Why is human society like this?
That's the question addressed by Daniel Quinn's "teaching" novel, Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit. He addresses it through a Socratic dialogue between an old, intelligent, lowland gorilla named, Ishmael, and his student--a burnt-out writer who left his optimism behind in the sixties. Obviously, this is a speculative fiction, but the fiction carries Quinn's thesis describing why things are the way they are, and it does so in an utterly engaging way. In the midst of all the anthropological history and Socratic questions-and-answers, Quinn never forgets that he's telling a story. Ishmael and his unnamed student gain our admiration and sympathy. Though there's not a lot of physical action, there is drama, and we care about what happens to these characters.
Even though Quinn gives us sympathetic characters to relate to, it's the intellectual journey the reader takes through Ishmael's teachings that give the book its power. That journey is a relating of human history from the standpoint of the great divide that took place around 8000 BC. What divided was a group of humans that Ishmael calls the "Takers" from the rest of humanity he calls the "Leavers." The Takers cultivated land, domesticated animals, established cities, created writing, and, in a nutshell, launched civilization. As they did so, they displaced, absorbed, and killed, the hunting-gathering groups of Leavers around them. This time is usually associated with the founding of the world's earliest cities, supported by agriculture, by the Sumerians in the Middle East (in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, also known as "Eden"). James Burke, in his television documentary series of the Seventies called Connections, depicted this time as beginning with the invention of the plow. Ishmael would probably consider that an appropriate symbol for the Takers.
But this book is not just a history lesson. Quinn's genius is in his distillation of Neolithic events to explain why, after three million years of successfully living as a part of nature, humans decided to make their way by conquering it, subduing it, and growing "without limit" at its expense. He applies the story of Cain and Abel to this turning point in a way that makes more sense of that myth than any I have ever heard (and I grew up firmly embedded in the US "Bible Belt"). Quinn also explains why this pivotal turn in human affairs is ultimately fatal.
Ishmael is an important book. I believe it is very helpful to anyone seeking to make sense of this dire time we live in. I believe his overall thesis is right-on, though I would disagree with him on a few points. For instance, I think Ishmael's timeline for the Leavers is too long, at least for homo sapiens. Three million years past would include prehumans like homo erectus and homo habilis. I'm not sure that including them supports his point of Takers not being an evolution of Leavers. I also disagree that the fall of the Soviet Union was anything to be optimistic about with regard to hope for humanity's future. I see it as just an event in the constant warfare among groups of Takers.
Still, if you're looking for answers, if you're a seeker for truth, I highly, highly recommend Ishmael. Someone looking only for a story will probably be put off by the format (Socratic dialogue) and the lack of a dominant plot. But the seeker should note the subtitle: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit. It is that. The story's plot is the one we're all living, whether we're aware of it or not.
I think most are not aware, and awareness is vital. One interesting aspect of this story is how Mr. Quinn describes Ishmael's growing intelligence as a a function of his increasing awareness since he was taken from Africa. This book will increase your awareness of life the way it really is, if you let it.
And if you let it, it will give you some keen insight into why things are the way they are. You'll have a foundation to build on. After reading Ishmael, I reread Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel and found that the two texts greatly enlightened each other. It's the kind of study and comparison that Ishmael would encourage. He believed that the answers are there in the literature, for anyone that will look.
I'm looking. I feel compelled to. If you feel the same, you'll love Ishmael.