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The situation today is like flying one of those pedal-driven contraptions with flapping wings that people created before discovering the laws of aerodynamics. At first, when the flight begins, all appears well. The airman has been pushed off the edge of the cliff and is pedaling away. But the aircraft is slowly falling.

Thus speaks a fictional gorilla in the book, Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, after which the book is named. He does not communicate in a conventional manner, however, speaking mysteriously to the author through his eyes.

As he goes on to say, ten thousand years ago, humanity embarked on a similar “civilizational flight.” But our craft wasn’t designed according to any theory at all. Like the imaginary airman, we “were totally unaware that there is a law that must be complied with in order to achieve civilizational flight. “

As for what that law is, Ishmael calls it the law of “limited competition”. This is the law whereby populations are kept in check by limited food supplies. We falsely assume that we’re exempt from this law and that we can continue expanding and growing our population forever.

When did we adopt this attitude? It was with the advent of the “agricultural revolution” by people whom Ishmael calls the “Takers”. These people embarked on the gradual task of destroying all competitors for their food. This included the “competitors twice removed” such as plants crowding out grasses that fed their “game”. To make things worse, we have a materialistic culture that is “[c]onsuming the world.” By contrast, Ishmael refers to the so-called primitive peoples that lived in greater harmony with nature the “Leavers”.

Our misinterpretation of the Biblical creation story supports this attitude, Ishmael says. This is the story whereby Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and are expelled from the Garden of Eden. From it, the Takers have derived the conclusion that humanity is meant to be agriculturalists and subdue or “rule” the earth.

However, as Ishmael intriguingly argues, the story was actually written by the ancestors of the Hebrews who were originally “Leavers” (i.e. pastoralists). This explains why the “gods” withheld the very knowledge humanity needed to fulfill our supposed “destiny”. It also explains why agriculture is not portrayed as a desirable choice, but rather a curse whereby food must now be wrested from the ground by our “sweat”.

Ishmael is not suggesting we go back to being hunter-gatherers. Even Leaver cultures, he says, sometimes practiced a degree of farming or animal husbandry. Rather, the point is about becoming stewards of the Earth and letting the other peoples (i.e. “Leavers”) and creatures of this world live.

There are two reasons we should do this, according to Ishmael. Firstly, biodiversity is valuable in how it greatly increases the likelihood of life surviving changing conditions (e.g. an evolving climate). Secondly, other species have the incredible potential of becoming capable of what we have become!

In this light, the importance of the gorilla to humanity becomes apparent. Without the gorilla (and other species), we lack a sense of purpose. And so we find ourselves just going through the motions when doing things like dealing with our waste and stopping pollution. With other species like the gorilla still in existence, we can completely rethink the role for ourselves and our vision for the world.

Thus, the book ends with the following words written on a poster of Ishmael’s:


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