Myths Debunked by Ishmael

Why do we humans seem unable to stop destroying the world and why do we seem unable to live in harmony with the world?

This is the most important question I’ve had in life so far and I had been looking for an answer for, ever since I was in the Twelfth standard. This is not an easy question to answer. Many pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are easy to find in observations made in our everyday life, but it’s not very obvious how they fit in together.

That’s what the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn does. It helped me consolidate my thoughts and changed my life forever. It’s the most important book I have read in my life, and I think it should be right up there among the most important books that have ever been written. I just thought I’d note down some of the common myths about humans and civilization that this book exposes.

1. Man is fundamentally flawed. The negative qualities of man like selfishness, cruelty, greed etc. outweigh the positive qualities like love, selflessness, kindness etc. And so, man cannot stop consuming the world.

This is not true. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with humans. All these qualities, constructive and destructive, are there in all of us. Given a system which fails to keep the destructive qualities under control, man will go on destroying the world, and given a system which can successfully keep them in check, man is perfectly capable of living in harmony with the world, as our tribal ancestors did for almost 190,000 years before civilization began. In short, we are captives of a civilizational system that makes us go on destroying the world.

2. Human history began only 10,000 years ago with the birth of agriculture and civilization. What happened before was insignificant and just a prelude. It was a long and uneventful chapter in the history of the human race. Man was always meant to be a civilization builder.

This is what conventional wisdom teaches us, through stories, text books, cartoons, movies, conversations, all sorts of media. We are made to believe that only after civilization began, did man fulfill his destiny, and potential and whatever preceded was just an uninteresting period when it was only a matter of time before man would discover the glory of civilization.

Evolutionary Anthropology has turned this view upside down, and the “Recently Out of Africa” theory reveals how resourceful our ancestors were in overcoming the challenges they faced in colonizing the entire planet. Not only that, by at least 40,000 years ago, people already possessed technology like the sewing needle, and sea faring vessels.

3. Tribalism was the first chapter of a story of which civilization is the second chapter.

Or in other words, tribalism is a relic of the past and has no relevance today. We are made to believe that civilization was a massive improvement over tribalism. But even today, tribal people lead very happy lives wherever they have been untouched by civilization. Ishmael says that tribalism and civilization are entirely different stories, based on contradictory premises.

4. Spread of agriculture was a revolution, much like the industrial revolution.

We are taught in history about the “Agricultural Revolution”. But there was no such thing. Around 12,000 years ago, the world was made of many tribes. Some of them followed the practice of selectively encouraging the growth of their favourite foods, and had been for centuries, but none of them practised full time agriculture.

It was then that a tribe in the Near East started practising this form of agriculture which led to huge surpluses, which made them powerful. They started expanding and this led to conflicts with other tribes. Some of them were lured by the power and seeming control over their lives afforded by this form of agriculture and joined with them, but most tribes resisted because they knew that full time agriculture meant a life of toil, and they were quite happy with their way of life.

But ultimately everyone had to either join or fight because the ones who practised agriculture were far too powerful for the hunter-gatherer tribes and they were intent on bringing every piece of land under agriculture. This is explained beautifully in Daniel Quinn’s article, The Great Forgetting . Also, this had many interesting consequences which ultimately led to the formation of classes, hierarchical societies, kingdoms, the need for legislature etc. as explained in another article, The Great Remembering.

This is quite unlike the Industrial Revolution where manual labour was systematically replaced by machines. “Agricultural revolution” was more like the Colonization of lands by the European powers during the 1500s-1700s.

5. Nature is a chaos which is not fit for man to live in and so man has to build his empire to put everything in order.

Not only is Nature a system in perfect balance with intricate feedback mechanisms, but all creatures that have evolved and survived, did so because they were very well able to live in it.

6. Man can do what he wants with nature because the laws of nature do not apply to us.

The laws of nature DO apply to us. Ultimately we are dependent on the green leaves of trees to capture sunlight and convert it into biological energy, to produce enough oxygen, for the proper functioning of the water cycle. Life, or the biosphere is an intricately woven web, and we have not even begun to understand the full extent of the interdependencies between organisms.

7. The life of primitive man was unimaginably hard and terrifying and the birth of civilization was a relief.

We are made to picturise primitive man as a savage, without any morals, always on the futile search for food, always on the run from predators. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The so called “primitive” man lived in egalitarian social groups. Man is well adapted to eat an amazingly wide range of food, and it is inconceivable that primitive man could have gone hungry. Also man is not the preferred prey for any of the predators. So the life of “primitive” man was not that bad actually. In fact, anthropologist Marshall Sahlins went so far as to call the Stone Age people the “Original Affluent Society”.

8. Nature’s law is “Survival of the fittest”. Man is proving that he is the fittest, so it is inevitable that he will rule the world.

Survival of the fittest is an over simplified way to look at nature’s laws. True, there is competition at each level, but this competition is not like the one we have in our economies and politics, where any underhanded tactics may be used to maximize one’s gains. This is not an attempt to romanticize Nature, but it’s just that that’s not the way nature works. There are some rules which are invariably followed by all creatures, without which there would be no bio-diversity on our planet. These can be summarized as:

  • Take what you need and leave the rest alone
  • You may compete to the fullest extent of your abilities but you may not hunt down your competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food

We have temporarily found a way to circumvent these rules with our technology, but anyone with common sense can understand that we cannot be absolutely independent and are ultimately dependent on the biosphere for many things that we take for granted.

9. Tribalism means living in caves, walking with leaves tied around your waist, and leading a hunter-gatherer existence.

Well, if that is what tribalism means, we can forget about it for good. Because there are too many of us today to be able to lead a hunter-gatherer existence. But there are deeper, valuable lessons to be learnt from tribalism as an egalitarian social organization that works and has been working for humans and our other ancestral species for almost three million years. Daniel Quinn defines a tribe as a group of people make a living together. He says that a “tribe” is to humans what a “school” is to fish, a “pride” is to lions, a “flock” is to geese etc. – a social organization that has been tried and tested by time, and passed down as a gift of natural selection.



11 thoughts on “Myths Debunked by Ishmael

  1. Read ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ by Jared Diamond. It’s a good book; was reminded of it by some of the things you’d mentioned.

  2. Kishore,

    I would like to read your article more carefully and critique it from my point of view. Someday, hopefully. But as a start, have you read Selfish Gene by Dawkins? Its possible that you’ve already read it and have an opinion about it, but just to make the point, Dawkins make a case “[..]if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.”

    Another point that comes to my mind is the large queues the McDonalds in Moscow had when they were opened in the Soviet Union. I mean, there was a system where vast majority of people were living austere lives, but when they got a choice, they choose a consumerist lifestyle with high carbon footprints?

    More comments – hopefully more thoughtful – later, hopefully.
    Regards,
    Arun.

    1. Arun, thank you for dropping by and leaving a comment!

      I haven’t read “Selfish Gene” but have read about it, and have discussed with friends who have. As far as I understand, according to Dawkins, it’s the genes that are “selfish” and try to propagate themselves. It’s not about selfishness as we talk about at the level of organisms.

      It’s not as if everyone should become selfless and altruistic- such a society may have little survival value- it’s about striking the right blend of selfishness and altruism, which is usually achieved in tribal societies.

      There are a lot of factors which decide choices which people make, but wherever you look, you’ll find tribal people desperately clinging on to their lifestyles despite pressures to join civilization.

      1. “[..]if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.”

        This is me quoting Dawkins. So you can judge that work from his own words. But he also say no message should be derived from his work.

        About tribal societies, not sure if they have the right blend. What I read in many books is that they had little <> and hence more <>; that is the way of the Nature, where you can be the food of another animal at any point of time. Animals are always on the run for food and for their own safety, so that is never a very altruistic lifestyle. Dawkins etc (and other people from Science background, normally)would say Humans are more <> and hence farther from the dangerous ways of Nature. About tribal people, our ancestors were also tribals once, but the present day tribals may be resisting the change because the change is too much for them and its not so easy to switch. Other arguments go like, in tribal societies, average life expectancy is less than half of <> societies, maternity is much more painful (and infant mortality way too high), too many people die of diseases and suffer much more pain, rapes will be common etc. Imagine its 48 degrees outside and you must go outside to hunt for food, and other animals would be lurking around to jump upon you. So I dont think civilization is that bad. Well it has a lot of problems, though.

      2. Damn, something prevents the stuff I put in quotes to appear as , so let me try again:

        “[..]if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.”

        This is me quoting Dawkins. So you can judge that work from his own words. But he also say no message should be derived from his work.

        About tribal societies, not sure if they have the right blend. What I read in many books is that they had little ¨culture¨ and hence more ¨wild¨; that is the way of the Nature, where you can be the food of another animal at any point of time. Animals are always on the run for food and for their own safety, so that is never a very altruistic lifestyle. Dawkins etc (and other people from Science background, normally)would say Humans are more ¨cultured¨ and hence farther from the dangerous ways of Nature. About tribal people, our ancestors were also tribals once, but the present day tribals may be resisting the change because the change is too much for them and its not so easy to switch. Other arguments go like, in tribal societies, average life expectancy is less than half of ¨civilized¨ societies, maternity is much more painful (and infant mortality way too high), too many people die of diseases and suffer much more pain, rapes will be common etc. Imagine its 48 degrees outside and you must go outside to hunt for food, and other animals would be lurking around to jump upon you. So I dont think civilization is that bad. Well it has a lot of problems, though.

  3. Kishore,

    I have not read Ishmael, but I have read a translation of ‘My Ishmael’ by Daniel Quinn. Therefore I assume that I correctly understand the issues you were raising.

    I agree with many of Quinn’s contentions, although I am not able to agree with some other aspects. First of all, “designing and engineering a system of living” is a thoroughly artificial and most importantly unstable excercise. Civilizations (for want of a proper word) are evolved entities. If you see the broader picture, world has not gone backward but only that we know about world and our own actions better. Sure, for the sake of argument we can say that “life has become unnecessarily complicated”, but how do we justify and seperate what is necessary and totally unnecessary. It also has to come through an evolutionary process.

    I join with Arun in suggesting “Selfish Gene” or Dawkin’s latest “The Greatest Show on Earth”. It gives you good picture about process of evolution and you can extrapolate it to societies too.

    Regards

    Ayyappadas

    1. Civilization is an evolving social organization. But it is quite young(10,000 years) when you look at evolutionary time periods, and it is proving to be a costly experiment as far as mankind is concerned. What Quinn says is that we have adopted civilization in place of a social setup(tribalism) that has been tested and refined by evolution for almost three million years.

      It’s not only Quinn, when you read the works of many evolutionary anthropologists you notice that the quality of life declined sharply after agriculture was adopted and cities were formed. Poverty, widespread diseases, gender inequality, overpopulation, depression and mental illness are all products of civilization and cannot be found in tribal societies.

      It’s as if we dug ourselves into a huge pit when civilization was first adopted widely and then we’ve been struggling to get out of it ever since, and are only now starting to learn about the dynamics of how we might do so.

      As far as I understand, the work of Dawkins doesn’t really cover anthropology, except for his ideas of memes which explain how certain traits are transmitted through culture.

      1. I would like to add one more point which Quinn stresses. It’s not that tribalism is the only system that can work for humans or anything. Of course, we may turn out to be imaginative enough to adapt civilization in a way that’s in equilibrium with nature. Only that we can learn a lot by observing and analyzing what it is that makes tribalism work for humans and our present form of civilization not work.

  4. @Arun

    Well, Dawkins is no anthropologist.

    >>What I read in many books is that they had little ¨culture¨ and hence more ¨wild¨

    What do you mean by “culture”? If it’s the sum total of knowledge and practises passed on from one generation to another, tribal people are as cultured as us.

    What sets civilization apart is that in our system, food is under lock and key. It’s controlled by the ruling class, with the help of a middle class. And the lowest strata, the masses, have to do whatever work which the upper classes demand, to get fed. It’s been the same story since the beginning of civilization- the software engineers who work for microsoft are doing exactly the same thing that the labourers did for the pharaohs in building the pyramids.

    Since there is a huge surplus of food, it is true that usually people in civilization are somewhat insulated from the forces of nature. But that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily happier.

    The notions you have about the “wild” and “savage” nature of tribals and that people in the wild always live in “terror” are common misconceptions. These views have been turned upside down by research in anthropology since the 70s. I’d suggest you watch the BBC documentary series “The Incredible Human Journey”, or read up on works of anthropologists like Jared Diamond, Marshall Sahlins, Robert Wolff etc.

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