Daniel Quinn (born October 11, 1935) is an American writer (primarily, novelist and fabulist), cultural critic, and former publisher of educational texts, best known for his novel Ishmael, which won the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award in 1991 and was published the following year. Quinn’s ideas are popularly associated with environmentalism, though he criticizes this term, claiming that it portrays the environment as somehow separate from human life and thus creates a false dichotomy. Quinn specifically identifies his philosophy as new tribalism.
Ishmael became the first of a loose trilogy of novels by Quinn, including The Story of B and My Ishmael. Ishmael and its follow-ups brought increasing fame to Quinn throughout the 1990s, and he became a very well-known author to segments of various social and political groups, including the environmental, simplicity, and anarchist movements, none of which he strongly self-identifies with. Nevertheless, his views are said to have “articulated the most prevalent cosmogony found within radical environmental subcultures.”
Daniel Quinn writes primarily about the cultural bias, mythology, and world-view driving modern civilization and the destruction of the natural world. Quinn exposes that some of civilization’s most unchallenged myths, or “memes,” include: that the Earth was made especially for humans, who are destined to conquer and rule it; that humans are innately flawed that humans are separate from and superior to nature (which Quinn has called “the most dangerous idea in existence”); and that all humans must be made to live according to some one right way.
Quinn commonly discusses ecology and human population dynamics in-depth. He claims that the total population of humans, like all living things, grows and shrinks according to an ecological law—an increase in food availability for any population yields an accompanying increase in the population’s overall size—despite the fact that popular cultural thinking regards civilized humans as separate from and above any such law.
Quinn argues that the global system’s dependence on agriculture requires ever-more expansion, in turn generating ever-more population growth (an escalating vicious cycle he identifies as the “food race”) making modern civilization, by definition, unsustainable. He commonly analyzes and defends the effectiveness of traditional indigenous tribal societies—regarded by recent anthropological research as fairly egalitarian, ecologically well-adapted, and socially secure—as models to develop a new diversity of workable human social structures for the future.
Beginning with the Neolithic Revolution, Quinn argues that human overpopulation has been driven by an imperialistic way of life that denigrates nature, relies entirely upon expansionist farming (which Quinn calls “totalitarian agriculture”), and grows in proportion to the rest of the living world’s decline in biomass. In Quinn’s view, civilization today has largely become a merged, single massive global economy and culture.
Quinn warns about food and population dangers in a way often compared to Thomas Robert Malthus, though Quinn’s warning is markedly different. Unlike Malthus, who warned that rising human population would outpace the food generated to feed it, Quinn considers this assessment backwards, instead warning that excess population is the result of excess food. According to Quinn, the success of totalitarian agriculture is causing a catastrophic loss of biodiversity, and, even more directly, overshoot towards an eventual population crash, of which the civilized mainstream shows very little anticipation or interest.
Quinn’s conclusions on population also suggest the controversial notion that sustained food aid to starving nations is merely delaying and dramatically worsening massive starvation crises, rather than resolving such crises, as is commonly assumed. Quinn claims that reconnecting people to the food made available through their local habitats is a proven way to avoid famines and accompanying starvation. Some have interpreted this to mean that Quinn is resolving to let starving people in impoverished nations continue starving, which he has repeatedly refuted.
Quinn has been influential in developing a vocabulary for his philosophy; he has coined or popularized a variety of terms, including the following:
- Takers and Leavers — “Takers” refers to members of the dominant globalized civilization and its culture, while “Leavers” refers to members of the countless other non-civilized cultures existing both in the past and currently
- Mother Culture – a personification of any culture’s inherently biased influences that are not perceived as biased by its members
- Food Race – the phenomenon of ongoing human overpopulation and its accompanying global catastrophes, in which the giving of more food to starving, growing populations paradoxically yields only still greater population growth and starvation
- Law of limited competition – a biological law that “defines the limits of competition in the community of life,” according to which “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 in general,” meaning across-the-board; species that violate this law end up extinct
- Law of Life – the universal collection of all evolutionarily stable strategies
Totalitarian Agriculture – today’s dominant form of agriculture that “subordinates all other life-forms to the relentless, single-minded production of human food,” unsustainable because it generates enormous food supplies that in turn generate ever-greater human population booms
- The Great Forgetting – widespread historical ignorance regarding “the fact that we [humans] are a biological species in a community of biological species and are not exempt or exemptible from the forces that shape all life on this planet; this also includes our forgetting of the fact that most of human history has been based on an ecologically sound way of life (largely hunting and gathering)”
- Boiling frog – “a metaphor for so many circumstances in life when people are unwilling or unable to react effectively to crises that occur very gradually or imperceptibly,”used especially by Quinn to refer to creeping normality in terms of escalating environmental degradation
- New Tribal Revolution – a hypothetical, sociocultural period of global change that Quinn supports, in which civilization would gradually begin to transform into a collection of more sustainable, tribal societies.
Ishmael & My Ishmael:
Ishmael is a 1992 philosophical novel by Daniel Quinn. It examines the mythological thinking at the heart of modern civilization, its effect on ethics, and how this relates to sustainability and societal collapse on the global scale. The novel uses a style of Socratic dialogue to deconstruct the notion that humans are the pinnacle of biological evolution. It posits that anthropocentrism and several other widely accepted modern ideas are actually cultural myths and that global civilization is enacting these myths with catastrophic consequences.
My Ishmael is a 1997 novel by Daniel Quinn: a followup to Ishmael. With its time frame largely simultaneous with Ishmael, its plot precedes the fictional events of its 1996 spiritual successor, The Story of B. Like Ishmael, My Ishmael largely revolves around a Socratic dialogue between the sapient gorilla, Ishmael, and a student, involving his philosophy regarding tribal society. Ishmael’s pupil in My Ishmael, however, is a twelve-year-old female protagonist, Julie Gerchak, and the plot details not only her visits to Ishmael but also her journey to Africa in order to prepare Ishmael’s return to the wilds of his homeland.
The Story of B is a 1996 novel written by Daniel Quinn and published by Bantam Publishing. It chronicles a young priest’s movement away from his religion and toward the teachings of an international lecturer known as B, expanding upon many of the philosophical ideas introduced in Quinn’s 1992 novel Ishmael. The Story of B acts as a spiritual successor to both the novels Ishmael and My Ishmael, also by Daniel Quinn.
Beyond Civilization: Humanity’s Next Great Adventure is a book by Daniel Quinn written as a non-fiction follow-up to his acclaimed Ishmael trilogy. Beyond Civilization is written both to illuminate further the arguments and ideas made in his previous books and as a sort of guide to offer possible solutions to the problems he sees with the current state of civilization. Beyond Civilization is Quinn’s foremost text on new tribalism. The book contains one-page explorations into a variety of topics, in the form of reflections, parables, autobiographical accounts, short essays, and deliberate clarifications of ideas introduced in his previous books.
Instinct is a 1999 American psychological thriller film starring Anthony Hopkins, Cuba Gooding Jr., George Dzundza, Donald Sutherland, and Maura Tierney. It was very loosely inspired by Ishmael, a novel by Daniel Quinn. In the United States, the film had the working title Ishmael. The film examines the mind of anthropologist Ethan Powell (Hopkins) who had been missing for a few years, living in the jungle with gorillas. He is convicted of killing and injuring several supposed Wilderness Park Rangers in Africa, and is sent to prison. A bright young psychiatrist, Theo Caulder (Gooding), tries to find out why he killed them, but becomes entangled in a quest to learn the true history and nature of humankind. Eventually it is revealed that during the course of Powell’s stay with the gorillas, they accepted him as part of their group; he was attempting to protect his gorilla family when the rangers arrived and started shooting them. He gets a hearing to reveal the truth, but an attack by a vicious guard on the other prisoners causes Powell to be reminded of the killed gorillas and stop talking again. At the end of the film, Powell escapes from prison using a pen to dig out the lock on a window, and heads back to Africa.