to a mythology and belief supporting our culture that no one could have even guessed existed.

The book, narrated by the main character starts quite simply with the discovery of an add in the paper. “Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world.” it reads. But through this single add we are introduced to a teacher far beyond what anyone would have expected and a teaching that is no less surprising or unconventional. The teacher is none other than a large Gorilla, one that has learned to speak what‘s more. And his teaching-how to save the world. Although the Gorilla, named Ishmael, at first seems like an odd choice for our wisely teacher, one quickly begins to see why this is so necessary. As a gorilla, Ishmael is an outsider, an observer, to a story that has been playing itself out through recent human history. It’s a story that he sees as the cause for why we are on the path to becoming the cause of the next mass extinction and why our planet is on the verge of ecologic collapse.

Ishmael begins with a simple premise. We are all captives to a story. Some are reluctant to participate but we all must do so because everyone else is participating much like the people of Nazi Germany in the third Reich or cows in a stampede. He then points to two groups of people named the leavers and the takers. The leavers are the people who have been enacting a very successful story for the last 3 million years. The takers, on the other hand, began roughly ten thousand years ago at the start of the agricultural revolution. They have been multiplying at exponential rates ever since and have begun their own story that they are enacting, one that is and has been destroying our planet since its creation.

What is this taker story? It is none other than a cultural mythology, a myth that has been woven into our history for the past ten thousand years. It is a story that everyone knows, understands and believes, an obvious one, yet none of us can point to it. Even while reading this you wouldn’t be able to name it. The story, to be put in the simplest of forms is this: The world was made for man to conquer and rule, and under human rule it was meant to become a paradise but because man is inherently flawed he has messed it up. The destruction we deal to our planet, Ishmael says, we think is simply an unavoidable part of the price we pay for civilization. However, as the book begins to show, this is far from the truth.

He goes on to point out how the takers are always looking for a right way to live, how we believe that there is no one definitive right way to live, and how we need all these prophets to show us how. To the contrary Ishmael says there is one definitive right way to live. This he points to as not a philosophy but a simple biological law, a law that all life follows from the most insignificant bacteria to the largest mammal. It’s a law necessary for survival, a law that takers have broken, and a law that will ultimately be our end if we continue to break it. This law is described as the law of limited competition, one biologists are quite familiar with and one we believe humans don‘t have to follow. It says that you may compete to the full extent of your capabilities, but you may not hunt down your competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food. To put it simply, you may compete but you may not wage war.

However as humans we have and are doing all three. Slowly but surely we are domesticating the entire planet and bending it to our will. Forests become homes, Fields and oceans become farms, mountains become mines and animals become pets, livestock or extinct. But in our conquest to bring the entire world under our rule we are killing it; we are destroying diversity and swapping it out for a dangerously unstable ecology. But it’s not because we are flawed, or greedy, or evil; it’s because the story we are enacting, the one we are captive to, is bringing our planet to its knees.

This is the basic premise of Ishmael. He delves into our “taker” culture going all the way back to even Semitic lore. It’s a powerful and gripping dialog with a plot that will both satisfy and surprise. One simply can’t read it and not be changed in some way. Ishmael forces us to look at the facts and in a new way at that. It’s both easy to understand and mentally challenging in its concepts. If you don’t have an earnest desire to save the world before you read it then you will by the time you’re done. With out a doubt, I would easily recommend this book to everyone willing to learn and yearning for change.





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