Wednesday, June 13, 2012


I re-read Ishmael (by Daniel Quinn) and I feel like I have a better handle on the ideas now. Quinn basically presents the argument (through his main character, Ishmael) that when humans developed an agricultural way of life they became exempt from the laws of nature and are consequently destroying the world. Let me unpack that a bit.

When people can grow their own food they not only settle and develop complex societies, they also grow more food than they need in order to prepare for the future. The surplus in food translates into population growth, which in turn requires a greater surplus to be grown the following year, which creates more population growth, repeat ad infinitum. As a result, we take over more and more of the earth in order to feed and house ourselves. 

Quinn says that no other animals besides humans have allowed themselves to grow unchecked because they follow the rules of nature. He points out that when other animals don’t have enough food to survive, they starve and die, thus keeping their population in check and allowing other animals to survive. Quinn indicates that by using our superior intelligence to survive famines we are throwing nature off balance and this is an evil behavior that we need to change. 

Firstly, I don’t know if it is actually true that no other animals have done this, but I also think there’s a fundamental difference between a lion dying for lack of food and a human dying for lack of food because we are conscious of it and we can do something about it. A lion might feel sad (or I could be anthropomorphizing) about a member of its pride dying, but I doubt it feels responsible for another lion’s death due to a lack of resources and there’s not much it could really do about it anyway. We, on the other hand, can know and feel and act on the situation if we see someone suffering and can feel guilt if we don’t. 

Quinn says that we have lost touch with mother nature and fail to accept natural laws because we think we are above them, so we refuse to die when we should. He also points out the hubris involved in this, that humans think they should live and increase and rule the world. I do agree that people have done horrendous things to the earth and that the rate of population growth is basically unsupportable. I just don’t see what to do about it without being horrible and I don’t think Quinn provides much of an answer to this either. 

A note about birth control here. Quinn talks about it a little bit, and how we basically fail to use it to the extent that we should given that our population growth is out of control. Yet I think to many people birth control feels like an unnatural act, going against nature. Which it is, biologically. I think humans are trapped in this limbo between being animals and being intellectual or spiritual beings and it can make things like this so ethically confusing. 

We have seen governments make laws to control population growth and many of us recoil from it in horror, yet aren’t they just trying to be responsible? I have thought a lot about whether I want to have children and whether I should have children, and I often feel that there is no need...and then I see a baby and just get all gooshy. I think this is our essential conflict as humans, at least at this stage- to determine if we are animals driven by physical needs and instincts, or creatures that can use their minds and hearts to create their own way of life. And of course, we are both, but in every moment I think we make that decision, sometimes one way and sometimes the other.

The book ends with a call to action, both to the human character in the story and, by extension, to the reader. The solution that Ishmael gives is not to revert back to a hunter-gatherer way of life. He admits that that would not happen and is not feasible. He also isn’t against farming itself; he acknowledges that animals and even some human societies have agriculture without causing damage to nature. His request is simply to get this message out there. But I don’t see a real practical explanation of how humans can change in order to live in accordance with nature without reverting to a “primitive” way of life. Maybe the point was just to get us thinking about small practical changes, like recycling or etc., but that seems so mundane after the grandeur of the whole story.

I am looking forward to getting into Guns, Germs, and Steel now and leaving these questions aside, philosopher though I am. I could use some science right now and will be happy to let some of the ethics smolder for a while.


  1. "I think humans are trapped in this limbo between being animals and being intellectual or spiritual beings and it can make things like this so ethically confusing."

    So true. Trying to determine what's "natural" to humans is a dizzying road. Like, I think the raw food movement is pretty ill-conceived, because the fact that we have the technology to cook our food is actually an accomplishment on the part of the species. Our stomachs have evolved to eat cooked food instead. But does that mean that the paleo diet is the way to go? Where does evolution stop and human ingenuity begin? Very difficult to think about.

  2. Yes, thanks for that example. I agree, and I've thought about this very issue before with the same results. And any commentary on how we ought to live is going to be problematic, I think, but I do find the fact that these two ways of life have clear historically different outcomes very interesting, and I'm looking forward to reading more about that in G, G, S. I'll probably be posting about it in parts because it's fairly long and I don't want to lose my thoughts.