In Ishmael, Daniel Quinn’s central argument is that “modern” society is unbounded (“modern” is taken to mean post-tribal, mass-agricultural and collective), because food production and survival have been almost completely decoupled from the vagaries of fate and the constraints of geography. As society grows in population and scale, ecologies, habitats, other species and other cultures are destroyed and usurped as a matter of necessity; they are obstacles to be overcome. “Modern” society, in short, is a virus that reproduces without regard for its host (i.e., Gaia). In contrast, Quinn says, tribal societies must live in balance and cooperation with nature, must never outgrow what the local environment can provide, must not destroy species and habitats, and must live by the same “rules” as animals. Following this logic, modern society (comprised of “takers”) is doomed to collapse unless it is rebuilt in the style of sustainable tribal life (the “leavers”).
First off, how this is not restating the noble savage trope? The noble savage comes in two flavors: hard primitivism and soft primitivism. Hard primitivism is Hobbesian, painting the lives of tribal societies as nasty, brutish, short; something out of Lord of the Flies; something “advanced” societies evolve or grow out of. Soft primitivism is nostalgic and paternal: tribal living as blissful, utopian, communal, nonviolent, and in tune with nature; like that old littering commercial with the crying Indian. (There’s a deeper issue with using the word “primitive” in the first place, but set that aside for the moment)
Quinn’s argument is nothing more than soft primitivism: the tribal members have it better, and have it right. To his credit, he identifies specific qualities of “leavers” (inherent size limitations, less destructive agricultural practices) rather than appealing to some nebulous ancient mystic wisdom. And he’s right that tribal societies aren’t savage, primitive, unevolved, unintelligent, or somehow “less than”. But you can’t argue that starvation is an inescapable symptom of overexpanding agricultural societies and at the same time suggest that starvation is an expected and necessary way for tribal societies to maintain a natural balance with the ecosystem. It’s wrong in two totally different ways: while people starving is immoral and wrong, there’s enough food right now to feed everyone on Earth, so it’s not just that population outpaced food production. Moreover, to say that starvation is OK as long as it happens in tribal societies is an appeal to the noble savage: look, they even starve to death with honor and dignity!
Obviously, if you put all the good things about tribal living on one side and all the horrors of “modern” living on the other, one looks better. But the other side of the coin has to be worth mentioning, too, right? For example, large interconnected societies have greater genetic diversity and increased disease resistance. And, presumably, there was some benefit that made long-ago peoples switch from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural ones—I rather doubt there was a collective decision that boiled down to “yeah, life is perfect now but let’s do this thing that’s going to make it worse for everyone.” Larger, interconnected societies more easily share and accumulate knowledge. For isolated tribes, there’s no reading a book by someone from two continents over who devoted their life to studying some topic (though I’m curious about how the internet might affect that). To that point, there’s an inherent irony that the writing, distribution, and reading of Quinn’s book only makes sense in the very “taker” societies the book critiques. Piling everything only on one side of the scale is facile, sub-Gladwellian argument.
Quinn goes on to suggest that we must tear down and rebuild “taker” society before it inevitably destroys itself. Imagine, he says, the way a broken hang glider might seem to be working while in the air, right until you crash into the ground. Ergo, any apparent “success” of modern culture is illusory and temporary—it’s the illusion of flight while we’re actually hurtling towards disaster.
This is, in a word, bullshit. Like false consciousness, it’s an argument that sequesters itself in the Castle Rhetorical Fuck-Off, surrounded by the moat of selective perception and safe from all epistemological attack. Society hasn’t self-destructed? It surely will, just wait. It’s successful? That’s just an illusion. It’s an argument that can’t ever be wrong, and it’s pointless and boring. The apocalypse could always happen tomorrow, but the existence as concepts of nuclear winter, global warming, viral pandemic, and mass starvation is not, ipso facto, evidence of a fundamental failing of culture and society (especially when we consider the forgotten world-ending boogeymen of years past, like global cooling and the population bomb). If society is doomed, he hasn’t actually done anything to make me believe it, besides appealing to the kind of self-loathing “do-good”/”Hands Across America” attitude that makes the affluent feel morally engaged.
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The underlying question, then, is this: must a non-tribal, post-agricultural civilization definitionally include starvation, deprivation, and viral growth that destroys habitats and ecologies to accommodate it? Quinn says yes: “taker” society is fundamentally flawed, and so we have to abandon the idea of “fixing” problems and completely reboot. I’m on board with the idea that post-agricultural society is fucked up and that people are monsters. But how can our only two “choices” be a) the calamitous and incorrigible virus of mass agricultural society or b) the blissful utopia of tribal living? Particularly, it’s not clear what failings are unavoidable and which are simply problems to be fixed. Even if certain problems are unavoidable in taker societies, maybe we should grapple with the question of whether it’s worth it? Can eradicating diseases, increasing food production, sending messages and people into space, and being on a centuries-long downward trend of starvation and violence and an upward trend of health and life span ever make up for pollution, or ecological destruction, or individual deaths? I mean, I sure don’t know, but it’s a cop out to ignore that question. This is one of the first times in my life I could be accused of being less cynical than the other guy, because I think some wrongs can be righted. These are all bad:
But we don’t need the wisdom of “leavers” to tell us that. That the Yanomami practice slash-and-burn agriculture emphasizes that it is the actions and not the form of a society that matter. It’s not like living in tribes magically allows one to see the wisdom in not clearcutting the fucking rainforest or hunting buffalo to extinction just because they’re there.*
*Since human intellect is a product of “Nature”, isn’t any human activity necessarily in accordance with nature? That’s facetious, but “accordance with nature” is a term that rarely seems to have meaning (bonus points to anyone who finds an “it goes against nature” argument that is not either a) utterly meaningless or b) serves a reprehensible political agenda). In any case, I doubt humans are clever enough to take the earth with us when we author our own demise, so I’m guessing “nature” is safe.
The fundamental issue is not that Quinn is wrong. Humans should stop doing dumb, horrible, shortsighted, evil shit, but that point is so obvious as to be banal. Arguing for a return to tribal living and a greater ecological awareness by appealing to an idealized or romanticized notion of the “noble savage” is unnecessary and misleading. A false dichotomy between “modern” (viral, unbounded, and unnatural) and tribal (“in accordance with nature”) societies is unnecessary and misleading. There’s a timeless generational permanence to the belief that society is on the downslope, that things are getting worse, or that art, music, literature, and children are being dumbed down. The “good old days” may have been two dozen years or two dozen millennia ago, but building an argument around them is oversimplified and silly.
Addendum: In his most delusional moment, Quinn argues that if humans had continued to live only in sustainable, nature-communing utopian societies, other animals would have blossomed and developed human-like intelligence and self-awareness. What a profoundly egocentric claim coming in a book whose foundation is an argument against human egotism. Evolution doesn’t have a goal line, and even if it did why assume the end line is human intelligence? If it weren’t for a poorly-timed comet, dinosaurs might still be in charge, and they weren’t, so far as we know, all that smart. World history has not been a geological epic of animals striving to reach the apex that is humanity. Jesus.