Who is Daniel Quinn?

Timothy Wilken

A few months ago, I came across a reference to Quinn in a General Semantics paper I found on the internet. This GS author valued Quinn so highly I decided to give him a look. I began by reading Quinn’s recent book—Beyond Civilization. Then without any intention I found myself wanting to read more. The next book I read was Providence: The Story of a Fifty-Year Vision Quest, then Ishmael, then The Story of B, My Ishmael: A Sequel and just this past week his latest book After Dachau. Quinn teaches that there are no solutions within our present “civilization”. That the memes of our present “civilization” can only lead us to extinction. He tells us that we cannot change or fix our present civilization. So he calls upon his readers to just “walk away”. He says we must adopt new memes that are compatible with a cooperative and equalitarian future. And while he laudes the early tribes of Homo Sapien, he knows that humans cannot go back to being hunter-gatherers. Quinn’s first book Ishmael, is described in a review as:

“An extraordinary tale of a man in search for truth. He answers an ad in a local newspaper: TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person. “The student finds himself alone in an abandoned office with a full-grown male gorilla who is nibbling delicately on a slender branch. “You are the teacher?” he asks incredulously. Only to be surprised when the gorilla replies telepathically. “I am the teacher”. “Thus begins a dialogue between Ishmael a telepathically speaking silverback gorilla representing the Earth and all of Life with the exception of man, and his human student who represents everyman. Ishmael is a creature of immense wisdom and he has a story to tell, one that no other human being has ever heard. It is a story that extends backward and forward over the lifespan of the earth from the birth of time to a future there is still time to save. Like all great teachers, Ishmael refuses to make the lesson easy; he demands the final illumination to come from within ourselves. Is it man’s destiny to rule the world? Or is it a higher destiny possible for him—one more wonderful than he has ever imagined?” Toward the very end of the book, the human student asks Ishmael: “”One thing I know people will say to me is ‘Are you suggesting we go back to being hunter-gatherers?’” “That of course is an insane idea,” Ishmael said. “The Leaver life-style isn’t about hunting and gathering, it’s about letting the rest of the community live—and agriculturalists can do that as well as hunter-gatherers.” He paused and shook his head. “What I’ve been at pains to give you is a new paradigm of human history. The Leaver life is not an antiquated thing that is ‘back there’ somewhere. Your task is not to reach back but to reach forward.” “But to what? We can’t just walk away from our civilization the way the Hohokam did.” “That’s certainly true. The Hohokam had another way of life waiting for them, but you must be inventive-if it’s worthwhile to you. If you care to survive.” He gave me a dull stare. “You’re an inventive people, aren’t you? You pride yourselves on that, don’t you?” ‘Yes. “Then invent.”

Quinn accepts the fact that the Earth could at best support only 10 million humans living as hunter-gathers. But perhaps the Earth can support 6 billion humans who choose cooperation over conflict. So Quinn tells us we must go forward by forming “New Tribes” with new memes. Quinn teaches that a positive future can only begin with small groups of humans organizing themselves in synergic relationships and living and surviving by cooperation and equality. And while Quinn never uses the terms: synergic or heterarchy, this is exactly what he is describing. Quinn is not a synergic scientist, he doesn’t know how to do it. Like Ishmael says, we need to invent something. Again, on the final page of Quinn’s book Beyond Civilization, he says:

“Like any author, I figured that, when the time came, I’d have a dynamite ending for this book—a great clash of cymbals, a ray of pure sunshine knifing through the clouds (you know), but nothing like that presented itself. Ö “There’s no ending in this book at all,Ö because it’s all one hundred percent beginning. Ö “But this just means no dynamite ending is going to turn up here. The dynamite ending is on the other side of this page and on out past the cover, where the actual revolution is going to take place. “The dynamite ending is for you to write.”