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Ishmael: The Ideas of Daniel Quinn

For my final text, I decided to explore the ideas of Daniel Quinn, whose work I had read previously, but found myself thinking about in new ways and with newfound urgency following our readings on chaos & complexity this semester. Quinn's most famous work is Ishmael, but he has authored a set of books -- Ishmael, The Story of B, My Ishmael, and Beyond Civilization -- which all attempt to clarify the same core ideas. I found Quinn's ideas became most clear after reading all four books and exploring the plentiful additional material on the Ishmael Community website, which includes essays, presentations, and direct answers to questions and challenges.

Ishmael (as well as The Story of B and My Ishmael) is written in the format of a novel. In the beginning, a first-person narrator meets a telepathic gorilla (I know), and most of the book consists of the gorilla leading the narrator (and thus, the reader) through a series of discussions about how humankind got to where it is today. The narrator takes the position of the naive reader, asking multiple questions (sometimes ad nausea) and in the process making visible our cultural myths, unveiling how and why humanity is no longer living in accord with the rest of the world, uncovering the origins of society's problems, and showing how we are headed toward cultural collapse if we don't change.

Core Ideas
I believe the core of Daniel Quinn's many ideas can be synthesized as:
1) Population growth is directly related to food production. All living populations -- including humans -- will grow to match their food supply.
2) As long as we produce a surplus of food (on a global scale; not regionally), the human population will continue to swell -- regardless of birth rates, death rates, standard of living, education, etc. (Click here for more detail.)
3) We perpetually produce a surplus of food because we practice Totalitarian Agriculture, which eliminates competing species, destroys biodiversity (some estimates say over 200 species a day are becoming extinct), creates massive waste and pollution, and spreads to disrupt entire ecosystems in order to produce as much food as possible. Ultimately, the increased food fuels rapid population growth, which demands yet more farming -- a feedback loop.
4) The creation of an agricultural system that produces vast surpluses is what has fueled the massive rise and spread of our culture (dubbed the "Takers"), and the cultural myths or stories that accompany it: humans are the ultimate pinnacle of the evolution of life on earth, humans exist differently and separately from the rest of nature, humans should exploit the web of life however necessary to further this "natural" dominance, etc.
5) The creation of this agricultural system and the production of surpluses is what first created systems of class -- there was now something to lock away, to horde and own, and social strata (of this type) emerged. From there, Quinn lays out how all of our civilization's problems evolved from class, overpopulation and imperial cultural myths -- poverty, sexism, racism, crime, depression, etc. He also makes a clear case for this method of agriculture and all the systems it has spawned being the cause of Global Warming.

The Great Forgetting and Cultural Collapse
Quinn claims (in a variety of ways over all four books) that for 3 million years, humans lived a very different sort of lifestyle, a tribal lifestyle governed by an unwritten "Law of Limited Competition" whereby humans hunted and farmed (in other ways) and competed to the fullest of their capabilities, but didn't obliterate other competitors, species, ecosystems or food supplies to do so. Quinn claims that every member of tribe had a specialized function and was valuable, and for the most part people gathered and worked for what they needed from day to day (rather than collecting surpluses or additional wealth) -- a process that took a few hours and left the rest of the day open to other pursuits, as opposed to the 40 hours a week for 40 years lifestyle that we burn ourselves into the ground with today. Quinn said this lifestyle worked just fine for humans, was naturally selected over millenia, and doesn't find these basic tenets to be "primitive" in the sense of cultural evolution the way, say, Robert Wright does in Nonzero.

Quinn says that about 10,000 years ago, that all changed with the emergence of Totalitarian Agriculture, which produced surpluses and exploded the population and fueled the spread of this practice and the classist cultural ideologies that emerged with it. He says we can trace the exponential human population surge back to this point, and backs this up with a variety of data from different disciplines, gathered by the United Nations and the United States, etc -- all of which point to a major change occurring around 10,000 years ago (most charts actually begin measurement at that time, because there begins to be a large enough change to measure), but without most analysts questioning what occurred then. Quinn calls this The Great Forgetting -- human history omitting the lifestyle that worked well for 3 million years because only the last 10,000 years have been well-documented, and already immersed in Taker culture.

Quinn says that the quagmire of increasingly complex global problems we are facing today are the signs and symbols of a failed cultural experiment -- humans tried this Taker lifestyle of living out of accord with the rest of the living community, and it took about 10,000 years for this experiment to collapse. As an analogy, Quinn presents the idea of someone trying to build an airplane, but whose craft is not in accord with the laws of aerodynamics. The person drives the craft off the edge of a cliff, and for some time is in free-fall. During this time the person yells "Look, I am flying! Gravity does not apply to me!" -- but soon will discover that gravity does apply to them, and in a most drastic manner. We are headed for a crash.

The Food Race and Overpopulation
Quinn states that if there is still time to avoid a crash, it will necessitate ending our current agriculture system, and the race to produce more food globally. He attempts to show in a variety of ways how the world is currently producing far more than enough food for all humans, but because our population continues to skyrocket and there are local famines and food shortages, we operate under a cultural myth that says that we need to push and push to create more food -- which he aggressively states time and time again will only fuel overpopulation in a never-ending cycle.

This line of thinking uncovers one of Quinn's most controversial claims, which is that we should not send food to starving populations in "Third World" countries; they have already outpaced the resources in their environment, and sending them food will only increase their population, causing more suffering. He says this is like pouring gasoline on a fire just because it is a liquid and we feel we must do something in the face of tragedy.

Click here for a fairly accessible (if plodding) slideshow presentation with data about some of these ideas, titled World Food & Human Population Growth. The slideshow includes quotes and findings from Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel.

New Tribalism
Ultimately, Quinn advocates for abandoning our current system of agriculture, "walking away" from our owner/conqueror cultural myths, and finding our way back to a manner of living with the rest of the world that biological and cultural evolution selected for 3 million years -- a tribal lifestyle. He stresses that this doesn't mean giving up all technology, picking up clubs or living in caves. If we are to pull away from Taker culture, our new tribal lifestyles will be something completely original, a brand new idea that hasn't existed before. Quinn rallies against civilizations and for smaller, self-sustained tribes -- classless and cooperative communities -- that create their own order based on what works best for them within the context of their environment, saying there is no one right way to live, which I see as a nod to the flexibility called for by complexity theory. Far from being primitive, Quinn says new tribalism is about living in accord with the rest of the living community, "an escape route for the billions... who slog stones up the pyramids not because they love stones or pyramids but because they have no other way to put food on the table."

One part of Quinn's argument that I wholeheartedly agree with is that all our tinkering with current systems will mean nothing if we don't find a way to address overpopulation. The Earth's population doubled from 1900-1960, and again from 1960-2000 -- even though the "population growth rate" is currently declining. (Click here for more detail.) Within the span of most of our lives, the number of humans on this planet has doubled. And doubling means billions of people. What will emerge and what will collapse within this infinitely complex adapative system?



Wanted to say I think you've done a terrific job of summarizing Quinn's ideas, something I've been working on since I finished Ishmael a few days ago. I'm just starting on My Ishmael, have spent a bit of time on the Ishmael website and also purchased The Story of B and Beyond Civilization. Thanks for your summary! Also, do you have any good suggestions on an introductory ecology textbook, so that I can learn more about population growth? Thank you!