The Daniel Quinn Files: Ishmael (5)

Last time, we arrived at the end of the myth we tell ourselves about the origin of mankind. That we are working through a constantly progressing development which makes us better and better until humans, the top of the species, will be able to control everything. But Ishmael promised to tell a different story, a story about knowledge of having a way to live which we deny even exists. I’m not sure how much of a “secret” this is anymore, but I still like that part because it goes beyond what we think is there, uncovering what is right in front of our eyes.

Alan is skeptical that they will find something, that there is such a secret. Ishmael starts by pointing out that the first Aeronauts, people who tried to find a way for humans to fly, were discussing if there were any laws to discover to know how to fly. They needed a theory how to fly and for that they needed to discover the laws of aerodynamics. They didn’t invent them and those laws weren’t new – but no one had spelled them out yet or understood them. Once they were clear, it was much easier to build planes. But they had to realize these laws first.

Ishmael asks Alan where he would look to find laws about how to live and he stumbles a little. He eventually guesses the behavior of humans but Ishmael reminds him that, believe it or not, humans are not the only species on earth. Ishmael also reminds him that humans are only one member of the community of life, but Alan figures that Mother Culture says we won’t find the law there because it wouldn’t apply to humans. But humans are not exempt of any other laws, humans are subject to the laws of gravity, genetics and aerodynamics just like any other living being on this planet. But when it comes to a way of life, there seems to be a big difference. We believe that such laws, which tell it caterpillars and rhinos how to live, have nothing to do with us. Because we are so special.

Ishmael explains that biologists wouldn’t be surprised by the law they’re looking for, just as no one was amazed by Newton’s idea of gravity. Of course things fall down. But making it a law is what makes it special. Laws apply to everyone, so gravity applies to rocks and to birds and to humans. Mother Culture wants to tell us that laws about how to live apply to everyone but us, that we are the only “end product”. This is why we normally don’t see that law, because it doesn’t seem to relevant to us but we admit it’s relevant to every other living thing on earth.

Ishmael then gives a little lecture, explaining how the Takers had to learn three things they didn’t like (and if you think about how controversial the first two were, you see his point). First, that earth is not the center of the universe, which was hard to accept for them. Second, that man was not the last creation of god but just evolved from the common slime, like everything, which was also hard to take in (and some people still deny). And now, third, they will have to accept that the laws of life apply to them just like to all the other animals and uncivilized people. In his story, he says that Takers will not find a way to live with that.

The law must have one simple effect:

Species that live in compliance with the law live forever—environmental conditions permitting. This will, I hope, be taken as good news for mankind in general, because if mankind lives in compliance with this law, then it too will live forever—or for as long as conditions permit.

But of course this isn’t the law’s only effect. Those species that do not live in compliance with the law become extinct. In the scale of biological time, they become extinct very rapidly. And this is going to be very bad news for the people of your culture—the worst they’ve ever heard.

Still, just like Alan, you’re probably wondering what the hell Ishmael is talking about. He also looks at frogs, bees and moles and sees that they will go on living, if external conditions allow them to but he doesn’t see why there is a law to be formulated about that. It triggers the reaction that must seem familiar to you: “So what?”

Finally (for today), Ishmael gives one of the most striking analogies in the whole novel, of our culture as a trial plane, like the aeronauts who tried to find a way to fly used in the beginning, some kind of contraption you push off a cliff and hope it’ll take off and not just crash into the ground. Ishmael compares our culture with such a contraption. In the beginning, we pushed it off the edge, hoping it would fly, not yet realizing that it is fundamentally incompatible of flying. But in the beginning, the pilot of this machine doesn’t realize that and simply enjoys the rush of trying out something new. The pilot feels like he is flying, not realizing he’s just an object falling towards the ground. He pushed it off a high cliff, so the fall is very long, giving him the illusion that everything is going fine. He sees other crashed planes on the ground, far away, and wonders why anyone would leave great planes like his on the ground. He also starts to realize that he is not staying afloat, but that the ground is coming closer. But as long as he is still flying, he thinks everything is fine, he doesn’t have to worry about that. He just needs to work a little harder to fly, work the pedals, flap the wings. His plane has brought him this far, so why stop now? He tries harder and harder, unaware, or unwilling to see, that nothing will ever make his machine fly, that his “craft is doomed – and so is he unless he abandons it.”

This of course is an analogy to how we deal with our way of living, our culture. Ten thousand years ago, civilization began with the agricultural revolution and the term ‘revolution’ shows the excitement we still feel when we talk about it. It was new and different and promising. And after the start, all we (the Takers) could see were all the achievements, “urbanization, technology, literacy, mathematics, science” so obviously things were going great. We saw remnants of other civilizations but never really bothered to wonder why they abandoned them. Eventually some people start to worry, about overpopulation, wars, crime, but not so much that anyone would think of abandoning this way of living. It is still the best we can do, right, so we keep pedaling. We just have to control this and that, and we’ll be fine. But nowadays, people are not so easily comforted anymore. Frustration, depression and disillusion are common feelings for most people, with their jobs, their dysfunctional families, with politics, with the way we destroy our planet and make whole species go extinct. It is getting harder and harder to say that things will eventually turn around become good again, but there are still enough people who believe that we just have to keep going until we reach a point where we turn our fate around. And then there are many people who have given up, sitting in their seats on the plane, sensing the crash coming, but unwilling to do anything about it because at least the view is good. Or they keep themselves distracted instead because you know what's bliss. And then there is the (growing) minority that says: “Let’s get out as long as we can and find something else, this one’s bound to crash from the get-go!”

It is common to talk about “the rise of civilization” but we’ll see that it is more of a decline, depending on which aspects you focus. Most people are, despite everything we do and see and feel, still convinced that this is the only right way to go. “There are some flaws, but it’s the best we have.” The education system, the justice system, democracy, etc., you’ll always hear the same sentiment. And yes, as Alan says, if civilization eventually crashes, there will be enough people who will simply try to start over again exactly the same.

Trial and error isn’t a bad way to learn how to build an aircraft, but it can be a disastrous way to learn how to build a civilization.

Next time we’ll get to the actual law, but I can’t say enough how convincing and striking the imagery of the falling plane is to me. It’s something many people feel and often don’t want to admit but it’s one of the reasons I’m fighting for a change. I don’t want to enjoy the movie until the plane crashes. I rather want to point at the exits.