Ishmael by Daniel Quinn – Book Summary & Reflections

There are very few books so good that I would read them three times. Ishmael is one of those books. I read it the first time in my early twenties, again a few years later, and again at the age of thirty-one. Each time it was like a new revelation – so packed with important, perspective-shifting concepts that it shook my world. And brought tears to my eyes.
On the first read through I kept expecting there to be an outline or summary of the “Taker Mythology” all in one place, but the concepts are spread all over the book. On my third reading I took notes. Now I shall outline the Taker Story and the alternative – the Leaver Story. We'll begin (as the book does) with the story of the Takers.
The Taker Mythology

The Creation Myth (according to Taker Culture)

Billions of years ago there was a big bang and the universe came into being. Millions of years ago the Earth developed life in its oceans, some of which evolved onto land. The world filled up with fish, insects, and mammals. One such special mammal evolved into man.

Man's Destiny (according to Taker Culture)

Our creation myth demonstrates that life was not complete until man came. This is because man's destiny was to conquer the world and rule it. Man could not become fully human if he did not pull himself from the slime. Man had to tame the wild jungles of the Earth and set himself apart. He had the choice between a brief life of glory or a long, uneventful life of obscurity. Naturally, man aimed for glory.
Man didn't recognize his destiny for the first three million years of his existence. It wasn't until the agricultural revolution that man began to see his potential. Man finally knew himself to be independent from the wiles of nature. He took his life into his own hands. Some indigenous cultures still have not adopted this revolution today, but these peoples are quaint at best, and savages at worst, unaware that man is meant for greater things.
Man's destiny could not be realized within the confines of hunter-gatherer living. Man took life into his own hands, leaving nothing to chance. People who still live their life in the hand's of God and not in their own hands are foolish.

The Price for Becoming Human (according to Taker Culture)

We're destroying the ozone layer, we're changing the climate, we're ruining the oceans, but all of that is ultimately the price for man's glory. We can't help it because we need our indoor plumbing, central heating, air conditioning, cars, and cell phones.


“The price you're paying is not the price for becoming human. It's not the price for the things you've just mentioned. The Sumerians had indoor plumbing long before the Roman empire even existed. The price you're paying is for enacting a story that casts mankind as the enemy of the world.”

Man's Flaw (according to Taker Culture)

Man was born to turn the wild world into a paradise, but he was created with a tragic flaw. His destiny has been spoiled by his stupidity, greed, destructiveness, and shortsightedness.


“There's nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. Given a story to enact them puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world. Given a story to enact in which they are the lords of the world, they will act like lords of the world. Given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now.”

Futility (according to Taker Culture)

Nothing can be done. Man is flawed, so he keeps on screwing up what should be paradise. Man doesn't know how to live so as to stop screwing up paradise, and nobody has the answer. All that can be done is carrying on with life as it is, watching the catastrophe as it comes.

The One Right Way To Live (according to Taker Culture)

There is no clarity on the one right way to live, but we know it exists. Hence, we have prophets who come to tell us what that one right way is. If we could only master this one right way to live then we would overcome our flaws and be able to fulfill our destiny and turn to the world into paradise. We can observe how lions live, and how wombats and gazelle live, but this information doesn't help us because we are special and different and the laws that apply to other animals don't apply to us.


“If man knew how to live, then it would include knowing how to live as flawed beings. The flaw in man is not a flaw in man at all, but a flaw in Taker culture, and that flaw is that man does not know how to live.”
“Man is not exempt from the laws of gravity, aerodynamics, genetics, or thermodynamics. There is a law of life which he is also not exempt from, but those in the Taker culture are not yet aware of this law or their defiance of it. They are in free fall toward a crash, but they think they are flying.”

Man's Nature (according to Taker Culture)

Prior to all this buzz about evolution, it was obvious to Taker culture that agriculture, settlement, and the elimination of competition was simply man's nature. It was believed that indigenous people had somehow fell from their previous grandeur. It was believed that these savages must somehow be defective, degenerate. Taker culture was not aware that there was anything at all prior to their agricultural revolution. They didn't think of it as a revolution, but rather as the birth of man.
Enacting A Story
“You remember when I said that to enact a story is to live so as to make it come true?” Ishmael asks.
“According to the Taker story, creation came to an end with man.”
“Yes. So?”
“How would you live so as to make that come true? How would you live so as to make creation come to an end with man?”
“Oof. I see what you mean. You would live the way the Takers live. We're definitely living in a way that's going to put an end to creation. If we go on, there will be no successor to man, no successor to chimpanzees, no successor to orangutans, no successor to gorilla – no successor to anything alive now. The whole thing is going to come to an end with us.”
Takers versus Leavers
Let's look at some critical differences between Taker culture and Leaver peoples – the indigenous peoples.

Eliminating Competition

Takers exterminate their competition. This is the holy work of farmers – kill off everything you can't eat. Kill off anything that eats what you eat. Kill off anything that doesn't feed what you eat. The more competitors you destroy, the more food you can raise for humans, and the more food for humans, the more human babies can be born into the world.
Takers do not merely say that they want a rack of bananas and take a rack of bananas for themselves. They also look around at any insects or animals who also want bananas and kill those insects and animals in order to have all the bananas for themselves.
In the wild it is true that animals defend their territory and they occasionally kill (and eat) creatures who also kill their other prey, but while an elephant may occasionally trample a lion, elephants never go out to trample lions, and they certainly never seek out the zebra who enjoy many of the same foods. Ranchers will go out of their way to kill foxes or wolves that might hurt their cattle or chickens. Ranchers will cut down trees that spring up on their grazing fields.
Wild animals will kill in self-defense at times, even if they merely feel threatened. A baboon may attack a leopard that it is afraid of, but baboons do not go out hunting for leopards – they go out hunting for food.
Farmers don't just plant an acre of the food they want to grow. They use poisons to kill of competing plants and insects that eat the plants. They create large swaths of land that bare no resemblance to the diversity of life present in nature. These monocrops are food deserts for bees when they aren't in blossom, and for thousands of other creatures. These farms provide food exclusively for human consumption. No other creatures are allowed to live a normal, thriving existence on a human farm – with the exception of perhaps a few certain bacterium.
Going back to bananas: Taker culture doesn't stop at killing off insects and creatures that compete for bananas. Taker culture kills off any plant life that competes with bananas. Taker culture even goes so far as to say, “It doesn't matter if you require bananas to survive as a species because all the bananas are ours.” It's a three-fold elimination of competition.

Population Control

In an indigenous culture it is clear how many resources there are for the tribe and if the tribe can grow safely. If it can not increase its population without expanding its territory, then it may have to go to war with a neighboring tribe as many Native American tribes did. If a tribe suffered a drought, they may have to move somewhere else to find more food. If the drought lasted for years, the weakest members may have died. Balance would always come rapidly, the number of people in an area matching the resources at hand.
In the modern world, we shy away from death and starvation. We want to save all the starving people in the world, so we send them food from another part of the world where resources are more plentiful. Unfortunately, this food leads to expansion in population. Every increase in food production leads to an increase in population somewhere, so that even as population declines in some countries, it booms in other countries. While food production increases and the population increases, we see a similar portion of the world starving. We don't mitigate the issue with contraceptives, education, or laws prohibiting families with more than two children. We don't even create incentives for small families. Instead we welcome every new baby – even if it means we still have to stay on the treadmill of the ever-expanding agricultural revolution that has already swallowed the majority of the planet's indigenous peoples and millions of species besides.

Cultural Amnesia

Taker culture doesn't carry forward what it learns about how people should live. It carries forward technology – how to build things, how to cook things, how to carry things – but it does not pass on wisdom. Even from generation to generation, Taker culture merely manages to pass on the message that man is meant to rule the world and make it a paradise, but man is tragically flawed. The ego and guilt are passed on. Taker culture invents laws about how people should live, but it makes these decisions based on formulations invented by individuals and committees. These concepts about how people should live aren't decided based on the trial-and-error that occurs over generations, or even over hundreds of years, but rather, the laws are invented with a few strokes of the pen or keyboard.
Among the Leaver peoples, everything is slowly accumulated and then passed on. There is knowledge about how to make clothing and how to hunt certain animals, but there is much more. There is knowledge about how to treat one another and how to treat the Earth, and this wisdom is refined for thousands of years and is specific to the tribe. Each tribe has wisdom that pertains to its climate, its region, and its people. There is a sense of camaraderie with the ancestors of the tribe that goes back to the dawn of time. There is no separation between the people of today and the people of twenty thousand years ago because they have been refining their same culture this whole time. They didn't abruptly depart from the past as Taker culture did – which leads us to our next difference.

Our Relationship With Ancient History

Taker culture presumes that to live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle one must live in poverty. Taker culture looks back on history and says that all that came before agriculture is dreck.
Yet, on the contrary, hunter-gatherers were wealthy in time and food. They didn't have to plant fields or irrigate them. They have been called “the first affluent society” because their lifestyle involved a few hours of work to obtain food each day, and the rest of the day was free to be spent as they pleased.
The Laws of Life

Healthy Competition

All creatures compete to survive, mate, and pass down their genes. This is how evolution occurs. But the law of the community of life goes like this: You may compete to the full extent of your capabilities, but you may not hunt down your competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food. You may compete, but you may not wage war.
You must not wage war on your competition because doing so actually destroys the process of evolution by reducing diversity. Just like when a company has a monopoly or a patent on a given product, the quality goes down and/or the price goes up. When healthy competition and diversity exists, everyone in the community of life thrives. Without diversity, the entire community of life is highly vulnerable. A planet with a thousand species might lose all of its life forms in a single catastrophe, but a planet with millions of species may lose several hundred thousand species and still recover, regaining its diversity and resilience again over time.

Food Storage

Leaver peoples store food, just as every other creature on Earth does. Some creatures, such as squirrels and humans, store most of their food for the winter externally. Other creatures, such as trees and bears, store their food internally. Every creature must store food either inside their body or outside their body in order to survive droughts, winter storms, and other hardships. If a creature couldn't store any food at all, it would die as soon as it encountered a rough week.
The Leaver Life

Indigenous Philosophy

We are part of the community of life. We share the world with millions of other creatures, and each creature has its right to thrive. We take as much as we need, but no more than that.

Indigenous Prophets

We do not need prophets to tell us how to live because we know how to live. Our culture has been developed over millennia for this very climate, for this very landscape, for this very tribe. We do not have prophets because we do not need them.

The Way To Live

We have a way that works for us. It may be agriculture, it may be hunting, it may be herding animals. Our method works for us. We don't say it is the one right way to live. We don't believe in any one, right way. We simply know what we prefer.
Cain & Abel
The story of Cain and Abel does not appear in Ishmael directly, but it is discussed at length in chapter nine. The story is central to the message of the entire book.

Cain and Abel – Excerpts from Wikipedia

Eve conceived and bore Cain, and she said, “I have got me a man with the Lord.” She bore as well his brother Abel.
Abel became a herder of sheep while Cain was a tiller of the soil.
Cain brought from the fruit of the soil an offering to the Lord. Abel too had brought from his flock. The Lord regarded Abel and his offering but did not regard Cain and his offering. And Cain was very incensed.
The Lord said to Cain,
“Why are you incensed? For whether you offer well, or whether you do not, at the tent flap sin crouches, and for you is its longing, but you will rule over it.”
Cain said to Abel, “Let us go out to the field,” and when they were in the field Cain rose against Abel his brother and killed him.
The Lord said to Cain, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the soil. And so, cursed shall you be by the soil that gaped with its mouth to take your brother's blood from your hand. If you till the soil, it will no longer give you strength. A restless wanderer shall you be on the earth.”
Cain was intimate with his wife and she conceived and bore Enoch. Then he became the builder of a city.
The oldest known copy of the biblical narrative is from the Dead Sea Scrolls, and dates to the first century BCE. Cain and Abel also appear in a number of other texts; the story has various interpretations. Cain and Abel are likely symbolic rather than real. Some scholars suggest the pericope may have been based on a Sumerian story representing the conflict between nomadic shepherds and settled farmers. Modern scholars typically view the stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel to be about the development of civilization during the age of agriculture; not the beginnings of man, but when people first learned agriculture, replacing the ways of the hunter-gatherer.

Agriculturists versus Herders or Hunters and Gatherers

Ishmael, the teacher in the book Ishmael, makes it clear that it isn't that agriculture itself is flawed. Instead, it is the culture that arose hand-in-hand with the agricultural revolution. It is the philosophy that Ishmael calls Taker culture which causes the devastation to the community of life.
Cain and Abel illustrate the deviation from living in accordance with the laws of nature. Abel is raising camels and/or goats, but he is not killing off all the wolves, lions, or panthers. Abel is feeding his family, but he is not conquering other people's and teaching them that his way is the one right way to live. Meanwhile, Cain is tilling soil and killing any plants or animals that get in his way. Cain is taking land from Abel and saying, “I need this land for my growing family. I require this to be my farmland. You can't bring your goats and camels here. You must leave and never return.” The Cains are killing the Abels ten thousand years ago, and the Cains and still killing the Abels of the world today.
In the rain forest in south America there are mega-dams being erected, one after another, that destroy the livelihoods of indigenous peoples and kill off hundreds of species. Each dam permanently changes the eco-system. The country that builds the dam gets hydro-power and increased economic growth for the wealthy people of the country, but meanwhile, Cain is killing Abel yet again.
“Far from providing clean energy, dams increase climate emissions by drowning forests and lead to corruption,” says International Rivers, a river protection group. “Rivers are seen by governments only as a resource, not as a source of livelihoods,” says Kate Horner, the group’s director. “Vast money is involved in these mega-projects and there are often implications of corruption. Seldom is anyone held responsible for the violence and intimidation that often accompanies dam building. The displacement of people has been vast, comparable to conflict-induced displacement. But there is not the same humanitarian response. Often there is no compensation paid – these people lose everything.”
Man's Alternative Destiny
“There is a sort of tendency in evolution, wouldn't you say? If you start with ultrasimple critters in the ancient seas and move up step by step to everything we see now, then you have to observe a tendency toward complexity. And toward self-awareness and intelligence. Wouldn't you agree?”
“All sorts of creatures on this planet appear to be on the verge of attaining that self-awareness and intelligence. We were never meant to be the only players on this stage.”
“This seems to be so. What does this mean about man's destiny?”
“Man is the first – the trailblazer, the pathfinder. His destiny is to be the first to learn that creatures like man have a choice: They can try to thwart nature and perish in the attempt – or they can stand aside and make some room for all the rest. But it's more than that. His destiny is to give all other species that chance – whales, dolphins, chimps, raccoons. Oddly enough, it is much grander than the destiny the Takers dreamed up for us.”
“How so?”
“Just think. In a billion years, whoever is around then will say: Man? Oh yes, man! What a wonderful creature he was! It was within his grasp to destroy the entire world and to trample all of our futures into the dust – but he saw the light before it was too late and pulled back. He pulled back and gave us our chance. He showed us all how it had to be done if the world was to go on being a garden forever. Man was a role model for us all!”
“Not a shabby destiny.”
“Not shabby by any means! I understand now that the world wasn't a mess and it didn't need to be conquered by man, but it does need man to belong to it. Some creature had to find the way. Man's place is not to rule, but to be the first without also being the last.”
“How can we bring this about? What's the program?”
“The story of Genesis must be reversed. Cain must stop murdered Abel. This is essential. The Leavers – the indigenous peoples – are an endangered species most critical to the world – not because they're humans but because they alone can show the destroyers of the world that there is no one right way to live.
“You must spit out the fruit of the forbidden tree. You must absolutely relinquish the idea that you know who should live and who should die.”
“Yes. I see all that. That's the program for mankind, but what's the program for me? What can I do?”
“Teach a hundred people what I've taught you and inspire each of them to go on to teach another hundred. That is how it's always done.”
“The Leaver lifestyle isn't about hunting and gathering, it's about letting the rest of the community live. The Leaver life is not an antiquated thing that is back there somewhere. Your task is not to reach back, but to reach forward.”
“But to what? We can't just walk away from our civilization the way the Hohokam did.”
“That's certainly true. The Hohokam had another way of life waiting for them. You must be inventive if you care to survive. You're an inventive people, aren't you? You pride yourself on that, don't you?”
“Then invent.”
Related Books
The Continuum Concept comes to many of the same concepts and conclusions through observation of how a particular indigenous tribe lived in south America. The author lived with this tribe and studied them and then wrote a book about them. In a nut shell, she was astonished that these people knew a way to live that prevented disease and depression both. She was astonished that these people were so happy and healthy.
Conversations with God expands upon the flawed notion that there is one right way to live. In contrast, it proposes that we adopt the mantra: Ours is not the only way – it is merely another way.
The Secret to Our Success is written mostly from the perspective of Taker culture as illustrated here, yet it is packed with fascinating details about indigenous tribes and how cultural evolution works. This book helps tell the story of how things came to be this way, which is a recurring theme throughout Ishmael (and The Continuum Concept).
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