Summary (Ishmael)

Topics: Deforestation

In the novel Ishmael (1992), Quinn classifies human beings into two groups: those who coexist with nature harmoniously and those who live in discord with it. Those who coexist with nature are referred to as the Leavers because they live simply and delicately, leaving the world untouched and only taking what they need. Those who live in discord with nature are referred to as the Takers because they unapologetically take whatever they desire, indifferent towards the consequences.

Ishmael (1992) discusses the law of limitation and how a single species cannot exempt themselves from that law for its own growth and states that if a civilization is going to succeed and flourish it is critical that they live according to the laws of nature.

Our problems are not of recent origin. It is not because of the production of machines, electronics, etc. It is not even humanity that is destroying the world, it is our culture that is destroying the world… the Takers culture.

Humankind, the Takers, assume that the Earth was made for man; and if the Earth was made for man, then the Earth is his, and with it he can do whatever he wishes. Rather than only taking and gathering what is needed human beings are now practicing totalitarian agriculture. We are destroying the living communities of other animals in order to support our own expansion. We are desolating land, wearing it down, eradicating top predators for sport. Some may think that all of that is a means for humanity’s survival, but the only benefit of the Takers culture is an unrestricted overpopulated Earth.

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Our direct influence upon this earth and our vicious need for survival and expansion has caused Earth’s devastation, and it will cause our own.

In today’s world, there are many things that affect the planet we live on but nothing quite like humans ourselves. We tend to take anything we want for ourselves, without truly taking into account the effects that it could have on other species or even the earth itself. Instead of taking things that we need to survive we take much more than necessary for wants and not needs. One example of humans taking much more than they need is deforestation. Deforestation, or the clearing of forests, is done for several reasons like to clear the way for agriculture and also to build more places for humans to live due to the growing population. Humans are seldom conscious of the effects that this can have on not only other species, but also ourselves.

The negative effects of deforestation, which could even lead to the extinction of humans, include the decline in biodiversity, effects on soil essential for plants as well as driving global warming and affecting the earth’s climate. According to the United Nations, about 18 million acres of forest are cut down each year to clear the way for other ventures. To put this into perspective this is almost the size of South Carolina. To understand how grave this is for biodiversity, more than half of species are found in forests, although forests only cover about 30% of the land on the planet; and needless to say, we, human beings, despite how great we think we are, cannot survive without biodiversity.

As Dennett explains in The Evolution of Consciousness (1991) organisms developed nervous systems designed entirely to produce one effect; replication. At the very base of consciousness is a boundary between self and environment. To better survive and solidify replication, this boundary tends to create an us-versus-them orientation whereby brains were “anticipation machines” that enabled short-term, on-the-spot behaviors for avoiding predators, fighting them, feeding on prey, or mating with them (the “Four Fs”).   Short-term anticipation developed based on events that happened quite often (e.g., large falling rock can smash head if a head is under it, so move). These events would incite an “orienting response” that centralized all of the organism’s systems towards that event. The orienting response would subside once the inciting event did, but it’s incredible utility led to primates leaving the switch on, so to speak, which in turn and with increasing sophistication, eventually led to hemispheric specialization.  Phenotypic plasticity emerged because of unfamiliar environmental situations. The development in primates of the dorsal-ventral division; and the Bennett effect are examples of phenotypic plasticity. When individuals learned a “Great Trick” they improved their chances of survival, bringing their offspring closer to the Great Trick, which in turn increased the likeliness that within their lifespans they, too, would learn it. Plasticity more specifically describes the ability of individual primates to learn without genetic mutation and natural selection.

The memetic evolution was indebted to phenotypic plasticity as plasticity was indebted to genetic variation. As functional plasticity increased, along with primates’ store of centralized knowledge, their brains were driven by questions of what to think about next in contrast to the short-term goals of what to do next; Dennett (1991) describes this as the “meta-problem” (p. 188); and the primate nervous system responded by thinking about its thinking, generating a capacity for abstract thought beyond the simpler mental geography of, say, recalling that a deer continues to walk when not visible. Yet the capacity for learning generated by plasticity accelerates when we can learn from what we have already learned; that is, from previous design processes to avoid our starting from scratch each generation. Hence, cultural transmission through already existing processes both the product of our plasticity while successively enhancing it as well. Though still reliant on our “hard-wiring” to an extent, cultural transmission has created an external environment feathered by self-perpetuating design-processes; the development of our brains and how they operate is largely independent of the stimuli of the physical environment. Cultural transmission has in turn spawned the new evolution of human consciousness through the replicating of memes, “a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation” (Dennett, 1991, p. 202). Memes parallel the processes of genetic evolution but are independent of genes. As genes transfer from body to body, memes transfer from mind to mind. Whereas our physical selves are the repositories and transmitters of genetic information, our minds stores and move memes. It is important to understand that memes are not a genetic expression, a metaphor of sorts; but rather—and like genes—designed to replicate themselves, parasitically using our minds which in turn transform our world into vehicles for memetic expression. In this regard, memes persist and thrive (or extinguish) regardless of our physical reality, even as they take charge of that reality insofar as they influence how we think and act.

In relation to our biological persistence, memes—from their perspective—are neutral: they are indifferent to the processes necessary for our survival. In this sense, memes can threaten our existence or amplify our chances to persist. A meme cannot survive without the mind that holds and transfers it; so, the destruction of our species would simultaneously end the carrier necessary for memetic survival. As it turns out, however, “good” memes tend to outweigh “bad” ones, those that perpetuate destructive behavior. In short, memes are ideas, units of cultural transmission, which like genes pursue replication single-mindedly (no pun intended) and equip themselves in the competitive environment among memes with self-defensive measures in view of their goal; that is, survival. Human culture is partially created by memes which are copied over and over again much like genes. We get these memes from our parents, our peers, and the society in which we are raised in. Differential copying and replicating of these memes account for the design of human culture. Culture is composed of elements that have histories and lineage and those very elements can go extinct and so can memes. For example, a meme that does not benefit its host and impedes his survival would not continue to survive whereas, a beneficial meme would continue to replicate and thrive. People latch onto ideas that they can benefit from, without having to understand why they are good or how they are good. Because of this, some, if not most, people have their brains controlled by harmful memes. A harmful meme that human beings have, that is also the basis of the Takers mentality, is that we are above all and that we own the Earth. Because memes require perception, this may mean if we learn to perceive the Takers culture poorly and the Leavers culture positively we can create different memes, thus evolving away from the Takers culture. Memes are very transmissible. If we take the idea that the Leavers culture is better we can pass that on from generation to generation. Humanity is currently only surviving by squandering the Earth’s natural resources and destroying the environment. If we make the effort to live sustainably the human race can prosper. “Reduce, reuse, recycle” is a meme that has been forgotten, but if we make an effort to reinstate it we are taking a step away from Takers culture and a step in the right direction towards sustainability

When we were Leavers survival was king, but now convenience and power are king. Movements to live more sustainably die out after a couple years because people value personal convenience and power over the lives of other animals and beings. To live sustainably a person must make the commitment of sacrificing the convenience and power he/she currently has and I just don’t see that happening. I’m wondering if it is even possible to revert to the Leavers culture way of life at this point in time; and because of that I speculate, are we creating accessible plausible movements towards a sustainable future or are we expecting too much? Is the best way to sustain life expecting people to sacrifice their convenience and power or would it be better if we created ways to sustain our future without making people feel like that are jeopardizing those attributes? Or are we just too selfish to survive?

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Summary (Ishmael). (2022, May 25). Retrieved from

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