Life as it ain't

"I'm not really from outer space. I'm just mentally divergent."

Of Talking Gorillas and Deep and Subtle Points

Posted by Ronak M Soni on January 16, 2010

Cover of Daniel Quinn's 'Ishmael'

Look at the topmost leaf

Daniel Quinn “does not identify himself as an ‘environmentalist,’ arguing instead as his central thesis (and throughout his works) that humans are not separate from but part of the so-called ‘environment’ (which, like ‘nature,’ is typically conceived of as being out there somewhere, and somehow distinct from us).” (Copied from Wikipedia.)

He published Ishmael, his most famous book, in 1992. He has also written two related books The Story of B (1996) and My Ishmael (1997).

Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael is subtitled ‘An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit’. The only reason I noticed this important reason not to read it only halfway into the book was that I knew I wanted to read it as soon as one of my friends told me about it – he said that it was our worldview from the point of view of a gorilla –, before I’d ever seen the cover. To be honest, when I told him to get his copy, I expected to receive a heavy tome written in a gorilla’s first-person voice. What I found instead was a thin little ‘novel’ written in the first-person point of view of the human the gorilla is talking to which was such a breezy read that I finished today after beginning yesterday, but which made points of depth and subtlety, even if it got a few of its facts wrong.

The first question I found myself asking – around twenty pages into the book – was why it was structured as a novel and not an essay. There’s a narrator who feels philosophically empty. He sees an ad in the newspaper, “TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.” He answers to find a large room with a gorilla on the other side of a glass pane. The gorilla starts telepathically telling him his own story, and then moves on to explaining (this is why it was so important to have the narrator, I eventually figured out) why mankind is destroying itself, for the first time I’ve seen convincingly framing the answer in culture rather than technology.

That word ‘convincingly’ is possibly the most important word in the last sentence. For years, I’ve been bombarded with nonsense about how it’s actually consumerism that’s at the root of our environmental problems. Ishmael, or – if you prefer to think of it as the ape rather than the book – Ishmael, goes deeper, rooting the problems in the reason we are so consumerist.

In fact, a majority of the book is spent in Ishmael showing the narrator to that very reason. Now, my only major quibble with Ishmael: he doesn’t factor in evolution properly into his whole view. He does, but there are a few holes, of varying size; the biggest one is his assertion that the Leavers – the ‘primitives’ who are content to stay so – lived like lions and wombats, killing only what they had to. The truth, however, is that humans from around the time of the ‘creativity revolution’ (as articulated by Jared Diamond in his The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, which would make a perfect companion piece to Ishmael) around forty thousand years ago, when we suddenly started inventing a lot more tools after a long stop of I don’t remember how many years, have left a trail of extinctions and such-like wherever they have gone, for the simple reason that we have the power but don’t really know how to control it properly; our dying out is our natural fate in natural selection terms, if we don’t save ourselves. Not solely due to Ishmael’s assertion that our ‘Taker’ culture tells us we are gods, though it does tell us that and that is clearly very wrong.

That said, however, I’ve never read a writer who I’ve thought understands so perfectly what’s going wrong as Daniel Quinn, though honestly I have to admit that I do most of my arguing after I read the essay/book, when I’m up against real-life situations. In fact, even if six months down I’ve discarded what Ishmael says as mostly well-intentioned but wrong, I think it’s worth it because of the new perspective it offers, and new perspectives are always welcome.

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9 Responses to “Of Talking Gorillas and Deep and Subtle Points”

  1. Jamie Olney said

    Ronak, thanks for the post. You propose that 40,000 years ago our species started making new more powerful tools and we’ve been a liability to ourselves ever since, accidentally causing extinctions because we don’t know how to handle the power of the new tools. What power of what tools?

    Causing extinctions is not in itself an exceptional effect for a species to have, with or without tools. When cats appeared on the scene they effected the extinctions of prey species that couldn’t successfully respond to the cats’ hunting. When humans introduced themselves to the New World it seems they hunted mammoths to the point they could no longer be hunted, because they were all gone. Neither the cat nor the human are wicked in these circumstances; they are simply competing to the best of their ability, like everyone else in the ecology. Extinctions per se are not avoidable. The mass extinctions being effected on Earth today are a different story.

    I hope that you avail yourself more of Quinn’s work. You will find that he has a very solid understanding of evolution indeed. Frankly, I consider there is not much more important intellectual work to be done than grasping and disseminating the ideas expressed in Quinn’s work. Not any of it is to be taken on faith but is instead offered up for your inspection and consideration.

    cheers,
    jamie

  2. Thanks, Jamie for dropping by and commenting.
    Let me answer your concerns part by part. I’m sorry if I end up sounding curt. Do not take it as an insult.

    You propose that 40,000 years ago our species started making new more powerful tools and we’ve been a liability to ourselves ever since, accidentally causing extinctions because we don’t know how to handle the power of the new tools. What power of what tools?

    First of all: I’m not proposing; that is Jared Diamond speaking from archaeological facts.
    Second: The newly gained power of the newly invented tools.

    Causing extinctions is not in itself an exceptional effect for a species to have, with or without tools. When cats appeared on the scene they effected the extinctions of prey species that couldn’t successfully respond to the cats’ hunting. When humans introduced themselves to the New World it seems they hunted mammoths to the point they could no longer be hunted, because they were all gone. Neither the cat nor the human are wicked in these circumstances; they are simply competing to the best of their ability, like everyone else in the ecology. Extinctions per se are not avoidable. The mass extinctions being effected on Earth today are a different story.

    I agree with most of what you say here. Just that last sentence. Diamond gives convincing arguments in his book that today’s extinctions are the same as the early man extinctions, intensified by increased power and numbers. That is why I consider it a good companion piece.
    The basic idea is that, as a conscientious species, we should not perform at our best competitively, if its out of pure concern or out of the reasons Ishmael articulates so splendidly at the end of the book.

    I will avail myself of more of Quinn’s work, I can assure you that. Any recommendations about where to go from here?

    You will find that he has a very solid understanding of evolution indeed.

    I never disputed his understanding of evolution, I just thought that it wasn’t as well incorporated into the roots of his theory as it could have been.
    However, now that I reconsider on reading your comment, I realise that it was mere ignorance of a fact rather than anything about incorporation.

  3. Jamie Olney said

    I’m certainly not insulted, thanks for the reply.

    For a recommendation, The Story of B is the first one I read in 2002 and in my opinion more powerful than Ishmael. This one too bears the “An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit” subtitle. A little tidbit on this from a reply to a question posted on the ishmael website:

    (You might ask me why ISHMAEL is subtitled “An Adventure or the Mind and Spirit,” but you’d be asking the wrong person; this is something my publishers added, and, since they graciously let me do what I think I must as an author, I let them do what they think they must as publishers.)

  4. I’ve heard of this book, but like other books I’ve heard of in passing (except for the Earthsea Trilogy), I haven’t read it. Maybe when I get around to reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy–another of those books–I will remember this one, and seek it out.

  5. Just one thing: this one’s much better than Hitchhiker’s Guide.

  6. Jamie Olney said

    I said “The mass extinctions being effected on Earth today are a different story.” I mean that literally. Whatever power might have been gained with a new tool, it pales in comparison to the power that was gained with a new story which set man as the enemy of the world. This story provided entirely new motivations, including the motivation to deliberately effect the extinctions of species which did not serve our growth, as a policy. The older story provided no such motivations, though, just as “lions or wombats”, they incidentally impact the ecology. We tend to project our vision of humanity onto previous humans.

  7. I was trying to question that the Takers’ story is indeed as new as Ishmael thinks, and I was only questioning because of the facts of the extinctions (he ones I mentioned are just examples, there are some wherever humans go).

  8. Jamie Olney said

    The fact of extinction is not ignored or left out in Quinn’s work. Man belonging to the world is not represented as man the harmless. As I mentioned, extinctions are common ecological events. The level of extinctions occurring on Earth today is astronomical not just because of the amplification of technological might, but because according to our story, the world is in need of conquest. That story originated in the Fertile Crescent some 10,000 years ago, not on a species level, but on a cultural level.

    I really do hope you check out Story of B, it’s a good read and is less subtle, more forceful, than Ishmael. I will check out the Jared Diamond book you recommend. I have always found him to be interesting. I am off to sleep now, thank you for the exchange.

  9. Now, this makes sense this way too. Looks like I may have to check out the Diamond book myself to see if he gives a better argument than the one I gave.

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