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Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

In Ishmael, Daniel Quinn uses the relationship between a human and a gorilla as a vehicle to denounce the human condition. Human society, in his view, has embarked on a selfish, destructive journey toward global hegemony. The novel questions the very nature of human existence and reevaluates what we've done wrong and what we ought to do. Although it raises important questions about human duty, its idolizing of Leaver culture and gods, its misinterpretation of natural law, its black-and-white generalizations about human nature, and its unrelenting focus on the community as opposed to individuals makes it ill-suited to offer even basic answers about the role of humans in the world.

Quinn first tries to evaluate the purpose of human existence by considering which external beings ought to regulate human behavior. However, for these regulations to be just, they must have been enacted by omniscient, infallible, and moral beings. He assumes that natural workings were formed by the gods, and therefore the “…law itself is beyond argument” (144). However, the lion and deer dilemma clearly illustrates how the gods are in fact subject to human error. Even after eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, the gods still had to engage in picking-and-choosing, which is neither impartial nor moral. Ishmael then tries to convince the reader that a human “…was innocent until he discovered the difference between good and evil” (183). But if man is automatically deemed fallen whenever he tries to gain knowledge, it must mean that he is inherently flawed in some way. However, Ishmael himself states that humans are not born inherently evil, contradicting his entire position. Hence, humans are capable of moral behavior without guidance, so no external being ought to control human lifestyle.

The author then addresses how humans ought to approach the world, and suggests that one should adopt the philosophy of the Leavers. The primary tenet of Leaver lifestyle is that one “…live in the hands of the gods” (229). However, this premise relies solely upon the beneficence of both the gods and nature. Yet as the narrator notes, “…[the] gods make no distinction between you and any other creature” (226). The Leavers trust nature, but still suffer from droughts, floods, and diseases. Quinn advocates that a Leaver philosophy better preserves the natural environment, but this is not even true. Early Leavers did not dramatically alter their environment primarily because their population was relatively small and they lacked the technology to live more independently of nature. Once the Native Americans expanded their population and were introduced to horses and guns, however, they began fighting countless wars among themselves and decimated the population of the buffalo. Ultimately, all Leaver cultures will become Taker ones, so adopting a Leaver philosophy will not work indefinitely. Ishmael attempts to argue that under the Taker story, “…creation came to an end with man” (238), as opposed to the Leavers, who continue to evolve. However, he offers no warrant for why a different story could stop a biological process that has been occurring for billions of years. Takers may not accept evolution to the extent that Leavers do, but that doesn't mean that evolution doesn't occur. In fact, the brain of a contemporary adult weighs a third of a pound more than the brain of that adult's great-grandfather. Hence, Leaver lifestyle doesn't have any significant advantages as compared to modern civilization.

Additionally, Quinn considers the effect that nature has on human obligations. The Law of Limited Competition, in particular, stipulates that one only takes what he or she needs. However, the author inappropriately twists its meaning. Ishmael notes that “‘…[the Takers'] agricultural system is designed to support: not just settlement – growth. Unlimited growth'” (134). However, population growth is not unique to Takers. The Leavers have also experienced population growth, numbering a few thousand around 40,000 B.C. but over one hundred million by 1500 A.D. Additionally, the Law of Limited Competition does not imply that species establish population control; it is not the Law of Limited Population. Ishmael attempts to draw a line by claiming that “‘…[you] may compete but you may not wage war'” (129), but closer analysis reveals that there is no difference. The only discrepancy is that “wage war” is used to describe rational beings, but “compete” is used to describe instinctual beings. Quinn argues that one may not “…hunt down your competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food” (129). However, that is exactly what “coyotes and foxes and crows” (126) do to farmers: they destroy a portion of the crops/food. Hyenas, as scavengers, also attempt to deny other species their kills. So although the author correctly identifies some natural laws, he misinterprets them and makes gross generalizations about human behavior.

Most critically, Quinn neglects the individual in favor of the community throughout his analysis of human duty. When the narrator asks Ishmael what people ought to do when they experience a drought, Ishmael replies that people ought to accept fate and die. He attempts to argue: “It's shameful to die, Bwana?” (225) Essentially, he sanctions social communism by deeming that an individual's only purpose is to die for the community and ultimately nature. Quinn endows nature with infinite worth without good reason, and assumes that no living creature has any self-worth independent of the environment. Hence, humans waste their minds they were given via evolution and can never achieve higher dreams under Quinn's philosophy. He feels that Taking to achieve such dreams will lead to world domination, but he never warrants this “slippery slope” argument. In fact, many contemporary Takers pursue life goals which do not conflict very much with the environment, basing their lives around ideas rather than the production of goods. Such black-and-white characterization severely compromises Quinn's central argument. The narrator effectively sums up the essence of Leaver lifestyle as one “…without security, without comfort, without opportunity” (225). Additionally, social contract theory deems that two parties adhere to a fair agreement. Under Quinn's logic, humans serve no purpose but to perpetuate a natural cycle, which does not reciprocate that contract. And according to Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative, treating humans as a means to an end is inherently immoral and violates intrinsic worth. Quinn's philosophy not only denies individual worth, but unjustly brands anyone who does not dedicate himself to nature as a totalitarian destined to destroy nature.

While Daniel Quinn raises numerous valid questions and offers several explanations, most of his explanations are not convincing. Although he correctly identifies some laws in nature, he often makes black-and-white generalizations about human civilization. Additionally, his inability to value the individual as opposed to society makes him unable to satisfactorily answer the fundamental questions about the nature of human existence.

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