Updated: 13 March, 2012
Concept Summary of
Daniel Quinn's Novel, Ishmael
by Howie Richey
Howie Richey has distilled the abundant wisdom of the novel, Ishmael, into the following concept summary and would be happy to hear any alternate interpretations you may have.
Email Howie: zow at io dot com.
- Modern people are all captives who cannot find the bars of our cage.
- We are destroying the Earth in order, we think, to survive.
- We are being lied to, but we don't know what the lie is. If we were to find the lie, we might do something about it.
- We are enacting a story that, we are told, has no alternative except death.
- Those who do not participate in this enacting do not get fed.
- This is a book about How Things Came To Be This Way: the meaning of the world, divine intentions in the world, and human destiny.
- "Takers" = peoples we sometimes call "civilized"
- "Leavers" = peoples we sometimes call "primitive"
- "story" = an interrelation between the gods, man, and the Earth, with a beginning, middle, and end
- "enact" = to strive to make a story come true, enacting a story works out the story's premise
- "culture" = a people who are enacting a story
II. The Problem
- Takers' story is about to end in catastrophe. Leavers' story going along just fine, thank you.
- Premise of Takers' story: Man is the pinnacle of creation and the whole reason for the world's existence; it's all for us.
- Therefore, we can do whatever we damn well please with the world.
- Nature is chaotic, fickle; man was made to bring order, to rule nature.
- Nature stands in defiance of man's rule and must be conquered.
- Thus man is fulfilling his destiny, becoming what humans are meant to be.
- The story we're enacting casts man as the enemy of the Earth.
- So we simply must go on conquering the world until it's all under our control -- then we'll have the Paradise that was meant for us.
- But something's wrong with this picture: man has screwed it up, as evinced by our own history.
- Is it man himself that is flawed? (If he is, there's no hope for Earth.) No, the problem is not man himself: it's the story we're now enacting that puts us at odds with the Earth. But given a different story . . .
- Takers periodically have prophets arise to tell us how to live, since we seem to have no such certain knowledge.
- Meanwhile, we go on messing up the world, earnestly believing we have no other choice.
- Instead of consulting the prophets, we could learn how to live by observing what is actually here, in "nature."
III. The Laws of Life
- Man (like all other biology on this planet) is subject to immutable Laws of Life.
- We Takers are assured that these laws do not apply to us.
- Surprise! Whatever violates the laws becomes extinct.
- Ignorance of these laws does not lessen their effects. In an analogy, we've jumped off a cliff in our civilizational aircraft and we're in the air believing we're in flight; the ground is rushing up under us at an accelerating rate, with a crash imminent; but we say, "Hey, no problem. Our plane has carried us safely so far. Let's all just pedal a little harder and we'll be OK."
IV. Defying the Laws of Life
- Things Takers do that natural systems and native peoples do not:
- exterminate their enemies
- destroy their competitors' food supply
- deny their competitors access to all food
- store lots of food external to their bodies
- Diversity of species ensures survival and peace for all.
- Takers are at war with the Earth; the drive towards homogeneity ("You must live as we do") ensures conflict and extinction.
- One species exempting itself from the laws threatens all other species.
- We don't have to be at war with the world if we forsake the drive for unlimited growth.
- Human settlement is also subject to the Law of Limited Competition. ("You can have a deer, but you can't have all deer.")
- How come population control never seems to occur, relative to the food supply? What's so benevolent about feeding the starved so they can raise another generation in famine?
- Indian tribes (and other Leavers) limited their populations within their cultural and territorial boundaries.
V. Results of Defying the Laws of Life
- Our current cultural construct exists only in our minds. The immutable Law of Limited Competition clues us to how people should live.
- No one species shall make the life of the Earth its own, since the Earth was not made for any one species. The world does not need man to impose order on it.
- Another result of Takers' fanatical tenant of specialness is that the members of our society are profoundly lonely and isolated. This story we're enacting is ultimately unsatisfying and unhealthy. On the other hand, Leaver cultures rarely experience crime, suicide, mental illness, or drug addiction.
Their diets are better; they've survived three million years.
- If you are going to rule the world, you need a special kind of knowledge that, formerly, only the gods possessed. Leavers don't claim to have it.
- It is the knowledge of good and evil or Who Shall Live And Who Shall Die.
- If we Takers keep living as though we have this knowledge, we will surely die.
VI. In and Out of the Garden
- The Garden of Eden story was told from a Leaver point of view to explain why they were being killed off by the Takers. Why would the gods forbid Adam to have the knowledge of good and evil?
This would be an Ascent, not a Fall!
- So how did things come to be this way? Because Takers believe it's the only right way to live, regardless of the cost. Giving it up would mean admitting we're wrong, relinquishing all pretensions of divinity, and giving rule back to the gods.
- Agriculture (work) is a curse. Leaver (Abel) says, stay away from that vengeful Taker (Cain).
- Adam, the first agriculturist, said yes to unlimited growth.
VII. Cultural Differences
- Culture is an accumulation of all that has worked well for a people, including attitudes, tastes, attire, etc.
- Leavers relate directly to the most ancient of times; takers consider themselves a new people. Except for ceremonies, institutions, and holidays, they eschew the past like the plague, never intending to live that way again.
- Takers preserve knowledge of making more and better things, and is called progress; Leavers preserve knowledge of what works well for them in their particular locale, and is called wisdom. Legislated laws don't work well, but they're "right." Cut off from our distant past, we grope for Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, and Confucius, inventing a new religion every week.
- Leavers do not voluntarily give up their way of life to join the Takers revolution [unless seduced by our machines]. Usually they'd rather die, so we gladly kill them. Takers indubitably fear and loathe Leavers' way of life.
- Comanches dropped agrarian life in favor of nomadic hunting.
[Whites who took up the freedom of tribal life were particularly despised by their fellows.]
- Instead of having a wretched existence, Leavers still inhabit Paradise, basking in less labor, in balance, in harmony.
- As we Takers strive for ever more control over our own lives, as we hoard more food and things than we need, the gods have no power over us. As soon as we gain complete dominance, when the Earth is finally, entirely under our management, then we'll be free at last, our labors done!
VIII. Two Alternatives
- Takers fired the gods for their incompetence, kicking them upstairs. This got the gods really pissed, so we offered sacrifices to them, for a while.
- Takers think they know good and evil, forever judging and arguing and categorizing; Leavers live in the hands of the gods.
So who is actually struggling to survive in a never-ending nightmare of terror and anxiety??
- Those who live in the hands of the gods evolve, being part of the general community of life, subject to natural selection.
- Takers' story says that creation came to an end with man, that man owns the world; there will be no successors, no competitors, no anything.
- Leavers' story says that creation goes on forever; man belongs to the world.
- Man is only the first of all other creatures to attain self-awareness, but certainly not the last.
- Our choices: Thwart the gods and perish, or stand aside and make room for the other life-forms to become what they, too, can become.
- The program:
- Cain, stop murdering Abel -- Leavers can teach us that there isn't only one right way to live.
- Spit out the forbidden fruit -- surrender the notion that we can decide who shall live and who shall die
- Change people's minds -- no more Man Supreme, but Man The First Of Many
Takers are all inmates of a giant jail whose prison industry is about consuming the world. Not even the rich and powerful can escape this prison, which has nothing to do with justice. Of course we must redistribute wealth and power, but only after we tear down the prison itself. We are captives of a civilizational system that compels us to go on destroying the world in order to live.
Howie Richey is a curious fellow who seeks meaning in his interactions with others. He enjoys distilling the essence of what he reads, finding patterns that connect people and ideas. (Email Howie: zow followed by prismnet and then dot com)).
Howie grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, and now lives in Austin. At an early age he realized the beauty and diversity of his home state. This eventually led to his study of geography in college. Since 1983, Howie has taught classes and guided tours of Central Texas with an environmental emphasis.
Howie's quest for a unifying philosophy brought him to the novel, Ishmael, and his outlook on the cultural / ecological scene has been radically altered ever since. The implications of Ishmael's ideas are also having a profound impact on his personal life, leading him to investigate and experiment with systems thinking, with Bohm, et al's approach to dialog, and social design.
Copyright © 1995 - 1998 Howie Richey.
If you give credit for the original novel to Daniel Quinn, and for the concept summary to Howie Richey, you may reproduce this work freely in electronic or hardcopy form.
Howie Richey's summary was adapted to web hypertext by
Wayne L. Pendley.
Wayne also adapted the images on this page from originals provided by Corel Professional Photos on CD-ROM and
Aris Multimedia Discovery Series.