The next day, when the narrator arrives at Ishmael’s room, he sees an object sitting in his chair: a tape recorder. Ishmael instructs the narrator to record the story of his culture. The narrator continues to insist that his culture has no creation myth—his culture may have some idea where it comes from, but this is hardly a “story”—it is the truth. Ishmael points out that all cultures believe in their own myths, and tells the narrator to record the story of his culture.
The tape recorder serves much the same purpose as the Zen koan. The recorder by itself doesn’t give any new information or wisdom to its user, but instead it acts as a kind of “neutral space” that allows the speaker to analyze his own feelings. By listening to his own voice on tape, the narrator will be better able to step back and perceive his “truths” as stories.
The narrator reluctantly begins talking into the tape recorder. The universe, he says, began either with the Big Bang or the Steady State. About seven billion years ago, the sun formed, followed by planet Earth. On Earth, about four billion years ago, life began. Life evolved in the oceans: fish, then reptiles, then mammals. About three million years ago, men evolved from apes. With this, the narrator falls silent—this, he insists is the story his culture believes: the truth.
The narrator’s version of history is “true” in a sense, but, as Ishmael will show, it arranges facts in a fictional manner, creating a misleading, mythological narrative—a story that culminates with the evolution of humanity.
In response to the story the narrator has told, Ishmael looks amused. This story is clearly a fiction: to illustrate this, Ishmael tells the narrator to play the recording back again. The narrator does so, but doesn’t hear anything that sounds fictional. Ishmael insists that the story the narrator has told is full of facts, but adds that the facts haven’t been arranged in a true manner. To illustrate this, Ishmael tells a story of his own.
There are many different ways for a story to be fictional. The story can contain facts that are objectively wrong—saying that the Empire State Building is in Paris, for example, would be objectively false. On the other hand, a story can be fictional in the sense that it links together many truths in a misleading way. Ishmael will clarify what this means in his upcoming example.
Ismael tells a story about an anthropologist who goes to talk with a blob living in the ocean. The anthropologist asks the blob to tell him about the myths of the blob’s culture. The blob is indignant: “We have no myths in our culture!”, it insists. It goes on to tell the anthropologist the story of its culture: there was a Big Bang, the sun and planets formed, life appeared in the oceans, and then, after thousands of years, jellyfish appeared.
Ishmael’s parable shows how arbitrary the narrator’s “arrangement” of history was. The history of the universe doesn’t “build up” to the emergence of humankind—on the contrary, humankind is just another minor phenomenon in the vast history of the universe. This misinterpretation of science was once very common in Darwinism—even trained scientists believed that evolution “progressed” and culminated in the emergence of the human species.
The narrator sees what Ishmael is getting at with his story: his culture sees the emergence of humanity as the signature event in the history of the universe. Everything beforehand was only leading up to the emergence to the human race. The truth, Ishmael points out, is that evolution doesn’t start and stop because of humankind: evolution and change goes on. The narrator is forced to admit that the story he’s been taught to believe is a myth.
Evolution isn’t a process in which progress matters. A dinosaur is no more or less developed than a human being—both creatures have merely adapted to their environments in various ways. Thus, it’s wrong to believe that humans are somehow superior to other animals, living or extinct, in any way. Humans are merely another small part of the history of life on Earth.
Ishmael tells the narrator that everyone in the world—whether religious or atheistic—believes in at least this shared premise: the world was made for humans. People have believed this premise for thousands of years, and it is utter mythology. The narrator is amazed by this observation, but can’t disagree with it in the slightest.
It seems hard to dispute the fact that humans believe the world was made for them. Almost every religion “begins” with the creation of mankind—think of the Adam/Eve story, for example.
The lesson concludes with a discussion of blame. Ishmael points out that the notion that the world was made for humans is a way of diverting the blame for all the evil things that humans do. The narrator sees Ishmael’s point: people can blame all their evil on the fact that the world “was made” for them, reasoning that, if the world had been made for jellyfish, they wouldn’t have done anything bad. Having arrived at the beginning of the story of culture, Ishmael tells the narrator to return the next day with the middle of this story.
The notion that the world was made for humanity is both a testament to mankind’s sense of power and responsibility and a sneaky way for humanity to avoid any real responsibility. It’s as if humans have been given the “noble burden” of running the planet, a burden that causes them to occasionally make (forgivable) mistakes.