Bill Totten's Weblog

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

Book Review

by Harold W Wood, Jr

We seek renewed reverence for the biosphere as the ultimate context for human existence ...

Pantheists have found a new prophet, and he is a Gorilla.

No ordinary Gorilla, Ishmael is uncommonly intelligent, with an ability to not merely understand human speech but to recognize the fundamental flaw of contemporary western culture and, what's more, to point the way toward a solution.

Who better than a Gorilla that has been held in captivity for decades to describe the human condition as a form of captivity? Ishmael points out that modern humans, for the most part, are "captives of a civilization system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live".

The frustration that Pantheists share with environmentalists - the increasingly rapid loss of the natural world - is one that a few environmental laws, a few scientific studies, and a few people recycling their newspapers seem to do little to allay. One thing that Pantheists recognize - as only a few environmentalists seem to do - as the root of the environmental crisis is the intellectual disease of anthropocentrism. What Daniel Quinn has done in this novel is provide us with not only a thorough analysis of anthropocentrism in a sort of ecological My Dinner with Andre (1981), but to point us in the direction of how we can change from a "Taker" society to a "Leaver" society.

Fiction often has served as a motivator for change. Just as Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) helped inspire the effort to free the slaves, so Ishmael will help inspire Pantheists to oppose the arrogant world-view of anthropocentrism and replace it with a view of reverence for the earth. The winner of the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship in 1992, the author of the book, Daniel Quinn, has received enthusiastic letters from readers in every corner of the world: the Near East, the Far East, Africa, Australia, South America, Europe, and Canada. It is being used in an astounding variety of classroom courses, from midschool to graduate school (from animal behavior to zoology and everything in between, including anthropology, ethics, geography, and history). The book is now available in German, Italian, Hungarian, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, and Japanese as well as English.

Ishmael eloquently achieves the purpose of the Turner award to encourage authors to write fiction that produces creative and positive solutions to global problems. For a novel, it doesn't have much of a plot, but that's not the point. The exposition of ideas occurs through the medium of a hyper-intelligent Gorilla conversing with a human who seeks nothing less than simply "how to save the world". This turns out to be an excellent device for expressing ideas that many people, as captives of our culture, have difficulty in understanding or accepting. And rather than simply asserting a conclusion - as most writers railing against anthropocentrism have done in the past - Ishmael takes us step-by-step through the fundamental mythology of our culture to explain how things got the way they are, and how they could be different. This entails a re-analysis of the Genesis stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel that sets standard theology on its ear, but it is an analysis utterly compelling in its logic and its painstaking accuracy with the discoveries of anthropology.

The trick is to get outside the cultural mind-set of Western culture, the Taker culture, which permeates "civilized" societies all over the world, of whatever race, religion, language, or other idiosyncrasies. The Taker culture, as expressed in Ishmael, is based upon the fundamental premise that the world was made for man. If you accept that premise, which our culture most certainly does, than it follows that the Earth "belongs to us and we can do what we damn well please with it". This, of course, is the mythology of our culture, so embedded that we don't even perceive it as a "myth" but perceive rather as an inherent truth that never even needs to be mentioned, much less defended. The dominant myth of anthropocentrism is expressed in the tacit assumption of Western culture that the end of man is to grow "forever" and dominate the Earth with his technological marvels and sheer numbers. "You hear this fifty times a day ... Man is conquering the deserts, man is conquering the oceans, man is conquering the atom, man is conquering the elements, man is conquering outer space", Ishmael tells us. "The mythology of your culture hums in your ears so constantly that no one pays the slightest bit of attention to it". As a result, mankind is trying to live in a way that is plainly not sustainable over the long run.

What Ishmael successfully points out is that this viewpoint is not the only possible one to take in human life and culture, and that in fact there are cultures - dubbed by Ishmael as Leaver cultures - which have enacted a different story. The dominant mythology of anthropocentrism isn't necessary to be human, it is only happens to be ingrained in a culture "which casts mankind as the enemy of the world".

Ishmael tells us, "The mythology of human superiority justifies their doing whatever they please with the world, just the way Hitler's mythology of Aryan superiority justified his doing whatever he pleased with Europe. But in the end this mythology is not deeply satisfying. The Takers are a profoundly lonely people".

Of course, part of the Taker mythology is that the Leavers are just primitive people, and that acting as if the world was made for man and only for man is a necessary part of an advanced civilization. But Ishmael identifies the fallacy of that myth as well, pointing out that it is the idea or myth upon which the culture is based that determines our affect on the world, not merely the level of technology. Ancient "Taker" cultures could destroy the environment with minimal technology; just as any modern culture can do with use of modern technology. But the difference is that the Taker's mythology has adopted a process of destruction of the Earth that has become almost routine, whereas "Leaver" societies have found ways to not only live sustainably with the earth, but to live in a way that provides for the welfare of all the members of the community..

Ishmael argues that it is possible for us today to convert modern culture from a "Taker" culture to a "Leaver" culture, which allows for the survival of other creatures than ourselves, and would also provide for our own physical and psychological needs that are not always provided in "Taker" culture. .

The premise of a Leaver culture is the opposite of the Taker Culture. It is simply that Man belongs to the world. This doesn't mean that man is merely an animal; in fact quite the contrary: because man belonged to the world, it was Nature's forces of evolution that made him bright and dexterous. If we would adopt the Leaver premise, , but instead the preservation of creation.

To save the world, according to Ishmael, "people need more than to be scolded, more than to be made to feel stupid and guilty. They need more than a vision of doom. They need a vision of the world and of themselves that inspires them."

"Stopping pollution is not inspiring. Sorting your trash is not inspiring. Cutting down on fluorocarbons is not inspiring." But thinking of ourselves in a new way is inspiring.

Some of these new ways of thinking may relate only to some small questions. Ishmael asks us, "Does being civilized make you incapable of giving the creatures around you a little space in which to live?"

In fact, Ishmael explores the biological laws that other creatures live that ensures not only their survival, but the survival of the entire ecological community of which they are a part. There is no reason that modern culture cannot follow these same laws. After all, human life and settlement isn't against the law, it's subject to the law.

"And if being civilized means anything at all, it should mean that you're leaders of the club [of the community of life], not its only criminals and destroyers".

Ishmael describes eloquently the fundamental importance of changing the way we think about the world and the place of humanity within it. To make the necessary changes, Ishmael asserts, "You can't change these things with laws. You must change people's minds."

Importantly, Ishmael further teaches us that "you can't just root out a harmful complex of ideas and leave a void behind; you have to give people something that is as meaningful as what they've lost - something that makes better sense than the hold horror of Man Supreme, wiping out everything on this planet that doesn't serve his needs directly or indirectly".

And the solution proposed by Ishmael is not necessarily an easy one, but it is at least an inspiring one. We must "break out" of the prison of western culture, stop fighting over the redistribution of power and wealth within the prison itself, to re-formulate the end of man itself.

Ishmael's re-formulation does not deny that man's place is the first of evolution to possess self-awareness, but that man's place is "to be the first, without being the last ... Man's place is to figure out how it's possible to do that - and then to make some room for all the rest who are capable of becoming what he's become".

Ishmael never uses the terms biocentrism or pantheism, but these are the concepts that Ishmael points toward for our adoption of a new mythology, for recognizing ourselves as belonging to the world instead of the world belonging to us.

I urge you to read this book, and to get your friends to read it too. This book is indeed more than a book. It's ideas are not entirely new, but as a work of fiction it is launching a movement, not a mere political movement, but a revolution of ideas. You will find the gospel according to Ishmael to be not only compelling, but of immense help in transforming the world-views of those who remain prisoners of the Taker culture. Let's take this book and help them break out of prison!

Editor's Note:

I think that Ishmael is the most important book we've ever reviewed in Pantheist Vision.

For more information about Pantheism, or questions about this website please contact Harold Wood at

Pantheism \Pan"the*ism\, n. [Pan- + theism.]

Any doctrine, philosophy, or religious practice that holds universe [cosmos], taken or conceived of as the totality of forces and/or matter, is synonymous with the theological principle of God.

Copyright is held by the indicated organization and/ or author. All rights are reserved.

All other material, Copyright (c) 1998, 1999, 2000 Universal Pantheist Society. All rights are reserved.

Bill Totten


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