This post is one of four posts that comprise a lengthy excerpt from Daniel Quinn’s novel, Ishmael.
Here is a puzzle. You’re in a faraway land and find people there. They’re friendly, cheerful, healthy, prosperous, vigorous, peaceable, and well educated. Things have been this way for as long as anyone can remember. You sample their food at dinner and discover it’s B meat. Eventually you piece together the whole ghastly scheme. The A’s are eaten by the B’s, and the B’s are eaten by the C’s, and the C’s in turn are eaten by the A’s. There is no hierarchy among these food classes. It’s all perfectly dreadful to you, and you ask them how they can stand to live in this lawless way. And they reply, “We have a law, and we all follow it invariably. This law is the foundation of our success as a people and has been so from the beginning.” We can determine this law by observing them over a long period of time, observing not only what they did, but what they didn’t do—what they never did—that makes this society work.
The community of life on this planet has worked well for three billion years, but the Takers draw back in horror from this community, thinking it to be a place of lawless chaos and savage, relentless competition, where every creature goes in terror of its life. But people who actually live in this community, the Leavers, don’t find it to be so, and the Leavers will fight to the death rather than be separated from it.
Any naturalist will relate that species are not in any sense at war with one another. The gazelle and the lion are not in any sense at war. The gazelle and the lion are only enemies in the minds of the Takers. The lion that comes across a herd of gazelles doesn’t massacre them as an enemy would. It kills one, not to satisfy its hatred of gazelles but to satisfy its hunger, and once the lion has made its kill, the gazelles are perfectly content to go on grazing with the lion in their midst. This happens because there is a law that is followed invariably within the community, and without this law the community would indeed be in chaos. It is the peace-keeping law, the law that keeps the community from turning into the howling chaos the Takers imagine it to be. It’s the law that fosters life for all.
About ten thousand years ago, one branch of the family of Homo sapiens sapiens said, “Man is exempt from this law. The gods never meant man to be bound by it.” And so they built a civilization that flouts the law at every point, and within five hundred generations, the Takers have brought the entire living community of the world to the point of death, and their explanation of this is that there is something fundamentally wrong with human nature itself.
When the Takers blundered into North America, the Leavers here were searching for an answer to this question: Is there a way to achieve settlement that is in accord with the law that we’ve been following since the beginning of Man’s time on earth? They were patient and were willing to take however long it took—ten thousand, fifty thousand years—to find the answer to the question. The Takers had no patience because they were operating under the premise that they were exempt from the peacekeeping law that governed the community of life.
There are three things the Takers do that are never done in the rest of the community. First, they exterminate their competitors, which is something that never happens in the wild. Next, the Takers systematically destroy their competitors’ food to make room for their own, and then, the Takers deny their competitors access to all food. In the wild, the rule is: you may deny your competitors access to what you’re eating, but you may not deny them access to food in general.
The peacekeeping law defines the limits of competition in the community of life—you may compete but you many not wage war. It promotes order. The law also promotes diversity, which is important because a community without diversity is ecologically fragile. Any change at all in existing conditions would cause the whole thing to collapse. Diversity is a survival factor for the community itself, and diversity is exactly what’s under attack. Every day dozens of species disappear as a direct result of the way the Takers compete outside the law. The Takers are destroying the living community of the world because we are, in a very literal and deliberate way, at war with it; unfortunately, the community of life would be destroyed if all species exempted themselves from the rules of competition laid down by the peacekeeping law.
In the natural community, whenever a population’s food supply increases, that population increases. As that population increases, its food supply decreases, and as its food supply decreases, that population decreases. This interaction between food populations and feeder populations is what keeps everything in balance. The Takers don’t accept this balance. After we kill off our competitors for our game, our population grows until the game begins to get scarce. There are no more competitors to kill off, so we have to increase the game population, but our game has competitors as well—competitors for the grasses. These are our competitors once removed. Kill them off, and there’ll be more grass for our game. Once we’ve killed off our direct competitors and our competitors once removed, we kill off our competitors twice remove—the plants that compete with the grasses for space and sunlight. This all is considered holy work by farmers and ranchers—kill off everything we can’t eat, kill off anything that eats what we eat, kill off anything that doesn’t feed what we eat.
The holy work in Taker culture is this: the more competitors we destroy, the more humans we can bring into the world, and that makes it just about the holiest work there is. Once we exempt Man from the law of limited competition, everything in the world except our food and the food of our food becomes an enemy to be exterminated. One species exempting itself from this law has the same ultimate effect as all species exempting themselves. You end up with a community in which diversity is progressively destroyed in order to support the expansion of a single species, but as we know, Mother Culture teaches that such laws do not apply to Man.
Is agriculture contrary to the law of limited competition? It is if the only definition of agriculture is the Taker definition. Do we want to grow to the point where we can take over the world and put every square foot of it under cultivation and force everyone alive to be an agriculturalist? That’s what the Takers have been doing and are still doing. That’s what our agricultural system is designed to support: not just settlement but growth, unlimited growth. Settlement is a biological adaptation practiced to some degree by every species, including the human. And every adaptation supports itself in competition with the adaptations around it. If brief, human settlement isn’t against the law of limited competition, it’s subject to the laws of competition.
Any species that exempts itself from the rules of competition ends up destroying the community in order to support its own expansion. This isn’t something restricted to the human race; the same thing would happen with any species strong enough to bring it off. Given an expanding food supply, any population will expand, but Mother Culture disagrees—she says it’s within our power to increase food production without increasing our population. The point of increasing food production is to feed the starving, and as we feed them, we want to extract a promise that those starving won’t reproduce, but this never happens. They will reproduce without fail. Global population control is something that is going to happen in the future—it could happen, but not as long as we’re enacting the Taker story, and as long as we enact the story, we will go on answering famine with increased food production. Mother Culture talks out of both sides of her mouth. When we say to her population explosion, she replies global population control, but when we say famine to her, she replies increased food production. But as it happens, increased food production is an annual event and global population control is an event that never happens at all; nonetheless, it’s hard to let people starve—which is precisely what someone says who imagines that he is the world’s divinely appointed ruler.
Every increase in food production is answered by an increase in population somewhere. In other words, someone is consuming Nebraska’s surpluses, and if they weren’t, Nebraska’s farmers would stop producing those surpluses. First World farmers are fueling the Third World population explosion.
The law of limited competition is inviolable. Any species that exempts itself from the law will end by destroying the community to support its own expansion. This is a piece of certain knowledge about how people ought to live. The law is beyond argument. It’s there, plainly in place in the community of life. What the Takers will deny is that it applies to Mankind. Mother Culture will never accept the fact that Man is not exempt from the peacekeeping law of the community of life. To accept that would finish her off, but Mother Culture must be finished off if we’re going to survive. Once we stop listening to her, she ceases to exist. If we refuse to live under the law, we cease to exist. If we defy the law, we automatically eliminate ourselves.
There are actually three laws within one:
- No one species shall make the life of the world its own.
- The world was not made for any one species.
- The world does not need a ruler because the rule of natural law is sufficient.
The Takers cling with fanatical tenacity to the specialness of Man. We want desperately to perceive a vast gulf between Man and the rest of creation. This 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. We are a profoundly lonely people. The world for us is enemy territory, and we live in it like an army of occupation, alienated and isolated by our extraordinary specialness.
Among the Leavers, crime, mental illness, suicide, and drug addiction are great rarities. Mother Culture says it’s because the Leavers are just too primitive to have these things, but remember that the Leavers, too, are enacting a story. The Bushmen of Africa, the Alawa of Australia, the Kreen-Akrore of Brazil, and the Navajo of the United States are all enacting one basic story. It isn’t the tale you tell that counts, it’s the way you actually live. The story the Takers have been enacting is fundamentally unhealthy and unsatisfying. It’s a megalomaniac’s fantasy and enacting it has given the Takers a culture riddled with greed, cruelty, mental illness, crime and drug addiction.
The story the Leavers have been enacting here for the past three million years isn’t a story of conquest and rule. Enacting it gives them lives that are satisfying and meaningful to them simply because they’re enacting a story that works well for people.
This post is one of four posts that comprise a lengthy excerpt from Daniel Quinn’s novel, Ishmael.
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