Today, a telepathic gorilla tells us how to save
the world. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
A listener recently gave me
a disturbing book: Daniel Quinn's
Ishmael. It begins with a
white-collared city dweller reading an ad in the
personals column: "TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have
an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in
He's annoyed, but he's also intrigued. He has to
check it out. So he goes to meet the teacher. It
turns out to be Ishmael, an erstwhile carnival
gorilla who happens to be telepathic.
The rest of the book is a dialog between the man's
words and the gorilla's thoughts. First, Ishmael
explains his unlikely self. Then he gets down to
serious Socratic teaching. And Quinn's new take on
our environmental dilemma emerges.
Ishmael claims that all intelligent life listens to
the voice of its Mother Culture. The trouble is,
Ishmael tells him, your Mother Culture says you're
not just an ongoing part of evolution but its end
product. Because of her voice, you violate the one
natural law all living things are subject to. "Take
what you need and leave the rest." You humans have
violated that law ever since you took up
agriculture and began creating surpluses.
Genesis, says Ishmael, is the oral history of the
nomadic pre-agricultural Semites. It was a warning
to the agricultural Israelites that they were
breaking nature's law. But when the Israelites
adopted Genesis, they focused on the part about
being made in God's image, and so do you. You think
you have the right to exterminate competitors. You
feel obliged to convert hunter-gatherers to
agriculture and over-production -- not only of
goods but of people as well. Eve symbolizes the
fecundity of your agricultural species.
By believing you're the end of evolution, he warns,
you assure the end of yourselves. You defeat other
species and over-populate yourselves into
extinction. You ignore the law, "Take only what you
need." For that, you'll perish just as surely as
you'd perish by ignoring the law of gravity.
"What do we do? Go back to hunting and gathering?"
the man cries. No, the Gorilla says, you miss the
point. You must drop the junk Mother Culture
attaches to agriculture and technology. You
would-be rulers-of-nature jail yourselves in the
terror of losing your flimsy perch at the top --
the terror of extinction. You think God was kidding
with that Lilies of the Field stuff, says Ishmael,
chewing thoughtfully on a branch. He was not.
Read Quinn's upsetting book. It offers hope against
our self-destruction. If we can just get away from
the conviction that we are all that nature is
about, then human survival -- improbable as it may
seem now -- might not be out of the question after
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Quinn, D., Ishmael, New York: Bantam,
I did this program back in 1994. In January of 2003
a reader named Howard emailed me with the following
interesting web site put up by a group that calls
itself, The Friends of Ishmael: http://www.friendsofishmael.org/index.shtml.
(clip art image)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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