Ishmael, Progress, and Talking Animals

You may have been able to ascertain, but a driving force in some of my thought is the fiction book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. I suppose you can think of this as a book review, but I also write this as I realize now that what Quinn stopped short of proposing was a vision of progress. Admittedly, it was a vision that if explicitly stated would not have been taken seriously and probably would have not won the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award or even have been published.

His vision of progress – talking animals.

Ishmael is a philosophical novel, in which a talking gorilla named Ishmael seeks a student who “wants to save the world”. Alan Lomax responds, and the novel is a Socratic dialogue in which Ishmael attempts to impart thoughts on sustainability, anthropocentricism vs biocentricism, and the role of mythology in man’s search for his place in the universe. It is an excellent novel, one that I highly recommend even if you disagree with its core teachings.

I definitely don’t agree with everything Quinn writes, but I will admit this novel was the primary force that shifted my thought from the Elon Musk-style anthropocentricism I had to the Deep-Ecology-ish biocentricism that guides my views now. I will also admit that this is where I started to gain an appreciation for anthropology as a study of “primitive” or “tribal” peoples (Leavers) as a control group in a grand, historical experiment of which we, the civilized (Takers), are the deviated group.

We also have to remember the zeitgeist of the era. Research in the Great Ape Language, the idea that primates could be taught to communicate with humans through sign language, token exchange, and pictures or pictograms. Research had been conducted on the subject for a while, but had gained new light with Koko the Gorilla, a signing female gorilla who made headlines because of her bond to kittens she adopted. Sadly, her first kitten, who she named All Ball, was killed when he escaped and this left Koko in a deep state of duress. She eventually got another kitten, but Koko’s abilities to communicate strong emotions signaled that Koko was not merely replicating hand movements for treats. She understood the meaning of the gestures and although she did not use grammar or syntax, she communicated. Koko’s case was heartbreaking, and it should be known that there are some deep criticisms of ape language research. Nevertheless, we should remember that this was the research in the years leading up to the writing of this novel.

I realize now that that’s what Quinn was hinting towards at the end of Ishmael. Ishmael criticizes pretty deeply our notions of progress and the unsustainable systems our anthropocentric notions of progress create. He argues that civilization, in all previous forms, have expanded upon a “totalitarian agriculture” based society and always fixates on growth. This need to constantly expand and grow requires resources and inevitably creates unsustainable systems like capitalism and communism and socialism and so on. In order to subvert this seemingly inescapable cycle of constant growth, we need a new goal, a new myth to abide by.  What he offers is this exchange:

Divine intentions…it would seem…there is a sort of tendency in evolution, wouldn’t you say? If you start with those ultrasimple critters in the ancient seas and move up step by step to everything we see here now – and beyond – the you have to observe this tendency toward…complexity. And toward self-awareness and intelligence, wouldn’t you agree?

This entire passage is worth reading, but I show that only to illustrate that even the writing of the idea was hesitant and uncertain. It gets more confident, but I believe that Quinn was not fully certain this should be the vision to replace our traditional view of growth-oriented progress.

Maybe that’s why he had a talking gorilla as the central character of the novel, as it really illustrates his point without having to be explicit about it. Almost every society has had talking animals featured heavily in mythology – Aesop’s fables, Odin’s ravens, the Serpent in the Garden of Eden – but that is probably more due to the fact that man historically lived in closer quarters to animals than he does now and has a habit of anthropomorphizing everything.

I’m not sure I buy the vision he offers.

If evolution is left unfettered, will animals reach self-awareness and intelligence like man? Is this even a good thing, seeing as the burden of intelligence is often correlated with depression? And what would man’s role be in this awakening on animal intellect? Philosophic and abstract questions indeed, with fairly disturbing possible ethical consequences.

I appreciate this passage because it really showed me that someone was trying to craft a better vision than just “work, pay bills, die” that I’ve come to let dictate my life. I might not agree, but I appreciate anyone trying to give me an option.

And I do think sustainability has to be a core of whatever vision we craft and that the notion of progress we do have needs a good, hard second look. We don’t need to go full primitivist, but we should at least not screw any of this up for not only our children but all of life that may follow. As Quinn puts it, “Man’s place is to be the first without being the last”.

Man will act in whatever story he is placed in, so man has to be careful of the story he is placed in. If man’s place in the universe is to be the first to cultivate a garden for the rest of life to grow and become sentient or more conservatively live in harmony with nature, man will do so. If man believes the world is his to conquer, and prosper, and grow until the earth is barren, he will do so. This is why an alternate vision of progress needs to formulated

I’m not sure what a good replacement idea of progress would be, but I am also reminded of Yuval Noah Harari’s comment that

Money, in fact, is the most successful story ever invented and told by humans, because it is the only story everybody believes. Not everybody believes in God, not everybody believes in human rights, not everybody believes in nationalism, but everybody believes in money, and in the dollar bill.

If you replace that statement with ‘progress’, you’ll see that the quote still stands. Mostly because progress, growth and money are all intertwined. Which is why I, even though I am an engineer and I have no formal training, attempt to understand economics. It was also why I suggested using the blockchain and the success of bitcoin to shift our notion growth and progress. Whatever notion of progress we use, money will measure it. Whatever fiction we are told, we will believe it.

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be”

Kurt Vonnegut


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