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Daniel Quinn's Vision Of History
Beauty is often described as being in the eye of the beholder. In this sense beauty is viewed as a subjective consideration and so its appreciation is a matter of taste and perspective. Likewise, events that take place in the history of the world can often be subject to interpretation depending on the viewpoint of the observer or researcher. But what about the idea of the "world's history?" Not any specific event or series of events that took place at a given time in history but the actual history of the world in the most general sense (Interview). Is this subject to interpretation?
The View According to Man
According to Daniel Quinn in the book Ishmael, the answer is a resounding 'yes.' There are, indeed, different ways to view the "world's history." On the one hand is the dominant Taker view represented by modern society in the 'person' of Mother Culture who "has given [us] an explanation of how things came to be this way." (40). Mother Culture represents, essentially, the indoctrination that all members of modern industrial society receive as members of this dominant Taker culture. Of course, indoctrination may be too harsh a word for this concept. In reality, the story told by Mother Culture is simply there. No one sits children down at an early age to inculcate them in any way. Instead, the ideas are "ambient in [our] culture. Everyone knows it and everyone accepts it without question." (40).
The story according to Mother Culture indicates that human history began approximately ten thousand years ago with the development of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Before this Neolithic revolution "The limitation of the hunting-gathering life had kept man in check for three million years. With agriculture, those limitations vanished... Settlement gave rise to division of labor. Division of labor gave rise to technology." And so forth. (69).
By implication, all time before this Neolithic revolution is considered pre-history - in effect, pre-man. This much is clear when Ishmael asks his student to relate for him the story of creation as he sees it. From man's point-of-view, the story of creation ends with the words "and finally man appeared." (56). Specifically:
t]he pinnacle was reached in man. Man is the climax of the whole cosmic drama of creation... When man finally appeared, creation came to an end, because its objective had been reached. There was nothing left to create... Man is the end product of creation. Man is the creature for whom all the rest was made: this world, this solar system, this galaxy, the universe itself (57).
So, in a nutshell, the Taker view is that the "world was made for man, and man was made to rule it..." (72). In fact, Mother Culture describes this time before history: "human life was devoid of meaning, was stupid, empty and worthless. Pre-Revolutionary life was ugly. Detestable." (216).
The View According to the World
But there is another view/story of the world - that held by a group called by Quinn the Leaver culture. This group takes the point-of-view that "Man is not alone on this planet. He is part of a community, upon which he depends absolutely... The community of life..." (90). Instead of seeing man as the end product of evolution and natural selection (i.e. The "pinnacle"), Leavers see him as but one part of a very complex whole. Where Takers think that the world belongs to them, Leavers think that man belongs to the world. And because Leavers treat man as part of the world, then man is still subject to both evolution and natural selection. On the other hand, Takers have removed themselves from this process by their actions toward the world (more on this below) (240).
The story according to the Leaver culture began around three million years ago (long before the Neolithic revolution) and continues to a limited degree into the present day. To visualize this progression of events, picture a time line beginning about three million years ago with an arrow through to the present day. Label this line Leaver Culture. From this main line note an offshoot around 8500 B.C. At which time agriculture is developed in the Fertile Crescent. Label this line Taker Culture. At the division point only a very small part of the world practices agriculture (that small area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers). Surrounding this Crescent are many examples of the Leaver Culture who are essentially hunter-gatherer types.
However, by 4500 B.C. The land under cultivation by the Taker agriculturists had grown exponentially - at the expense of the Leaver culture. The agriculturists are starting to push the Leaver hunter-gatherer cultures into marginal lands. The Semites (a herder group) bear witness to the devastation wrought by the Takers in the Biblical stories of the Garden of Eden and Cain & Abel. Quinn analyzes these two stories in a unique and fascinating way. His reinterpretation makes clear that the Leaver culture recognized the damage being inflicted on the world by the Taker culture a very long time ago. Man's flouting of the law of nature by way of the Taker culture has inexorably led to the following: "within five hundred generations - in an eye-blink in the scale of biological time - this branch of the family of Homo sapiens...[has]... brought the entire world to the point of death."
Taker vs. Leaver Culture - Ishmael's Analysis
Ishmael makes clear very early on the dire situation that man now finds himself in. "You're captives of a civilzational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live... This world is not going to survive for very much longer as humanity's captive." (25-6). The fact that he compares the story told by Mother Culture (man is the "pinnacle" of creation) to the story told by Hitler in Nazi Germany (Aryans are the "master race") shows just how dire that situation is for the Taker culture (34-5).
The essence of the problem in the Taker viewpoint is their premise that "the birth of man was...the central event - in the history of the cosmos" because this means that the world is "a sort of human life support system... A machine designed to produce and sustain human life." (59). If this premise is true then the world belongs to us and we can do anything with it that we want. So for the past 10,000 years we have been doing just this. But our conquest of the world has actually ended up destroying it. And despite all of our advances we don't have the technology to either stop the devastation or even repair it. "We've poured our poisons into the world as though it were a bottomless pit - and we go on pouring our poisons into the world." (80).
It turns out that man's flaw is that he does not know how to live correctly. One would think that man could learn how to live by studying human behavior but Mother Culture says that there are no absolute laws that can ever tell us how to live (89). So Taker culture has acted like that airman who, ignoring the laws of aerodynamics, alights from the cliff confident that he is making the correct choice. For a short time all is well - but in reality, a crash is all but certain. The law of aerodynamics, gravity and nature are unforgiving. Like the airman who thinks that faster and more efficient pedaling will solve his problems, the Taker culture says more technology, birth control and more efficient agriculture will solve their problem (107-9).
Leaver culture exists with the understanding that evolution and natural selection must continue their course. The Taker culture has stepped outside of this natural course and this cannot continue. Not just because of the obvious destruction of the environment. More importantly, the short-circuiting of the natural law has stopped the progression of evolution of all of the other creatures around us. They too are meant to become self-aware. Man is simply the first to attain higher awareness. "He's the trailblazer, the pathfinder. His destiny is to be the first to learn that creatures like man have a choice." (242). Our place in the world is to help other creatures reach our level. Millions of years from now these other creatures that have reached awareness will say of us: "What a wonderful creature [man] was! It was within his grasp to destroy the entire world and to trample all our futures into the dust - but he saw the light before it was too late and pulled back. He pulled back and gave the rest of us our chance." (242).
Ishmael's Relevance in Today's World
Ishmael is attempting to get the reader to realize that the problem is a fundamental one. He makes abundantly clear that the Taker way of thinking is ingrained in the minds of all members of modern…[continue]
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Environmental ethics in "Ishmael" by Daniel Quinn This paper looks at the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn and how the environmental ethics as outlined by Quinn relate to the world and man today. How man by looking at the damage he has carried out in the name of progress and listening to his neighbors and their roles can help to halt and possibly heal the earth before its destruction is complete. Ishmael:
Ishmael by Daniel Quinn Since Ishmael - by Daniel Quinn After reading Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, it's very difficult to understand how this innovative and thought-provoking author had a hard time finding a publisher for his unique and powerful book. Quinn has taken the history of our civilization and quality-of-our-planet themes - very familiar to any informed reader in 2004 - to new heights and new levels of understanding. And he did so