Ishmael the Gorilla


Ishmael the Gorilla has appeared a few times in the sermons of Revd. Tim Gray.  In this period around World Environment Day, you might be interested in more information about the story and the intention of its author, Daniel Quinn.

Ishmael is a 1992 philosophical novel by Daniel Quinn.  It examines the myth-based thinking at the heart of modern civilization, its effect on ethics, and how this relates to sustainability and societal collapse on the global scale.  The novel uses a literary style of dialogue to deconstruct the notion that humans are the pinnacle of biological evolution.  It argues that several of the widely accepted modern ideas are actually flawed cultural myths and that global actions resulting from these flawed myths have led to catastrophic consequences.

The novel is about what happens after a young man responds to a newspaper ad that says: “Teacher seeks pupil.  Must have an earnest desire to save the world.  Apply in person.”  It turns out that the teacher who placed the ad is a gorilla named Ishmael.

Why a gorilla?

In explaining why he decided to make Ishmael a gorilla, the author said:  “The point I’m trying to make in all my work is this: If we want to survive on this planet, we must listen to what our neighbours in the community of life have to tell us.  Thus it made sense for the teacher in Ishmael to be one of those neighbours—a nonhuman.  Among those neighbours none is more impressive and authoritative than a gorilla, which is why I chose to make Ishmael a gorilla rather than, say, a parrot or a salmon.”

Acting according to stories we believe

In the novel, Ishmael the gorilla explains to his young student:  There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with people.  Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world.  But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world.  Given a story to enact in which they are the lords of the world, they will act as the lords of the world.  And, given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now.

Takers and Leavers

In the novel, “Takers” are the people often referred to as “civilized.”  This is the culture of Ishmael’s pupil and, presumably, the reader.  “Leavers” are the people of all other cultures; often derogatorily referred to by Takers as “primitive.”  The Takers are “those who know good and evil” and the Leavers are “those who live in the hands of the gods”.

primitive knowledgeThe Leavers take what they need from the world and leave the rest alone.  Living in this manner (“in the hands of the gods”), Leavers thrive in times of abundance and dwindle in times of scarcity.  The Takers however, produce enormous food surpluses, which allows them to thwart the gods when the gods decide it’s the Takers’ time to go hungry.  “When you have more food than you need, then the gods have no power over you.”

Ishmael goes on to point out that by living in the hands of the gods, man was subject to the conditions under which evolution takes place.  Man became man by living in the hands of the gods—“by living the way the bushmen of Africa live; by living the way the Krenakarore of Brazil live… Not the way the Chicagoans live, not the way Londoners live.”

“In the hands of the gods is where evolution happens.  According to the Takers’ story, creation came to an end with man.  In order to make their story come true, the Takers have to put an end to creation itself — and they’re doing a damn good job of it!”

The premise of the Takers’ story is “The world belongs to man.”  The premise of the Leavers’ story is “Man belongs to the world” and that “the gods made man for the world, the same way they made salmon and sparrows for the world.  This seems to have worked well so far so we can take it easy and leave the running of the world to the gods.”

Discovering the Law of Life

greenhouse_deforestation_cartoon1Ishmael goes on to help his student discover that, contrary to what the “Takers” think, there are immutable laws that life is subject to, and that it is possible to discern them by studying the biological community.  In his other writings, Quinn points out that this “Law of Life” is a physical law, like gravity, not a commandment like “thou shalt not kill” nor a legislative ruling like “pay taxes”.  As he puts it, the latter two are written where only man can read them (in books), and that they can be changed by a vote, while the Law of Life is written in the fabric of the universe and cannot be broken.  Those who do not follow this law simply won’t live.

Together, Ishmael and his student identify one set of survival strategies which appear to be evolutionarily stable for all species (later dubbed the “Law of Limited Competition”): In short, “you may compete to the full extent of your capabilities, but you may not hunt down competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food.  In other words, you may compete but you may not wage war.”  All species inevitably follow this law, or as a consequence go extinct.  The Takers believe themselves to be exempt from this Law and flout it at every point.

Must have an earnest desire to save the world.

Ishmael finishes with a summary of what his student can do if he earnestly desires to save the world:

  • The story of Genesis must be undone. First, Cain must stop murdering Abel.  This is essential if you’re to survive.  The Leavers are the endangered species most critical to the world – not because they’re humans but because they alone can show the destroyers of the world that there is more than one right way to live.
  • And then, of course, you must spit out the fruit of the forbidden tree. You must absolutely and forever relinquish the idea that you know who should live and who should die on this planet.
  • Teach a hundred what I’ve taught you, and inspire each of them to teach a hundred.

My own thoughts, which I offer:  Give more than you can afford.  Take less than you need.  Leave every situation better than you found it.


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: