Ishmael - Daniel Quinn 📚

Structurally the story is laid out mostly as a conversation held between a New-York man and the Gorilla Ishmael - the student and the teacher. Interspersed we find some bits of narrative explaining what happens outside of their conversations. These external events are in a way secondary to the main themes of their conversations.

The premise of Quinn’s Ishmael rests firmly on two facts and an intepretation of Genesis.

Humans lived for three million years as the gods intended them to live - “in harmony with nature”. The peoples living then and the few who continue to do so around the globe are called Leavers by Quinn.

This ended with the agricultural revolution and subsequent rise of modern civilization. The culture and people resulting from this shift are called Takers by Quinn.

In Quinn’s analysis, the killing of the herder Abel by the farmer Cain in Genesis is then (re-)interpreted as a story from the Semitic herders (Leavers) about the expansion of agriculture and eradication of their pastoral culture. Thus, in this symbolism Cain killed Abel.

The story of Adam and Eve is similarly interpreted as a symbolic explanation for the mythology of our society or as Quinn puts it how things came to be this way. We were thrown out of the garden because we ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and now posess the knowledge of good and evil ie. we know how to choose who should die and who should live. Or as Quinn puts it:

The world was made for man, and man was made to rule it.



  1. In this regard, two things in particular failed to satisfy me. The first was this: It was universally agreed that “human history” was basically the same as “our history” - the history that began about ten thousand years ago with the agricultural revolution. In the three million years of human life that came before that, nothing of importance had occured (except perhaps the domestication of fire and the invention of the wheel.) The lives lived during that time were of no interest or importance, were in fact completely meaningless, and underserving of any attention. This made noe sense to me. That 150,000 generations of humans could live and go down to death with nothing in their heads or lives worth knowing was inconceivable.

    p. xi

  2. … let me give you an observation that was made by Thostein Vebelen in The Theory of the Leisure Class. It’s one I considered important enough to commit to memory. Here it is: “The evolution of society is substantially a process of mental adaptation on the part of the individuals under the stress of circumstances which will no longer tolerate habits of thought formed under and conforming to a different set of circumstances in the past,”

    p. xxvii

  3. Did they have larger families than hunter-gatherers? Perhaps. But that couldn’t possibly explain why your population doubled from three billion to six billion in just forty years - forty years! Finding an explanation of such a thing boggles the mind. Did everyone just spontaneously begin having twice as many children?

    p. xxviii

  4. In fact, of course there is no secret knowledge; no one knows anything that can’t be found on a shelf in the public library.

    p. 5

  5. As everyone knoes, eyes speak. A pair of strangers can effortlessly reveal their mutual interest and attraction in a single glance.

    p. 10

  6. Ishmael thought for a moment . “Among the people of your culture, which want to destory the world?” “Which want to destory it? As far as I know, no one specifically wants to destroy the world.”

    “And yet you destory it, each of you. Each of you contributes daily to the destruction of the world.“

    p. 28

  7. You’re captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live. … You are captives—and you have made a captive of the world itself. That’s what’s at stake, isn’t it?—your captivity and the captivity of the world.

    p. 28

  8. They’ve been told an explaining story. They’ve been given an explanation of how things came to be this way, and this stills their alarm. This explanation covers everything, including the deterioration of the ozone layer, the pollution of the oceans, the destruction of the rain forests, and even human extinction - and it satisfies them. Or perhaps we should say if pacifies them. They put their shoulders to the wheel during the day, stupefy themselves with drugs or television at night, and try not to think too searchingly about the world they’re leaving their children to cope with.

    p. 47

  9. Naturally you wouldn’t consider it a myth. No creation story is a myth to the peopole who tell it. It’s just the story.

    p. 54

  10. Everyone in your culture knows that the world wasn’t created for jellyfish or salmon or iguanas or gorillas. It was created for man.

    p. 62

  11. Do you see the slightest evidence anywhere in the universe that creation came to an end with the birth of man? Do you see the slightest evidence anywhere out there that man was the climax toward which creation had been straining from the beginning? …Very far from it. The universe went on as before, the planet went on as before. Man’s appearance caused no more stir than the appearance of jellyfish.

    p. 63

  12. The Takers regard the world as a sort of human life-support system, as a machine designed to produce and sustain human life.

    p. 64

  13. So: Without man, the world was unfinished, was just nature, red in tooth and claw. It was in chaos, in a state of primeval anarchy.

    p. 76

  14. One of the most striking features of Taker culture is its passionate and unwavering dependence on prophets. The influence of people like Moses, Gautama, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus and Muhammad in Taker history is simply enormous.

    But what I want to look at right onw is not the absence of prophets among the Leavers but the enormous influence of prophets among the Takers. Millions have been willing to back their choice of prophet with their very lives. What makes them so important?

    But why? Why do you need prophets to tell you how you ought to live? Why do you need anyone to tell you how you ought to live?

    On prophets in Taker culture p. 89-90

  15. Diversity is a survival factor for the community itself A community of a hundred million species can survive almost anything short of a total global catastrophe. Within that hundred million will be thousands that could survive a global temperature drop of twenty degrees - which would be a lot more devastating than it sounds. Within that hundred million will be thousands that could survive a global temperature rise of twenty degrees. But a community of a hudred of a thousand species has almost no survival value at all.

    p. 136

  16. You’re not listening. Settlement in a biological adaptation practised to some degree by every species, including the human. And every adaptation supports itself in competition with the adaptations around it. In brief, human settlement isn’t against the laws of competition, it’s subject to the laws of competition.

    p. 142

  17. True. but all the same, it’s hard just to sit by and let them starve.

    This is precisely how someone speaks who imagines that he is the world’s divinely appointed ruler: ‘I will not let them starve. I will not let the drought come. I will not let the river flood. It is the gods who let these things, not you.

    On famine and human rule p. 146

  18. The work begun by those neolithic farmers in the Near East has been carried forward from one generation to the next without a single break, right into the present moment. It’s the foundation for your vast civilization today in exactly the same way that it was the foundation of the very first farming village.

    p. 163

  19. Whenever a Taker couple talk about how wonderful it would be to have a big family, they’re reenacting this scene beside the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. They’re saying to themselves: ‘Of course it’s our right apportion life on this planet as we please. Why stop at four kids or six. We can have fifteen if we like. All we have to do is to plow under another few hundred acres of rain forest - and who cares if a dozen other species disappear as a result?’

    p. 194

  20. You’d just finnished showing me that the story in Genesis that begins with the Fall of Adam and ends with the murder of Abel is not what it’s conventionally understood to be by the people of my culture. It’s the story of our agricultural revolution as told by some of the earliest victms of that revolution.

    p. 212

  21. Leaver peoples are always conscious of having a tradition that goes back to very ancient times. We have no such consciousness. For the most part we’re a very ‘new’ people. Every generation is somehow new, more thouroughly cut off from the past than the one that came before.

    Leaver culture lopsided by Takers p. 216

  22. When the people of your culture encountered the hunter-gatherers of Africa and America, it was thought that these were people who had degenerated from the natural, agricultural, state, people who had lost the arts they’d been born with. The Takers had no idea that they were looking at what they themselves had been before they became agriculturalists. As far ast the Takers knew, there was no ‘before’. Creation had occurd just a few thousand years ago, and Man the Agriculturalist had immediately set about the task of building civilization.

    p. 217

  23. … In short ancient customs are nice for institutions, ceremonies, and holidays, but Takers don’t want to adopt them for everyday living.

    On ancient customs p. 218

  24. And every time the Takers stamp out a Leaver culture, a wisdom ultimately tested since the birth of mankind disappears from the world beyond recall.

    p. 222

  25. Man was as well adapted to life on this planet as any other species, and the idea that he lived on the knnife-edge of survival is simply biological nonsense. As an omnivore his dietary range is immense. Thousands of species will go hungry before he does. His intelligece an dexterity enable him to live comfortably in conditions that would utterly defeat any other primate.

    Far from scabbling endlessly and desperatley for foor, hunder-gatherers are among the best-fed peopleon earth, and they manage this with only two or three hours a day of what you would call work - whith makes them amont the most leisured peoople on earth as well.

    p. 237

  26. What the gods provide is enough for your life as animals - I grant you that. But for life as humans, you must provide. The gods are not going to do that.

    Explaining agriculture to a Leaver p. 243

  27. The premise of the Taker story is ‘the world belongs to man’. … The premise of the Leaver story is ‘man belongs to the world’.

    p. 257

  28. I think what you’re groping for is that people need more than to be scolded, more than to be made to feel stupid and guilty. They need more than a vision of doom. They eed a vision of the world and of themselves that inspires them.

    A reason to change p. 262

  29. One thing I know people will say to me is: ‘Are you suggesting we go back to beig hunter-gatherers?’

    That of course is an inane idea. The Leaver lifestyle isn’t about hunting and gathering, it’s about letting the rest of the community live - and agriculturalists can do that as well as hunter-gatherers.

    Non-dichotomy of agriculture and modernity p. 269