Book by Daniel Quinn

Review by Thom Hartmann, originally published at on December 6, 2005.

The story we're told about the human race is that our population was relatively stable for over a hundred thousand years, then slowly grew to around a quarter-billion about the time of Christ. A thousand years later, deep in the "dark ages," it hit around a half-billion. And, finally, in 1800, we hit our first one billion humans.

From there, our population exploded like cockroaches in a dirty New York apartment. Two billion by 1930. Three billion in 1960. Four billion in 1974. Five billion in 1987. Six billion around 2000. The human race has run amok on the planet, we're told, and nobody's sure why.

But there's a fundamental flaw in this story -- it's not the story of the human race. There are many cultures -- indeed, thousands -- around the world whose populations have been relatively stable for the past 50,000 years. (Most are now in decline, in fact, because of pressure from the rest of us.) The story of the population explosion isn't the story of the human race, it's the story of a single culture -- our "modern" culture of written language, agriculture, mechanism, and written law.

So what do those other cultures know that we've missed? How did they manage to live on the earth -- and included among "them" are all of our ancestors -- for over 100,000 years without nearly destroying the planet? How are their stories of what it means to be human different from ours? And why, for those of us of European ancestry, can't we find or remember the stories of our own ancestors from as recently as 4000 years ago in Europe?

A frequent comment made by people on message boards that deal with questions like this -- the problems of our society and the world we live in -- is that there are "pre-Ishmael" and "post-Ishmael" people: those who haven't yet read the book and those who have. While it sounds a bit hyperbolic, most "post-Ishmael" people will agree with the sentiment.

In the nearly-two-decades since his groundbreaking novel "Ishmael" first appeared, Daniel Quinn has added an impressive body of works, building on the themes he first articulates in "Ishmael." Each is a stand-alone read. But if you really want to "get" the most ancient of world-views that Quinn lays out throughout all of his works, begin with "Ishmael."

Although generally not well known, there are many books that give a glimpse into the world as "pre-civilization" people saw it. One of my favorites, the true story "Original Wisdom: Stories of an Ancient Way of Knowing" by Robert Wolff was reviewed last year on these pages on Buzzflash. Others include Peter Farb's seminal "Man's Rise to Civilization As Shown by the Indians of North America from Primeval Times to the Coming of the Industrial State," Marshall Sahlin's "Stone Age Economics," and parts of my book about the end of the era of oil, "The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight." None, however, have the power of "Ishmael" when it comes to illuminating how billions of humans for over a hundred thousand years have viewed the world and their role in it -- and what that can mean to us today.

As I write this review, we're approaching the 2005 holiday season, and Fox News has once again dragged out their annual meme of the "liberal war on Christmas." They say that liberals want to take not just Christ(mas) out of public discourse, but God as well.

In response, progressives, like Rabbi Michael Lerner, Rev. Bill Press, and Rev. Barry Lynn, rebut with their own professions of faith in God and their concern that the Republicans are trying to convert holy-days into orgy-of-consumption holi-days.

But even in the debate of whether "In God We Trust" should be on our coins, or "One nation, under God" in our Pledge of Allegiance, everybody is talking about "God." Even atheists dive into the "is He or isn't He real, and what should we do about that?" debate, nearly always assuming monotheism, or at the very least a politically acceptable form of polytheism.

Quinn takes us into quite different territory. What if, instead of talking about "God," we were talking about everything being sacred, even the rocks being infused with the "fire of life"?

Animism is the most ancient of world-views, and holds every bit as much a sense of the sacred -- arguably even more -- as does theism (be it monotheism or polytheism), and Daniel Quinn is its most eloquent spokesman.

While some scientists argue that our warlike tendencies and aggression may be hard-wired at childhood as a result of learning an abstract alphabet at an early age ("The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image" by Leonard Shlain), Quinn goes even deeper, illuminating the origins of warfare and murder first defined in the two conflicting stories of creation told in Genesis -- and the explicit warnings of that ancient story directed explicitly and intentionally at us today. He even suggests the first writers of that text were animists, warning us of the coming theists.

The vehicle for all this is a novel in which Quinn's first-person protagonist answers an odd sort of help-wanted ad that says: "TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person."

Responding to the ad, the novel's viewpoint character then meets Ishmael -- a gorilla -- who, in a series of riveting conversations that last throughout the book, pulls him back and forth through a metaphorical rabbit-hole from time-ancient to time-modern and vice-versa.

All this may sound abstract, dry, or didactic but it's not: It's compelling. It's the kind of book you start to read for a bit of distraction from a busy day and end up with half the night because you can't put it down. It'll ruin your weekend. You'll turn off the TV and cancel that date for the movie, because you won't want to stop reading.

In "Ishmael," Quinn introduces the concept of two basic ways humans have historically organized ourselves -- what he calls "Takers" and "Leavers." Takers fundamentally believe that "the world is here for humans." Leavers understand that we're one species amongst millions who are part of the extraordinary and sacred web of life. We -- the culture that has grown to six billion -- are the Takers, and we began "taking" when we broke the first and most fundamental law of all life on earth, a law I'll leave it to you to discover when you read Quinn's book.

The book's viewpoint character comes upon his revelations slowly, as Ishmael feeds him the pieces necessary to both deconstruct his "modern man" worldview and help him reconstruct -- virtually from scratch -- the worldview of ancient humans. A worldview that, by the way, Quinn suggests is the key to saving humanity:

"Yesterday's part of the story," Ishmael said, "revealed the meaning of the world as it's understood among the Takers: The world is a human life-support system, a machine designed to produce and sustain human life."


"Today's part of the story seems to be about the destiny of man. Obviously it was not man's destiny to live like a lion or a wombat."

"That's right."

"What is man's destiny, then?"

"Hm," I said. ""Well. Man's destiny is to achieve, to accomplish great things."

"As it's known among the Takers, man's destiny is more specific than that."

"Well, I suppose you could say that his destiny is to build civilization."

"Think mythologically."

"I'm afraid I don't know how that's done."

"I'll demonstrate. Listen."

I listened.

And so have millions of people all around the world. This book has been a bestseller ever since 1991 -- fourteen years ago -- when it first appeared, after winning a half-million-dollar prize in a competition sponsored by Ted Turner. It's still selling well, and has developed a strong cult following, as you can find on Quinn's website at

Enlightenment thinkers of the 1600s and 1700s like Rousseau and Locke quite literally transformed civilization and the world, leading directly to the creation of modern democracy. A major part of the world-view of Enlightenment thinkers like Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin had to do with trying to understand the foundational concepts from which Native American society emerged -- those concepts at the core of Quinn's teaching.

Jefferson and Franklin, in particular, were obsessed with trying to determine if Rousseau's "Noble Savages" and our Native Americans were one in the same, and what lessons they may have for us. They came very close to some very important insights, but never could quite break through their Taker upbringing to penetrate below the floor on which their/our civilization stands, to understand the world of Leavers.

What Quinn calls "The Great Forgetting" -- the wall between the world as seen by historic humans and that seen by "modern" humans -- was just too solid, too powerful, too unquestionable, leaving the totality of the Native American's worldview out of their grasp. If Quinn had been around to give just the slightest nudge to these Deists among our Founders, the enlightenment of the 17th century may well have led to something even more extraordinary than it did.

As it is, that work is now for us to do, and Quinn offers an important starting place.

There are few books that actually have the effect of changing your world-view as you read them. Even fewer are the type of fiction that drags you in, entertains you, and leaves you stunned. "Ishmael" accomplishes all of this elegantly, and is a perfect introduction to the further writings of Daniel Quinn, one of the wisest of our wise elders.


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piter85 5 years 6 weeks ago

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