Ishmael

Daniel Quinn

While technically fiction, this novel is almost entirely a conversation between a man and the gorilla Ishmael (who communicates telepathically), and it pretty much reads like a lecture on philosophies of ecology. The ideas are interesting, focused on Ishmael’s division of humans into two groups he calls Takers and Leavers — the Takers being those who followed the Agricultural Revolution through the Industrial Revolution to today’s world of possibly irreversible climate change.

Many critics of this book see Ishmael’s glorification of the Leavers, represented by more primitive, tribal cultures, as unrealistic and even inaccurate. The argument, for example, that they have always lived in balance with their environment, never depleting resources unlike their Taker counterparts, turns out to be easily refuted. Others also take issue with Ishmael’s explanation of how populations of a species naturally increase and decrease with their food supply. Ishmael posits that when famine strikes a human population, it’s unnatural and perhaps unwise for other regions to step in with assistance. His theory is that overpopulation is being perpetuated on a global scale through an over-production of grain and that Takers presume themselves to be god-like in their ability to produce more food than they need; the implication is that those without enough food should be sacrificed for the balance of the planet, although he doesn’t say this outright. In light of systemic, cultural inequalities, this hardly sits well.

Yet there are concepts with unexpected insight, including re-framings of Book of Genesis stories, as when Ishmael envisions the story of Cain and Abel as a description of the split between the early agriculturist Caucasians and the Semitic herders that lived to the south of them. His student’s conclusion that the “mark of Cain” is fair-colored skin doesn’t impress the teacher much but intrigued me. Overall Ishmael’s challenge of the belief that humans represent the completion and ultimate aim of evolution and of the corresponding judgment that the world exists for our use alone still feels like a relevant and important perspective to explore.

The story ends abruptly without providing much in the way of practical solutions, revisiting this question the man noticed on a poster on Ishmael’s wall at the beginning of the book (yet with a key twist):

WITH MAN GONE,
WILL THERE
BE HOPE
FOR GORILLA?