Daniel Quinn: Ishmael Study Guide

* Quinn / Gradesaver: Ishmael Summary and Part Eight.

Grade Saver: Ishmael Study Guide


Four days later, after much thought, the narrator returns to Ishmael with a four-part description of the natural law. First, species should never eliminate their competitions, which Takers do. A species may defend itself when it feels threatened, but never kill for the sake of it. Second, a species must not systematically destroy the food source of competitors in order to make room for its own food. Third, a species must not deny its competitors access to food, unless it needs that food for survival. In the wild, species protect only their own food supply, and do not bother with those of their competitors. The Takers break both of these laws, under the premise that they own the entire planet. Finally, a species should not store food. The narrator posits that animals in the wild do not do this, while Takers do. Ishmael applauds the narrator’s discoveries, but shoots down the final point, suggesting that many species in the wild do store their food in anticipation of droughts or the like.

Ishmael consolidates the narrator’s multi-faceted answer into the following dictum: “you may compete but you may not wage war” (129). This law promotes diversity because it allows millions of species to co-exist, and diversity is important because it allows the overall community of life to weather extreme climate shifts. The narrator continues the thought to suggest that because Takers see themselves at war with the Earth, they are ruining life’s chances of surviving such a shift. In Taker culture, everything except food and the food of your food becomes an enemy to be exterminated.

Ishmael then suggests a hypothetical situation wherein hyenas decide to disregard the law and kill off its competitors/predators (lions) so that the hyena population will increase. In this situation, however, the increased hyena population would soon run out of its own game (zebras and gazelles) because it was consuming them faster. Therefore, to stay potent, hyenas would have to kill the animals that competed with zebras and gazelles for grass, so that the zebra and gazelle populations would grow larger, all in order to feed the increased hyena population. In turn, the doubly increased hyena population would run out of food, and have to find something else to kill off. All in all, it would be a vicious circle wherein the species would have to keep killing off levels of the food chain simply to support itself and its expansion.

Ultimately, Ishmael’s point is that even one species (Takers) exempting itself from the natural law will ultimately cause the same damage that would be caused if every species exempted itself. As evidence, he quotes Peter Farb’s assertion that increasing food production to feed an increased population will only cause a greater increase in population. In other words, a species will expand to the size that its food supply does. However,Mother Culture insists that such a law does not apply to man.

The narrator is confused, however, since it seems that agriculture is by definition contrary to this natural law. Since agriculture is fundamental to settlement, it means that settling requires a species to take more for itself, meaning there will be less for others. However, Ishmael makes an important distinction – Takers have not only settled, but have moreover tried to turn the entire world into agriculture and settlement. This latter expansion is what flaunts the law. He notes that most species settle to some extent, choosing a territory or feeding ground for themselves. Settling and agriculture do require competition, but that is not necessarily contrary to the law. “In brief, human settlement isn’t against the laws of competition, it’s subject to the laws of competition” (135).

The problem is that any species that exempts itself from the rules of competition ends up destroying the community in order to support its own expansion. Ishmael contends that this expansion is not some inherent flaw in humanity, but rather a truism of expansion – a population increases to match its food supply. However, Mother Culture continually claims that we can increase our food supply WITHOUT increasing population, to feed the starving millions while controlling population through birth control. The truth, however, is that food production continues to annually increase, while the world continues to defer the implementation of global population control. As long as Takers enact the story that the gods made the world for man, they will demand food production but make no legitimate effort at population control.

Ishmael explains that famine is not unique to humans. When a species outstrips its food resources, its population declines until it reaches a balance. Mother Culture, however, insists that man is exempt; its population is never allowed to decline. The narrator argues that it is inhumane to simply watch people starve, but Ishmael counters that food should not be brought to a starving people, but that those people should be brought to the food. The former course only causes the starving population to produce more starving people, while the latter course is considered foolish by Mother Culture.

Ishmael indicates a book, The American Heritage Book of Indians, sitting by the narrator’s chair. After the narrator studies the map in it for a while, they discuss how the various Indian tribes did not practice population control – instead, the interplay between tribes encouraged it. The number of tribes meant that each “controlled” some territory, and were unable to expand into other territories without causing trouble (141). They limited their growth because it was easier than going to war with their neighbors over land. Takers, on the other hand, simply send a growing population elsewhere, so that population growth can continue unabated. As example, they discuss how a population influx in the Northeast simply finds its way to the American West, to states like New Mexico.

After reiterating that any specifies that ignores the law of limited competition is doomed to crash, Ishmael suggests that this is the answer to the question of how to live. The narrator posits that Taker culture might acknowledge this law, but refuse to believe it applies to man. In other words, for mankind to survive, Mother Culture’s voice must be silenced. Ishmael adds an optimistic thought: there are people out there, like the narrator himself, who want to hear a new story.

The narrator works to break the law of limited competition down into three parts. One, “No one species shall make the life of the world its own.” Two, “the world was not made for any one species.” Three, “mankind was not needed to bring order to the world” (145-146).

Ishmael then explains how the Taker story, its insistence on pitting man against the world as its enemy, makes the Takers a very lonely people. He points out that crime, mental illness, suicide and drug addiction are features of an advanced culture, and rare in the wild. He posits that the story the Takers have been enacting is unhealthy and unsatisfying.

The story that the Leavers have been enacting, however, is not one of conquest and rule. They do not seek power, but instead live lives that are meaningful and satisfying. They do not live in fear of each other, or constantly accuse one another of living the wrong way. The story that they have been acting, according to Ishmael, has worked well for three million years.


In this section, the narrator takes the lead. Rather than having Ishmael explain the thought process, he has to work it out himself. This process is both satisfying and effective because it allows him to be surprised by the conclusions. Part of the problem is that much of what Ishmael says is easy to dismiss as truisms. It is a different experience to discover for oneself, though, how fully these philosophies have infiltrated our thought processes. The implication here is that we cannot simply read a book like this, but must continue to explore how the story we enact affects us in everyday life.

Interestingly, Quinn and Ishmael actually answer their enormous question of how we ought to live. The answer is simply the law which the narrator discovers, that of limited competition. Of course, this law has implications larger than the destruction of the environment; it also affects the way humans approach war with one another.Not only do Takers feel like they own every foot of the planet, but each sub-culture within Taker culture also feels as though it should own more of the planet than others do. And yet while we often dismiss anti-war sentiments on the grounds that war and aggression are natural human qualities, Ishmael would have us wonder whether we dismiss these sentiments in order to ignore our own complicity in enacting a megalomanic story of control.

Ishmael’s hyena allegory provides one of Quinn’s clearest articulations of his theory. The imagery presented by the ever expanding hoard of hyenas is frightening, but not much different than what the Takers have done for about 10,000 years. We are able to easily see the hyenas as unappealing, but a never ending population boom of humans is just as detrimental to the planet, if not more so.

Tied to this idea is that of diversity. Quinn’s support of diversity as central to survival is more than simply sentimental; he grounds it in science. By suggesting that various climactic shifts have the potential to wipe out large populations, he reminds us that life needs as many variations as possible so that some could survive. What this implies is that a Taker approach to the world is causing imminent harm, harm that might not be immediately apparent but which could be enormous in a future situation. We must have not just patience, but also foresight.

Quinn is careful to highlight the fact that he does not find settlement detrimental in itself. Settlement, in fact, is natural. However, humanity’s insistence on growing boundlessly puts the entire world at risk. Likewise, agriculture is hardly harmful in itself, but must be tempered. Aggressive agriculture has a terrible potential for destruction, since it leads to the destruction of diversity. In short, what Quinn criticizes is not what humans do, but the extent to which they do it. It is this extent that speaks to a feeling of world ownership, not the practices themselves.

Another major theme that Quinn addresses is population control. This theory is one of his most controversial, since it suggests that we ought to allow some populations to starve in order to find a more realistic global population balance. Though these theories are hardly new – Thomas Ricardo Malthus and David Ricardo posited such theories as early as the 19th century – they are difficult for many to swallow. Though Ishmael insists that there is another solution (bringing the starving people to the food, rather than vice versa), the theory definitely begs debate and consideration.
– Gradesaver: Ishmael Summary and Part Eight.