Ishmael poses a thought experiment to the narrator: there is a society that appears perfect in every way. The people are happy and well educated, everyone is very friendly, etc. However, the people in this community eat other people: they refer to this other group as “B people.” In turn, the B people eat a third group, the “C people,” and the C people complete the cycle by eating the original group, the “A people.” Ishmael asks the narrator what the one, fundamental law of this place is. The narrator has a difficult time answering this question. There seems to be some unbreakable law to this place, but he can’t identify it.
Ishmael’s latest story is, like a Zen koan, designed to provoke thought and debate by being deliberately obscure. Even if the narrator can’t “solve” the meaning of this parable, it’s important that he try to do so anyway. By trying to understand it, he practices stepping back and reducing things to their simplest truths, and also reminds himself that Taker culture has obscured the real meaning of many things.
Ishmael reveals to the narrator that the thought experiment he outlined isn’t an experiment at all: it’s the structure of life on Earth. Predators eat herbivores, who eat plants, which consume the dead bodies of predators. The key point is that there is no true animosity in this arrangement. Lions and gazelles, for instance, aren’t “enemies” at all.
Ishmael’s interpretation of his own parable underscores a point: Taker culture obscures many basic truths. In other words, the narrator was unable to grasp the meaning of Ishmael’s story because he’s not used to thinking about communities in this way.
Ishmael finishes his point: for millions of years, all life on Earth obeyed the cyclical laws of consumption that Ishmael has just outlined. Then, a few thousand years ago, one small group of humans, the Takers, decided to disobey the cyclical laws. In a short time, the Takers succeeded in causing great harm and devastation to the planet. The Taker story—that is, the explanation for how this happened—is that humans are fundamentally flawed. This is clearly nonsense, however. Humans destroyed the Earth because they broke a law of life, not because they are themselves inherently evil.
This could well be Ishmael’s “thesis statement” for the entire chapter: the universal law of life is that all organisms depend on one another in a cyclical fashion. Therefore, the Takers are wrong to violate this law, and in the end, they will pay the penalty for doing so. Even though this is a perfectly clear point, it’s not enough for Ishmael to simply state it for the narrator—the narrator must understand it for himself, and so the chapter must go on.
Ishmael dismisses the narrator, telling him to return when he’s discovered the fundamental laws that govern the community of life. The narrator leaves, feeling so distressed by what he’s learned about humanity that he decides to go have a drink. As he drinks, he thinks that Ishmael’s latest assignment seems impossible, or at least tremendously depressing. He also wonders what he’ll do when he finishes with Ishmael’s lessons. He realizes that he doesn’t only want a teacher for a few weeks: he wants someone to guide him for the rest of his life.
Even though Ishmael has made it clear that the emphasis on prophets and revelation is only a flaw of Taker society, the narrator can’t free himself from his desire for a prophet of his own. This shows that the narrator still has a long way to go before he frees himself from Taker dogma. It also reminds us that Ishmael’s project as a teacher is to bring the narrator to the point where he doesn’t need a teacher at all.