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

Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
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May 26, 07

bookshelves: contemporary-fiction, novel, reviewed, america
Read in January, 2000

Are you the sort of person who hears other people discussing books and finding yourself wondering how they can even form opinions on stories? I mean, either you like it or you don't, right?

Well, if that's you, then read this book, The Giver, and Siddhartha (if that sounds like too much, substitute Jonathan Livingston Seagull for the latter). Once you've done that, you'll feel all sorts of strange emotions and ideas swirling around inside you and you, too, will be able to talk about how a book made you think.

Then, you should watch Donnie Darko (which will become your favorite movie), and you can talk about how movies made you think, too. Soon, you'll be readin' and thinkin' and talkin' up a storm. It's just like a dog who eats grass so he can understand horses.

This book may seem impressive if you don't have much experience with philosophy, history, sociology, or theology, but the ideas in this book are about as complex as what you'd find in a college freshman's paper. And Quinn has an agenda: he wants to convince you, so all of his ideas are simplified and mixed up to support his conclusions. Whether he did this deliberately to convince the reader, or accidentally in the process of trying to convince himself isn't really important. Which one is really worse?

For example, in his retelling of the Cain and Abel story, he completely conflates Hunter Gatherer societies with Pastoral Nomads, which makes his entire argument murky. It's just another example of the 'Noble Savage in balance with nature' thing, which is terribly naive. Native cultures often transformed the land around them and drove animals to extinction, as evidenced by the way mammoths were hunted until none remained.

One archaeological team on the West Coast of America discovered that the local tribe had been systematically killing and eating all the animals in the area. Looking through the piles of discarded bones, they'd find the tribe hunted and ate one animal until there were none left, then moved on to a different animal. Eventually, the diseases brought by Europeans reached them and their population was greatly reduced, and then the animals began to flourish again.

The whole notion that humans used to be 'in balance' but no longer are is a fuzzy dream, and not useful for anyone trying to look at the world and the problems we face. Humans are not the first animals to cause extinction, we're not even the first to cause mass extinction across the world. It is a gross oversimplification, like all of the arguments in this book.

Should people be nice to each other? Yes. Should we destroy the things that keep us alive? No. We all know that. We don't need Quinn to tell us. And we all know that solving problems is harder than saying that things could be better. I just went as deep as this book goes, and I didn't even need to give you lectures from a magical talking monkey.
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Comments (showing 1-50 of 54) (54 new)


Casey I loved Ismael, I loved the Giver and when I saw Donnie Darko it became one of my favorite movies. Your review made me laugh but don't be such a hater.


Keely I liked Ishmael a lot when I first read it, but I eventually realized that it was just a washed-down version of modern philosophy. In a sense, anyone coming to maturity in the time the book was printed was bound to find that it matched their own thought processes.

Unfortunately, it doesn't suggest new ideas or thoughts. My review was supposed to underline what I felt when I first read this, that I was discovering that I had my own philosophies that I'd never really looked at before. However, I also mean the review as a warning not to simply read books that agree with you.

Part of the success of New Age philosophies comes from the fact that, in a consumer culture, that which says the least is often the most popular. People like self-confirmation, but they should be careful whether it is meaningful or simply a condescending pat on the head.


message 3: by Dave (last edited Nov 28, 2007 04:05PM) (new)

Dave I save hate for humans, not books...but there's more to it


Keely People aren't worth hatred. Indeed, I'm not certain anything is worth harboring that little pit of negativity in an otherwise unfettered mind.

Beyond that, I don't think one can both hate and think at the same time, which means we cannot hate things within reason. I may find something lacking or even insulting (like this book), but to imagine that it somehow represents some opposing force is to create a false and self-centered view of the world which does more to blind than aid.

Of course, it is just as blinding to create the opposite fairy tale of your life: where you ally yourself with the work and believe it could somehow represent you. We are all too strange and marvelous to be encapsulated by even the greatest of books or ideas.

Love or hate may equal blind the man who fancies himself their master.


Casey I feel quite out of my element....What ever happened to reading a book for the shear enjoyment? Does every book discussion have to be a battle of intelectual theories and large vocabulary?


Keely Interesting you bring that up, as it was one of the main points of the original review.

If you like or dislike a book, there must be some reason for it. We all form our opinions over time based on our experience, and I think it is more honest to try to understand your reasons for those opinions than to simply think you are correct.

If you can't say why you reacted to a book in a certain way, doesn't that indicate that there are parts of your mind which you are unaware of but which still govern your behavior? That idea seems a bit frightening to me. Anyone who freely acts on ideas which they do not understand is bound to hurt themselves or someone else.

Of course, none of us can truly understand all of ourselves: there is always more to learn. I won't claim to know myself or to be accurate in my opinions, but it is enough for me that I am trying to.


message 7: by Simeon (last edited Nov 15, 2010 07:49PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Simeon Dunning Kruger effect , you have it.


Keely Thanks for the diagnosis, Dr. Lolcat.

It looks like you've abandoned one kind of unfocused shotgun attack for another one. You know, I'd given up on you, but it looks like just when you think a guy has nothing useful to say, he comes along and proves you right.

I love the unselfconscious confidence with which you condemn; if only you could learn to be that ironic deliberately.


message 9: by Jesus (last edited Jun 12, 2012 01:43PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jesus Keely, you're suffering the Dunning Kruger effect , and that sucks, but there's no need to get mad about it.

Stupidity is nothing to be ashamed of dude. It's your glowing characteristic. To even call you contemptible could be counted an insult only after a debate of whether or not someone neither rational nor intelligent, nor by any other standard of intellectual virtue possessed of a single human quality beyond emotion, is in fact contemptible.

And you are. Right?


message 10: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely But I must be contemptible, as Caesar often was to the Gauls, for I continually come under attack from those lacking the wherewithal to engage the fight. My rationality and intelligence sit comfortably in my general's tent, high on a hill, while mud is flung at my skirmishers.

my rhetoric still waits from the flank for any massed sign of opposition. Their horses graze as they oil their weapons against the rust of long, lamentable disuse.

The mass of my knowledge, the rank and file, has not seen hide nor hair of the enemy, and none has been forced to cower beneath the shadow of a cast spear. Their points are sheathed, unrefuted.

But doubtless there will be those who continue casting stones from the brush with all the contempt they can muster, naively imagining it amounts to more than the lowest and least effective sort of attack.


message 11: by Jesus (last edited Nov 16, 2010 09:23PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jesus Trolling with mixed metaphors to induce nausea. Hats off.


message 12: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Just a single extended metaphor, actually.


message 13: by Jesus (last edited Nov 18, 2010 12:21PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jesus Keely wrote: "Just a single extended metaphor, actually."

You don't even know what that means, do you?


message 14: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Too opaque?

It means that the symbolic language is drawn from a single source, and that as the metaphorical relationship is extended, the new elements of the symbolic structure parallel different aspects of the idea illustrated.

A mixed metaphor would require two (or more) different symbolic structures to be laid on top of the central idea such that they conflict with one another, causing the symbolic meaning to break down.

In this case, the symbolic layer is an army (and its summary parts) engaged in conflict while the literal layer is the mind and its various rhetorical faculties as engaged in the practice of discourse.


message 15: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Thanks for the comment, it's been a while. Arrival at mutual understanding can indeed be daunting. Even if both participants share a love of discourse, overcoming the barriers of definition and data can prove frustrating.

Arguments can be enjoyable when they open avenues of self-reflection or provide new observations and data, but are less so when they stall and begin to circle. Even so, it can be fruitful to participate in them, even if only as a personal challenge. Every attempt to elucidate and expand upon an idea helps to deepen the understanding of that idea.

As for my 'indisputable challenges', to some degree all of our thoughts, ideas, experiences, and data are only as strong as the challenge they can withstand. I've held plenty of ideas which have later been overturned, and I can only hope this progression continues.

But even if I did not engage actively in discourse, the things I have learned would still be waiting in the wings, should I ever need them. The whole scientific process of hypothesis, experiment, and proof has conflict and challenge in its nature, though happily, it does not have to be zero-sum.


message 16: by Brad (new) - rated it 1 star

Brad Kirk I usually disagree with Keeley, but not on this book. Quinn's argument is based on faulty premises, his observations are obvious, and he provides no real solutions. The student, ie readers of the book, is presented as an imbecile that can barely function while Ishmael, ie Quinn, blows his simpleton mind with ancient "wisdom". Highly overrated.


message 17: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Wow, I'd never noticed before, but it's true: we really do seem to operate on a diametric opposition when it comes to books. But at least we can come together and agree that this one is full of pretension and overstatement. Sometimes the easiest way to bring two people together is to reveal their mutual disdain for some third thing.

Thanks for the comment.


message 18: by sara (new) - added it

sara breckenridge This review lost all its weight with the last word. Gorillas are not monkeys.


message 19: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely I'm using a diminutive form of synecdoche--more precisely, the subset 'a specific class name used to refer to a general set of associated things', in the same way that a person might mockingly refer to a human being as 'a monkey'.


message 20: by Darryl (new) - added it

Darryl I'm laughing my ass off at all of this. Arguing on here is almost as pointless as arguing on Facebook. The whole "Your opinion matters only if it agrees with mine" is all you will find these days. Wikipedia has made everyone an expert at everything...


message 21: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely "Wikipedia has made everyone an expert at everything..."

How I wish that were true. I don't mind discussing rehashed arguments--at least they are still arguments.


message 22: by Jimineenz (new)

Jimineenz interesting review - but i think maybe you miss the fact that quinn points to the birth of totalitarian agriculture as the real problem for our species. The whole question as to whether people were consciously aware of their need to respect nature is irrelevant (or whether they in fact did) - if it wasn't for the agricultural revolution the population of the human species wouldn't have grown to a point where it was as dangerous to the whole ecological processes
of the world. Even if they killed a certain species until it was extinct, as hunter gatherers they would ultimately starve because of thier greed and their
population would decrease accordingly - unless they
moved somewhere else. If they were surrounded by competitive tribes this may not be an option - in which case they would starve or have to fight. If they did move the environment would rejuvinate
(even if it was minus a couple of species). As it would if thier population dwindled. I suggest that it would be possible for such people to learn from such mistakes too - if a history was passed down through surviving generations. I'm not sure - but as farmers they would not eventually stop destroying thier environment. they would keep on killing and increasing their population - regardless
of thier respect of nature and its laws.So i think you are focusing on the wrong idea - and i don't think your understanding of the book was neccessarily Quinn's. Just a different idea to consider - i'm not sure if it is right. i haven't read the books for a long time now.


message 23: by John (new) - rated it 1 star

John C Quinn mentions how human beings turn to prophets. Who's the prophet? Quinn is. Quinn is a false prophet.


message 24: by John (new) - rated it 1 star

John C And if you were to believe what he said, books suck. Books are a product of taker culture. After all, those noble hunter gatherers didn't need to read.


Shaun In truth, the division between takers is not as clear as it is in this book, but it seems to me it's only for the sake of simplicity of explanation. It really doesn't negate any of the concepts he presents. It just complicates them. This book isn't an in-depth exploration cultures, just an overview in order to illustrate our misperceptions.


Victor Lopez Completely agree with this review. Just letting you know since you got a lot of negative comments.


message 27: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Thanks for the comment, glad you liked it.


Annette I did a search, just for the heck of it and there is so many discussions about this book...but you summed up all those discussions well :)


message 29: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Well then, I'm glad to be of help. Thanks for the kind comment.


message 30: by Kelly (new) - rated it 1 star

Kelly Yes! I thought I was the only one! Thank you. :)


message 31: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely No problem.


message 32: by Kostas (new)

Kostas Hi Keely, although I do not agree with some of your reviews (GoT :/ - lol), I enjoy reading your critiques. You have put a great deal of effort into conveying detailed expressions of your feelings towards the books you read. Not many other people do this the way you do.

What I would like from you if it's possible, is a response to the comment from Jimineenz (a few above). I have not read the book but have been told a great deal about it, and Jimineenz does point out what a friend of mine has also done, which is how the author alludes to the idea that the emergence of agriculture has helped bring us the issues of over-consumption and sustainability we face today...Again, can you respond to this, and illustrate to us how the author was not able to effectively give you this point. You rated it 1 star so I am very curious...

(The comment I was referring to)
Jimineenz wrote: "interesting review - but i think maybe you miss the fact that quinn points to the birth of totalitarian agriculture as the real problem for our species. The whole question as to whether people were..."

Thanks,

P.S.
you argue well sir


message 33: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Hey, I'm glad you feel you get something out of my reviews--always good to hear.

"What I would like from you if it's possible, is a response to the comment from Jimineenz (a few above)"

Sure, I can do that.

Jimineenz said: "if it wasn't for the agricultural revolution the population of the human species wouldn't have grown to a point where it was as dangerous to the whole ecological processes of the world. Even if they killed a certain species until it was extinct, as hunter gatherers they would ultimately starve because of thier greed and their population would decrease accordingly . . . the environment would rejuvinate(even if it was minus a couple of species). . . but as farmers they would not eventually stop destroying thier environment. they would keep on killing and increasing their population"

I don't see a drastic difference between hunter gatherers and farmers on this point: both were changing the environment and driving certain species to extinction, and both would then have to suffer the consequences of population decrease or relocation. Then, those species that are left will take over.

Human beings aren't destroying the world, or the ecosystem--we aren't that powerful--we are merely changing it. We have to remember that there is no 'proper' state for the world to be in, it is always in flux, and any changes we make to it are a part of that flux.

Even if we change the atmosphere and the temperature, even if we destroy the forests, that is not the destruction of the Earth, it is just a massive ecological change: some species would still flourish and the world would continue to support life, even if it was life of a different kind. Even if we irradiated the world, some species would still thrive under those conditions. The world has gone through many drastic environmental changes in its history, and some new form of life always takes over.

Humans are also not the first creatures to contribute to mass extinction by changing the environment across the entire globe--a similar process happen with algae many millions of years ago. The changes we're making now will likely have drastic effects on our own populations, since we are dependent on a certain range of factors in terms of temperature, weather, soil, and atmosphere, but the main difference between us and hunter-gatherers is in terms of scale: they were still drastically altering their environments and driving species to extinction--indeed, much of the Sahara and Middle East was forest before the soil was destabilized by early man due to deforestation.

So, agriculture is not just a process that destroys species diversity, rather it is a set of conditions that suppresses some species, while supporting others, and even develops new ones. Looked at from the stance of evolutionary biology, cattle, corn, canines, cats, soy, cockroaches, rats, and many other species benefit and proliferate under the environmental conditions which have come about under agriculture.

Also remember that agriculture is not just man, but rather a symbiotic biological relationship between man and other species--some deliberate, like food animals, some incidental, like the rats in our grain silos. Remember that, from an evolutionary perspective, our mowing of grass is not destructive to the grass, because it prevents taller plants from competing with the grass, which means that the grass benefits from our interaction.

All plant and animal species behave in this way, contributing and competing with one another, and they also do what they can to promote mutually-beneficial symbiotic relationships. Some plants will even release scent chemicals into the air when they are being predated upon which then attract larger insect predators who eat the insects consuming the plant. Human behaviors and interactions are not somehow outside of the biological and evolutionary process, they are part-and-parcel of the environment.

The real question we should be asking ourselves is not about 'destroying the Earth' or 'destroying the environment', since we're simply not powerful enough to actually do either of those things, but of self-sustainment, which is a very different question.


message 34: by Irisse (new)

Irisse Le roux The difference between us and algae though is...ready, ready? That we know what we are doing is killing off species. And have the intelligence to take steps not to do so.


message 35: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Certainly true, but my question is should we? What is the moral imperative here? 99% of the species that have ever lived on this planet are now extinct, and humans are responsible only for a small portion of that. One of the reasons that there is a great deal of extinction now is because there are more species now than there were in many points of prehistory, because there is greater geographic isolation.

Human beings are changing their environment through their actions, and these changes are beneficial to some species and destructive to others. This is no different from the pattern which has reigned over the Earth since time immemorial, when other animals (like algae) did the same thing.

Now, what we're really saying when we talk about 'taking steps' and changing this pattern is exerting control over the world. Species have always diversified and gone through extinction events, so the natural state for the world is not stasis, but flux.

If human beings choose to artificially create biological stasis, it will not be because it is the 'natural thing to do', it will be because of our desire to control, our desire to make the world in a certain image that pleases us: to save charismatic megafauna and obliterate disease-causing bacteria, despite the fact that both represent unique species. Saving animals is no less an artificial meddling than killing them in the first place.

Now, I'm not advocating killing them, but I don't think the moral argument is that we have to preserve species that are going extinct due to the sort of environmental changes that have always caused extinction. If we preserve them, it is only to sate our own need for control and familiarity--to try to 'keep the world as it is', despite the fact that the world has always been a changing place, a place full of extinction events much more sweeping than anything man has done.


Kevin It seems as though in arguing that Quinn's ideas are "simplified and mixed up" you (like several others it seems) have actually overly simplified and mixed up his ideas. Quinn actually DID go to great lengths to distinguish between pastoral, agricultrual and hunter-gatherer socities.

Also, in your statement you said that "99% of the species that have ever lived on this planet are now extinct, and humans are responsible only for a small portion of that", but that "factoid" is itself nonsensical (although it is often used to dismiss humanity's role in environmental degredation) because the majority of the "99% of the species that have EVER lived on this planet" existed BEFORE humans. It doesn't make logical sense to compare the extinction of the dinosaurs to the modern day, human-caused, near-extinction of an animal like the javan rhinoceros (or even the species driven to extinction by early humans).

But even putting that (and your other misinterpretations) aside, you have badly misconstrued Quinn's fundamental arguement which was NOT about saving animals, but about saving humanity. (And not just by being "nice" to each other.) The message from the book was that the first step in that process, was to see the problem for what it is, to understand the "prison" we have put ourselves in.

You say of Quinn's ideas, "we all know that", but the problem is that, we actually do not ALL know that. Many people seem to be content with the status quo of the consuming the world for our advancement and growth. Government policies, commercial industries and much of human culture has been built around this concept for thousands of years. People actually DO NOT know that things can be better, they think that what we have now is the best thing there is, and that the way things are now is the way things have always been. You might be so enlightened that you already understood the myth of our culture, but the majority of people are not. And that is the whole point of this book.

I guess it is really simple in a way, but somehow you still seem to have missed the point.


message 37: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Kevin said: "Quinn actually DID go to great lengths to distinguish between pastoral, agricultrual and hunter-gatherer socities."

Thanks for the bland, unsupported claim. I'll be sure to give that all the consideration it deserves.

"that "factoid" is itself nonsensical (although it is often used to dismiss humanity's role in environmental degredation) because the majority of the "99% of the species that have EVER lived on this planet" existed BEFORE humans."

I think that is precisely what makes that factoid pertinent: that extinction has been a constant, natural process throughout the history of the Earth, that the environment is always changing, and whenever is does, old species die out and new ones come to prominence. Some of these changes in environment have even come about due to prehistoric animals, such as the massive changes to the atmosphere throughout our world's history.

As such, looking at humans as somehow 'unique' is a folly. That we cause extinctions and change the environment is nothing new--it's what animals have always done. If we change things enough and wipe out ourselves and larger animals, new creatures will take over and life will go on. As such, yes, the argument is about humans, and not about the world.

"we actually do not ALL know that. Many people seem to be content with the status quo of the consuming the world for our advancement and growth."

Yes, many people do seem to be content with that, and it often isn't because they are ignorant of the fact that we're filling up landfills and deforesting the rainforest--they do it despite the fact that they are perfectly well aware of those facts.

"You might be so enlightened that you already understood the myth of our culture, but the majority of people are not."

Yeah, but all Quinn did was take one myth and replace it with another: the myth of 'primitive man in balance with nature', which has never actually existed. Man, like all animals, has always expanded and consumed to his limits, and there is no such thing as 'natural balance'--nature is constantly changing and any momentary balance is consequently always being thrown out of whack.

If we do decide to save certain species from extinction, that's just as unnatural as driving them to extinction in the first place: both of them are us controlling the course of nature and choosing how we want it to look. Trying to maintain a false sense of stasis is even more unnatural, from the perspective of the history of the world, than causing constant change.


Kevin Keely wrote: "Kevin said: "Quinn actually DID go to great lengths to distinguish between pastoral, agricultrual and hunter-gatherer socities."

Thanks for the bland, unsupported claim. I'll be sure to give that all the consideration it deserves."


If you want support for that claim, perhaps you should re-read the book...slowly.

The "natural" balance isn't a myth. If you look at human population growth prior to about 10,000 years ago (to our best estimates), the line is relatively flat. It was only "recently" in human history (I mean recently in our 100,000+ year history as a species) that our population began to explode exponentially. Heck, even if you look at certain "primitive" populations today in certain remote areas, you see that their populations have stayed more or less steady.

However humans may have lived in the past, there was always a natural ebb and flow as with other species on the plant. Even if SOME humans hunted SOME animals to extinction, it wasn't a problem. The problem now is that essentially ALL humans (more and more) are "hunting" essentially ALL animals to extinction. This is not just more of the same thing. What is happening now is not a part of the "constant, natural process" that has happened "throughout history." We've broken the cycle of how things worked in the past. What we're doing now is not like it was then. If you don't believe that, just watch the news.

For example, just about a week or so ago, there was a story about 25,000 bees that were found dead in an Oregon parking lot. Don't get me wrong, I could care less about dead bees. The problem however is that the bee population worldwide is decreasing. I'm sure you're probably already aware of what that means, but in case you're not, they say that if the bee population declines significantly, that in turns dramatically reduces our ability to produce food (since they pollinate the plants), which is something I think everyone understands would be a bit of a problem (to put it mildly).

Additionally, they think that pesticides may have been the cause of death of the bees in Oregon. Now just think about that for a moment: If pesticides killed those bees, they died of something that wasn't even possible until relatively "recently" in human history. We may have hunted animals to extinction before, but then we actually had to HUNT them down. Now we can spray them out of existence (and we may be doing just that).

This is something on a whole new level. And that's just one story. There's also submarine sonar (and bomb tests) killing sea mammals, city lights disorienting flocks of birds, oh and mercury (and other pollutants) in the water killing...well...everything. This is all a part of a new trend in the history of this planet. Again, this wasn't even possible for us to do before, so it CANNOT be said that this is a part of the "constant, natural process" that has happened "throughout history".

People may have a sense that we ARE doing damage, but I really don't think most people are aware of the degree to which that damage is being done. You keep saying that whatever we do is a part of the "natural process", but again, we're doing things to the Earth that were never possible for a single species to do before in the history of the planet.

The thing that people are most not aware of is that there are other ways to live, other ways to survive and other ways to thrive - there are ways to live without destroying the Earth. The proof for this is in the fact that we did it before. That is why Quinn brought up the lifestyles of primitive humans, not as our ideal for the present, but as an example an alternative way of living, of what has been done. The goal is not for us to go back, but to allow ourselves and our societies to continue to evolve into something better.

Sure, humanity in its current form will probably end at some point, but the question then becomes, what sort of ending will we have? Will we flame out in a hundred years and leave behind a toxic wasteland taking most of the life on the planet with us? Or, will we be around another few hundred thousand years and have the chance to evolve and be incorporated into new species and/or serve as the forefathers for new classes of sentient life? That is what it means to "save" humanity, and that is what it means to "save" the world.


message 39: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely "It was only "recently" in human history (I mean recently in our 100,000+ year history as a species) that our population began to explode exponentially."

Actually, it's not really exponential--indeed, the growth rate seems to be stabilizing to some degree right now, since you do get a huge growth increase due to medicine and industrialization, but after that initial increase, the birth rate tends to drop and compensate, so that many countries that are already industrialized already have a fairly stable or even a falling growth rate.

Of course, if India and China manage to industrialize, they're both going to see growth spikes before the birth rate starts to change. However, just because there was a recent incident (the industrial revolution) that caused a huge spike in growth does not mean this trend will necessarily continue. In order for that to happen, we would have to continue to experience worldwide changes as drastic as the industrial revolution was to fuel future growth.

Kevin said: "Even if SOME humans hunted SOME animals to extinction, it wasn't a problem. The problem now is that essentially ALL humans (more and more) are "hunting" essentially ALL animals to extinction."

Not even remotely true. We are sending to extinction some certain classes of animals, it's true--usually those highly specialized to a specific lifestyle--but there are other species, like domestic cattle or grasses whose numbers grow right along with humans. We're just changing the ecosystem to support certain types of life over others, as has always happened through history.

"If pesticides killed those bees, they died of something that wasn't even possible until relatively "recently" in human history."

There are many natural pesticides produced by plants and animals--indeed, many of the ones we used are taken from them, and it is certainly possible for them to proliferate on a grand scale if the creatures that create them are also proliferating.

Additionally, there is also evidence that colony collapse is being caused by a combination of fungal growth and diseases that target bees--something mankind has nothing to do with, but which is still capable of causing massive changes to the environment and widespread animal die offs.

"if the bee population declines significantly, that in turns dramatically reduces our ability to produce food"

No, it wouldn't. The vast number of staple crops that we live on are wind pollinated, so our ability to produce food on large scales would not be affected. If anything, it's going to raise the price of specialty items, like fruits--and of course, the Japanese have been hand-pollinating their fruits for quite some time now.

I'm not arguing that it would suck to lose much of the bee population, because certainly it would, but it doesn't seem to be a case that supports your position.

"If you don't believe that, just watch the news."

Oh man, you're killing me here. News is anti-information, you aren't going to learn much about history, biology, or statistics looking at that crap.

"This is all a part of a new trend in the history of this planet. Again, this wasn't even possible for us to do before, so it CANNOT be said that this is a part of the "constant, natural process" that has happened "throughout history"."

Again, animals besides humans are capable of causing massive changes to the environment around them and driving other species to extinction en masse, such as in cases of red tide. All animals modify their environment and create competition. Humans are no different. And whenever the environment changes, it will harm some species and benefit others.

We are not 'driving all species to extinction', we are making life better for some species, and worse for others. That's how life on earth has always worked, and it's why 99.9% of species that ever lived are gone now. Extinction and change is the rule, not the exception.

"there are ways to live without destroying the Earth"

Stop saying that. We aren't destroying the Earth. If we drive all larger vertebrates to extinction through changes in the environment, including ourselves, that isn't 'destroying the earth'. It also isn't 'destroying life'. Some forms of life will thrive under the new conditions and they will repopulate the parts of the world left empty by the extinction of other species.

"That is what it means to "save" humanity, and that is what it means to "save" the world."

that has nothing to do with saving the world, all you're suggesting is that humans exert more control over their environment in order to produce stasis instead of change. Stasis is the more unnatural state for the world, which means that all we do by producing stasis is increase human control over the environment. We aren't saving it, we're still remarking it in an image that pleases us. It's just as anthropocentric as the current agricultural process.


Kevin Ummm...yes, the growth rate was exponential, unless you prefer the term "logarithmic" which may be more mathematically accurate, but either way, if you look at the population growth curve over the past 10,000 years, it shoots up sharply at the end. You can see that on just about any chart or graph on population growth. Any stabilization we see at the moment is almost insignificant by comparison.

But the point of bringing up population was to address the idea of balance. Throughout history, most populations increase and decrease according to the availability of the food supply. Humans broke that pattern some time ago when we gained more control over our food supply through agriculture, and even more so through industrialization. If only some humans lived this way, it wouldn’t be a problem, but for ALL (or even most) humans to live this way is unsustainable.

Again, the manner in which we are changing the ecosystem is unprecedented throughout the whole of history. I’m honestly not sure how you can make that argument that what we’re doing is just more of the same. Did you know that due to nuclear tests we’ve conducted over the years, that we can use the radioactivity we’ve introduced across the globe to estimate the age of certain materials? Have you ever heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? These are things that have not existed before, so how can any of this be a part of what “has always happened through history”?

That we increase the population of certain animals for food is actually a part of the problem and has NEVER been done in history on the scale at which we are doing it now. What other species domesticate other animals for food? I’ve heard of ants creating “farms” (and dolphins do something with sponges) but that’s about as close as I’ve heard other animals coming to what humans do. Certainly I’ve never heard of other animals (or even early humans) doing any form of agriculture or domestication on the scale at which we are doing it now. Again, the problem is not simply what we do, but the degree to which we are doing it.

Regarding pesticides: What happens in nature (apart from humans) and what we do is not the same thing. Many people make the same type of argument regarding CO2 emissions saying that there is vastly more CO2 released from “nature” than from any of our cities. The problem with that argument however, is that most of that CO2 created by nature is also absorbed by nature. When human action is introduced, we create a different dynamic. It’s like someone going down a hill in a sled and stopping just before the edge of a cliff. If at any point you give that person a push, it’s a good chance they’ll go over the cliff, even though your contribution was a fraction of gravity’s.

Actually, the bulk of pollination of most crops (not plants in general) is done by wild insects, about a third of which are bees (in some areas). And part of the reason for hand pollinating in places like southeast Asia, is because of the decline of the bee population. Also, the vulnerability of bees to funguses and disease has also been theorized to be in part due to human created pesticides which weaken their immune systems.

Unless I missed a lesson in zoology where a bunch of beavers got together and built something on the scale of The Great Wall of China, all animals DO NOT modify their environment to the degree that human beings have been doing at least since the industrial revolution.

The news may lack depth and sometimes even context, but if you want to find out about anything NEW in the world you can’t just spend your life with your nose in a book. (Which may be blasphemy to say here.)

If we drive all larger vertebrates to extinction through changes in the environment, including ourselves, IS the problem. Honestly, I don’t really understand the indifference towards the survival of one’s own species. It’s not that humans are the most important species on the planet, but I don’t think that self-preservation generally requires much justification.

If by “Earth” you mean the layers of rock and metal that make up the bulk of the planet, then you are correct, we are not destroying it. If by “Earth” you mean the domain of living organisms, specifically humans, we are destroying it in a variety of ways - think Chernobyl, BP (or Exxon Valdez), or the Canadian Tar Sands.

However, when I am talking about “the earth”, or “the world”, or “life”, I’m not talking about Earth as merely a planet in a solar system, I’m talking about the habitable region on which we depend for life; when I say “the world”, I mean the “the world of humans”; and when I say life, I’m referring to “human life” (or the sphere of life on which we depend).

This is basically what Ishmael was saying near the end of the book. The message was not simply about saving the world for insects and whales, or birds and dolphins; it was about understanding that our survival is tied to the survival of the rest of the planet and the numerous species of animals that inhabit it.

I’m not saying we should try to induce stasis, or halt change, I’m saying that rather than IMPOSE ourselves on the entire world as we have through agriculture and industrialization, we should mitigate our impact to promote the growth of ALL species rather than just those we use for food. How exactly is REDUCING our impact on the environment the same as exerting MORE control over the environment? That’s like saying you’re “exerting control” over someone by choosing NOT to murder them.

Again, what humans have been doing at least since the industrial revolution (or even since the spread of agriculture) could NOT be considered to be equivalent or similar to anything any other species has ever done in the whole of history. Unless you want to argue that something like the ability to introduce fish genes into tomatoes is something that has happened “throughout history”, you have to acknowledge that we are entering new territory as a species and in our relationship with the environment.


message 41: by Wilcott (last edited Jul 08, 2013 07:28AM) (new)

Wilcott Kevin wrote: "I’m saying that rather than IMPOSE ourselves on the entire world as we have through agriculture and industrialization, we should mitigate our impact to promote the growth of ALL species rather than just those we use for food..."

When a species suppresses it's own dominance to make it easier for all the other organisms to compete with it, I would suggest checking the mental health of that species:

The Homo sapien, like most organisms, builds a habitat and any organism that is a source of food or helps it to find food is allowed to flourish within its habitat--habitat being its villages, towns, cities, and a lot earlier, its caves. Organisms that can compete with the human within its habitat are suppressed, and if they are a threat they are driven out.

To create a habitat, the environment must be altered to suit the organism's needs. This alteration will effect all other organisms within range and those that cannot manage this change will face extinction. As the organisms population grows its habitat will have to get larger to sustain the needs of its numbers, and if this is done, it will force even more organisms to adapt to this alteration of the environment or face extinction.

Sooner or later our habitat will become the environment for a multitude of organisms, which has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen as long as we continue to alter more of the environment to suit our needs--there is little evidence that suggests that we should allow all organisms to flourish along with us, especially those that we can find an alternative for through machines.

What is happening now is that our habitats cannot support all that we want to consume, furthermore, what we have built within our habitats are showing a number of negatives to our survival, that's all. It's about us, the other organism must adapt or decompose.


message 42: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Kevin said: "Did you know that due to nuclear tests we’ve conducted over the years, that we can use the radioactivity we’ve introduced across the globe to estimate the age of certain materials? Have you ever heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? These are things that have not existed before, so how can any of this be a part of what “has always happened through history”?"

Because filling their environment with byproducts of their lifecycle is what all animals do, and humans are no different. Already, we've discovered in the garbage patch in the Sargasso bacteria that have evolved to consume plastics. We aren't 'killing the ocean', we are contributing to a changing ocean environment.

Enriched soil is just the waste products and decomposition of plants. Yet, though the evolutionary progress of history, plants and animals have come to thrive on those very waste products. A byproduct is only 'waste' until life finds a way to take advantage of it.

We have even found life which is capable of growing in the hearts of Nuclear Stations, sustaining itself on the radiation.

"If by “Earth” you mean the domain of living organisms, specifically humans, we are destroying it in a variety of ways - think Chernobyl, BP (or Exxon Valdez), or the Canadian Tar Sands."

I'm talking about both the rock and the continual chemical reaction we call 'life'. If we drive large vertebrates extinct, other forms of life will continue. Life does not care if it is represented by humans or cockroaches, it continues adapting to whatever environment is around it. In that sense, we are not destroying the Earth either in the sense of physically destroying the rock of which it is made nor in the sense of destroying life.

"How exactly is REDUCING our impact on the environment the same as exerting MORE control over the environment? That’s like saying you’re “exerting control” over someone by choosing NOT to murder them."

It's more like choosing to stab someone, then taking them and bringing them to a hospital, sewing them up, giving them drugs, and then keeping them safe from other people stabbing them.

In order to save things like Pandas, we are exerting control over the environment, we're forcefully keeping and breeding them, giving them medicine and aid. We ship them around the world so other humans can see them and learn to care about them.

It's not actually about 'leaving them alone', because on their own, a lot of endangered species would die, with or without man, due to changes in the environment and competition from other animals. This is about making the world into a shape that pleases man. As you remark:

"I don’t think that self-preservation generally requires much justification."

"when I say “the world”, I mean the “the world of humans”; and when I say life, I’m referring to “human life”"

This is about humans controlling the world in a way that suits them--and the justifications you give are the same ones given by oil barons and agrictulturalists: 'self preservation doesn't take much justification', 'life means human life'.

Now that's fine, if that's the way you want it. I'm not campaigning that humanity should be destroyed or anything. What I am saying is that it's disingenuous to paint it in terms of 'balance' and 'natural vs. unnatural' when it's the exact opposite: control and artificial self-promotion.

One of the hardest things to do as a reader is to say "I agree with the author's conclusions, but not with the arguments he uses to reach them". We tend to ally ourselves with people that share our opinions, whether they hold them for good reason, or just out of prejudice.

This can be extremely harmful to a movement, as it means inviting in people who are only going along for personal or biased reasons, and who are only going to end up muddling the issue. That's how I feel about Quinn. As I say in my conclusion, we shouldn't destroy what keeps us alive, but I didn't find Quinn's arguments or ideas to be useful in understanding why--indeed, he seemed to oversimplify and conflate in order to reach his points.

The reason this upsets me is because it makes the people who read it less informed about the biological and economic concerns in the world. It paints a pretty picture and aims for emotional involvement without actually informing its audience. This causes the environmental movement to swell with ignorant people who cannot even explain why they are following the cause.

So, while I might agree with some of Quinn's conclusions, I do not agree with his arguments, methods, or evidence. I do not think he did a good job of representing the case as it stands.


message 43: by Caitlyn (new)

Caitlyn excellent review! I think you just spared me a read-through of this book.


message 44: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Heh, thanks. Hope you find something else good to read.


Linda Keely wrote: "I liked Ishmael a lot when I first read it, but I eventually realized that it was just a washed-down version of modern philosophy. In a sense, anyone coming to maturity in the time the book was pri..."

He he he. I think that it agreed with some of my vague thoughts contributed to the 5 stars I gave it. A pat on the head, huh? :)


Linda Lots of people don't have much experience with philosophy, sociology, etc. depends on your circumstances, upbringing, education system, etc. this book possibly introduces a great number of people to that way of thought, and people have got to start somewhere. Interesting review to read, and funny. No need to be so condescending to the masses who are either freshmen or just beginning to be exposed to such thought, though.


Linda Jimineenz wrote: "interesting review - but i think maybe you miss the fact that quinn points to the birth of totalitarian agriculture as the real problem for our species. The whole question as to whether people were..."

Where I live it is still possible to see the effects of modern life of ancient ways of life. There are a few nomadic pastoralists who settled in an area with their animals during certain seasons and then moved off to other areas in other seasons. During that period, the environment would rejuvenate until their return. The introduction of political and administrative borders now restricts their movement and the effect on the environment is devastating. Gone are the trees, the grass doesn't last long after the rains, the rain erodes the soil terribly. It is quite a sight to see.

As people move further into the 'wild' and fence off their property the wildlife continues to diminish. Etc.

Ishmael, in a small way described what I see practically.


Steven Liaros This, Keely, is a poor book review. The first three paragraphs are not about the book but simply set up the authority of the reviewer. This allows him to then be completely dismissive of the book in the fourth paragraph, again by suggesting the reviewer is an expert in philosophy, history, sociology and theology. The following paragraphs are shallow arguments that completely miss the point of the book.

This is an excellent book that should be read, retread and carefully digested by every thinking person.

The purpose of the book is stated several times: "How did we come to be this way". This uses a principle known as backcasting. Contrasted with forecasting, which projects current circumstances into the future, backcasting seeks to improve our understanding of how we arrived here, why do we live our lives in the way that we do, how did the past shape our present? This is important because it gives us greater control over our destiny. It allows us to thoughtfully re-imagine the future rather than blindly stumbling into it as we have done for the past 10,000 years. The analysis of ancient societies is not about taking us back to that way of life but about understanding how we came to be this way.

This book has received numerous 5 star reviews because it is enlightening. It also received many aggressive and lengthy 1star reviews by people who like the way the world is today. They like what Quinn detests. Quinn asks us to imagine a future where we think of each other and the world around us as our equals and not as our property and our inferiors. The 1star reviewers love the world as it is because it allows them to lord it over others.


Deborah I love this book, AND I agree with everything you say. You are correct in your criticism of Quinn's misunderstanding (I didn't say "ignorance") of "primitive" (in the sense of "primary") peoples. At the same time, I think that there are worthy ideas to be gleaned here, among them his illustration of an unsustainable civilization that is out of accord with the laws of nature, like a flying machine that was built without an understanding of the laws of physics. It may be simplistic, but it's a useful analogy, particularly for those who perhaps have not bushwhacked as deeply into the thickets of history, philosophy, theosophy, etc., as have others. By providing what is likely to be a first encounter with some of these ideas, the book serves a useful purpose.


Deborah Um, after reading way too many of your replies to commenters here, let me backtrack on that...I certainly DON'T agree with you when you say that species have always gone extinct, so if humans cause the extinction of a species, another one will take its place and everything will be okay. Or that humans aren't powerful enough to destroy all life on earth. The latter certainly remains to be seen, and I for one wouldn't put odds on it.


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