Ishmael  AUG 03 2005


When I posted a link to Jared Diamond's Discover magazine piece on agriculture being "the worst mistake in the history of the world", two people wrote in suggesting that I read Daniel Quinn's Ishmael. As I was between books, I did just that. Ishmael, nutshelled:

Ishmael's paradigm of history is startlingly different from the one wired into our cultural consciousness. For Ishmael, our agricultural revolution was not a technological event but a moral one, a rebellion against an ethical structure inherent in the community of life since its foundation four billion years ago. Having escaped the restraints of this ethical structure, humankind made itself a global tyrant, wielding deadly force over all other species while lacking the wisdom to make its tyranny a beneficial one or even a sustainable one.

That tyranny is now hurtling us toward a planetary disaster of pollution and overpopulation. If we want to avoid that catastrophe, we need to work our way back to some fundamental truths: that we weren't born a menace to the world and that no irresistible fate compels us to go on being a menace to the world.

It's a work of philosophy, centering on technology, culture, religion, and ecology. The Platonic-dialogue-with-a-gorilla format seemed forced to me (Quinn wrote the novelized version of this story to win a $500,000 book prize)...I guess I would have preferred the shorter essay version. But Quinn's main thesis is an interesting one and worth considering.

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