This is one of four posts that comprise a lengthy excerpt from Daniel Quinn’s novel, Ishmael. I have divided the excerpt into 4 posts to make it more reader friendly.
A biologist by training with Ecology as a preference in the late 1960s, I was unable to understand why humans refused to align their collective behaviors with what science was saying needed to be done if we were to survive deep into the 21st Century (see: Population Bomb) … until I read Daniel Quinn’s novel Ishmael, which won the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award in 1991. Then I understood why we as a species (spoiler alert) are likely doomed (sorry!).
What follows is a transcription from the novel in which Quinn uses Ishmael, a highly intelligent mountain gorilla, to explain why our civilization finds itself in its current existential quandary. I offer this four-part post as a gift of my time: what follows has been modified in places to reflect a different verb tense from the one Quinn uses in the novel, but with that acknowledged, everything that follows is from the mind and “pen” of Daniel Quinn.
I have added nothing that reflects my personal views; rather, what follows has dramatically influenced my understanding of why our dominant world culture lives as it does. I believe everyone should think deeply about what follows precisely because Mother Culture does not want us to think about what it is that explains why things have come to be this way.
The people of our culture are the captives of a story. We’re going to call the people of our culture the Takers and the people of all other cultures Leavers. This is the way it’s done in our own culture. We call ourselves civilized and all the rest primitive.
Mother Culture, whose voice has been in our ear since the day of each of our births, has given us an explanation of how things came to be this way. We’ve assembled this information like a mosaic: from a million bits of information presented to us in various ways by others who share the explanation. This explanation is ambient in our culture. Everyone knows it and everyone accepts it without question.
A story is a scenario interrelating man, the world, and the gods. To enact a story is to live so as to make the story a reality. A culture is a people enacting a story, and two fundamentally different stories have been enacted here during the lifetime of Man. One began to be enacted some two or three million years ago by the people we’re calling Leavers and is still being enacted by them today, as successfully as ever. The other began to be enacted here some ten or twelve thousand years ago by the people we’ve agreed to call Takers and is apparently about to end in catastrophe.
If Mother Culture were to give an account of human history using these terms, it would go something like this: The Leavers were chapter one of human history—a long and uneventful chapter. Their chapter of human history ended about ten thousand years ago with the birth of agriculture in the Near East. It’s true there are still Leavers living in the world, but these are anachronisms, fossils. The reality is quite different from this. The Leavers are not chapter one of a story in which the Takers are chapter two. The Leavers and Takers are enacting two separate stories, based on entirely different and contradictory premises.
What have people been told that keeps them from becoming excited, that keeps them relatively calm when they view the catastrophic damage they’re inflicting on this planet? We’ve been given an explanation of how things came to be this way, and this stills our alarm.
It pacifies us. We put our shoulders to the wheel during the day, stupefy ourselves with drugs or television at night, and try not to think too searchingly about the world we’re leaving our children to cope with. It’s a single, perfectly unified story. We just have to think mythologically—any story that explains the meaning of the world, the intentions of the gods, and the destiny of man is bound to be mythological, and the beginning of the story is our own culture’s creation myth.
It all started a long time ago, ten or fifteen billion years ago. About six or seven billion years ago, our own solar system was born. Life appeared in the chemical broth of our ancient oceans about three and a half or four billion years ago. Bacteria, microorganisms evolved into higher forms, more complex forms, which evolved into still more complex forms. Life gradually spread to the land; amphibians moved inland and evolved into reptiles. The reptiles evolved into mammals, which were small critters in small niches—under bushes and in the trees. From the critters in the trees came the primates. Maybe ten or fifteen million years ago, one branch of the primates left the trees, and species after species, finally man appeared about three million years ago. This creation story is ambient in our culture. Children assemble it from many media, including science textbooks. The story is full of facts, but their arrangement is purely mythological.
Here’s another story that takes place half a billion years ago. Nothing at all stirred on the land except for the wind and the dust and an anthropologist because what sort of world would it be without an anthropologist? One day she saw what seemed to be a living creature in the shallows off shore, just sort of a squishy blob bobbing in the waves. She greeted the creature politely, explained that she was a student of life-styles and customs, and told the creature she wanted to get the creature’s creation myth on tape.
The creature responded, “We certainly have an account of creation, but it’s definitely not a myth! We’re a strictly rational people who accept nothing that is not based on observation, logic, and the scientific method. The universe was born a long, long time ago, perhaps ten or fifteen billion years ago. Our own solar system—this star, this planet and all the others—seem to have come into being some two or three billion years ago. For a long time, nothing whatever lived here. But then, after a billion years or so, life appeared. For many millions of centuries, the life of the world was merely microorganisms floating helplessly in a chemical broth, but little by little, more complex forms appeared: single-celled creatures, slimes, algae, polyps, and so on. But finally, jellyfish appeared!”
In other words, according to this creation story, the whole ten or fifteen billion years of creation were leading up to jellyfish. Why doesn’t our culture’s creation myth end with the jellyfish? Because there was more to come beyond jellyfish, but our account of creation ends, “and finally man appeared,” meaning that there was no more to come, meaning that creation had come to an end. Everyone in our culture knows this. The pinnacle has been reached in man. Man is the climax of the whole cosmic drama of creation. Its objective has been reached. The religions of our culture aren’t reticent about it. Man is the end product of creation. Man is the creature for whom all the rest was made: this world, this solar system, this galaxy, the universe itself. Everyone in your culture knows that the world wasn’t created for jellyfish or salmon or iguanas or gorillas. It was created for man. Is this mythology? Did the entire cosmic process of creation come to an end three million years ago, right here on this little planet, with the appearance of man? Did evolution come to a screeching halt just because man had arrived? Since the entire universe was made so that man could be made, man must be a creature of enormous importance to the gods. But this part of the story gives no hint of their intentions toward him. They must have some special destiny in mind for him, but that’s not revealed here.
Every story is based on a premise, is the working out of a premise. The story being enacted in the world by the Takers also has a premise, and the story the Leavers have enacted in the world has an entirely different premise. Everyone in our culture knows the premise of our story: The world was made for man. The people of our culture made it a premise; they asked, “What if the world was made for us? If the world was made for us, then what?” If the world was made for us, then it belongs to us, and we can do what we damn well please with it. That’s what’s been happening here for the past ten thousand years: we’ve been doing what we damn well please with the world, and of course, we mean to go right on doing what we damn well please with it, because the whole damn thing belongs to us!
This story provides us with an explanation of how things came to be this way—it’s sort of a sneaky way of blaming everything on the gods. The world is a human life-support system, a machine designed to produce and sustain human life. To our culture, the destiny of man is not to live like a lion or a wombat, and if this is so, what is the destiny of man?
Creation, according to our mythology, was complete only when man appeared. Why did the world and the universe need man? Imagine the world without man…there’s a jungle down there. “Nature, red in tooth and claw…dragons of the prime that tare each other in their slime.” But in our mythology, the gods did not intend to leave the world a jungle. Without man, the world was unfinished, was just nature, red in tooth and claw. The world was in chaos, in a state of primeval anarchy. It needed someone to come in and straighten it out, someone to put it in order. What sort of person takes anarchy in hand and puts it in order? The world needed a ruler. It needed man. This makes clearer what our story is all about: The world was made for man, and man was made to rule it. This premise is mythology of which no trace is to be found in our culture.
It was only about ten thousand years ago that Man finally realized that his place was not in the slime. He had to lift himself out of the slime and take this place in hand and straighten it out, but the world didn’t meekly submit to human rule. The world defied him. What Man built up, the wind and rain tore down. The fields he cleared for his crops and his villages, the jungle fought to reclaim. The world would not meekly submit to Man’s rule, so he had to conquer it.
We hear this fifty times a day. We turn on the radio or the television and hear it every hour. 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. This is the ambient story in our culture. It hums in our ears so constantly that no one pays the slightest bit of attention to it. Of course Man is conquering space and the atom and the deserts and the oceans and the elements. According to our mythology, this is what we were born to do.
And how does this part of our mythology contribute to our explanation of how things came to be this way? Things wouldn’t be the way they are if the gods had meant Man to live like a wombat or a lion. Man’s destiny was to conquer and rule the world, so things came to be the way they are as a direct result of Man fulfilling his destiny. As the Takers see it, all this is simply the price of becoming human. It wasn’t possible to become fully human living beside the dragons in the slime. In order to become fully human, Man had to pull himself out of the slime. And the way things came to be is the result. As the Takers see it, the gods gave Man the same choice they gave Achilles: a brief life of glory or a long, uneventful life in obscurity, and the Takers chose a brief life of glory.
The price we’ve paid is not the price of becoming human. It’s the price of enacting a story that casts Mankind as the enemy of the world.
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