I finished “Ishmael,” Daniel Quinn’s philosophical novel this weekend. The story follows the Socratic conversations between the male narrator and a telepathic gorilla as they task themselves with understanding, “The way things became the way they are,” and then positing an action plan for saving mankind from its own destructive tendencies.
In a poorly phrased nutshell, the way things got to be the way they are today (today being a negative path leading ultimately to man’s and the rest of the world’s total annihilation due to an imbalance of resource supply and demand) starts with identifying two groups of people—Leavers and Takers.
Leavers were those early groups of Homo sapiens sapiens that lived for about three million years alongside nature in a variety of ways that didn’t tax the environment and life around them to the breaking point. Takers are those clever saboteurs who struck the earth and tilled some soil with their first insipient stab at agriculture in the Fertile Crescent around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers some 8-10,000 years ago.
From that first successful reaping of that first crop a new path, a new culture of thought and action, began. This path, using the Leaver story of Cane and Abel, Ishmael the gorilla explains, sets the stage for a war between the Agriculturists, embodied by Cane, who believe they have the Knowledge of Good and Evil (which is outlined in the novel as the sacred knowledge to know who should live and die) and the Pastoral/Hunter-Gatherer people, symbolized by Abel, that live in accordance with the earth and “in the hands of the gods.” The Takers view themselves as the masters of the earth, the pinnacle of evolution, and thus devise a myth or culture that takes them out of the natural lineup of the Community of Life, excusing them from the laws of competition and the “peace-keeping” law that all living creatures—save man now—follow.
Removing themselves from this lineup allows them to justify their push for total domination of the earth, at any cost. Species, terrain, and ways of life are wiped out as the Takers plow along, reshaping the world in the image they see fit. The problem, as any anthropologist or ecologist will tell you, is that a species’ population can only grow as large as its limiting factors will allow. When a fox population grows, the rabbits die. Then the foxes dwindle, and the rabbits come back. That’s the way it goes. But man, being the master of the earth, takes the world around him and shapes it to his will. The Takers produce more food to feed the masses, but the production just encourages even more growth, which in turn pushes the Takers to exert their god-like control over even more of the earth to sustain the larger numbers. The big problem arises when we realize that the earth, her resources and the life on her, are limited. If the Takers have destroyed their limiting factors, what’s the logical conclusion then?
Boom! Or rather…the wheezing, hoarse cry the last of us Takers will let loose as we starve to death on what will then be an empty dust ball hurtling through space.
Connecting his theory with the sciences of ecology, biology, and anthropology, Ishmael takes his student through a journey of thought that leaves the reader reeling. From a strictly cultural standpoint, the use of Biblical stories from Genesis provides a great way to conceptualize Ishmael’s theory in a linear, narrative form, but with the objective science, and back and forth dialogue between the gorilla and the narrator the novel transforms, or evolves, into a book very difficult to put down. Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” and many others have looked at the conflicts that emerge when a group that sees itself as “civilized” clashes with a perceived, “primitive” group (those would be Takers and Leavers, in the vernacular of “Ishmael”). These novels depict this all out war as an inevitability that stems from an inherent flaw in man. “Ishmael” weaves this battle into the design of his theory well, but he does something with it. Unlike most doomsdayers or pessimists, the theory does not necessarily dictate that man is damned or inherently deficient. It does offer up a solution by pointing the reader back in the direction of the Leavers, those that lived within the Community of Life for three million years, and, at least in some remote places like jungles and deserts, still do. Hope for the Takers, Ishmael teaches, is in relinquishing the title of master of the earth, and reclaiming a place in the lineup of Life.
I didn’t mean to write a mini-book report here. Seriously. I just wanted to think, and for me, thinking usually involves writing. There are plenty of elements worth analyzing such as why Ishmael is a gorilla, what the narrator’s next steps may be, what really is the meaning of the ambiguous sign on the wall of Ishmael’s apartment, and I’m sure we’ll have our students cogitate on all these and more (oh, I didn’t mention: I read this in preparation for teaching it with a history and English teacher I work with). For me, though, I just wanted to work my head around this book with a little rambling. This novel didn’t come out of left field with a whammy, but it is the first one that followed the line of inquiry long enough to point out something new to me. Much like Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land,” this novel’s dialogue works like a spell, capturing my mind and reshaping certain thoughts—making some appear and others vanish. Even Dan Brown’s new one, “Inferno,” tackles the idea of overpopulation, but his is amped up to the nth degree and a bit darker.
The numbers in the book surprised me, too. At one point Ishmael says there were about 3 Billion people on the earth. In a science class that I work in the students watched an old Bill Nye video from the late 90s, and the Science Guy said there were about 5 Billion of us. About a year ago, I read that we are right around 7 Billion. These numbers, and the speed at which they’re growing, are freaky.
Living in China, one of the most densely populated places on this rock, I can’t help but think about the futures portended by “Ishmael,” “Inferno,” and good old fashion Mathematics. The scales here are so imbalanced it’s not even funny. People mountain, people sea in one place, and then tumble weeds in the next. China has entire cities that are uninhabited, they have complexes with beautiful exteriors and vacant interiors, and they seem to have a near-phobic reaction to open land in close proximity to their cities. It’s as though they can’t abide grass and hills when perfectly good apartment buildings could be sitting there.
Just the other day Xiao Ming and I were driving around Jinshitan, and all along the perimeter of the town vast numbers of empty buildings loomed like mausoleums that even the dead would rather avoid. Between Dalian and Kai Fa Qu there is an entire neighborhood that seems to be populated by three street sweepers who idle their time away by snaring errant pieces of litter that blow into their turf.
All my life I’ve been a Taker, but there have been occasions when I’ve dreamed that I was not. It’s more than rebuking money, materialism, control and civilization, it’s about recognizing the imbalance all around us and realizing that, shit, this isn’t what we had planned.
None of these thoughts are new, and even “Ishmael,” wasn’t the first or the tenth to lay it all out. Even Lao Zi, the founder of Taoism in China caught on to the idea. He preached about the principles of Wu Wei, or in English, the Art of Inaction. He used this idea broadly, but there are strong similarities between it and some of Ishmael’s thoughts. The way ambition leads to so many negative consequences can be seen as the Takers enacting their god-like powers over the earth. A quote from the Tao Te Ching goes, “Try to change it and you will ruin it. Try to hold it and you will lose it.” That sounds a lot like Takers screwing things up to me.
I’m excited about teaching this novel, and seeing how the students react to it and its ideas. I can’t wait for our own Socratic discussions about the topics within its pages, and listening to their points of view.
One thought on “Takers and Leavers”
What a great post, can’t wait to hear all those reactions to this kind of thought.