Ishmael By Daniel Quinn Summary and Analysis Part 10: Sections 5-9

Summary

The narrator checks into a hotel near the carnival where Ishmael is caged to try to figure out what to do next. He returns to the carnival later in the evening and bribes a worker to let him spend some time alone with Ishmael. Ishmael jumps right in where they left off. Quickly, they summarize what they've covered so far: the Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel myths that are at the roots of Taker culture. Their goal is to figure out what it all adds up to.

In order to help the narrator understand this, Ishmael asks him to define culture. The narrator defines it as what's passed along from generation to generation. For Leaver cultures, culture has evolved since the start of the species and is passed down from generation to generation. For Taker cultures, while some knowledge is passed down through the generations, there's a value placed on newness and a rejection of ancient ways as out-of-date and useless.

Ishmael praises the narrator's thinking and asks him when he thinks such cultural amnesia began taking place. Through Ishmael's guidance, the narrator understands that this amnesia has been part of Mother Culture's teachings since the inception of Taker culture.

The narrator and Ishmael dig a little deeper to try to ascertain the different types of information Taker and Leaver cultures transmit to new generations. Taker cultures pass down to each generation ways to better produce things; Leaver cultures pass down ways to live well for a particular culture. Through this discovery, the narrator concludes that this is also why Taker cultures are dependent on laws and prophets — they want to know the one right way to do things, not just a way among many. Thus, Ishmael helps the narrator see that Leaver cultures are subject to evolution and have been evolving since humankind formed on the planet — and that, just as with many life-forms on the planet, once they go extinct, a certain kind of knowledge is lost forever with each one that vanishes.

Analysis

Upon returning to the philosophical focus of the novel, Quinn develops the contrast between Taker and Leaver cultures through the ideas of cultural amnesia, transmittal of knowledge, and evolution. First, Quinn uses the idea of cultural amnesia to explain one of the essential differences between the two cultural systems. In Taker cultures, inventiveness is valued over what's tried and true. Thus, Ishmael explains that Mother Culture teaches Taker culture to dismiss the old ways in favor of new ways, resulting in a culture that experiences a sort of amnesia. In contrast, Leaver cultures value ancient ways, and memory plays a vital role in the transmittal of cultural information — particularly how each generation lives and learns to live by learning from the prior generation.

Additionally, each culture transmits some knowledge from generation to generation, but that knowledge is very different for each culture. For Takers, what is transmitted is knowledge of production, according to Ishmael. For example, Takers transmit knowledge of agricultural production over the centuries, constantly expanding and improving on the technology used to grow crops. In contrast, Leaver cultures transmit knowledge about living well and the way of life of a specific culture rather than the means of production (agricultural or otherwise) that that culture uses. For example, as the narrator points out, tribes, such as the Navajo, know what works for them as a culture, but do not suggest that their way of life works for everyone.

Thus, Quinn uses the idea of evolution to further explain the differences between Taker and Leaver cultures. In scientific terms, evolution is the adaptation of a life-form to the environmental forces surrounding it; over years and years, the life-form evolves to best deal with the environmental factors each generation faces. In Leaver cultures, their cultural structures evolved over centuries, much as an organism would, allowing their cultural practices to adapt and support their livelihood in the environment in which they find themselves. Taker culture, however, also evolves, though not in response to environmental factors. Instead, it responds to its cultural beliefs that man is made to rule the world and that everything in the culture is designed to bring the environment under humankind's command.

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