Ishmael': Advocating for Ecological Harmony

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Ishmael, written by Daniel Quinn, is often considered as a legendary masterpiece by many literary critics. The plot of Ishmael delves into the devastation that the human population has brought upon the world since the beginning and development of agriculture. There are two main characters in Ishmael: Ishmael and the narrator. Ishmael is a gorilla that has gained intellect over the years of his captivity. The narrator, who is never explicitly mentioned the details of, is the person that learns from Ishmael and his views upon the world. Quinn’s central message through Ishmael is to portray that the actions and beliefs of the “Takers” are the leading causes of the down-hill destruction of the world and that collectively, something must be done to combat the issue.

Takers vs. Leavers: Challenging Civilization's View

At the beginning of the book, Ishmael defines the two terms, Takers and Leavers. As Ishmael identifies from the first session with the narrator, “I’m going to call people of your culture Takers and the people of all other cultures Leavers.” (Quinn 41). Ishmael and the narrator both delve into the idea that it is universally accepted to believe that they, themselves are considered civilized, whereas the Stone Age peoples are primitive. As the book progresses, it is understood that the Takers branched out from the Leavers from being nomads to becoming agriculturalists when they discovered that agriculture was more convenient and worked well. Despite the fact that Ishmael firmly states that agriculture is entirely harmless, rather beneficial, but the phenomenon has changed the views of individuals. As pieced together from his subtle hints, from then on, people followed the same ideology-- to do what was the most accessible and convenient, not on what the impact will be on for the community.

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Consequences of Agriculture and Land Expansion

From the development of agriculture and the domestication of animals, more and more land have been cultivated for the use of more production. This resulted in the exemplification of the takers from the law of limited competition, driving out competitors and ecological diversity. As Ishmael puts it, “You end up with a community in which diversity is progressively destroyed to support the expansion of a single species… the more competitors you destroy, the more humans you can bring into the world, and that makes it just about the holiest work there is,” (Quinn 139). Takers believe that they are the center of the universe, as they exempt themselves from laws and carry out actions, heedless of the consequences upon the environment. Ishmael recognizes the reason behind why a taker wants to be a taker is because people want to be in charge of their destiny, rather than at the will of nature. However, Ishmael believes that the idea of being in charge is an abstract desire to appear to be above all living creatures.

Despite the continual emphasis upon the destruction of the planet due to the taker ideology, Ishmael still believes that there is a solution to combat the issue of universally accepting that man is the most prominent and dominant figure above all. “What you do is to teach a hundred what I’ve taught you, and inspire each of them to teach a hundred… As long as the people of your culture are convinced that the world belongs to them and that their divinely-appointed destiny is to conquer and rule it, then they are of course going to go on acting the way they’ve been acting for the past ten thousand years… You can’t change these things with laws. You must change people’s minds. And you can’t just root out a harmful complex of ideas and leave a void behind; you have to give people something as meaningful as what they’ve lost,” (Quinn 268). By spreading awareness through the efforts of education, Ishmael still withholds faith in restoring the laws of nature-- true equality among the environment and all living organisms. The book Ishmael highlights the unjust actions and hostility ejected against other species from the takers. One way that Quinn proposes to reverse course upon the ongoing destruction of ecological diversity effectively is the institution of education, denouncing the taker culture and promoting the leaver culture so that the human population would be more familiar and aware with the damages they have already inflicted.

Ishmael's Unique Perspective on Humanity

Throughout the book, Quinn continually stresses the antagonistic behavior of the takers. While the repetition of certain materials may be overdone, Quinn had a reason for it. The structure of Ishmael is cut into different parts, each containing a story with lessons to be learned. The full picture of Ishmael’s viewpoint unfolds slowly; however, the “slowness” allows Quinn to emphasize the most cardinal details. After reading Ishmael, it felt as if I just assembled a 500-piece puzzle, due to the fact that the one story is interconnected with many other ones. As the story develops, the pieces are connected until we realize the evident truth that has been overlooked for centuries.

However, the paramount factor that contributed to Ishmael’s success in persuasion is that the lecturer, Ishmael, is not a human being; he is a gorilla. By being a gorilla, Ishmael does not think of humans in a way that humans think of themselves; he has no obligation to view the world as humans. Despite Ishmael being moody at times, he is willing to address the situation and propose a solution. A suggested theory of why Quinn gave Ishmael the driven mindset was to contradict the attitude of a few modern-day influencers.


At the last page of the book, the narrator reexamines a poster from Ishmael saying, “WITH MAN GONE, WILL THERE BE HOPE FOR GORILLA?” (Quinn 282). This can be interpreted in two ways. It could mean that without man’s existence, the gorilla will have a better chance of survival; but it could also mean that without man’s actuality, the gorilla will be less likely to survive. To the narrator’s surprise, there is a back side of the poster, and it reads, “WITH GORILLA GONE, WILL THERE BE HOPE FOR MAN?” (Quinn 283). Quinn uses this effective strategy to portray the fact that all living organisms coexist with each other, and their chances of survival are dependent upon other species. Ishmael points and addresses the flaws of humanity, but he does not wish for the termination and extinction of the human population; instead, he wishes for the correction of the imperfections through meaningful education. Moreover, he is a gorilla, and by definition, he is supposed to be in the wild and not in captivity. This minor characteristic that Quinn implements show that our actions, accumulated over the years, have made significant alterations to mother nature. With the assistance of a variety of small techniques that Quinn implements throughout the book, he gets his central message across to his readers loud and clear.

Works Cited

  1. Quinn, Daniel. Ishmael. Bantam Books, 2017.
  2. Quinn, Daniel. “Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit.” Daniel-Quinn-Ishmael.pdf, 
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