Daniel Quinn’s novel Ishmael is, undoubtedly, the most widely read work of primitivist philosophy ever written. It won the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship in 1989 for $500,000–the single largest prize ever awarded to a work of fiction. It is taught in schools, which is where I discovered it, and where it turned a devout Catholic boy into the primitivist writer you read today. Quinn’s thesis talks about a “Mother Culture,” in analogy to “Mother Nature,” as an emergent, self-defensive property of every culture. Our particular Mother Culture essentially presents us with the challenge: “Take it or leave it.” Those who follow our Mother Culture thus become “Takers”; the others are “Leavers.” Quinn makes a surprising challenge: if we want to solve the problems facing our society, why don’t we look at societies that don’t have these problems, and see if we can isolate their causes that way?
Quinn’s criticisms of civilization are, in general, spot on. Where he goes awry is in his treatment of where “Takers” and “Leavers” differ. Quinn identifies their difference as one of ideology. He argues that “Leavers” lack the “Taker” mythology of controlling the world. Mother Culture is constantly reminding us that our place is to rule the world. The proliferation of the “man versus nature” theme in our literature, and the constant, subtle reminders of this myth throughout our culture all buttress this argument. Quinn points particularly to Genesis 1:28-30:
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
There is no doubt that Quinn is correct in this part of his argument. The problem arises when he claims that “Leavers” believe any differently. From his basis of “ideology,” Quinn concludes that the Maya were “Leavers.” He argues that while “Takers” simply rebuilt after various collapses (like that of Rome), the Mayans did not. Their civilization never really recovered from their collapse. Yet, an actual examination of Mayan culture shows that they were obsessed with the idea of conquest, even more than their European contemporaries. Nearly all of their public architecture commemorates the conquest of their neighbors. It is the main theme in their entire mythology. Where Jews, Christians and Muslims could find a few scattered verses in their scriptures to justify their wars of conquest, the Mayans had myths where military dominance was given the pride of place that Christianity reserved for loving one’s neighbor and turning the other cheek.
Every culture believes itself superior to all others, and the belief in the primacy of humanity can be found around the world. Consider the Iroquois creation myth, which tells of how a woman fell from among the superhuman Sky People. She was helped by the animals of the earth, and gave birth to twins–the first humans. This sets humans distinctly apart from the rest of creation. Humans come from the sky, with a semi-divine heritage. They are decidedly in alliance with the animals of this earth, but they are certainly not one of them. They are a higher, nobler order of being.
In the Australian Aborigine creation myth, the Sun Mother was angered by the animals’ arguing and shape-shifting. Where the animals were spirits she had awoken and given form, the first humans were the direct children of the Sun Mother, “superior to the animals because they had part of her mind and would never want to change their shape.”
Even in the Ju/’Hoansi creation myth, the least anthropocentric of the myths we will examine here, humans are set apart. First, in the ingenuity we exhibit to make fire, and then separated from the animals by the fear that fire inspired.
By comparison, the Greeks believed that humans were the only creations of Epimetheus and Prometheus which were left with no natural gifts. Instead, angered that his brother had left nothing for his own creation, Prometheus stole fire from the gods for mankind, and was punished with eternal torture. This story provides humans a far less vaunted position than that we find amongst the Iroquois or Australian Aborigines; neither do we find much basis for a Greek belief in world conquest. Yet there is little doubt that the Greeks were “Takers,” or the Australian Aborigines “Leavers.”
Primitivists often use the term “tribalism” referring to the open, cooperative, egalitarian societies we see in tribes. This is not the commonly understood meaning of the term. “Tribalism,” to most people, means a small-minded, parochial view–disintegration into many small, hostile groups. It means an ethnocentric view where we believe our own small group superior to all others. This is not without basis. Ethnocentrism is a human universal. Every society believes itself superior to all others.
Many tribes in New Guinea believe that semen is the very essence of life itself, that women who want to have sex with men are evil witches trying to steal away their life-force, and that in order to grow up healthy and strong, young boys must be regularly inseminated by older men. We believe ourselves greatly superior to these pedophiles. They believe themselves superior to each other. The Etoro inseminate their boys orally; the Marind-anim prefer anal sex. Both believes the other to be a barbarous tribe of disgusting perverts that should be wiped from the earth.
So why don’t they wipe them from the earth?
The short answer is, they can’t. They’re both primitive tribes; they lack the food surpluses to field a large army of conquest, and the resources to arm themselves with metal weapons. They raid each other constantly, but neither can ever get a sufficient upper hand on the other to eliminate them. If they could, they would. It has happened before. Quinn’s “erratic retaliator” model of tribal warfare even allows for this possibility–when a tribe can eradicate a neighbor, they do.
If we are to look at ideology, then in fact, our “Mother Culture” ends up looking far more progressive than most. Christian ideals are quite lofty, and reconciling Jesus’ commands with our conquest of the world has always produced tension for many Christian theologians. Even Islam, which enjoyed many of the same advantages of resources as Christianity, has a far greater comfort with conquest and expansion. Yet it is Europeans and Christians who conquered the world. Why? Because they could.
Mayan civilization never again reached the zenith of the Classical period after its collapse not because of something they lacked in their memes, but because it was impossible. The climatological reality had changed, and could never again support agriculture on the scale it had in the Classical period. Mayan beliefs adapted to the new reality.
When the civilizations of the southwest United States collapsed, they left behind tribal descendants who relied on horticulture and developed a deep spirituality that connected with the land and one another. Though we have little in the way of archaeological evidence, I doubt that we would find much evidence for this in the ruins of Chaco Canyon. Their civilization collapsed amidst horrible warfare and grisly cannibalism. Those who survived could no longer live the same way they had; it had become impossible. They survived by finding a new, more sustainable way to live. Their deep spirituality followed from that.
Every day, a farmer gets up before the dawn and works for hours under the blazing sun. He takes a blade to the earth, to cut it into furrows. It fights him every step of the way. He forces his seed into it, he fights it every day to produce crops. In the ancient metaphor of plant growth to human sexuality, agriculture resembles nothing so much as it does rape. At the boundaries of the fields might lay wilderness. It constantly encroaches, and must forever be fought back. It is usually land that might otherwise bring forth more food. It goes to waste while the farmer and his family starves. It shelters all manner of vermin who steal the few scraps of food the farmer can force out of the earth. Perhaps the occasional, extraordinary person can live this life, day-in and day-out, and still think kindly of the natural world, but the beliefs of cultures are not made from the cognitive dissonance of the exceptional few. Agricultural societies must believe in the supremacy of humanity. Without the myth of our ownership of all the world, how can their daily chores be excused? Without the drive of mankind’s manifest destiny of world conquest, how can their laborious life be justified?
Compare this to the life of the forager. Their life is relatively easy, requiring no more than a few hours of work each day. The line between work and play bleeds and becomes indistinguishable. To obtain their food, they must know all the relationships between plants and animals. The interdependence of all life is not something they can afford to be ignorant of. Intimate knowledge of everything around them is key to their survival. While it may be possible for the exceptional few to believe they have some manner of destiny to rule that complex web, it is generally incompatible with an appreciation for how delicate and complicated that web of relationships is. Foragers can certainly believe–and often do–that they enjoy a special, priveleged place in that web, but to believe that it has any “ruler” outside the realm of the divine requires a level of cognitive dissonance few can reconcile.
What little difference there is in ideology between “Takers” and “Leavers” is a result of their differences, not a cause. Yet Quinn’s challenge remains: why are we so plagued with crises, while “Leavers” enjoy such a relatively easy, idyllic life? They possess all the same ideological ugliness we do, yet even when they war against each other, it is often without casualty. What is the difference?
Quinn used cultural materialism to diagnose the ills of civilization, but then abandoned it for his prescription. Cultural materialism teaches us that ideology arises out of day-to-day, material reality. If we want to reap the rewards of the tribal life, we need to live as they did. The ideological differences when it comes to the conquest of the world and the place of humanity in the universe are not so great, but what ideological differences do divide us will come on their own. They will have to, for few of us have the fortitude to endure such cognitive dissonance as to live like a Leaver, and still think like a Taker.