Saturday 21 November 2015

Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn

This book was published in 1992 and has been sitting in my reading pile for many years, but when I accidentally knocked it out of that pile I decided that in recompense I might as well read it.

The plot of Ishmael is certainly original. The story is told by a narrator who has long sought a teacher and guide, who might allow him to make sense of his life. Answering an advert appealing for pupils, he discovers on his arrival that the teacher is a very intelligent, well-educated, philosophically inclined, telepathic gorilla called Ishmael (wait, don't stop reading yet!). Ishmael takes the narrator on a philosophical journey of discovery, challenging his assumptions and beliefs, forcing him to think afresh about the relationship of humanity with the rest of the world.

The primary theme of the gorilla's teaching is that mankind went badly wrong in changing its culture when transitioning from primitive hunter-gatherers to an organised, farming-based society. Instead of living in harmony with nature in a sustainable fashion, our urbanising ancestors took the view that the world and everything in it was provided for humanity and could be used or destroyed accordingly. Population was allowed to grow unchecked, leading to more extensive (or intensive) farming, but every increase in food production resulted in a further increase in population, creating an upward spiral that still continues. Meanwhile, plants and animals that are not directly useful to mankind are increasingly pushed to extinction.

It isn't possible to do justice to such a book in a couple of paragraphs; the author extensively mines the Bible and the archaeological record to provide examples to support his viewpoint about human culture. In effect, Ishmael is a vehicle for delivering a polemic about where humanity has gone wrong and the dire consequences which have resulted – with the worst yet to come. I would have appreciated it better had the message being preached been challenged more effectively by the narrator; he spends most of the time saying "yes", "true" or "I agree".

The book apparently made quite an impact when first published and two sequels followed: The Story of B and My Ishmael. I found Ishmael to be a sufficiently intriguing oddity to persuade me to finish it, but I think I'll give the others a miss.

Coincidentally, after finishing Ishmael I picked up issue No. 3045 of New Scientist magazine, which included an article (Quiet revolutions by Bob Holmes) summarising recent archaeological discoveries that have shone a new light on the transition to farming. The author argues that the transition was far less of a revolution than is usually believed, in that many "primitive" cultures, including some that existed well into the last century (e.g. in Borneo), combined small-scale crop growing with keeping a few domestic animals plus hunting and gathering. Furthermore, cultures practising such "proto-farming" had lived like this for millennia without urbanising, damaging their environment or experiencing population growth. Large-scale farming, including the selective breeding of plants and animals, came after centuries or millennia of proto-farming. Exactly why a few cultures made this change, which subsequently swept the world, still seems to be unclear.

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