Daniel Quinn’s “Ishmael”

In Daniel Quinn’s “Ishmael,” a gorilla offers his perspective on human civilization and the narratives surrounding it.

Ishmael—the gorilla—characterizes the early agricultural revolution as the takeoff of the nowadays-dominant “Takers’” culture, a culture that does not only reject the hunter-gatherer and herder life of “Leaver” tribes but also finds it acceptable to eradicate the latter. The Takers reject the notion that man is part of a balanced, competitive and evolving natural system; but this rejection places humanity on a trajectory ultimately leading to self-destruction.

The gods realized that “of all the trees in the garden, only the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil could destroy Adam.” (9, 6) And so they forbid Adam to taste the fruit of that tree. (He tasted anyway.) The ban constitutes a mystery for Takers. For they think of themselves as destined to rule the world, and “knowledge of good and evil is fundamentally the knowledge the rulers of the world must exercise, because every single thing they do is good for some but evil for others.” (9, 7)

According to Ishmael, the mystery is solved by noting that Genesis reflects a narrative of the Semites, a Leaver people, who experienced the expansion of the Taker culture as Cain slaughtering his brother Abel. The Hebrew later adopted the tale but could no longer make sense of it because they had adopted the Taker culture.

Ishmael makes some other points: “The Takers accumulate knowledge about what works well for things. The Leavers accumulate knowledge about what works well for people.” (10, 8) “The Takers are those who know good and evil, and the Leavers are … those who live in the hands of the gods.” (11, 6) The Leavers are in a position to evolve; they are part of the general community of life, while Takers believe that creation came to an end with man. (12, 3) “The Takers’ story is, ‘The gods made the world for man, but they botched the job, so we had to take matters into our own, more competent hand.’ The Leavers’ story is, ‘The gods made man for the world …; this seems to have worked pretty well so far, so we can take it easy and leave the running of the world to the gods.’” (12, 6)