The books by Daniel Quinn—most notably Ishmael and the sequel My Ishmael—are both thought-provoking and entertaining. Quinn has hit upon an interesting way to present his ideas about humanity through the eyes of a highly educated telepathic gorilla who wants to “save the world” and recruit people to help him with that challenge.
Rather than leaving us with the feeling that we’re on course to peace and prosperity, Quinn’s books make a compelling case that we’re indeed headed for another collapse of civilization unless we can correct the course. He challenges us to be the creative compassionate creatures we claim to be before it’s too late, and find a sustainable way to live in harmony with each other and the planet.
At the root of his argument is that the agricultural revolution has been a kind of Trojan horse that appeared to be a great boon to humankind but concealed within it there was a recipe for disaster. As food shortages become more and more frequent and population continues to increase at an exponential rate, the evidence that Quinn may have a valid point becomes more and more obvious.
While he’s adamant that he’s not suggesting we turn the clock back and become hunter-gatherers, he’s pointing out that we as a species believe we have discovered the “right way to live.” But like a monkey that’s held fast in a trap by his unwillingness to release the food he has in his grasp, we will perish holding on to an idea that’s clearly not working. If the monkey were to release the food, he could easily remove his hand and go on his way. Like the monkey, we as a species will need to release the notion that we’re on the right and only course that leads to success of the species.
Quinn is also not suggesting that we reduce the population, although his detractors have accused him of doing so. He’s merely pointing out that it’s not a kind compassionate world we have created where only 1 percent of the population control 40 percent of the wealth on a planet, and where many people starve to death every day.
Quinn does not suggest that there’s something inherently wrong with human beings as a species, but sees the state of our current world civilization as simply one of many evolutionary courses that could have been taken—albeit one that is headed for demise. He points out that, based on the results so far, there’s nothing superior about human beings. If there were, we would have demonstrated that wisdom long ago and be living in harmony on the planet with both nature and each other.
This disaster scenario can’t possibly be our destiny, people argue. We’re too intelligent. We aren’t just animals! Unfortunately Quinn points out that there’s abundant anthropological evidence to the contrary, plenty of civilizations that have just died out.
One answer to this dilemma is to accept that these cycles are inevitable. The past certainly bears this out. But no one I know wants to accept that a huge percentage of the human species must die off so that a cycle of thousands of years can begin again from scratch. So we continue to insist that this time it will be different, even though we refuse to give up the idea that we have discovered the “right way to live.”
The message of Ishmael is that there’s no right way to live, and that when we refuse to be willing to continually reinvent ourselves, we’re headed for extinction.
I’m taking the time to expound on this theme because I believe this unwillingness to reinvent our lives when they’re clearly not working, is endemic in western culture on an individual basis. The more our lives become uncertain and insecure, the tighter we cling to ways of being and to political leaders that move us closer and closer to disaster. We, as a culture, have convinced ourselves that we have discovered and are living the “right way.”
Could it be that the reason we’re convinced that our civilization is the only possible civilization we could have created, is because we as individuals want to believe it is neither necessary nor desirable to continually re-invent ourselves?
Could it be that we, as individuals, are afraid to admit that we could be wrong, afraid to admit that just maybe we don’t know the right way to live?
Could it be that we refuse to accept that there’s no such thing as the right way to live?
Could it be that we have become so intolerant of others that we’re incapable of learning anything from each other and evolving?
Quinn is not trying to answer any of these questions. He leaves that to us. From his point of view this latest version of civilization has merely evolved in a way that has created a problem that, so far, we’re unable to solve. It looks like we’re headed for yet another contraction of civilization, this time on a worldwide scale. Quinn is obviously not one for magical thinking either. He never mentions that any interventions may be on the horizon, divine or otherwise. I think this is why his views are so often met with disfavour. In times like these, it’s comforting to hope that God or extra-terrestrials might come and save us.
Could it be that if enough people don’t become conscious of this situation soon enough that we will, as a species, become extinct? Daniel Quinn is pointing to the evidence and simply gives us this possibility to consider. He’s telling us to “wake up” before it’s too late. Will history once again repeat itself? It’s in our hands. Only time will tell.