Ishmael

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Ishmael Chapter 8 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The narrator takes four days to find the law of the community of life. He walks into Ishmael’s building, rehearsing what he’s going to tell Ishmael. He also notes that it was important that he find the law by himself.
The narrator is now beginning to grasp the importance of Ishmael’s teaching methods—he sees how important it is to do his own thinking, instead of passively relying on others to think for him.
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In Ishmael’s room the narrator dives into explaining the law of life. As an outline, he proposes that Takers do four things that no other life forms do. The first such thing is to exterminate competitors. Whereas animals never hunt each other to extinction—only killing what they need to survive—Takers will often kill simply to kill. Ishmael agrees with this, and adds that some animals do kill in self-defense. Nevertheless, animals never aim to exterminate rival communities: the goal is only ever to feed or protect themselves.
The narrator’s first observation about humanity is that it’s unnecessarily violent. Humans often take pleasure or satisfaction in killing for no practical purpose whatsoever. This is precisely why humans wiped out the American buffalo, to name only one example.
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The narrator goes on. The second thing that only Takers do is systematically destroy rivals’ food in order to make room for their own. For example, they might clear a field to make way for a restaurant, reasoning that the field is their property. In the “wild,” animals only ever take what they need for themselves. The third thing Takers do, the narrator continues, is deny their competitors access to food. Takers claim the entire world as their property, the result being that animals no longer have access to the food they need to survive. Ishmael nods in agreement.
Ishmael reduces everything to the most basic instinct: the need for food. He then shows flaws in Taker culture by showing that Takers systematically wipe out other animals’ sources of food. In part, this is merely a byproduct of their haphazard desire to destroy and control. Takers might not be consciously aiming to render predators extinct by killing too many of their prey, but this is the result nonetheless.
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The fourth thing Takers do, the narrator concludes, is to store food. For example, if a lion kills a gazelle today, it doesn’t kill a second gazelle for tomorrow—humans, on the other hand, store up food for the future. Ishmael disagrees with this notion: he points out that animals ­do store food: they store it in their bodies. Moreover, other animals store food for each other. Plants “store” food and energy for herbivores, just as herbivores store food and energy for carnivores, and so on.
This point will become very important toward the end of the novel—so much so that it’s surprising that Ishmael doesn’t go over it in more detail now. While it’s certainly true that animals store food and energy in their bodies, humans certainly store more food and energy outside their own bodies. Indeed, the philosopher John Locke believed that the defining event in human history was the invention of complicated ways to store food and energy—the invention of money being the most important of these.
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Ishmael sums up the narrator’s observations into one remark: “You may compete, but you may not wage war.” He and the narrator agree that if all life forms did, in fact, wage war on one another, then there would be no diversity: there would only be one kind of life form in each species. This would be a major problem, because diversity is nature’s best survival mechanism. If there were only a few species on the planet, one or more of them could easily die out due to changing environmental conditions. The narrator realizes that the Takers are literally and deliberately “at war” with the world.
The conclusion in this section—that Takers are deliberately at war with nature—needs some clarification. It’s not literally true that all Takers are consciously fighting nature—most human-caused extinctions are the result of an attempt to maximize profits, not a desire for mass murder. Nevertheless, for the purposes of the story Ishmael is telling, it’s convenient to think that the Takers are “deliberately” fighting nature in an attempt to control every aspect of it.
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Ishmael asks the narrator what happens when one species breaks the law of life. The narrator realizes what would happen: the Takers would begin by dominating all the animals they can eat. They would next try to dominate all the animals and plants that their own prey eats. Next, they would try to control the energy sources that feed the animal and plant life consumed by their prey, and so on—the goal for Takers is to reshape the entire food chain so as to favor their own sources of food. In other words, the domination of any one species of Takers has the effect of reducing diversity among all species.
In this expository section, the narrator arrives at an important conclusion about the Takers. They inhabit a position of such power that they influence the biology and ecology of the entire world, to an extent that would have been inconceivable before the Agricultural Revolution.
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The narrator thinks of something else—agriculture breaks the laws of life by waging war on rival life forms. Ishmael objects, however, saying that this is only the narrow Taker definition of agriculture. It is perfectly possibly to manipulate one’s environment without going to war with nature—in fact, all life forms change their environment in some way. Agriculture as Takers have practiced it doesn’t only consist of settlement—it consists of constant, limitless expansion. In short, he concludes, human civilization isn’t against the laws of competition, it’s subject to the laws of competition.
This is an important section because it shows that Ishmael doesn’t have a problem with agriculture itself. By itself, agriculture is no different than any of the other ways that life forms alter their environments—even animals practice basic forms of environmental manipulation. The problem, for Ishmael, begins when agriculture becomes the defining tool of human civilization—when it becomes a weapon used to wage war on the Earth.
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Ishmael asks the narrator to sum up what they’ve discussed so far. The narrator realizes that any species that tries to wage war on its environment will end up destroying the world. There is no fundamental “human” flaw that makes this the case—in other words, humans aren’t inherently wicked for destroying the world.
Ishmael has made this point several times, but it’s important for him to reiterate it, because it’s so easy to fall into the bad habit of blaming everything on “human nature.”
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The narrator raises an objection to the laws of nature that he and Ishmael have been discussing—he says it’s possible to be a Taker and also limit expansion. Ishmael points out the obvious Malthusian truth, however. Any increase in food production inevitably results in an increase in population, necessitating still more food production. At any given time, Takers are producing more food than they need. When there were five billion people on the planet, many of whom were starving, the Takers were producing six billion people’s worth of food. When eventually the population grew to six billion, the Takers produced seven billion people’s worth. Increased production never results in a stable population—it only fuels more population growth, a phenomenon that must, Ishmael concludes, be stopped.
Ishmael alludes to the work of Thomas Malthus here (see Background Information). Malthus maintained that increases in food productivity would always result in a bigger population, thereby negating the effectiveness of the increases. Although Malthus’s ideas have been around for 250 years, it was only during the 1960s and 70s that they began to show up in economics, statistics, and ethnography. The rapid growth of the Third World—Africa, the Middle East, Asia, etc.—triggered a great interest in sustainable development.
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The narrator suggests that birth control might be used to fight the problem of population growth. Ishmael points out that birth control has never resulted in successful population control—it’s always being discussed as an option for the future, but never actually being used in the present. This is because Takers don’t want to limit their numbers—they want to expand limitlessly.
At the time when Ishmael was published, birth control had only been widely available for a few decades. Perhaps Ishmael is too hasty in deciding that birth control will never be an effective deterrent for population growth—but the reader and the narrator must make up their own minds about this.
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Ishmael points to a book lying on a desk behind the narrator: The American Heritage Book of Indians. The narrator opens the book and reads it for a few minutes, amazed that there are so many native tribes in his country. Ishmael suggests how population growth has been controlled for thousands of years. In modern-day New York, the population is poor and overcrowded. In response, people move to other, less crowded areas—Arizona, New Mexico, etc.—but the Hopi community, centuries ago, had no such option. They couldn’t just leave their society and join the Navajo, because of the immense cultural differences between tribes. Thus, the Hopi had no choice but to limit their populations.
One effective deterrent of population growth is culture. This reminds us that Ishmael’s project isn’t to “strip away” the myths of culture and replace them with scientific truth. On the contrary, he’s trying to replace a flawed culture with a better one. Neither culture—that of the Leavers or that of the Takers—is objectively “true,” but one results in sustainability, peace, and stability, while the other results in violence, environmental disaster, and extinction.
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Ishmael returns to the subject of laws. A week ago, he reminds the narrator, the narrator believed that there were no laws governing how people must live. The one law he and the narrator have arrived at is that species that wage war on their environments will ultimately go extinct. This law says nothing specific about how people should live their lives, just as the laws of aerodynamics say nothing specific about how to build a plane. Nevertheless, the law proves what Takers refuse to believe: humans are not special, but subject to the same scientific rules as all other life forms.
Ishmael clarifies the relationship between laws and stories. A law is a scientific fact about the way the world works, while a story is a reaction to a law: an interpretation of how to live in a world where such a law is true. The Takers choose to tell a story that ignores the law of life. The Leavers, by contrast, choose to tell a story which recognizes that the law of life is the truth. Notably, Ishmael doesn’t yet explain exactly what this second story is.
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Ishmael goes on to describe the flaws in Taker culture. Takers believe that humans are special and exempt from the world’s laws, but also that they “pay” for their specialness with depression, madness, suicide, etc. Leavers, by contrast, have very low rates of these problems. According to Takers, this is because Leavers are too “primitive” to suffer from such things. There is also another theory of why the Leavers seem so much happier than the Takers, the “Noble Savage” theory. According to this notion, primitive people are happier because they live closer to nature, and their lives are easier and simpler. Ishmael doesn’t subscribe to this theory at all, he explains. On the contrary, he maintains that both Takers and Leavers are enacting different stories—there’s nothing more or less innocent about the Leavers or the Takers.
The Noble Savage theory is as old as civilization itself—people who live in cities are nostalgic for a simpler, more peaceful way of life, and thus they fetishize people who seem to live outside of civilization. One notable proponent of the Noble Savage theory was Jean Jacques Rousseau, a philosopher who lived during the 18th century. Rousseau praised “savages” in exactly the terms that the narrator outlines: he admired their proximity to nature and the ease of their lifestyle. The problem with Rousseau’s ideas, Ishmael maintains, is that they treat Leavers as children—Leavers are no simpler or more innocent than Takers, just different.
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There is nothing inherently better about the Leavers than the Takers, Ishmael concludes. African Bushmen, Native American Navajo, Brazilian Kreen-Akrore, and other Leaver cultures are happier and better off than most Takers, but certainly not because they live closer to nature. Rather, Leavers are happier because they live their lives according to the laws of life, rather than trying to break those laws. Just as the Takers have their own cultural story, the Leavers have one, too. Ishmael promises to tell the narrator this story during their next lesson.
In the end, Takers and Leavers are both human beings. Its irresponsible, Ishmael argues, to confuse Taker culture with human nature. In reality, “human nature” as we understand it is only a story that the Takers have been telling for a few thousand years. In order to get in touch with the laws of life—and the essence of human nature—people need to rethink Taker culture.
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