Jeremy Kauffman's Reviews > Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit

Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
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Nov 27, 2010

did not like it
bookshelves: non-fiction
Read in November, 2010

Ishmael gets some of the problems right but is stunningly amiss when it comes to solutions. Undoubtedly, over population, resource use, and general cultural attitudes and behavior are significant causes for concern. However, the solutions Quinn offers vary between illogical and downright abhorrent.

In order to save the world from environmental catastrophe, Quinn thinks humans ought to live a more primitive life, similar to those of hunter-gatherers before the agricultural revolution. He believes this will both solve environmental issues as well as lead to humans living happier, peaceful, more free lives. This fantasy, so-called anarcho-primitivism, is rife with issues:

- Reduction of the human population from 7,000,000,000 to the much, much smaller number (500,000,000?) such a global society could support.
- Earlier hunter-gatherer societies still waged war and fought one another, often eagerly (see the Musket Wars).
- The incredible benefits of many aspects of modern society: modern medicine, division of labor, safety, comfort, intellectual freedom, etc. Quinn does touch on some of these briefly: at one point he argues humans should be more accepting of death. I'm going to bet Quinn still goes to the doctor.

Quinn cites the choice of existing primitives to continue their current course of existence as evidence that their life must be better than modern society. This is completely neglectful of the fact that many such primitive societies were as much assimilated as conquered.

The book is also overflowing with misconceptions and logical fallacies. It repeatedly uses straw men and false dichotomies in it's arguments. Some claims, such as the Law of Limited Competition, are downright factually incorrect (counter examples: primates, dolphins, some microorganisms). Animals don't choose not to wage war - they just haven't figured out how.

The one upside of this book is that it does get people thinking about things that are incredibly important. Things are out of balance. People are doing terrible things to the environment. Many people are forced to work far too much for far too little. These things need to be fixed - just not Quinn's way.
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