This post is one of four posts that comprise a lengthy excerpt from Daniel Quinn’s novel, Ishmael.
How does the story end? Man’s destiny was to conquer and rule the world, and this is what Man has done—almost. Mankind hasn’t quite made it, and it looks as though this may be Man’s undoing. The problem is that Man’s conquest of the world has itself devastated the world. And in spite of all the mastery we’ve attained, we don’t have enough mastery to stop devastating the world—or to repair the devastation we’ve already wrought.
Only one thing can save us. We have to increase our mastery of the world. All this damage has come about through our conquest of the world, but we have to go on conquering it until our rule is absolute. Carrying this forward is either going to destroy the world or turn it into a paradise—into the paradise it was meant to be under human rule. A hundred years ago—or even fifty years ago—the idea that Man’s conquest of the world could be anything but beneficial would have been unthinkable to us.
Among the people of our culture, it was assumed that the whole of human history was our history, so when the people of our culture concluded that there’s something fundamentally wrong with humans, we were looking at the evidence of our own history. We were looking at a half of one percent of the evidence, taken from a single culture. Not a reasonable sample on which to base such a sweeping conclusion.
There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts us in accord with the world, we will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts us at odds with the world, as ours does, we will live at odds with the world. Given a story to enact in which we are the lords of the world, we will act like lords of the world, and given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, we will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, our foe will lie bleeding to death at our feet, as the world is now.
One of the most striking features of Taker culture is its passionate and unwavering dependence on prophets, people like Moses, Gautama Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, and Mohammed. There is nothing like this among the Leavers—unless it occurs as a response to some devastating contact with Taker culture, as in the case of the Ghost Dance. There is no tradition whatever in Leaver culture of prophets rising up to straighten out their lives and give them a new set of laws or principles to live by. What makes prophets so important to the Takers?
Prophets tell Takers how we ought to live because otherwise we wouldn’t know. Questions about how people ought to live always end up becoming religious questions among the Takers and always end up being arguments among the prophets. Why wouldn’t we know how to live without our prophets?
We can argue about it for a thousand years, but there’s never going to be an argument powerful enough to end the argument, because every argument has a counterargument. So, it’s impossible to know what we should do. That’s why we need the prophet—the prophet knows—but why don’t we know? We know how to split atoms, how to send explorers to the moon, how to splice genes, but we don’t know how people ought to live.
Mother Culture says it’s possible to have certain knowledge about things like atoms and space travel and genes, but there’s no such thing as certain knowledge about how people should live. It’s just not available. In other words, the best we can do is to consult the inside of our heads. We find that not a single one of us has ever wondered whether any such knowledge is even out there to be obtained.
We now know two highly important things about people according to Taker mythology: one, there’s something fundamentally wrong with us, and two, we have no certain knowledge about how we ought to live—and never will have any. If we knew how to live, we’d be able to handle what was wrong with human nature; the flaw in Man could be controlled. If we knew how we ought to live, we wouldn’t be forever screwing up the world. Perhaps the flaw in Man is exactly this: Man doesn’t know how he ought to live.
We now have in place all the major elements of our culture’s explanation of how things came to be this way. The world was given to Man to turn into a paradise, but he’s always screwed it up because Man is fundamentally flawed. Man might be able to do something about this if he knew how he ought to live, but he doesn’t—and he never will because, according to Mother Culture, no knowledge about that is obtainable. So, however hard man might labor to turn the world into a paradise, he’s probably just going to go on screwing it up. It’s a sorry story of hopelessness and futility, a story in which there is literally nothing to be done—here we are, rushing headlong toward catastrophe, and all we can do is watch it come.
With nothing but this wretched story to enact, it’s no wonder so many of us spend our lives stoned on drugs or booze or television. It’s no wonder so many of us go mad or become suicidal. There is another story in which to be, but the Takers are doing their level best to destroy that along with everything else.
It’s not uncommon for only tourists to notice local landmarks. For all practical purposes, these landmarks are invisible to the natives, simply because they’re always there in plain sight. We’ve been wandering around our cultural homeland looking at the landmarks we never see because we take them for granted and don’t even notice them. One of our most impressive monuments is the axiom that there is no way to obtain any certain knowledge about how people ought to live. Mother Culture offers this for acceptance on its own merits, without proof, since it is inherently unprovable. According to our maps, the world of thought is coterminous with our culture. It ends at the border of our culture, and if we venture beyond that border, we simply fall off the edge of the world; however, we should reject the axiom that there is a wall at the boundary of thought in our culture that says knowledge about how people to live is unobtainable. We don’t need prophets to tell us how to live; we can find out for ourselves by consulting what’s actually there.
According to the Takers, all sorts of useful information can be found in the universe, but none of it pertains to how people should live, i.e. there’s no way of studying the universe to acquire the most basic and needful knowledge of all: the knowledge of how we ought to live. A century ago, the would-be aeronauts of the world were in exactly the same condition with regard to learning how to fly. It was far from certain that the knowledge these would-be aeronauts were looking for existed at all. There wasn’t a single piece of knowledge about flying that could be considered certain—the early aeronauts didn’t know that there were laws—statements that describe what always happens when certain conditions are met.
The people of our culture are in the same condition when it comes to learning how they ought to live. They have to proceed by trial and error because they don’t know the relevant laws—and don’t even know that there are laws. Obviously, there are made-up laws, like the laws against drug use, but these can be changed by a vote. You can’t change the laws of aerodynamics by a vote, and there are no laws like that about how people should live—according to Mother Culture’s teachings.
The law of gravity was derived by observing the behavior of matter, and if there is a law pertaining to life, it will be found in observing human behavior. Man is not alone on this planet. He is part of a community, upon which Man depends absolutely. It is plausible that the law for which we’re looking could be observed in this community. Mother Culture teaches that if there were such a law, it wouldn’t pertain to us because we’re so far above all the rest of that community; however, are there any other natural laws from which Man is exempt? No, which is a contradiction to what Mother Culture teaches about a law that governs behavior in the community of life in general. As to relevance of natural laws, the laws of aerodynamics became relevant to Man when he wanted to fly. Since we’re on the brink of extinction and want to live a while longer, the laws governing life might conceivably become relevant.
The law for which we’re looking is not about civilizations, but it applies to civilizations in the same way that it applies to flocks of birds and herds of deer. It applies to all species without distinction. This is one reason why the law has remained undiscovered in our culture—according to Mother Culture, the Takers are a biological exception.
The gods have played three dirty tricks on the Takers. First, the gods didn’t put the world where the Takers thought it belonged—in the center of the universe. Second, since man was the climax of creation, the creature for whom all the rest was made, they would have had the decency to produce him in a manner suited to his dignity and importance—in a separate, special act of creation instead of arranging for him to evolve. Third, though the Takers don’t know it yet, the gods did not exempt man from the law that governs the lives of grubs and ticks and shrimps and rabbits and mollusks and lions and jellyfish.
Every law has effects, or it wouldn’t be discoverable as a law. The effects of the law we’re looking for are very simple. Species that live in compliance with the law live forever—environmental conditions permitting. This isn’t the law’s only effect. Those species that do not live in compliance with the law become extinct. The law we’re looking for is like the law of gravity: there is no escaping it, but there is a way of achieving the equivalent of flight—it is possible to build a civilization that flies. When the Takers began trying to achieve powered flight, they didn’t begin with an understanding of the laws of aerodynamics—they just built contraptions, pushed them off the sides of cliffs, and hoped for the best. Let’s follow one of those early trials in detail. This trial is being made in one of those wonderful pedal-driven contraptions with flapping wings, based on a mistaken understanding of avian flight.
As the flight begins, all is well. Our would-be airman is pedaling away, experiencing the freedom of the air. What he doesn’t realize, however, is that this craft is aerodynamically incapable of flight because it isn’t in compliance with the laws that make flight possible. He’s not in flight; he’s in free fall. Our airman chose a very high cliff from which to launch and his disillusionment is a long way off in time and space; however, he eventually realizes he doesn’t seem to be maintaining his altitude. He doesn’t worry about this because up until that moment his flight has been a complete success—he just needs to pedal a little harder. But when he looks down again, he sees the ground rushing up toward him in an alarming way. He’s disturbed but far from desperate because, he thinks, my craft has brought me this far in safety, I just have to keep going. He starts pedaling with all his might, which of course does him no good at all, because his craft is not in accord with the laws of aerodynamics.
Ten thousand years ago, the people of our culture embarked on a similar flight: a civilizational flight. Their craft wasn’t designed according to any theory at all. Like our imaginary airman, they were totally unaware that there is a law that must be complied with in order to achieve civilizational flight. At first, all was well. In fact, all was terrific. The Takers were pedaling away. They were experiencing the freedom of the air, freedom from restraints that bind and limit the rest of the biological community. And with that freedom came marvels. The Takers couldn’t know, couldn’t even have guessed that, like our hapless airman, they were in the air but not in flight. They were in free fall because their craft was simply not in compliance with the law that makes flight possible. But their disillusionment is far away in the future, and so they’re pedaling away and having a wonderful time.
During the course of their fall, the Takers see the remains of craft very like their own—not destroyed, merely abandoned by the Maya, the Hohokan, and the Anasazi. Why, they wonder, are these craft on the ground instead of in the air? Why would any people prefer to be earthbound when they could have the freedom of the air? The Takers are not about to abandon their craft, but a law is catching up with them. We don’t even know such a law exists, but this ignorance protects us from its effects. This is a law as unforgiving as the law of gravity, and it’s catching up to us in exactly the same way the law of gravity caught up to our airman: at an accelerating rate!
Some nineteenth-century thinkers like Robert Wallace and Thomas Malthus did some figuring and said, “if we go on this way, we’re going to be in big trouble in the not-too-distant future.” The other Takers shrug off their predictions—we’ll just have to pedal a little harder. But oddly enough, the harder and more efficiently we pedal, the worse conditions become. Peter Farb calls it a paradox: “the intensification of production to feed an increased population leads to a still greater increase in population.” “Never mind,” the Takers said. “We’ll just have to put some people pedaling away on a reliable method of birth control.” But such simple answers aren’t enough to reassure the people of our culture nowadays. Basic, irreplaceable resources are being devoured every year. Whole species are disappearing as a result of our encroachment.
Optimists say we must have faith in our craft. After all, it has brought us this far in safety. What’s ahead isn’t doom, it’s just a little speed bump that we can clear if we all just pedal a little harder. But our craft isn’t going to save us. Quite the contrary, it’s our craft that’s carrying us toward catastrophe. Six (now seven) billion of us pedaling away can’t make it fly. It’s been in free fall from the beginning, and that fall is about to end.
This post is one of four posts that comprise a lengthy excerpt from Daniel Quinn’s novel, Ishmael.
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