Ten things I hated about the first half of Ishmael

Ten things I hated about the first half of Ishmael

by Allen B. Downey

I have a standard deal with my students that if they recommend a book to me, I will read it. One of my students recommended Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, which turned out to be my least favorite book ever.

After the first half, I jotted down some of the reasons why. Here is a list of problems I have with the book, most of which are either logical fallacies or just rhetorical stunts that annoy me.

  1. replacing the progress fallacy with the doomsday fallacy

    Quinn argues against the assumption that things are necessarily getting better, but he commits the opposite error, the assumption that things are necessarily getting worse.

    It is almost certain that some things are getting better and some worse. If Quinn wants to make the argument that we are headed for an environmental doomsday, he has to make the argument empirically.

  2. poisoning the well

    Pointing out the influence of culture on our thinking, Quinn sets up a ready answer for anyone who disagrees with him: the opponent is blinded by culture!

    Of course it is important to be skeptical of conventional wisdom, but we are no better off rejecting blindly what "Mother Culture" tells us than we would be accepting it blindly.

  3. the meta fallacy

    When someone produces a meta-x, they often pretend it is not, itself, an x. For example, when a news story gets hyped out of proportion, some reporters start covering the hype as if it were a story. They think their meta-hype is better than the hype, but it's not.

    Similarly, Quinn tries to place himself outside culture in order to create meta-culture, but he can't. He is just as much a victim of "Mother Culture" as the rest of us, and his book is just another piece of it.

    In fact, this kind of work has become a genre! Another book in the category is "Mutant Message from Down Under," in which the author uses the rhetorical device of being kidnapped by Australian aborigines to give herself a voice apparently outside the culture of civilization. Quinn uses a telepathic gorilla, but its the same device with the same deceptive intent.

  4. the naturalist fallacy

    There aren't many ideas in philosophy that are universally accepted. The one that comes the closest is the maxim that you can't get "ought" from "is." In other words, you can't derive an ethical system from empirical observation.

    Historically, there have been lots of people that tried, and the results have been universally disastrous.

    Quinn attacks this view straight on, arguing that there is a law that all species (except humans) follow, and that we can figure out what this law is empirically.

    He fails on two fronts: the law he presents is empirically false, and even if it were true, it still wouldn't make it possible to know what we should do. At best, it would help us predict the consequences of our actions, but that is not sufficient to derive an ethical system.

    Why do I say his law is empirically false? Well, one counterexample is trees. Trees are engaged in a internecine competition for sunlight in which they squander resources on preposterously long trunks, deprive other species of their food source, and poison their environments to eliminate competitors. Ever look at the floor of a dense pine forest? Nothing but pine needles.

  5. the Lorax fallacy

    Quoth the Lorax, "I am the Lorax, and I speak for the trees!" To which I reply (1) what makes you think you know what the trees want, and (2) what makes the trees so special?

    It is probably wrong to assume that nature has intent, but in any case it is ridiculous to presume that we know what its intent is. To see how ridiculous this is, consider the unpublished first draft of "The Lorax," in which another irritating troll appears and shouts, "I am the Borax, and I speak for the grass, and I say, chop down those trees -- they're blocking all the sun."

    Then, "Wait! I am the Snorax, and I speak for the dung beetles, and I say, please breed enormous numbers of cattle."

    Then, "I am the Thorax, and I speak for the slime molds, and I say, please make big piles of decaying organic matter."

    And so on. You can see why it wasn't a big hit.

  6. the biocentrism fallacy

    Quinn argues against anthrocentrism, the view that the universe was made for humans and that we have the right to do what we want with it.

    The alternative is biocentrism, an ethical system in which animals and other parts of nature have rights as well. It is often (wrongly) assumed that an ethical system that extends rights to more entities is morally superior to one that is more stingy.

    Of course, we already extend some rights to some animals, and we could extend more rights to more animals, but that does not change the fact that (a) we're still the ones extending the rights and it's still our choice, and (b) we would still be in the position of trying to figure out the intent of nature, if there is one.

    Anthrocentrism may seem self-centered, but there is no sensible alternative.

  7. inconsistency regarding the role of humans

    Sometimes Quinn considers humans part of the natural world, sometimes not, as it serves him.

    Where this error hurts his argument the most is his claim that all species that follow the law live forever, environmental conditions permitting. What "environmental conditions" is he talking about? He seems to mean the abiotic environment, but that's absurd. For every species, "the environment" includes every other species. I am not sure, but I would guess that of all the species that have become extinct (for reasons that have nothing to do with humans) the vast majority have been wiped out because of other species (too many competitors, too little prey) rather than the abiotic environment.

    Humans are part of the environment, and every species that has been wiped out by human activity has been wiped out by "environmental conditions." Quinn's distinction in this case between natural causes and human activities is contrary to his argument in the rest of the book that humans are part of nature.

  8. identification of science as a form of mythology

    Quinn stamps the current scientific understanding of the origin of the universe as mythology. He pulls this stunt with a bit of rhetorical slight-of-hand.

    He offers an anthrocentric story of creation and then rejects it because it is anthrocentric. In fact, the narrator was invited to offer an explanation of "how things came to be this way" in an environment that was completely surrounded by human artifacts. It was perfectly reasonable to explain such an environment by focusing on the human activity that led this to be "this way."

    In any case, telling and rejecting an antrocentric version of the origin of the universe does not undermine the claim that our scientific understanding is qualitatively different from the stories we usually label mythology. Specifically, if representatives from two culures with different creation myths met, there is nothing one could say or do to persuade the other to adopt a new myth (at least not rationally).

    By contrast, there is a lot we can do to convince someone to adopt the scientific view --- in fact, millions of people, raised to believe some version of Genesis, have come to adopt the scientific view on the basis of evidence and reason.

  9. ignorance of evidence

    When Quinn bothers to present empirical evidence for his position, it is almost always false. I already mentioned one biological error, the claim that no other species competes with other species the way humans do. I'm not a biologist, but I thought of 10 counter-examples before I turned the page. I already mentioned trees. What about the mold that produces penicillin? Simians that kill members of other species for sport, and members of their own species for social standing or mating priviledge? Beavers that wreak environmental havok to build safe housing?

    Species evolve mechanisms and behaviors that allow them to survive (more precisely, the ones that didn't aren't around). Quinn observes, rightly, that most of these mechanisms are peaceful, but that's because non-violence is generally a good survival strategy, not because the species are following laws. There are exceptions throughout nature, including some aspects of human behavior.

    As for the economic relationship between population and food supply, Quinn gives a half-hearted voice to some 19th century ideas, but seems oblivious to a century of subsequent work. His model is absurdly simple and provably false.

    I don't know as much about anthropology, but many of Quinn's claims are contrary to what little I know. Judging by his track record, I am hardly inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt

  10. ugly misanthropy

    The population crisis is a serious and difficult problem. Its central questions are

    (a) if we keep doing what we're doing, will the population grow to a level that is either unsupportable or supportable only with an unacceptable quality of life?

    (b) if so, is there something different we can do that will lead to a smaller population and a better quality of life?

    The first is an empirical question. The only way to answer it is by using evidence and reason as best we can. Quinn has no interest in evidence or reason -- he just assumes that he knows the answer.

    The second is an ethical question. Obviously there are a lot of things we can do to reduce the population. The hard part is finding one that actually makes things better.

    To do that, we have to think about ethics. If there is, in fact, a population crisis, then it makes a lot of traditional ethical problems harder. For example, saving a life becomes an alloyed victory.

    The problem, of course, is that once the sanctity of human life is off the table, the table becomes slippery and steep in every direction. Finding an acceptable ethical system in that context is a hard problem.

    Quinn's misanthropy is a lazy, ugly solution. We can do better.