Call Me, Ishmael!

To many, the name Ishmael brings to mind the narrator of the classic novel Moby Dick. To others, Ishmael is the eldest son of Abraham—of biblical fame—cast aside for the favored son Isaac. To me and to a cadre of others, Ishmael is a wise teacher in the form of a gorilla.

A 1992 novel by Daniel Quinn, titled Ishmael, burst out of the gate already graced with a half-million-dollar prize. A few friends over the years recommended the book to me, but not having much bandwidth for books at the time, the recommendations failed to percolate up the priority list for a while.

I finally read the book last summer (2022), and…wow; yeah. What he said… I think I was particularly struck by the resonance with many of the conclusions I had reached on my own, as was sketched in the last post. But the novel framed these realizations in an elegant way that I never could have done, added a healthy dose of ideas I had not considered, and on the whole brought me to a state of newfound clarity.

In this post, I synthesize a set of ten principles that capture my current thinking, unambiguously fortified and sharpened by the teachings in Ishmael. I want to encourage others to read the book, so will only relay a sense of the content here. My best recommendation is to set this post aside until you’ve had a chance to read it yourself. Perhaps the quickest route runs through your library, rather then FedEx.

A Few Caveats

Before diving into the good stuff, I’ll point out a few areas where I have reservations about the book.

First, I don’t see our flawed model for how to live on this planet as the result of one inexplicably viral seed that spread from the Fertile Crescent to infect the planet. I think of it more as a nearly inevitable “game theory” result of the possibly inevitable choice to adopt grain agriculture as the primary means of feeding ourselves (see the Ride of Our Lives post). On the other hand, some civilizations (Maya, Hohokam, e.g.) appear to have ended their agricultural experiments, and these same people tended not to proselytize their “best” way of life to surrounding neighbors. So maybe there is something viral about the particular belief systems propelling the expansion out of the Fertile Crescent. But were these belief systems inevitable consequences of a particular biophysical experiment (grain agriculture, or “totalitarian agriculture,” as Quinn calls it)? Maybe.

Another qualm I have is that pre-agricultural humans operating fully in hunter-gatherer mode (called Leavers in Ishmael) were responsible for the Quaternary Megafauna Extinction (QME), and thus were capable of unsustainably wiping out populations and species. The book does not address this black mark, giving the impression that Leavers would never do such a thing.  Yet two things are worth pointing out: 1) these eliminations were not part of a quest to exterminate—as modern humans might “wage war” on perceived pests or dangerous predators; and 2) the place where megafauna survived in great numbers to this day is the very place where humans co-evolved alongside said animals: Africa. These animals watched the emergence of humans and learned from the start to be wary of these oddly dangerous upright apes. In other parts of the world to which humans migrated, it was more like an alien invasion—but by deceptively harmless-looking gangly creatures. Such things will happen occasionally by the normal rules of evolution. I should also put into context that the QME is estimated to have eliminated 25% of wild mammal mass on the planet over tens of thousands of years, while modernity has eliminated 80% of what remained in the last 10,000 years (most of that just since 1900). So lest we throw stones…

Bedrock Principles

Below are ten core principles that represent a melding of my own pre-Ishmael views and those from the book. Because the alignment was already pretty good, it is not meaningful to discern which came from Quinn, although only the last two are sentiments I had not expressed in prior writings, so those I would attribute more wholly to Quinn. For me, I feel that Ishmael (and other books in the collection) have served to sharpen and organize a pre-existing awareness for me. In any case, all of the items below were crystallized by Quinn’s work.

  1. Humans are not exempted from the laws of nature: physics, chemistry, biology, or ecology.
  2. The world was not made for humans: humans do not own it and are not ordained by biophysical reality to rule it.
  3. Our civilization began with the agricultural revolution, branching off the traditional paths that continued to co-exist, in ever-diminishing numbers.
  4. Our civilization is rather new in the long arc of human history, occupying 0.3% of the 3 million year span, and 5% of the Homo sapiens timeline, so that we might see the present global culture as abnormal in the long view: human history and our civilization’s history (what we simply call “history”) are not the same thing.
  5. Short-term deviations from long-term sustainable practices can redefine a “new normal” for a number of generations, but even 10,000 years of departure is too short to have been tested in ecological or evolutionary terms.
  6. It is not hard to find evidence that our present culture is causing rapid degradation of Earth’s ecological health on numerous fronts: failing the test.
  7. Our radical departure from the modality prepared by evolution and found to be ecologically stable over the long term has produced an explosion of human presence on the planet, now resulting in 96% of mammal mass in the form of humans and their domesticated species (e.g., livestock). Only 2% of mammal mass is found in wild land animals, in absolute terms down to 20% its pre-civilization level—most of which has been lost in the last century.
  8. The human explosion has accelerated across the millennia, most recently reaching a fever pitch owing to the employment of fossil fuels—leveraging stored solar energy about a million times faster than it was created. The ensuing access to minerals and ability to transform landscapes has rapidly and radically altered our world within just a few human generations.
  9. Culture is not humanity. Civilization—or modernity—is not humanity. Humans themselves are not fundamentally flawed, but rather live now in a flawed framework that practically guarantees failure by being inconsistent with ecological principles.
  10. Our salvation is not about humans or individual spirituality, but tied to collective choices about how to live on this planet. Rejecting the foundational underpinnings of modernity is both within our power and necessary to find long-term success on this planet.

A New Hope

In a sense, Ishmael reinforced the notion that what we’re doing now (modernity) is not going to last. It is built on a flawed mental framework (human supremacy and transcendence) that will cause its self-destruction in due time. Because the pace has quickened so dramatically, it seems likely (to me) that the reckoning is scheduled for this century.

But before Ishmael, I was prone to think “Well, that’s it, then—unless we muster a miracle and save modernity by some way that remains quantitatively elusive.” The sense of inevitable failure was a source of anxiety and existential disorientation. If civilization fails, what will happen to my (erstwhile) most treasured human accomplishment: science? Part of my problem was imagining the human saga to be a sequential, or linear one. First hunter-gatherers, then agriculturalists who developed modernity…then dead end. Ishmael pointed out the obvious: modernity/civilization was a split, not a succession. Hunter-gatherers are still around today—barely. Also, what comes next is unlikely to be a reversion, but a new path that necessarily eliminates the flaws of modernity (otherwise it ceases to exist), while very likely preserving some of its better (sustainable) elements. We are capable of transforming into a whole new cultural existence—or many different ones, in fact.

So for me, Ishmael opened a door out of the dead end and into a different future, as well as providing me with a different way to interpret the window on the past.

By breaking the conflation of modernity with humanity, I was free to let go of modernity and focus on what humanity might do—in concert with the more-than-human world. It also helped me more easily spot practices that cannot persist. I no longer invest much effort into dead-end activities. If more people had this awareness, I can imagine smoothly sloughing off this old skin of modernity. Rather than calamitously crashing down, institutions of modernity would melt away more gracefully—replaced by other more sensible mechanisms or even seen as being obsolete distractions that need no replacement.

As an example (not a prediction), what if some time in the future we no longer have nation-states, but more locally organized collections of people. Without a state, there is no crime. This is not to say that people never do bad things: just that the small-scale societies do not need the institutions of lawmakers, courts, lawyers, police, or prisons. And before you think: “lord help us,” note that when groups are small enough and have a shared stake in the community’s well-being, people know each other and work together as a team, disincentivizing bad behavior. Stealing from or harming people within your tight-knit community when everyone will know what you did is not terribly appealing.  Plus, a loss to the community is a loss to yourself, given the degree of interdependence.  Note that we’re not talking about releasing people raised in modern culture (pretty much everyone you know) from laws: that would indeed be inadvisable, as the people of modernity are socially underdeveloped in this regard. The point is that flaws in modernity require many of our institutions as attempts to remedy the problems inherent in large, anonymous, hierarchical societies—always imperfectly. A culture running a different “operating system” (having a different set of values and guiding principles) will not need the institutions that modernity does.

As more people become disillusioned with the relentless march of modernity—no longer buying into its deluded destiny and suspecting a mindless march toward a cliff edge—they may simply stop participating in the expected ways.  Institutions will suffer a crisis of faith.  Young people may have no interest in pursuing a career that straps itself to modernity.  Modernity tastes sweet to many people right now, but it could increasingly develop a bitter aftertaste, and atrophy as more people find meaning in different ways.  That’s the best case for modernity’s end: a peaceful fading away.  More likely, it won’t go without a fight.

More from Quinn

After reading Ishmael, I jumped into The Story of B, then My Ishmael. These three make something of a trilogy. At the author’s recommendation (based on the Foreword in the 25th anniversary edition of Ishmael), I also followed up with Beyond Civilization: Humanity’s Next Great Adventure. If you like Ishmael, check them out!

Postscript (2024.01.16): Please check out the podcast series Human Nature Odyssey (first season) for a brilliant tour of key ideas in Ishmael in an entertaining, engaging podcast by Alex Leff.

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