You are on page 1of 27

Daniel Quinn's philosophical novel Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and

Spirit opens with the narrator reading the newspaper and finding himself
both disgruntled and intrigued by a personal advertisement. The ad indicates
that a teacher is looking for a student interested in saving the world. For
most of the narrator's early life, he had searched for such a teacher, and he's
angry that only now is one looking for him. He's sure the ad is a hoax, but he
goes to the indicated address, only to find an empty office space with a
gorilla in one of the rooms, looking at him through a glass pane. The gorilla is
able to speak with the narrator telepathically, and the narrator quickly
realizes that this is the teacher he's been searching for.
The gorilla's name is Ishmael. He was caught in the jungles of Africa at a
young age and has lived his life in captivity ever since. He started out in a
zoo, then ended up in a traveling carnival, and finally was purchased by
Walter Sokolow, with whom he learned to communicate telepathically.
Through his telepathic connection, Ishmael was able to have Mr. Sokolow get
him books and help him educate himself. Ishmael's primary investigation
began with the issue of captivity but grew into a more comprehensive
exploration of humanity and the shape of the world. Ishmael, having been
apportioned part of Sokolow's estate after Walter's death, is mostly
independent and lives his life in the city, trying to find students to help
spread his teachings.
Ishmael and the narrator begin a series of meetings wherein Ishmael helps
the narrator understand his cultural history. Ishmael divides humans into two
groups: Leavers and Takers. Takers are members of the dominant culture,
which sees humans as rulers of the world, whose destiny is to grow without
check and dominate first the planet, then the universe, through technological
innovations. Leavers are members of tribal cultures that live more simply,
following the same basic rules that govern other populations on Earth.
Ishmael helps the narrator see that while it may seem that Taker culture has
outwitted the ecological rules that govern other life-forms, in many ways
Taker culture is in freefall, doomed to crash once it has depleted the planet of
its biological and environmental resources.
In addition to helping the narrator see the traits of Taker and Leaver cultures,
Ishmael shows the narrator how various cultural myths have helped shape
both cultures. One of the main myths he discusses is the story of Adam and
Eve. Ishmael helps the narrator see that while Taker culture, through the
dominance of Christianity, sees this myth as explaining its own creation,
historically this myth was used by Leaver cultures to explain the expansion of
Taker cultures. Leavers were trying to understand why Takers had turned to
agriculture and were trying to force their way of life on the Leavers. Leavers
used the myth to explain that it was because Takers had eaten of the Tree of
the Knowledge of Good and Evil the tree the gods must eat from in order
to know who should live and die. Thus, the Takers were acting like the gods
because they believed they'd gained the gods' knowledge, when in reality,
such knowledge does not belong to any life-form on Earth.

Toward the end of their discussions, the narrator gets caught up with
personal matters, forcing him to miss several days of meetings with Ishmael.
When he finally returns to Ishmael's office, Ishmael is nowhere to be found.
He tracks Ishmael down to a traveling carnival and visits him at night, so
they can finish their lessons. The narrator comes up with a plan to rescue
Ishmael from the circus by buying him from the circus's owner. By the time
he gets the cash together, however, Ishmael has died from pneumonia. The
narrator gathers up a few of Ishmael's remaining belongings and starts
contemplating how he'll fulfill Ishmael's command to become a teacher
himself and help other people see the problems with Taker culture and find a
new way to live in balance with other life on the planet.
The narrator throws his newspaper out in a huff, but after a few minutes,
rescues it from the trash bin. He's upset by an advertisement placed by a
teacher looking for a student interested in saving the world. Mostly, he's
annoyed because he spent years of his idealistic youth looking for such a
teacher. Though certain the advertisement is a scam, the narrator goes to
the address indicated in the advertisement.
He ends up at a nondescript office building and enters a large, nearly empty
office. Once inside, he explores and finds a darkened window to an adjoining
room; in the room is a gorilla. Stunned, the narrator is uncertain what to do
until a voice in his head tells him to sit down and relax so he's better able to
listen. Quickly, the narrator realizes the gorilla is communicating with him
telepathically. The narrator sits down, and the gorilla tells him about his
The gorilla, which the reader later learns is named Ishmael, was taken from
the jungles of West Africa to be kept in a zoo in the United States. During the
Depression, the zoo sold him to a traveling circus, where he lived for several
years. During that time, he realized he was called Goliath and spent his time
in captivity pondering the question: why? Why is life like this, so boring and
One day, a man shows up and tells him he is not Goliath, which shakes his
world; he no longer feels like an individual. The man, Walter Sokolow,
purchases Ishmael and moves him to a gazebo on his large estate. On their
first visit together, the man tells Ishmael he is Ishmael, making the gorilla
feel like he has a self.
Mr. Sokolow is Jewish and had recently learned his family was killed in the
Holocaust, so he spends some time sharing his grief with Ishmael, assuming
the beast can't understand him. But Ishmael gently touches the man's hand.
Mr. Sokolow tries to teach Ishmael to speak, but the process frustrates them
both. Finally, Ishmael concentrates on sending his thoughts to the man and
they realize they can communicate telepathically. Mr. Sokolow becomes
Ishmael's teacher and companion, and through his friendship with Ishmael,
recovers from his grief, marries, and even has a daughter, whom he names

In these introductory sections, Quinn begins to explore the novel's key

themes: the desire to save the world; what it means to be a person or have a
"self"; and the question of why things are the way they are, which is the
central question that propels the novel forward.
First, the reader learns quickly that the narrator's early ambition in life was to
save the world. The narrator claims this ambition was born out of his
tangential exposure to the cultural revolution of the late 1960s, but that it
was snuffed out of him through the process of becoming an adult. Through
the use of the narrator's passion and his abandoned pursuit of that passion,
Quinn invites the reader to identify with the narrator. By not providing the
narrator with a name and by constructing the novel in first person, the
reader closely aligns himself with the narrator and can sympathize with the
problematic feeling of giving up one's youthful dreams. Through the
discovery of a teacher, the narrator realigns himself with his dreams, and the
reader latches on for the ride by reading the tale of this meeting.
Second, Quinn engages the theme of personhood by making one of the main
characters a gorilla named Ishmael. First, Ishmael's personhood is
established in several ways. The first way Ishmael gains personhood is
through captivity; it is there that he begins to question his life and gains a
thoughtfulness that wild animals would not gain, due to their inherently more
interesting lifestyles. Second, by being both named and renamed, Ishmael
gains a stronger sense of himself as an individual. He is not the giant enemy
Goliath, defeated by David in the biblical myth, but rather Ishmael, the castoff son of Abraham. Quinn's use of biblical allusions for Ishmael's names
structure the relationship he has with humans. While imprisoned, he's a
goliath, an unknown monster. Once he's able to communicate with humans
and share their knowledge, he is like a distant relative, as the offspring of
Ishmael are to the offspring of Isaac in the Bible.
Finally, the driving question behind the novel is: why are things the way they
are? This question is first presented by Ishmael in his memories of life in the
zoo. He claims that all animals gain a capacity for thought while in captivity,
having little else to do. For Ishmael, whose intelligence is similar to a
human's, he is able to ponder this question in more depth and think of it in
terms of the larger socio-cultural structures he reads about under Mr.
Sokolow's guidance. The reader should keep this question in mind because it
is the key question that structures the novel's development.
Ishmael becomes the young Rachel's mentor, and they form a strong bond
as he's able to communicate with her telepathically as well. With his
guidance and instruction, she excels in school. When her father dies, Rachel
becomes Ishmael's guardian, much to the chagrin of her mother, who has
always resented Ishmael's relationship with her husband and daughter.
Rachel tries her best to provide Ishmael with a satisfactory life, but he's
restless, wanting to share his knowledge and have influence over human
behavior. He's able to find a way to live in the city and become a teacher, his
key subject being the issue of captivity.

The narrator digests this information and shares his own past experience. He
tells Ishmael he wrote a philosophy paper in which the Nazis had won World
War II and taken over the world and wiped out all races besides the Aryan
race, and in doing so, erased all history of a world in which other races even
existed. In the narrator's paper, two Aryan students are talking and one of
them says he feels like he's been lied to, but he's not sure what the lie is, nor
can he know since all prior knowledge has been wiped out. The narrator says
he feels this way, too. Ishmael sympathizes and says that, while it may not
matter if one individual discovers the lie, it could change the world if the
entire human population discovered the truth. He says no more and the
narrator goes home for the evening.
The next day the narrator returns, both scared and excited, his passion for
saving the world reignited.
Through the form of the novel, the theme of captivity, and the use of
foreshadowing, Quinn provides the groundwork to answer the novel's central
question: why are things the way they are? First, as the narrator and
Ishmael's relationship develops, it takes on the archetypal form of a teacherstudent relationship. Quinn's use of this archetype alludes to other texts that
use it, such as Plato's Socratic dialogues. Similar to Socrates, Ishmael uses
rhetorical strategies, such as asking guiding questions and storytelling, to
engage his pupil and help him discover various truths.
Ishmael's key subject is captivity. The theme of captivity is initially revealed
through Ishmael's life story. Recall that, prior to his life as a teacher, Ishmael
lived in a zoo, a traveling circus, and an airy gazebo. All three experiences
shaped his thinking and helped him gain not only a stronger sense of self,
but also a clearer understanding of the world around him. For example, at
the zoo, he discovered that his "wild" life prior to the zoo was much more
interesting and happy than his life in the zoo, causing him to wonder why
such a change in circumstance occurred. Building on this discovery, while he
was in the traveling circus, his relationship to humans changed. Whereas at
the zoo, humans only talked to each other, at the circus they directly
addressed him, causing him to see himself as an individual. Ishmael uses his
experiences in captivity to comment on the human condition, suggesting
that humans are captive to a "civilizational system" and are unable to see
the "bars of the cage."
Ishmael explains that Mr. Sokolow was obsessed with studying Nazi Germany
and tells the narrator that the key to Hitler's success was his ability to tell a
story and have people believe it. The German people suffered so much after
World War I that they were hungry to believe his story of Aryan supremacy,
and even those who dismissed it as a story were caught up in it unless they
fled Germany.
Ishmael continues by explaining that Mother Culture is feeding us a story
that's so pervasive we don't even hear it anymore, but it informs every
moment of our lives. His job is to help the narrator hear the story and see his

culture from the outside. In order to embark on such a journey, however,

Ishmael says they need to lay down some ground rules. First, he defines two
groups of people: Takers (the narrator's culture) and Leavers (every other
culture). In less neutral terms, these groups can also be described as civilized
(the Takers) and primitive (the Leavers). The narrator accepts these terms.
Ishmael goes on to define a few terms for their journey. The first is that
"story" is the explanation of the relationship between humans, the world, and
the gods. The second is that "to enact" something is to live as if a certain
story is a reality. The third term he defines is "culture," which is a group of
people enacting a story. Ishmael says that Mother Culture concludes that the
Leavers' story is the first chapter of humankind's development and the
Takers are the second chapter, but he indicates they are competing stories.
Ishmael challenges the narrator to tell the story of his culture, but the
narrator insists there is no overarching story or myth that forms his culture.
Ishmael pushes him to think about it more deeply, suggesting to him that the
Greeks did not think of their myths as myths either; rather, what are now
considered myths were just the stories that structured their lives. The
narrator still comes up short, so Ishmael gives him some homework. He
suggests the narrator try to figure out his culture's creation myth.
Through Ishmael's foundation for the journey, Quinn establishes the key
terms that will assist the reader in understanding the novel's main themes
and foreshadows the trajectory of Ishmael's discussion. The first of these
terms are Takers and Leavers. Recall that Quinn associates "takers" with
civilization and "leavers" with primitive cultures. Consider how these terms
might relate to notions of civilized and primitive cultures. What do civilized
cultures "take"? What do primitive cultures "leave"? Exploring these
questions will help you follow Ishmael's interpretation of culture.
The next major term is Mother Culture, which Quinn employs to personify
culture and make it another character in the novel. As a "mother," culture
nurtures us, feeds us, and gives us the tools to understand the culture into
which we are born. Ishmael will continue to expand on the character of
Mother Culture as he uses "her" to help the narrator see the structure of his
own culture more clearly.
Additionally, Ishmael provides the narrator with three key definitions for
story, to enact, and culture. These three terms provide the framework for
Ishmael's exploration of Takers and Leavers, who are groups of people with
their own "story" they're "enacting" as a "culture." While much of Ishmael's
argument focuses on the macro-level, these terms can also be applied to
individual lives: In what way do people tell a story about who they are? What
do you do to "enact" your story of who you are and who you want to be? By
making personal connections to Ishmael's argument, the reader can gain a
stronger understanding of what it means to create and be part of a story and
a culture.
Quinn also foreshadows the development of Ishmael and the narrator's
discussion through the homework Ishmael assigns his pupil. Prior to

assigning homework to the narrator, Ishmael provides him with an

explanation for how story works in a culture, through the example of a
former student. He says the former student was concerned that no one was
upset about the earth being on the brink of environmental catastrophe.
Ishmael explained to the student that this lack of concern was a result of
Mother Culture's influence: she provides members of her culture with an
explanation for the Earth's state that pacifies them. Ishmael builds on this
idea through his allusions to Greek mythology, indicating that what are now
considered myths were as invisible and believable to the Greeks as the
narrator's culture is to him. Thus, Quinn foreshadows that dismantling the
narrator's culture's myth will be essential to understanding why the world is
the way it is.
The narrator arrives at Ishmael's office and notices a tape recorder on the
single chair in the room. Ishmael tells him he wants to record the narrator's
creation myth. The narrator insists it's not a myth; Ishmael tells him to just
tell his story. The narrator goes on to describe in skeletal terms the big bang,
the formation of the solar system, the evolution of life on earth, ending with
the arrival of humankind. After the narrator completes his story, he and
Ishmael argue as to whether or not it's a myth.
Ishmael tells his own story to try to help the narrator see his point. Ishmael
imagines an anthropologist walking around on the early Earth and coming to
a blob of life. The anthropologist asks the blob for its creation myth and the
blog tells a story similar to the narrator's except ending with the evolution of
jellyfish. The narrator is flummoxed; he sees he's missed something. Through
his discussion with Ishmael, he learns that, while his myth contains facts,
those facts are arranged in a way that suggests the point of the formation of
the universe and evolution is the formation of man. Ishmael claims that this
is the central idea behind the Takers' culture that Earth was made to
support human life and that this premise shapes much of the culture's
behavior. Ishmael assigns the narrator the task of figuring out the next part
of the story of his culture for homework.
In Part 3, Quinn begins answering the question of why things are the way
they are through the use of storytelling and Ishmael and the narrator's
dialogue. First, storytelling is essential to the narrator's epiphany in this
section. It is only after he tells his creation story and then listens to Ishmael's
nearly identical story featuring a jellyfish rather than a human at the end of
it that the narrator begins to see the difference between fact and myth.
Thus, storytelling works on both a micro and macro level in the formation of
the novel. It serves on the macro level to help Ishmael and the narrator
discuss the way culture influences humans, and on the micro level as a
means for Ishmael to instruct the narrator.
Second, much of the narrator's learning occurs through his Socratic dialogue
with Ishmael. Notice that many of Ishmael's statements to the narrator are in
the form of leading questions. While Ishmael clearly has his own agenda, he

knows that the narrator needs to be actively involved in learning in order to

grasp the concepts Ishmael presents. Through the use of questioning, the
narrator is able to better analyze his own culture and accept the new ideas
Ishmael introduces to him. Thus, much like the motif of storytelling,
questioning works on a macro and micro level in the novel. On a macro level,
questioning why things are the way they are guides the form of the novel as
a whole; on the micro level, questions are the stepping stones the narrator
needs to grasp the concepts Ishmael wants him to understand.
The narrator returns to Ishmael's office ready to explain the middle and end
of the story of Taker culture. He says the middle of the story is humankind's
time as hunter-gatherers, a time when they were living much as other
animals do. But, for humankind to achieve its destiny, it had to discover
agriculture, which provided it with the means of staying in one place and
developing civilization and technology.
Ishmael is impressed with the narrator's ability to distinguish this part of the
story, but he pushes the narrator to continue: so why must man do this?
What's the purpose of rising above the other animals? Ishmael has the
narrator imagine an Earth without humans on it; the narrator imagines a wild
jungle and admits he'd be reluctant to live in such a world as he'd be at the
mercy of fierce predators. Thus, Ishmael helps the narrator see the next part
of the story: man was put on Earth to rule it, and to do so he had to conquer
it. At this point, the narrator admits his astonishment because he realizes
that all around him he hears about man conquering things from deserts to
outer space.
But this isn't enough for Ishmael. He pushes the narrator to think on it more
deeply. The narrator realizes that while the Taker cultural story suggests that
things are the way they are because man had to fulfill his destiny of
conquering everything, really things are the way they are because man
hasn't become the ruler of the world, but its destroyer and enemy.
In Part 4, Quinn establishes Ishmael and the narrator as archetypes rather
than fully developed characters and addresses the novel's central question
regarding the current state of the world. To begin, Part 4 makes it clear that
Ishmael and the narrator will not develop the way characters might in a
typical plot-driven novel. For instance, little happens outside their
discussions, besides small movements, like Ishmael chewing on a leafy
branch. By stripping down the characters and their setting to the bare
essentials, Quinn establishes Ishmael and the narrator as an archetypal
teacher and student. Ishmael has all the qualities of a skilled teacher: he's
calm, patient, informative, and encourages participation on the part of his
student. Similarly, the narrator is an ideal student: he's inquisitive, eager to
learn, and willing to deeply engage with the material his teacher presents
him. By depriving his central characters of excessive physical and emotional
detail, Quinn focuses the novel around its philosophical discoveries rather
than the development of a traditional plotline.

The novel's central question and theme why are things the way they are
evolves in Part 4 through Ishmael's use of imaginative exercises and
Socratic dialogue. To begin, Ishmael encourages the narrator to imagine
Earth without man. Through this creative exercise, the narrator sees the
world in a new way and better understands his culture myth that man has
evolved to conquer the Earth. Additionally, Ishmael illustrates his points
through further questioning of the narrator. For instance, by asking the
narrator to explain how Takers justify the destruction of the world's natural
resources and wildlife, the narrator says that Takers would see this as the
price that must be paid to advance human culture. Ishmael uses the
narrator's response to build to his next point: that the Takers have it wrong
that they are paying the price it costs to be "the enemy of the world."
The next day, Ishmael and his student try to figure out the end of the story.
First, Ishmael has the narrator review the story so far; in doing so, the
narrator is able to continue it. He says that while man has been put on Earth
to conquer it, in conquering it he's caused a lot of problems. The solution to
those problems is to continue pursuing mastery of the world at every level so
as to finally achieve a manageable paradise, and in doing so, be able to
spread out and conquer the universe.
Ishmael applauds the narrator's efforts, but asks him what the "but" is. The
narrator figures out that the unspoken "but" at the end of his story is that
humans are inherently flawed and thus will continue to screw up their pursuit
of paradise.
The narrator is incredulous; he can't believe that it's false that human nature
is flawed. Ishmael asks what evidence his culture uses to back up its claim of
being flawed, and the narrator admits it only uses its own history not the
history of the Leavers or, that is to say, of hunter-gatherer cultures.
Ishmael tells the narrator there are a few more pieces of the puzzle they
need to cover before they can go on to the next level. He brings up the topic
of prophets and asks the narrator why Taker culture is so obsessed with
prophets. The narrator says it's because Mother Culture says humans do not
know how to live, so they rely on prophets to tell them what to do. Once
again, Ishmael applauds the narrator's efforts and builds on his statements,
concluding that the flaw in humans is that they do not know how to live; if
they knew how to live, their flaw would be in check. He says that Taker
philosophy is pretty depressing and that there is indeed another way to look
at humankind. But he puts that off for tomorrow, saying that today has been
about sightseeing seeing the pieces of culture natives to that culture take
for granted.
In Part 5, Ishmael uses storytelling as well as metaphor to help his pupil
understand the cultural myths structuring his understanding of the world.
First, Ishmael encourages the narrator to use story to understand the
trajectory of Taker culture. The narrator, having learned from his experience
with telling the first and middle part of the Taker story, quickly finishes the

story. He explains the Taker goal of conquering the world in order to achieve
paradise. Thus, once again, Quinn uses storytelling as both a tool for
understanding within the narrative as well as within culture, for storytelling is
what allows the narrator to see his cultural story more objectively.
Additionally, Ishmael uses metaphor to help his pupil gain a better grasp of
what they've achieved so far. The metaphor Ishmael uses is that of
sightseeing. He explains that tourists see all the sights of a nation to which
the natives have grown so accustomed that they don't see them anymore.
Through this metaphor, Ishmael helps the narrator understand what they've
accomplished: they've started to see the landmarks of Taker culture that the
narrator has taken for granted his entire life. Now that the landmarks are in
place, Ishmael foreshadows that the narrator is ready for the next step to
see the world through the Leavers' eyes, rather than the Takers'.
Ishmael greets the narrator playfully the next day, wondering if he's excited
about the discoveries they'll make. Ishmael begins by making a parallel
between Taker culture and the first aeronauts. He says that aeronauts tried
to fly before understanding the law of aerodynamics, but that nonetheless
the law of aerodynamics applied to their attempts. Ishmael's goal is to define
a similar, unarguable law about how to live.
Ishmael continues by bringing up another metaphor, regarding the discovery
of gravity. The narrator agrees with his premise that no one was shocked by
the fact of gravity as they'd all seen that objects fall toward the earth.
Ishmael pushes the narrator to explain how the law was discovered then; the
narrator says through studying matter. Thus, Ishmael suggests that, in order
to understand how to live, one must study life. The narrator explains that
Mother Culture would suggest that humans are above any law that applies to
the rest of life on earth. Ishmael sets out to show how, regardless of what
Mother Culture says, the law of living applies, and that he'll use the analogy
of gravity and flight to explain.
Ishmael begins by suggesting that the Takers' gods tricked the Takers in
three ways: First, they're (the Takers) not the center of the universe, though
they act like they are. Second, humans evolved just like everything else,
even though they feel above evolution. And third, that they're not actually
exempt from the laws of life. Ishmael explains by describing an early attempt
at flight. He describes a man pedaling a bi-winged contraption. He says that
if the man runs off a tall cliff, he will experience free fall for long enough that
it will feel like flight to him, even though he's not actually flying. Additionally,
the man will keep pedaling because so far it's working, even though below
him he'll see abandoned crafts just like his own. But, eventually, he'll fall to
the earth because his craft hasn't followed the rules of aerodynamics.
Ishmael suggests that Taker culture is in the same boat: it's an experiment in
free fall, even though it feels like flight, and Takers are accelerating toward a
crash. Takers also see abandoned attempts at civilization (for example, the
Mayans) but nonetheless believe that their attempt will survive because it
has "worked" so far. The narrator jumps in at the end of Ishmael's lecture and

says that people will just try to do the same thing all over again if the
narrator's culture ends in catastrophe; Ishmael sadly agrees.
Through the use of several analogies, Ishmael presents his ideas about
civilization and natural laws to the narrator and furthers Quinn's arguments
regarding humanity's place in the world. The first analogy Ishmael employs is
that of aerodynamics. He explains that early aeronauts struggled to obtain
flight but were unaware of the law of aerodynamics and were thus largely
unsuccessful because they could rely only on trial and error. He uses this
analogy to explain Taker culture: it is obedient to a law about living, but it is
ignorant of that law and so is unable to see how it's doomed to fail.
The second analogy Ishmael uses is the discovery of gravity. He employs this
analogy by asking the narrator how Newton discovered gravity. After Ishmael
asks a variety of leading questions, the narrator suggests that Newton
discovered the law of gravity by observation. Ishmael also builds on this
analogy to explain that the only way to understand what laws organisms
must live by is by observing living organisms.
Finally, Ishmael combines these two analogies to create an extended
description of the problem of Taker culture. He compares Taker culture to a
man in a flying contraption that does not obey the laws of aerodynamics; it
may appear he's "beat" gravity because he's in free fall, but gravity will
eventually catch up with him. Similarly, while Mother Culture tells Takers that
they're above the laws of life, they too are in free fall, and eventually their
civilization will also crash due to its inability to follow the laws of life. Through
these three analogies, Quinn furthers his argument that humankind is at the
brink of a catastrophe.
Ishmael invites the narrator to imagine himself in a foreign land where
everyone is happy and peaceable. The people he visits, the C's, explain that
they eat their neighbors (the B's), and the B's eat the next people over (the
A's), and the A's eat the C's. Ishmael says that as a visitor, the narrator
might be baffled by these practices, but that everyone in the society finds his
confusion amusing, as they say it is the law of the land and it works for them.
Ishmael then challenges the narrator to find, without asking the A's, B's, or
C's, a means by which to discover what the law is that they follow. Through
more questioning, the narrator discovers he has three guides with which to
narrow down the law by which they live: what makes their society successful,
what people in the society never do, and what a person who has broken the
law has done that the others never do.
Then, Ishmael explains the signs of the law that life follows. He says that
outside the Taker culture, animals coexist with their predators in relative
peace. For instance, a lion kills only because he's hungry; he doesn't
perpetrate some sort of gazelle massacre. All of the species of creatures on
the planet have followed this rule and prospered; it is only that when a
portion of humans decided to abandon the law and live beyond it that Earth's
ecosystems were thrown out of balance.

Ishmael instructs the narrator to leave and to come back only after he's
discovered the rule or rules by which the Leavers and the rest of life on Earth
live. The narrator feels dejected at this prospect and goes out for a drink. He
realizes that he doesn't want to complete this task, not so much because he
doesn't want to know the answer, but because he wants to have a teacher
for life, and once he's learned Ishmael's lesson he'll be left alone again.
In this section, Quinn employs analogy to explain Ishmael's perspective on
the world, and he expands the archetypal teacher-student relationship
between Ishmael and the narrator. First, Ishmael's use of analogy once again
allows the narrator to see the problems with his culture via example rather
than directly. The analogy Ishmael uses is that of the A, B, and C societies, in
which all the people eat each other and live in harmony because they're
following the rule of their society. Ishmael's analogy allows the narrator to
better see how wildlife also follows similar rules and that Takers have tried to
abandon such rules. For instance, a documentarian of wildlife might highlight
the gore and violence of a lion killing a gazelle, but, as Ishmael points out,
the lion is not the enemy of the gazelle; rather it eats what it needs and
leaves the rest of the herd alone.
Furthermore, Quinn explores the teacher-student dynamic through Ishmael's
latest assignment for the narrator. For the first time, Ishmael tells the
narrator to leave and not return until he's figured out the rules by which to
live. The narrator is upset by this proposition as he realizes that, if he's
successful, he'll eventually no longer be Ishmael's pupil. Thus, Quinn shows
both the appeal and complications of teacher-student relationships. On one
hand, the teacher and student benefit from proximity and gain excitement
for their subject via their interactions. On the other, the more successful their
interactions, the sooner their relationship will come to an end. Thus, the
narrator must face the question: what will he do with what he's learned?
What will he become when he's no longer a student?
It takes the narrator four days to figure out the basic laws of life. He returns
to Ishmael on the fifth day with his findings. He says the three basic rules are
1) do not exterminate your competition for food; 2) do not destroy your
competitors' food supply in order to grow your own; and 3) do not deny
access to food to others. Ishmael approves of the narrator's rules and asks
what they promote. They decide it promotes diversity and survival for the
community as a whole since it favors no species above the rest. Having
come to this conclusion, the narrator sees that Taker culture is not so much
clumsy in its execution of civilization, but is actually at war with the rest of
the planet.
Ishmael then presents a brief overview of ecological principles. He says that
when food supplies increase, populations increase. Additionally, when
population increases, food decreases and when food decreases, population
decreases as well. His explanation of these principles leads him and the
narrator to discussing the role of agriculture in Taker culture. Ishmael

suggests that Takers see agriculture as a means to promote unchecked

growth, not simply as a means to supply food for the existing population.
This discussion leads them to the topic of famines. The narrator suggests
that it's morally repugnant to Taker culture to allow others to starve; Ishmael
suggests that as long as food supplies increase, the population will increase
and that staving off famine by bringing in food from elsewhere only
exacerbates the problem. Ishmael and the narrator agree that while Mother
Culture suggests the use of population control to stop this problem, nothing
is actually done to control populations, and thus the cycle of increasing food
supplies and increasing populations leads to more and more groups of
starving people among the population as a whole.
In the first portion of Part 8, Quinn presents the basic laws of life and uses
Ishmael and the narrator's dialogue to address the potential concerns people
may have about the laws' implications. First, the narrator's presentation of
the basic laws of the wild represents an answer to many of the questions
raised earlier in the novel. Recall that Ishmael once asked the narrator if
there were rules by which to live, and the narrator said there were not. Now,
through his own thinking on the subject, the narrator suggests three basic
rules by which all life must live or face the consequence of extinction. The
narrator's ability to address this fundamental question foreshadows that he
and Ishmael will be moving into new philosophical territory now that they've
discovered the basic traits of Taker culture and the laws it defies.
However, while Ishmael and the narrator have found an answer to how to
live, Quinn is quick to address potential criticisms of these laws, particularly
when it comes to the problem of famine. Thus, through Ishmael and the
narrator's discussion of famine, Quinn is able to explain the significance of
the laws and how humanitarian efforts to feed starving people simply
perpetuate the condition of starvation. Through Ishmael and the narrator's
dialogue, Ishmael pushes the narrator to overcome his cultural biases and
see that sending food to starving people does not change the conditions that
led to their starvation. Thus, Quinn situates dialogue as an essential catalyst
to social change. For instance, now that the narrator sees the logic in
Ishmael's statements, he is one step closer to being able to bring about the
changes he wants to see in the world.
Ishmael directs the narrator's attention to a book he's left by his chair, The
American Heritage Book of Indians, and instructs him to look at the map.
Ishmael asks the narrator how Native American populations managed their
numbers. The narrator is unsure, so Ishmael compares the situation of Native
Americans to that of contemporary Americans moving across the country
because of crowding. The narrator admits there's nothing stopping people
from changing geographies, and this helps Ishmael make his key point: there
were cultural and territorial boundaries between the diverse tribes that lived
in the Americas prior to the arrival of European settlers. These strict cultural
and territorial boundaries, enforced both by customs and violence when

necessary, restricted populations to manageable sizes and allowed all tribes

to coexist more or less peaceably.
Ishmael continues by asking the narrator if he now believes there are laws to
live by; the narrator admits that he does, but he's unsure how to apply what
he's learned to the world in which he lives. The narrator feels hopeless; he
thinks no one in Taker culture will be willing to kill off Mother Culture and try
another way of life. However, Ishmael suggests there are plenty of people
fed up with the emptiness of Taker lifestyle and that there is hope for
Finally, Ishmael and the narrator look over the three rules the narrator
explained earlier in the day. The narrator searches for an umbrella law to
cover these three smaller laws. Ishmael helps the narrator see that the
overarching law is that the world was made for many species to live on, not
for one to dominate the rest. He says that tomorrow they'll talk about the
story Leaver cultures enact, but before they end their session, he wants to
give the narrator one last thing to think about. Ishmael says that one of the
key drawbacks of Taker culture, besides not being sustainable, is the
loneliness and depression that plagues people living in Taker culture. They fill
their lives with distractions and drugs to make up for the lack of satisfaction
they feel in general.
In these sections of Part 8, Quinn expands the scope of the teacher-student
relationship, begins to align his philosophy with practical application, and
foreshadows a shift in focus to Leaver culture. Quinn expands his definition of
a strong teacher-student relationship when Ishmael points the narrator to
The American Heritage Book of Indians. By allowing his student to reference
this text, Ishmael demonstrates another key characteristic of a good teacher:
modesty. Recall that during his time with Mr. Sokolow, Ishmael spent much of
his time reading. Thus, the reader knows that Ishmael has read widely, so he
could have simply told the narrator what he wanted him to discover.
However, by having Ishmael give the narrator a text to use, Quinn furthers
his definition of what makes a good teacher and a good student they must
both be open to looking beyond themselves for solutions to complex
The novel shifts away from pure philosophical debate and discussion toward
how these philosophical ideas can be applied in contemporary Taker culture.
Now that the narrator has a fuller understanding of the basic laws of life on
the planet, he can see how Taker culture ignores or defies these laws.
Through this increase in understanding, the narrator desires to find a way to
apply the laws to the world. Ishmael responds to the narrator's desire by
suggesting that change is possible if enough people believe in it and take
action to make it happen. Through this discussion, Quinn encourages the
reader to think more deeply about the ideas he's presented and their
application to the reader's own life. Are these ideas plausible? Is change
necessary? How can change be wrought if it is necessary?

Part 8 ends by foreshadowing a closer look at Leaver culture. To this point,

Leaver culture hasn't been discussed in great detail, but already it stands in
contrast to Taker culture. For instance, Leaver cultures obey the basic laws
that the narrator outlines at the beginning of Part 8. Secondly, as Ishmael
points out, people in Leaver cultures experience dramatically fewer cases of
addiction and suicide. These initial findings foreshadow that adopting the
traits of Leaver culture might be a key way to change the destructive path
Taker culture is on and may help the narrator with his quest to find practical
applications for the ideas he's learning about.
The narrator arrives at Ishmael's office to find him lounging on some
cushions rather than semi-hidden behind the plane of glass that usually
divides them. Ishmael begins the conversation by reviewing the timeline of
human history. They arrive at the conclusion that the Taker culture took off
with the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution and that it has been
spreading ever since.
Ishmael explains that one of the basic stories the Takers tell about
themselves and their formation remains mysterious to them because it's
actually a story the Leavers told to explain the growth of the Takers. Ishmael
tells a version of the story. He explains that the gods were arguing one day
about how to run things on Earth one god wanted to favor the locusts,
while the other gods wanted to favor the grasses and so forth. The gods
argue whether or not their job is to take action or to abstain from action.
Eventually, they decide to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil
and in doing so gain the knowledge of who should live and who should die
and then are able to perform their godly duties wisely.
Ishmael adds that when humans formed on Earth, the gods were worried
again as they knew humans would be tempted to eat of the Tree of the
Knowledge of Good and Evil, and if they did so, they would think they had
gained the knowledge of the gods. However, because humans are not
actually gods, it would be false knowledge that would give them a false
sense of authority over the Earth. So the gods decided to forbid humans from
eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil because such a power
would result in humankind's eventual extinction.
The narrator is stunned and looks through Ishmael's bookshelves, consulting
several different Bibles; none of them provide an explanation as to why
eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is forbidden. So,
Ishmael explains, the story has always remained mysterious to Takers as it
doesn't make sense why it should be forbidden. However, when the story is
analyzed from a Leaver perspective, it makes perfect sense. As Ishmael
points out, if Takers had written it, it would have been an 'ascent' rather than
a 'fall,' since they feel they have a right to act like gods on Earth. Thus, one
of the fundamental problems with Takers is their stubborn adherence to the
idea that their way of life is right and that it is their duty to impose it on
everyone else.

Through the use of storytelling and allusion, Quinn begins to explain Leaver
culture and add further details to the comparison and contrast between Taker
and Leaver cultures. Once again, storytelling proves to be an essential
teaching strategy for Ishmael. In these sections, the basic story he tells
explains the roles of gods and humans and the problems that occur when
humans take on the role of the gods. Thus, the story's allegorical nature
allows the narrator to understand more deeply the problems with Taker
Recall that earlier, stories helped the narrator understand the rules of life
and the importance of following those rules. This story builds on that
knowledge by showing the narrator that Taker culture believes it has the
right to disobey those rules because it has obtained the knowledge of the
gods, which is the ability to determine what should live and what should die.
The second tool Quinn uses is an allusion to the biblical account of the fall of
Adam and Eve. Quinn uses this allusion to connect the novel's central
question (why things are the way they are) to one of the most influential
texts in the world. To accomplish this, the main way Ishmael uses the allusion
is to help the narrator see the Bible story in a different light. First, Ishmael
helps the narrator see that no version of the Bible's telling of the story
provides a reason for why the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is
forbidden. Ishmael makes it clear why this is so: it's forbidden because the
knowledge of the gods does not belong to any life-form on Earth; no creature
has the right to decide what should live and what should die. Second,
Ishmael reveals the roots of this story as one the Leavers told to explain the
Takers. He does this by explicating why it's called The Fall rather than The
Ascent: if Takers had originated this story, they would have said such
knowledge was theirs and that obtaining it marked the rise, rather than the
decline, of humankind.
Thus, through the use of story and allusion, Quinn begins to more deeply
contrast Taker and Leaver culture. One of the key differences between the
two is their cultural attitudes to the rest of life on the planet. For instance,
Takers believe their cultural role is to expand and spread their way of life to
others as it's the "right" thing to do. Leavers believe everything has a right
to live the way it prefers to no single way is right for everyone, and
everyone has a right to select their way as long as it doesn't infringe on
others' right to life and food.
Ishmael pushes the narrator to look more closely at the story of The Fall. If
the Takers did not create the story, then who did, he asks the narrator. The
narrator can't remember, and Ishmael tells him it would be the Semites, the
ancestors of the Hebrews. Ishmael shows the narrator his own map of the
expansion of the Agricultural Revolution to further his point. His map
illustrates that the agriculturalists were surrounded by herders. For the
agriculturalists to expand and fulfill their Taker "destiny," they had to take
land from the herders. Ishmael instructs the narrator to read the story of Cain
and Abel to better understand how this expansion took shape.

In the story of Cain and Abel, Cain represents the Takers who must kill the
Leavers (Abel) in order to expand agricultural production. Once again,
Ishmael has brought the narrator's attention to a story that, while familiar,
makes more sense when looked at from the Leaver perspective. Thus, Cain
and Abel aren't actual brothers, but representatives of different human
Ishmael explains that because the Leavers didn't fully die out or become
completely assimilated into Taker culture, the Takers, through the spread of
Christianity, came to adopt a tale that once was used to show their
shortcomings as one of their own creation myths.
In sections 9-11, Ishmael once again uses allusion and storytelling to
broaden the narrator's understanding of Taker and Leaver culture. The key
allusion in these sections is to the story of Cain and Abel. In the Bible story,
Cain and Abel are brothers; Cain's a farmer and Abel's a herder. Cain's
jealousy of Abel eventually induces him to murder Abel. By alluding to this
story, Ishmael adds to the narrator's understanding of Taker and Leaver
culture and the divide between the two. According to Ishmael, Cain is
representative of Takers and Abel is representative of Leavers. Leavers used
this allegory to explain the spread of Taker culture during the Agricultural
Revolution. Recall that earlier in Part 9, Ishmael alluded to and expanded on
the story of The Fall. When looking at both allusions and the added
information Ishmael brings to both, the narrator better grasps Ishmael's
philosophy and his take on how the world has come to be dominated by
Taker culture.
Second, the function of storytelling continues to expand. So far, storytelling
has been used as a teaching tool by Ishmael and as a term for the way a
culture understands itself. For instance, recall that Ishmael first began
explaining Taker culture by trying to get the narrator to tell the Takers'
creation myth (i.e., the story of the Big Bang and evolution resulting in
humankind). Now, Ishmael also shows the narrator that cultures can use
story to explain other cultures' behaviors. Both the story of The Fall and Cain
and Abel were tools Semites used to explain the expansion of agriculture and
the people who threatened their way of life.
Furthermore, the Takers' appropriation of this story in the Bible suggests that
another part of Taker culture is appropriating Leaver culture in order to
dominate it. By taking the stories of The Fall and Cain and Abel for their own,
the Takers have obscured the point of these stories and have made Leaver
culture even more invisible and diminished when compared with Taker
Ishmael has the narrator explain how the Leavers came to formulate these
stories about the Takers. The narrator explains that Leavers saw the Takers
as being crazy, acting in a way that was totally foreign to them. So, in order
to understand why the Takers were invading their land and taking it from
them, they had to figure out how they got to be the way they are. So, they

decided the Takers had taken the wisdom of the gods and were trying to use
it as their own and that the gods, upset with these Takers, had banished
them from the garden of life, forcing these people to get their food through
the hard work of farming.
Ishmael approves of the narrator's explanation and expands on it by saying
that this explains why agriculture is characterized as a curse in these stories,
for the Leavers could not understand why a people would want to work so
hard to subsist.
The narrator, however, still has a few questions. First, he asks why Cain is
the firstborn and Abel the second-born son. Ishmael and the narrator explore
this question and decide that Cain and Abel are to be interpreted
symbolically and that in many allegories it is the second son who is for a long
time overshadowed by the firstborn, becoming an underdog hero of sorts.
The narrator is also confused about Eve, since Eve's name doesn't mean
woman (as Adam's means man), but rather means life. Ishmael explains that
when the Takers took from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they
made the decision to grow without limit. Thus, the person who offers them
this opportunity is called life. Ishmael says this idea is continually
perpetuated in Taker culture as Taker families see bearing children as a right,
regardless of overpopulation's effect on other life-forms.
Finally, Ishmael asks the narrator to reiterate what they've discussed. The
narrator stumbles along, trying to figure out how the story makes sense from
a Taker perspective. The best he can do is to suggest that the issue, in the
Taker perspective, is not the right to have the knowledge of the gods, but the
issue of disobedience Adam fell from grace not for the knowledge he
obtained, but for disobeying the gods' order. The narrator agrees with
Ishmael that the story makes much more sense when told from the Leavers'
In the final sections of Part 9, Quinn revisits the ideas presented earlier in
Part 9 by analyzing the Leaver-originated myths Ishmael and the narrator
have already discussed, looking at the symbolic features of characters in
these myths, and finally exploring how these myths have been appropriated
by Taker culture. First, Ishmael and the narrator analyze what they've learned
about the myths of The Fall and Cain and Abel so far. To begin, Ishmael asks
the narrator to explain how these myths came to be in the first place. The
narrator answers this question by explaining that the Leavers were trying to
work backward from the Takers behavior: the Takers are acting in a way no
one else does, how did they get to be this way? The myths thus serve to
explain Taker behavior. Thus, Ishmael helps the narrator to see how Leavers
saw the Takers as cursed (not special or blessed, as Takers see themselves).
Ishmael and the narrator's analysis intensifies through looking at the
symbolic qualities of the characters in the stories, mainly Cain, Abel, and
Eve. First, Cain and Abel are symbolic of brothers, and are not to be read as
actual human brothers. Thus, Abel becomes the overshadowed but righteous
younger brother featured in many allegories, and Cain the overbearing older

brother. Additionally, Eve is also explained as a symbol since her name

means life. Ishmael explains that she is symbolic of life rather than death
because of the Takers' appropriation of the story. Whereas the Leavers saw
the story of The Fall as the story of the Takers becoming cursed, the Takers
saw it as the story of their growth their grasp on life. Thus Eve's name is
one of the ways the Takers appropriated the story to make sense on their
terms and not on Leaver terms.
Finally, Ishmael helps the narrator see how the story of The Fall has evolved
not to explain the formation of humans on earth, but the formation of a
specific culture Taker culture. The key way the Takers manipulated the
original Leaver story to situate Adam as a protagonist is to change why Adam
was punished. In the Leavers' interpretation of the story, Adam is punished
for seeking the god's knowledge; in the Takers' interpretation, he is punished
for disobeying the gods, not for the knowledge he gained. Thus, the Takers
are able to make the story a tale of hope Adam, although disobedient, has
gained control over life itself rather than a tale of warning, as it is for the
Leavers Adam has eaten of the gods' tree and thus must die.
The narrator's uncle visits and he gets stuck playing host for a couple days.
Then the narrator is sidetracked by work and a dental emergency, causing
him to miss several days of meetings with Ishmael. The narrator feels certain
something bad has happened to Ishmael, and his feelings prove correct when
he shows up to learn that Ishmael has been evicted.
The narrator speaks with the management company controlling Ishmael's
former office, but they refuse to give him any information. He then searches
for either Rachel Sokolow or the widow of Ishmael's benefactor, Rachel's
father, Walter Sokolow. He finds the widow's mansion and talks with
Partridge, the butler. Partridge informs the narrator that Rachel died three
months ago and says someone must have helped Ishmael out, but he has no
idea who such a person would be. The narrator decides to place his own
personal ad in hopes of finding Ishmael's other friends and thus his location.
The personal ad is a dead end. The narrator then calls the local zoo, also to
no avail. Finally, he tracks down a traveling carnival and locates Ishmael in a
sideshow cage about forty miles from his former home. The narrator tries to
help Ishmael, but Ishmael doesn't appreciate the narrator butting into his
personal life. Ishmael refuses to speak with the narrator and, dejected, the
narrator leaves.
The start of Part 10 marks a departure from the format of the earlier portions
of the novel through Quinn's use of more complex character and setting
development rather than dialogue to add complexity to the themes explored
earlier in the book. First, in these sections, the reader learns more about the
qualities of the narrator's and Ishmael's characters. The narrator can be
thoughtless, despite his dedication to saving the world and his admiration for
Ishmael. For instance, although he has opportunities to tell Ishmael he can't
make it, he chooses not to. His neglect of his relationship with Ishmael

influences Ishmael's reaction to him when the narrator finally finds Ishmael
weeks later. Ishmael is cold, distant, and wary of the narrator's desire to fix
the situation. Ishmael's reaction to his new, caged life suggests that while he
wants to teach humans, he's also learned to distrust their benevolence and
resents his dependency on the kindness of humans in order to have a decent
Additionally, Quinn employs the use of action and setting to heighten the
tension around Ishmael's disappearance. Recall that, for the most part, the
novel has taken place through the dialogue between the narrator and
Ishmael, heightening the sense of them as teacher and student, isolated
from real-world demands. Ishmael's disappearance and the narrator's
resulting search serve to place their philosophical discussions in a more
grounded setting: they are subject to the demands and challenges of the
world they've been discussing so thoroughly. Furthermore, Ishmael's new
location a cage in a traveling carnival helps the reader see why his
studies have been so important to him. Having grown up in captivity, Ishmael
understands the pain of having one's fate controlled and so he passionately
wants others (for example, his students) to understand not only the physical
but the cultural boundaries to their existence in order to help them achieve
the freedoms of which he is often deprived.
In closing, Quinn's use of characterization and focus on setting and action
add complexity to the themes Ishmael and the narrator have explored so far.
First, by calling into question Ishmael and the narrator's roles as teacher and
student, Quinn shows they are both fallible and that the topics they're
exploring are subject to and part of the difficulties they face outside their
student-teacher relationship. For instance, the narrator must work for a
living; Ishmael must pay his rent. These mundane responsibilities and
challenges are just as much a part of what Ishmael is trying to get the
narrator to understand that is, his cultural heritage and the state of the
world as the historical and anthropological ideas with which he presents
the narrator. Indeed, for the narrator to truly be able to help save the world,
he must learn to reconcile the demands of his daily life with his desire to be a
force of change in the world.
The narrator checks into a hotel near the carnival where Ishmael is caged to
try to figure out what to do next. He returns to the carnival later in the
evening and bribes a worker to let him spend some time alone with Ishmael.
Ishmael jumps right in where they left off. Quickly, they summarize what
they've covered so far: the Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel myths that are
at the roots of Taker culture. Their goal is to figure out what it all adds up to.
In order to help the narrator understand this, Ishmael asks him to define
culture. The narrator defines it as what's passed along from generation to
generation. For Leaver cultures, culture has evolved since the start of the
species and is passed down from generation to generation. For Taker
cultures, while some knowledge is passed down through the generations,

there's a value placed on newness and a rejection of ancient ways as out-ofdate and useless.
Ishmael praises the narrator's thinking and asks him when he thinks such
cultural amnesia began taking place. Through Ishmael's guidance, the
narrator understands that this amnesia has been part of Mother Culture's
teachings since the inception of Taker culture.
The narrator and Ishmael dig a little deeper to try to ascertain the different
types of information Taker and Leaver cultures transmit to new generations.
Taker cultures pass down to each generation ways to better produce things;
Leaver cultures pass down ways to live well for a particular culture. Through
this discovery, the narrator concludes that this is also why Taker cultures are
dependent on laws and prophets they want to know the one right way to
do things, not just a way among many. Thus, Ishmael helps the narrator see
that Leaver cultures are subject to evolution and have been evolving since
humankind formed on the planet and that, just as with many life-forms on
the planet, once they go extinct, a certain kind of knowledge is lost forever
with each one that vanishes.
Upon returning to the philosophical focus of the novel, Quinn develops the
contrast between Taker and Leaver cultures through the ideas of cultural
amnesia, transmittal of knowledge, and evolution. First, Quinn uses the idea
of cultural amnesia to explain one of the essential differences between the
two cultural systems. In Taker cultures, inventiveness is valued over what's
tried and true. Thus, Ishmael explains that Mother Culture teaches Taker
culture to dismiss the old ways in favor of new ways, resulting in a culture
that experiences a sort of amnesia. In contrast, Leaver cultures value ancient
ways, and memory plays a vital role in the transmittal of cultural information
particularly how each generation lives and learns to live by learning from
the prior generation.
Additionally, each culture transmits some knowledge from generation to
generation, but that knowledge is very different for each culture. For Takers,
what is transmitted is knowledge of production, according to Ishmael. For
example, Takers transmit knowledge of agricultural production over the
centuries, constantly expanding and improving on the technology used to
grow crops. In contrast, Leaver cultures transmit knowledge about living well
and the way of life of a specific culture rather than the means of production
(agricultural or otherwise) that that culture uses. For example, as the
narrator points out, tribes, such as the Navajo, know what works for them as
a culture, but do not suggest that their way of life works for everyone.
Thus, Quinn uses the idea of evolution to further explain the differences
between Taker and Leaver cultures. In scientific terms, evolution is the
adaptation of a life-form to the environmental forces surrounding it; over
years and years, the life-form evolves to best deal with the environmental
factors each generation faces. In Leaver cultures, their cultural structures
evolved over centuries, much as an organism would, allowing their cultural
practices to adapt and support their livelihood in the environment in which

they find themselves. Taker culture, however, also evolves, though not in
response to environmental factors. Instead, it responds to its cultural beliefs
that man is made to rule the world and that everything in the culture is
designed to bring the environment under humankind's command.
The next day, the narrator and Ishmael resume their talk. Ishmael challenges
the narrator to think of why he wants to know the story Leaver cultures enact
now that he knows the Takers' story. At first, the narrator is unable to provide
a legitimate answer, but finally he realizes that he, like others who are
worried about the destruction of the world, needs a new story to enact it's
not enough to toss off the old one.
To begin their exploration of Leaver cultures, Ishmael asks the narrator what
Mother Culture would say the Agricultural Revolution was about. The narrator
says it's perceived as a purely technological development, whereas Ishmael
attests that it was much more than that. He says that Mother Culture also
teaches that life before the Agricultural Revolution was horrible and that to
live that way would be reprehensible. He suggests that the narrator and
everyone in Taker culture still holds this belief even the poorest members
of Taker culture, who may be homeless, jobless, and lacking opportunities to
improve their lives.
In order to help the narrator better understand Takers' dismissal of Leaver
lifestyles and Leavers' tenacious desire to keep their lifestyles, Ishmael takes
on the role of a Leaver and the narrator the role of a Taker trying to convince
the Leaver to adopt a Taker lifestyle, to give up hunting and gathering to
become a farmer. In their roles, the narrator and Ishmael go back and forth
and the narrator tries to convince Ishmael's "Leaver" persona that life will be
easier if he knows he always has food and doesn't have to worry about
finding it every day. Ishmael's character finds this insane as he's never
worried that food wouldn't be there the whole world is filled with food. If
no deer today, then rabbits, for instance. The narrator keeps pushing and
finally tells Ishmael that while he may have enough food, he doesn't have
enough to free himself from the gods from the fickleness of fate, so to
speak. He says that the gods are useless and that to have a better life,
Ishmael's character must take matters into his own hands, to ensure he has
food no matter what the gods let happen.
The narrator realizes that the point of Taker culture is to live outside the
hands of the "gods" that is, to no longer be subject to the rules that
orchestrate ecosystems and biological balance. Leavers, however, live
according to these rules and find it satisfying, as they never have to work too
hard to eat and accept the benefits and hardships of living according to the
laws of nature.
Quinn employs the use of anecdote and role-playing to help Ishmael and the
narrator regain their teacher-student relationship and push the narrator to
more fully understand the philosophical ideas Ishmael presents. Ishmael uses
an anecdote to help the narrator understand his own way of thinking about

culture. In the anecdote, Ishmael creates a hypothetical situation in which a

poor, ill-educated person, with no hopes of an improved future, is given a
magic box with a button on it. If he pushes the button, he'll be whisked back
in time to a thriving hunter-gatherer society, equipped with complete
knowledge of the tribe's culture and language. When confronted with this
hypothetical situation, the narrator says the hypothetical man, or any person
in Taker society for that matter, would reject the offer because Mother
Culture has taught him that such a lifestyle is intrinsically worse than
anything Taker culture has to offer. Through the use of this anecdote, Ishmael
helps the narrator see his own prejudices.
Ishmael also uses role-playing to help the narrator understand the points
he's trying to make. During the role-play, Ishmael acts like a person from a
Leaver culture and the narrator acts like a person from Taker culture who is
trying to convince the Leaver to give up his way of life. Through their
interaction, Quinn not only explicates more of the nuances of the philosophy
he explores in the novel, but also adds complexity to Ishmael and the
narrator's teacher-student relationship. Recall that, for the most part,
Ishmael's teaching techniques have been to ask the narrator questions and
tell him stories to help him understand the ideas he's trying to present.
Through the use of role-playing, Ishmael forces the narrator to take a more
active role in his learning and thus gain a fuller understanding of the
differences between Taker and Leaver cultures.
The narrator approaches the owner of the carnival to see if he'll sell Ishmael
to him. The narrator haggles for a while, convinced he could possibly come
up with enough cash to help Ishmael escape his prison. Later that night, he
returns to the carnival after it closes to continue his discussion with Ishmael.
A sleepy Ishmael picks up where they left off, asking the narrator to think of
what happens to Leaver cultures that does not happen to Takers. The
narrator, with Ishmael's help, figures out that evolution is what happens
because Leavers remain within the community of life. The narrator sees then
that Taker cultures not only believe that man is the end result of evolution
but, by removing themselves from the rules that govern life on earth, have
removed themselves from evolution, ensuring that life will not grow more
complex or intelligent as it has for eons.
Through Ishmael and the narrator's discussion of evolution, the narrator sees
that man is just one step in evolution's tendency toward increasing
complexity and self-awareness in life-forms. Thus, he suggests that man's
role on earth should not be that of a ruler but of a guide or role model a
figure that sets the standard for how self-aware, intelligent life-forms should
act to benefit and promote biodiversity. The narrator also sees this idea as a
way to encourage others to change the way they live because it gives them
a positive story to enact rather than a negative one.
In this section, Quinn shifts thematic focus from the past to the future
through the idea of evolution and the symbol of humans as pathfinders. First,

Quinn revisits the idea of evolution as a means to understanding cultural

development. For instance, Ishmael helps the narrator see that humans
became human through evolution and that this is still what happens to
humans in Leaver culture: they have not abandoned the forces that shape
evolutionary development. Thus the narrator is more equipped to analyze his
own Taker culture and see how it has removed itself from the chain of
evolution by living outside the ecological laws Ishmael outlined earlier in the
Secondly, Quinn's use of the pathfinder as a symbol for humankind suggests
a way people in Taker culture can find their way back into the community of
life. So far in the novel, Ishmael and the narrator have focused on the
historical events that have resulted in the current state of human dominance
on the Earth: environmental degradation. Recall that during this investigation
of history, Ishmael and the narrator characterized humans as the enemies of
the Earth. Through the use of the symbol of a pathfinder, Quinn creates a
way for humans to rethink their role on the planet so they can have a
positive rather than negative impact on the world's ecology.
Ishmael asks the narrator about chapter two of the Leavers' story. He tries to
get the narrator to think about what world change would look like, which
brings him and the narrator to the issue of civilization. Ishmael helps the
narrator understand that civilization isn't the problem, but the attitude
civilized nations have toward the world is. The key is whether a civilized
people see the world as belonging to them or as themselves as belonging to
the world.
At this point, Ishmael reflects on his former students and informs the narrator
that this is the point where most of them give up because they don't think
such wide-scale change is possible. However, the narrator still remains
inspired and wants to know what he can do to help change the world.
Ishmael tells him he must be a teacher, for humans' minds must change
before their actions will.
But before Ishmael sends the narrator out into the world to share the
knowledge he's gained, he focuses on one last point. He reminds the narrator
of the original metaphor of captivity he used to begin their lessons that all
members of Taker culture are imprisoned by a destructive, unfulfilling way of
life. And, like any prison, it has ways of distracting inmates so they don't
notice the conditions. The narrator sees that, for Takers, that distraction is
consuming the world. Ishmael adds that it's also important to stay focused
on breaking free of the prison, not simply on making conditions within the
system more equitable for historically marginalized members (that is, nonwhite and non-male humans).
With that, Ishmael informs the narrator he's finished instructing him and
goes to bed, though the narrator assures him he'll return tomorrow.
In the second half of Part 12, Quinn uses the ongoing theme of teaching and
the metaphor of prison to help the narrator understand what must be done

to save the world. Now that the narrator understands the historical
circumstances leading up to the current state of the world, he's at a loss for
what he's supposed to do about it. Ishmael suggests being a teacher. By
having Ishmael, as the teacher, suggest his student become one, Quinn
stresses the significance of student-teacher relationships as central to social
change. Thus, Ishmael and the narrator are not only representative of an
allegorical model of learning (similar to Socrates and his pupils, for instance)
but are also a model for cultural change, for, as Ishmael suggests to the
narrator, the only way to change people's actions is to start with their minds.
Furthermore, Quinn uses the metaphor of prison to help focus the narrator's
role as a teacher. Recall that earlier in the novel, Ishmael explained that one
of his motivations to educate himself was to better understand the idea of
captivity. Ishmael returns to the idea of a prison to remind the narrator of the
powerful ways Mother Culture hides the bars of her "prison." Thus, the
narrator must use his understanding of this prison to help his fellow prisoners
see what binds them to their ecologically destructive way of life. While the
narrator is overwhelmed by his task as a teacher, Ishmael's provided him
with useful metaphors, such as the prison, as well as the stories he's used in
his instruction, to help the narrator reach others as he himself was reached.
The next day, the narrator initiates his plan to rescue Ishmael from the
carnival. First, he must drive back to the city. On his way there, his car breaks
down. Once he gets it to a shop, he withdraws as much cash as he can from
all his accounts. With a little over two thousand dollars, he hopes to buy
Ishmael's freedom. He's not sure how he'll house and transport a gorilla, but
he has faith he'll figure it out.
A couple days later, he realizes he should rent a van since his car is in the
shop. He drives back to the carnival, only to find it has moved on. While at
the empty fairgrounds, one of the workers informs the narrator that Ishmael
died of pneumonia. The narrator is shocked and gathers up a few of
Ishmael's belongings that were left behind. He frames one of Ishmael's
posters and hangs it in his home.
In this final section, the narrator is forced to come to terms with Ishmael's
death and his responsibility to carry on with Ishmael's teachings. The first
step the narrator must take is to realize his own culpability in Ishmael's
passing. For instance, he acknowledges that he was too self-absorbed during
their last meetings to see how sick Ishmael really was. Additionally, he calls
Mr. Sokolow's butler, Mr. Partridge, to tell him about Ishmael's death. During
the phone conversation, he chastises him for not helping him help Ishmael.
And, while Mr. Partridge helps the narrator see that Ishmael may not have let
them help him, the narrator comes to terms with his own short-sightedness.
In order to continue his growth, the narrator must take Ishmael's teachings
to heart and put them into practice. Quinn indicates this through the
narrator's inheritance of Ishmael's belongings. Through the gathering up of
Ishmael's notebooks and drawings, the narrator symbolically takes on the

role of teacher. However, aside from taking Ishmael's things, it's unclear
what the narrator will do next. Quinn ends the novel with the question of the
narrator's intentions unanswered as demonstrated through the narrator's
inspection of Ishmael's poster that says on the back, "With Gorilla Gone, Will
There Be Hope for Man." The novel ends with this question to the reader,
forcing the reader, along with the narrator, to contemplate what action
should come next after such philosophical debate and discussion.
Part Six
The next day, Ishmael begins the session by reiterating the Taker axiom that
knowledge about how to live is obtainable. Ishmael counters this axiom,
however, suggesting that one can find laws on how to live if one consults
whats actually there (96). He proceeds to uncover those laws with the
Download a Free Audiobook
The strategy he employs is looking to the community of all life - and not just
the community of humans - to determine these laws. As example, he points
out that humans are as subject to laws like gravity and genetics as any other
creatures are. Therefore, the issue involves identifying which natural laws
might provide guidance on how to live.
The gods, according to Ishmael, played three tricks on the Takers, each of
which troubled Taker society because it contradicted Mother Culture's story.
The first was that the gods did not place the world at the center of the
universe, which challenges the idea of human centrality. Secondly, the gods
arranged for humans to evolve like any other species, thereby challenging
their feeling of uniqueness. And thirdly, the gods did not exempt man from
natural laws, laws which must be followed unless a species wishes to court
extinction. Over the centuries, the Takers adapted to these first two
discoveries, but they deem the third unforgivable.
To explain how Takers fallaciously believe themselves exempt from natural
laws, Ishmael compares Taker civilization to the first flying machines. An
airman testing one of those early machines might take off on it from a cliff
and believe that he is flying even as he is simply falling at a reduced rate. He
might see the ruins of failed machines on the ground below him, but he
simply wonders why they stopped trying to fly - he does not realize they
have crashed. Similarly, humans look at failed civilizations and simply
wonder why they stopped trying to succeed. Believing that their method of
living has worked thus far, Takers proudly persist in their way of life.
However, the truth is that we are heading for a crash, as we squander
irreplaceable resources while only a relative few people recognize the

Part Seven
Next, Ishmael presents the narrator with a puzzle. He asks him to imagine
living in a strange society that works extremely well. In this society, people
called As serve as food for those who are Bs. Similarly, Bs are food
for Cs, and then Cs for As. This society conforms to a law, which
allows them a friendly, peaceable existence. Ishmael asks the narrator how
he would discover what this law is, without asking the citizens directly.
The narrator decides that he would look at the society from two sides. First,
he must determine what makes the society work; second, he must determine
what they do not do. To help, Ishmael provides that one man has been found
guilty of breaking the law, and is sentenced to die. Assuming he has access
to that criminal's biography, the narrator concludes he would assess what
this man has done that nobody else in the society has done. Under those
three parameters, he could potentially discover the law.

Ishmael points out the world existed in harmony for 3 billion years until the
Takers (about 10,000 years ago) decided that man would no longer follow the
peace keeping law (118). In the wild, lions and gazelles are not enemies,
even if they hunt one another. Though the Takers might view them as
antagonists, a lion will only kill a gazelle to survive - that relationship reflects
the life cycle. Five hundred generations in, the Takers have the world on the
brink of death, but believe that the fault is an inherent flaw in humanity,
rather than their own choices.
Ishmael asks the narrator to leave and discover what this "peace keeping
law" is. When the narrator expresses doubt in his abilities, Ishmael reminds
him to use the parameters he discovered in the puzzle. If the law had not
been followed from the beginning of time, the Earth would have remained
barren. Like the criminal in the puzzle, one species (the Takers) has broken
the law, so the narrator must identify what they have done that others (the
Leavers and animals) have not.
That night, the narrator feels anxious and angry, but cannot initially identify
the reason. After a while, he realizes he is upset that his lessons with Ishmael
will eventually end, while he actually wants "a teacher for life" (122).
In this section of the novel, Quinn continues derailing the common human
assumptions about civilization. One of the novel's most important allegories
is that of the early flying machines. The crux of the argument is that there is
a major difference between flying and falling, and civilization is currently in
the process of the latter. What makes the allegory so important is that it
reminds us that perspective is as important as action. We must first
recognize the truth is we are to enact change.
This point is important towards understanding Ishmael's point about the
three tricks that the gods played. The irony is that though humans consider
science to be their greatest achievement, the discoveries of science have

often contradicted the Taker feelings of superiority. Darwin discovered we

evolved from apes, and Galileo that we were not the center of the universe.
Essentially, Quinn suggests, actual objective science suggests that there is
no difference between humans and any other species on Earth. But because
we refuse to acknowledge this fact and live subject to the laws that govern
all other life, we are bringing the world to its knees. Again, the point is that
we must change our perspective, and see ourselves outside of the delusions
perpetuated by Mother Culture.
Ishmael's riddle - about the "A's," "B's," and "C's" - is significant for several
reasons. First is the moral component. The narrator is initially shocked to
learn of this hypothetical society, much as many readers might be. The
cannibalism is so distinct from our own society that it seems fundamentally
wrong. And yet it sets up the important point, expanded in later sections,
that the food chain does not constitute a natural antagonism.
Secondly, it reinforces the idea of a law that everyone lives subject to for the
sake of harmony. Ishmael's suggestion in the riddle is that these people do
not consciously choose to honor the law - instead, they take it for granted,
and subsume themselves to it. What is distinct about Takers is that we
choose to flaunt the "peace keeping law" even though its validity is
objectively clear. When Ishmael reveals more about the law in the next
section, the sense is that we must return to a world where natural laws are
naturally followed, rather than being a conscious choice.
Finally, it is interesting to consider the novel's form. Quinn attempted to write
this book several different ways, but never tried telling it as a narrative until
the Turner Fellowship Opportunity came about. In other words, what finally
made the idea stick was the introduction of the two main characters. While
much of the novel is merely a dialectic, the narrator's personality is
extremely important. His feelings of betrayal at the end of Part Seven remind
us that we must take responsibility for our own selves - we cannot rely on a
teacher for our entire lives. In other words, even if this novel inspires us to
want change, we will eventually have to enact that change ourselves. Over
the novel, the narrator's journey is certainly intellectual - he learns a lot - but
it is also physical. He eventually has to make a choice to continue spreading
Ishmael's lesson. The moment at the end of Part Seven is an indication that
he is starting to become aware of this second facet of the journey.