You Know There’s a Problem When You Need a Talking Gorilla to Make Your Ideas Sound More Plausible

Anybody ever heard of Ismael?  The 1992 novel by Daniel Quinn is a self-described “adventure of the mind and spirit” and, I gather, something of a cult-classic among the environmentalist and population-control crowds.  I first encountered it in high school, where a leftist English teacher shared an excerpt with us.  It was utter crap, so laughably bad that, as Dennis Prager would say, you’d have to be an academic to buy into it.  Ishmael found its way back into my life again a couple weeks ago, when I came across a copy at a rummage sale.  I’m about halfway through, and it’s every bit as bad as I remember.

Ishmael is the story of a disaffected man who desperately wants to “save the world,” and soon meets the titular Ishmael, a wise teacher who promises to show him how.  Oh, and did I mention Ishmael is a talking gorilla?  It seems the world’s troubles are all due to the fact that Earth’s “community of life” has become divided by two competing mythologies: the Takers (i.e., civilization), who believe in using Earth’s resources to their hearts’ content and dominating over all other species; and the Leavers (i.e., primitive tribes and every non-human species on Earth).  Taker belief that “the world was made for man” has thrown the ecosystem off balance and led to an ever-expanding human population unsustainable by an ever-diminishing food supply.

The section we read in high school concerned a drastic re-imagining of the Book of Genesis (this version’s, er, polytheistic) as a Leaver story that, instead of boring crap about morality and human nature (incredibly, Quinn has the characters befuddled as to why anyone would think its message was along these lines), was really about the roots of Taker arrogance.

For more on just how off-kilter the world of Daniel Quinn’s imagination is, check out this piece by Professor Allen B. Downey (Olin College of Engineering).


5 thoughts on “You Know There’s a Problem When You Need a Talking Gorilla to Make Your Ideas Sound More Plausible

  1. I absolutely disagree with your review. What I really think about your ideas (or Allen B. Downey ideas as well) is that they are only a harsh response because this book fingers at our very own culture as responsible for the mess we are in, and you really don’t like to be pointed out. But the book intention is to change things around, not to blame anyone. That just doesn’t do anything.

    If you go and check wikipedia at the term “extinction” you will find some pretty scary rates and estimations about what’s going on bilogical diversity.

    The main point about Ishmael is that there is a disconnection between human population and their local resources. This causes huge amounts of people in places that wouldn be able to support that amount of people if they depended on their locar resources only.

    A god example of how dangerous this means would be that if there is is a solar flare or a major disaster and electric energy, telecomunications, and other core parts of our civilization fail, there would be massive starving deaths in all countries.

    The main problem of some people with this book is that the author doesn’t give you an easy way out to civilization, they hate that it just points out the causes of disaster and doesn’t exactly says what to do, but I think that he GIVES a solution, we need to make a way for us to start living in a way that permits us to respect the laws of life which he describes. He doesn’t say we HAVE TO LIVE EXACTLY like ancient tribes, he says we need to learn how they managed to live in this planet for thousands of years without putting all life on eath in danger, and make changes to our’s.

    Those laws, which Allen B. Downey despises so much, are followed by every single specie of this planet. His example about pine trees just demonstrates that he has no clue about what the laws referr to. A pine tree may “poison” the land arround it so nothing else grows, but that’s a biological characteristic of survival, it has evolved as that and the tree do it’s as an individual, he can only do that in his own area. That won’t cause any other specie extinction for god sake.

    I fully recommend you or anyone interested to check out this video which conteins a conference that author Daniel Quinn and evolutionary ecology teacher Phd Allan D Thornhill gave a few years ago. Here is the link:


  2. By the way, excuse my english, I’m from Mexico.

    PS: I don’t think there is a problem with the teacher in the story being a gorilla. It could be a person and the ideas would be as good as they are. You are missing the whole point focusing on the story elements instead of the ideas. It’s very obvious that Quinn intention wasn’t to win a literature nobel, but to spread his ideas. Allen B. Downey essay misses the point too, asking for exact references of information that’s already out there anywhere you look. ¿animal extinction? ¿war? ¿drug adiction? ¿mental illness? ¿diminishing biodiversity? ¿famine? ¿disguised slavery? well, he just hasn’t heard of any such things. Our civilization just doesn’t has any of that, is just a myth i guess. ¿And you know something? it really doesn’t matter if you disagree. Living this way mankind WILL HAVE to change the way we live whether we like it or not. It can be the nice or the hard way. World won’t be saved by better politicians, better computers, better cars, better weapons or better spaceships. It will be saved when everyone, everywhere lives in a sustainable way, which means being supported by your local resources, which means respecting the laws of life. And this will happen any way around.


  3. Thanks for the feedback – I have finished Ishmael since writing the original post, and my low opinion of it still stands.

    It’ll be a couple weeks before I can get back to my copy of Ishmael for a more thorough response, but as I recall, the book was riddled with straw men and arguments that only work if their outlandish premises were correct, yet Quinn presented those premises as givens, making little/no attempt to substantiate them.

    And my quips about Ishmael being a gorilla are just that – quips. They’re not intended as serious critiques.


  4. I just sent this email to Allen Downey. This is my response to his article.

    fromJoel Montes

    dateMon, Nov 30, 2009 at 7:16 PM
    subjectAbout your essay: Ten things I hated about the first half of Ishmael

    hide details 7:16 PM (16 minutes ago)

    Hi. I would like to share my point of view about this Book. My name is Joel Montes, i’m from Monterrey in Mexico so please forgive if I make some mistakes once in a while (english mistakes).

    1. Replacing the progress fallacy with the doomsday fallacy

    Biodiversity is getting worst. Extinction caused by man is a probed fact. Importance of biodiversity and how it affects man or any specie is also a probed fact.
    In a world where there’s only grass and rabbits, for example, life will end if an extended winter kills the grass. The more species a planet has, the more chances to endure its whole life community has. Biomass of earth turning into human mass is also a fact. Man eats plants or animals, not rocks or clouds.

    Only if you live in an isolated island and have never read the news would think that things are NOT GETTING worse. Even if there were more rich people and more healthy people, if nothing else survives, it would be our end, period. A pure canibalistic society is destined to auto consumption.

    Quinn doesn’t really needs to give references because his book it’s not an essay nor a scientific paper, its a novel, a philosiphical one.

    But the references are out there for anyone interested, like you and me.

    Some references:

    2. Poisoning the well

    The point about the mother culture concept of Quinn is to explain why do we keep distroying the world wheter it’s not anyone main goal (expept for people who likes nuclear bombs or things like that). It’s a fact that we are distroying the planet (oil spill over the sea, polluted athmosphere, toxic waste, damage to ozone cape, etc. It’s a fact that there is something in the civilized people who convey us to keep our civilization going at any cost.

    How would you explain those things to your children? how would you explain to them that there arent many tigers, polar bears, deers, buffalos, etc? how would you explain it to them in a simple and logical way? is it because it had to be? how would you explain the worst things like guns, atomic bombs, and things like that? why are they necessary? why does people has to work eight hours in order to eat? why birds doesn’t? why are there poor people?

    The answer that you give to your children, is mother culture. I received that too, but it’s doesn mean anyone can go beyond that. I don’t need anyone to come and “posion my well”. Any five years old can notice its pretty well poisoned already.

    3. The meta fallacy.

    If you do a little bit of research (absolutely recommend you “Providence” by Quinn, you would find that Ishmael was very different book at the begining. It took almost 20 years for Daniel Quinn to write this book and he finally got the version that got published and rewarded). It’s true that the gorilla element helps giving more “autority” to the teacher, but the ideas of Quinn are just as good and solid if were told by a person. If you remove the gorilla character and its story in the book and place Daniel Quinn and his own story (told in Providence) then you would have the circle closed. The gorilla is just a shortcut to make the teacher interesting already and focus on the ideas instead of having to read Quinn’s biography which wasn’t even written yet at the time he published Ishmael.

    4. The naturalist fallacy

    The laws of life exist and are acting over life in this planet wheter we like it or not. Those laws make evolution and life possible. The author idea is for us to find a way to live respecting them, that’s his propossal. Ishmael it’s not an ethical book, it’s not about good and bad. It’s about life, the benefit of following those laws is to live as long as a specie as it’s possible.

    Your pine trees example is wrong because if they acted as you describe, there would be nothing but pine trees in this planet since they existe long before humans. Thus, there are tree laws, not just one. Our civilizations breaks the three laws systematically and we are the only specie that does it. Our civilization just couldn work if it had to respect such tree laws.

    Nature is not either good or bad, it just is and we belong to it, we depend of a life community and we are subject to the laws that keep it in balance. Thats a fact. We can break the laws, but we won’t endure, just as you wont fly if you don’t follow aerodynamic laws.

    5. The Lorax Fallacy

    It’s doesnt apply, because asking humans to follow the laws of life is for the good of Humans and humans only. It is wanting to last here in this planet not for 100 or 200 years, but for thousands of years, just as we did when we became homo sapiens.

    ¿Do you really think your great grand children will live well in this planet if we keep living like this? sustainability is already a matter of importance in the whole world, in the united nations and in every country. Sustainability and biodiversity. And the precise core and essence of the three laws of life is to preserve that.

    It’s for us, not only for the trees or the rabbits.

    6. The biocentrism fallacy

    Same thing as before. Biocentrism is the best way to defend our own specie.

    7. Inconsistency regarding role of humans.

    Quinn ALWAYS considers humans part of the natural world. With enviromental conditions he means large scale catastrophes like meteorites, vulcans, death of oceans undercurrents, glaciations, etc. Those events have already happened before and have caused massive extinctions in the past, as the article I put as reference in the first point says.

    Quinn doesn’t say man isn’t part of the enviroment, he is just pointing that extinction is rapidly increasing because of we breaking laws of life.

    You say you are not sure, but you guess that most of the extincted animals were because of other species. Well, I AM SURE that it’s not. Massive extinctions are the biggest causes. The rest of extinctions it’s beacuse animals evolve, and species who adapt better to their environment survive so it’s expected some extinctions to ocurre. But the actual extinction rate is tenth times (being optimistic) greater that what is considered the “natural” extinction rate. Please check the following.

    This is from wikipedia:
    “Mass extinctions are relatively rare events, however, isolated extinctions are not rare. Starting approximately 100,000 years ago, and coinciding with an increase in the numbers and range of humans, species extinctions have increased to a rate estimated at 100—1000 times that in the recent fossil record.[4] This is known as the Holocene extinction and is at least the sixth such extinction event. Some experts have estimated that up to half of presently existing species may become extinct by 2100.[5]”


    8. Identification of science as a form of mythology.

    Quinn isn’t saying science is a myth. Quinn is saying why scientists are also subject to our cultural myths, which is very different. The laws of life have been known from years ago, but nobody tried to apply them to humans. Biologists know those laws and understand them, but never thougt including human specie into them before. But thanks to Quinn that has changed.

    This is a video of Daniel Quinn and biologist Phd Allan D. Thornhill having a conference some years ago. You may like it.

    9. Ignorance of evidence.

    Again, your lack of biological and ecological information background is not allowing you to understand the effect of the laws of life. Some species do break some of the laws, but no species break the three of them. No other specie has the intelligence to do that, no one has and no one has ever had it or we wouldn came to being thru evolution. Again, it’s true that there is no bad or good in nature, it’s just survival. And we wont survive in this planet if we kill every thing else. We don’t know what the building brick would be, but when we get to breake that one, all life will be at risk. Please check the video above.

    10. Ugly misantrophy.

    Ugliness is not an argument. Quinn isn’t misantrophic nor lazy. The only reasonable critic I could make to his book is his lack of practical solutions, he doesn say how we must reduce population, how we must transitate from civilization to something different. But he did tried that in later books, like “Beyond civilization”. Quinn main goal is having people around this planet for the following thousands of years, and he has given the key to achieve that. It’s beautiful, honest, and hopeful.

    I’m really sorry you can’t see it, but there is no way there will be people around in a thousand years if we keep living as we do right now.

    And even if I was to disagree with Quinn, I wouldn’t even dare to open my mouth if i had’t a better solution for mankind survival.


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